Digital Music, Part 1: An Expanding Universe

The power of music to bridge national boundaries and cultural divides has long been recognized, but perhaps has never been as starkly clear as it is today. One need only look at the phenomenal growth of MTV channels in countries around the world during the past decade.

The commercialization and spread of satellite and fiber optic cable broadcasting was the technological means enabling TV programmers and distributors to capitalize on music’s potential.

Now, given the rapid development of digital music production and storage, as well as broadband wired and wireless access and distribution technologies, music is among the most potent forces in existence for fostering both cross-cultural understanding and international commerce.

“By far, the most important thing to have happened to the global music industry is the evolution of the Internet to the point where anyone with content can make it available to virtually anyone else on the planet — at virtually no cost,” said Myk Willis, co-founder and CTO of mVisible Technologies.

“As in any disruption of this magnitude, new opportunities come from the ashes of the old, and this three-way collision (music/wireless/Internet) offers an untold number,” he added.

“Among other benefits, this emerging model provides great new opportunities for independent musicians who don’t want to have to go through a major label or distributor to get their songs out to their fans,” observed Willis.

From Jazz to World

“Digital technology has played a large role in jazz musicians breaking away from the record industry system and releasing their own discs via their own — often digitally distributed — labels,” commented Martin Johnson, a New York-based music journalist whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vibe and The Wall Street Journal.

“Dave Douglas, Dave Holland and Medeski, Martin and Wood are the most recent converts,” Johnson told the E-Commerce Times, “but composer/arranger Maria Schneider won two Grammys for a Web-only recording of her big band two years ago.”

Along with technological innovation, the increasing mobility of labor, growth in international immigration and travel, falling barriers to trade and investment, and the spread of more open, democratic governments around the world have all contributed to the growth of the world music genre, which was the main theme of the World Music Expo 2006 (WOMEX) conference held in Seville, Spain, in October.

Broadly speaking, digital music has been a key factor in globalization — though it has often functioned as an antagonist to the commercial, corporate and institutional expressions that have characterized the movement thus far.

“A universal language, music connects cultures. Art leads and inspires commerce [and] acts as a catalyst for global communication. [It has] the potential to expand horizons, foster understanding, and create relationships in new ways,” said Kevin Arnold, founder and CEO of IODA, the International Online Distribution Alliance, in a presentation at the WOMEX conference.

“WOMEX and other independent music-focused conferences and organizations play a very important role in the development and evolution of music as an art form by providing a support network for the businesses and artists to connect with each other and find friendly outlets for their work. They are where the real creation happens,” Arnold told the E-Commerce Times.

“As the digital music marketplace has come of age in these first years of the new millennia, it has brought great promise to the creators and proponents of independent and niche music across the globe. The unlimited shelf space of online music stores like iTunes, Rhapsody, eMusic, Napster and the like has freed artists and labels of the distribution constraints and territorial limitations that create barriers for reaching potential fans,” he pointed out.

New Hybrids

The allure of the new and exotic has always been strong in the music world, dating back at least to the days of Mozart’s “Abduction From the Seraglio” and continuing through early modern jazz , represented by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and numerous others. Brazilian music, such as that of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Astrud Gilberto, has long been popular in North America and Western Europe.

More recently, many American musicians, including David Byrne, Ry Cooder, Carlos Santana and Paul Simon, have stretched themselves musically, sought creative inspiration, and attained commercial success by interpreting, incorporating and popularizing music from a wide variety of foreign cultures and countries. Digital music producer-artists, such as Fat Boy Slim, regularly incorporate ethnic and multicultural forms into their tracks.

“There is growing knowledge and interest in music from cultures all around the world,” Gerald Seligman, director of communications and special projects for Berlin-based WOMEX, told the E-Commerce Times.

“But the great phenomenon in Europe is the new forms of music being created by second and third generation immigrants joining together with their ‘new’ countrymen and women,” he said, “to create forms based in their own traditions but filtered through, melded with the forms from their current homes — fascinating hybrids.”

With the Latino population the fastest-growing ethnic minority in the U.S., popular artists such as Gloria Estefan and Los Lobos have tapped into the musical and cultural heritage of their immigrant predecessors.

Many foreign-born artists, from Reuben Blades to Shakira, have successfully crossed over into the U.S. music mainstream, along the way gaining avid listeners from across the ethnic spectrum, while increasing their base of Latino-American listeners.

With today’s digital media networks, as well as modern transportation systems, the same thing is happening with listeners and musicians all over.

“As the world in general becomes increasingly globalized, and information about other cultures is more easily available online, and travel is more accessible, there’s naturally more and more curiosity about how people in other parts or the world live, work and play,” IODA’s Arnold says.

“Culture, commerce and technology are all intertwined in this process,” he notes, “with technology and the Web as a core enabler — which is both a result of and instigator for commerce.”

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