The day the music died (and why it should never happen again)

For the past four months, I’ve been working on a report about the past, present and future of digital music. It took me from the vaults at Abbey Road to a tiny studio in Nashville to the offices of Spotify in Stockholm. Along the way, I talked to dozens of musicians, executives, entrepreneurs and analysts and pored over more than 50 books, articles and academic papers. The result is a paper called “The Future Just Happened” – a history of the MP3 era that can be downloaded for free here.

The report is aimed primarily at the music industry: it’s an effort to explain how we got here and what we should do next. But I hope it will be useful to anyone who wants to understand how technology is transforming our world.

I’ll be posting excerpts from the report every weekday this week. If you like what you read, please share it with your friends and colleagues.

The other day I read this piece by the wonderful Jon Fine, the author and sometime musician who currently serves as Director of Author & Publisher Relations at Amazon.

In brief, Jon bemoans the loss of one of the great benefits of the CD era: the liner notes. He rightly points out that a world in which all music is digital doesn’t have to be a prosaic and poverty-stricken world: there are no technological reasons why liner notes can’t be as richly interactive as they ever were; indeed, they can be much richer, because digital media allows us to do things with words, pictures and video that we couldn’t do before.

Where he goes wrong, it seems to me, is in assuming that it’s up to the artists themselves to come up with these ideas. And it isn’t.

In the last few years, it has become clear that a large number of music fans are keen to experience music in a variety of new ways. Not just streams and downloads from the likes of iTunes and Spotify, but also YouTube videos and SoundCloud clips.

But despite this, the way we make and consume music hasn’t changed much. There’s no new ‘thing’ for people to get excited about.

So can technology change that?

The answer is yes. Over the last few years there have been some really interesting developments in what’s often called ‘digital audio’. This isn’t digital music as that term is more commonly used – ie MP3s and the like – but rather the digital manipulation of sound after it’s been recorded.

Take the old model for how a song is made in a studio: you record several parts individually then combine them at the mixing stage, where they’ll be tweaked, EQ’d (adjusted) and balanced with one another until they sound great together.

This works brilliantly, but it means that each part is still very much fixed; if you want to hear different elements or instruments more prominently, you need to re-record or remix them again. Which can be very expensive in terms of time and money.

In December of 1999, an 18-year-old German computer science student named Philip Poissant snuck into the back room of a local record store in his hometown and “acquired” a prerelease copy of the new album from the band Depeche Mode.

It was the first time he had ever done anything illegal in his life. But as he wrote on his blog several years later, “I did it because I wanted to hear this music so badly.” Specifically, he wanted to hear this music on the new Napster, which had been launched just a few weeks earlier.

The album was called Exciter. Poissant’s entry uploaded to Napster without incident; within 24 hours it had been downloaded more than 100 times. A few days later, he received an e-mail from one of his fellow students in Berlin. It contained two words: “Thank you.”

The famous “Ira Glass moment” is the idea that anyone who starts making something creative will, at some point, discover that what they’re making isn’t very good. It’s a story about how you start out a naive beginner, then become disillusioned by your own bad taste and lack of talent, then re-emerge as an experienced and mature artist.

I think this is wrong. I don’t know a single creative person who has arrived at their current level of skill without going through several years of making crap. But here’s where I think the theory goes astray: we don’t talk enough about the importance of letting yourself make crap.

It’s not that you produce a lot of bad work in order to get it out of your system — it’s that when you’re first starting out you have no idea what good work is. You may have seen some good work, but most likely you don’t know enough to imitate it. So instead you have to figure out what good work is by trying again and again to make something great and failing over and over until eventually you learn enough to make something great.

And note that this isn’t just true for artistic fields like music or design or writing – the same thing applies to programming, or business

The following is a guest post by David Porter, who worked for Apple for 25 years.

Apple and major labels have a strange relationship. The labels hate us because we make it so easy for music fans to access and enjoy music. We hate them because of the way they treat artists and their fans.

As much as I love Apple, this is a dangerous time for them in the music business. The advent of DRM-free music from EMI has gotten everyone’s attention and raised the bar for what is acceptable to consumers. Jobs has been put in a tough spot, but it’s nothing compared to the mess that he’s going to be facing in two years when those Universal and Sony contracts come up for renewal.

If you thought the past year was tough on Steve and the team at Apple, it’s going to look like a cakewalk compared to what is about to happen.

Here are some ideas that might help ease some of the pain:

1) Let go of the “Fairplay” name – “Fairplay” is simply code for “our DRM”. Dig deep enough and you’ll find that even Steve hates it. He called it a mistake in his now-famous open letter on DRM (published back in February). The problem with Fairplay

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