Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Water, Water Everywhere ...

In response to my earlier complaint about the quality of the music that dominates the airwaves, Frank McGahon suggested that the problem wasn't so much that the quality of music had gone down but that the sheer variety of outlets now available made it difficult to point to a single canon of "greats":

The old model consisted of a relatively small number of bands promoted by record companies whose income derived from sales of singles and albums. There were fewer radio stations, fewer sources of information about bands. The lack of choice of music, information and of methods of consuming music meant that there was a more or less homogenous "canon" of pop music. There tended to be a consensus as to who the best bands were. In such a model, the charts meant something. To consume music was to buy a single. Higher record sales combined with fewer number of artists means, (apart from richer bands) that the number one single of the day was a reasonable approximation of most people's favourite tune.

Fast forward to today, there is a dizzying array of music available for consumption, there is no real "canon" and there are other ways to listen to music other than buying cds. Everybody thinks of downloading but what people often omit to consider is the range of radio stations currently available, particularly on the internet. Buying a niche album 20 years ago was the most effective way of ensuring you could listen to it. Today you can listen to a niche record station to hear it. This has led to a babelisation of musical tastes and a different method of consuming music towards which record companies simply are not geared.
This is an interesting observation, and it strikes me as being largely correct, but it also raises the "57 channels and nothing on" question: how one is supposed to go about finding the good stuff when there are so many outlets to choose from?

It's clear to me at least, looking at the sorts of loopy recommendations Amazon tends to provide me with, that automated recommendation systems are not the answer. It's hard enough as it is for information retrieval systems to deal with relatively straightforward textual queries, but when we venture into a realm like music in which the subjective factor reigns supreme, the odds of making headway become vanishingly small.

One suggestion Frank made was to look at a site called AllMusic, which appears to be a completely hand-maintained guide to new music curated by a paid and carefully chosen editorial staff. This, I think, provides the real key to what the future of music will have to look like; where record companies once undertook the spadework required to find new acts and then worked to promote them, online aggregators and tastemakers will play the predominant role going forward, acting as trusted gatekeepers for their respective audiences, and I can even see a future in which there are aggregators of aggregators, i.e, operators who select the best picks from the most trusted tastemakers, and then serve up these "best from the best" for those who don't have the time and energy to learning about which little indie review site constitutes the last word on some narrow niche of the musical spectrum.