Digital Music, Part 2: The New Technology Explosion

Music has the power to transcend national and cultural boundaries, asPart 1 of this series on digital music notes.

Today, an explosion of musical and technological innovation is resulting in a profusion of new, cross-cultural musical styles and influences. Digital music technology is the “core enabler” changing the face of the music industry — as well as the habits and preferences of musicians and listeners around the world.

It is also a disruptive one, however, as clearly evidenced by the fierce and ongoing battles between established music industry players, newer market entrants, and music fans in countries both rich and poor.

Amid all the tumult and turbulence, can music and digital technology combine and overcome longstanding and deeply held cross-cultural stereotypes and prejudices?

Lure of the Exotic and the Unknown

Going back to the early days of radio and TV, music has been one of the first and most popular forms of content used to fill new media channels. That’s been equally true of music and the Internet.

Along with the expanded ability to store, transmit and listen to music has come an explosion in its diversity — and a fragmentation of what used to be a mass marketplace.

Several factors have contributed to the fragmentation of the music world and the development of deep niche music markets: the rapid uptake of broadband network access and the advent of broadband wireless; and the development of new semiconductor and digital storage technologies, such as SDRAM, flash memory, and streaming MP3 as the de facto standard format for digital music.

“The potential to expand the audience of non-Western music has never been greater,” said IODA (International Online Distribution Alliance) founder and CEO Kevin Arnold as he addressed attendees at the WOMEX 2006 (World Music Expo) conference in Seville last month.

“It has been an enlightening experience to expand the horizons of my own personal music sphere as IODA’s catalog has grown to include diverse content from across the globe, and we look forward to helping the digital music industry better serve both music fans and artists around the world with this initiative,” he remarked, referring to the company’s announcement of a regional filtering-enabled version of Promonet, its music discovery and promotional portal.

New Media Channel Disruption

“When we coined the term ‘world music’ nearly 20 years ago, we did so to help traditional record shops make sense of non-Western releases and give their customers a designated place to discover international/roots music,” said Charlie Gillett, journalist and host of “A World of Music” on the BBC.

“Now, digital distribution via the Internet has opened up many opportunities for world music to extend its reach even further beyond the borders of the countries from which each record comes,” he pointed out.

It’s not all good when it comes to the proliferation of new music technology, however. While all this technological innovation has been a boon to a wide range of artists who might otherwise have had little or no commercial success, the same digital technologies have made it easier than ever to illegally copy and sell pirate recordings — and it’s as tough, or tougher, than ever to negotiate your way through the music industry commercial labyrinth.

“Labels are struggling and finding it harder to make a return on their investments in developing and recording new (and older) artists,” Gerald Seligman, WOMEX’s director of communications and special projects, told the E-Commerce Times.

“By definition, this will mean less risk-taking and fewer releases in the long run. Artists from wealthier societies can manage, but those from poorer ones will not be able to record themselves: a crisis, in short. On the other hand, computer-literate and plentiful societies have easier access to more music than ever before: a plus.”

Cultural Barriers

The fragmenting artist-producer-distributor-to-listener picture puzzle isn’t complete, at least not yet. Constraining the growth and commercial success of world music and artists are long and deeply held cultural and commercial barriers.

“Now that the technology allows people to efficiently conduct commerce across borders, business will find a way to take advantage of that,” Arnold told the E-Commerce Times. “But the world isn’t quite ready for universal commerce, and there are many issues constraining the flow — such as the development of broadband and mobile network infrastructure, and third world economics.”

Music lovers in some regions can’t be expected to pay 99 cents for a download, he observed, and political influences can contribute to stereotyping, which leads to further obstacles.

“Many of the same cultural barriers that have traditionally stood in the way of creating a global marketplace have carried over into the digital world,” Arnold added.

Moreover, “the growth of digital music into a healthy industry is being hindered far more by the existing music industry than it is by technological issues,” mVisible Technologies’ Cofounder and CTO Myk Willis told the E-Commerce Times.

“An obsession with conflicting and cumbersome digital rights management schemes, a disturbing streak of litigation against consumers, and the general pattern of protectionist knee-jerk reactions by the record labels have stunted the growth of the industry,” he added.

“At the same time — perhaps because of this — people have started to realize that many of the players in ‘the music industry’ are really unnecessary in a world where an artist can record a track, post it on their MySpace page, and have it immediately available to all of their fans everywhere in the world,” Willis continued.

World Music Explo

Musicians’, listeners’ and technologists’ enthusiasm for more music and new digital technology is certainly as strong, or stronger, than ever — despite the sometimes internecine battles taking place among established music companies, newer market entrants and their audiences.

The “world music” category was created about twenty years ago “to market international non-Western music by UK record labels such as Sterns, World Circuit, Hannibal, WOMAD, Cooking Vinyl, GlobeStyle, Topic,” Arnold recounted in his WOMEX presentation.

“Led by Roger Armstrong, Charlie Gillett, Ian Anderson, Tony Engle, Ben Mandelson, Nick Gold and others, [it became] a solution to help retailers promote and categorize music such as Yemenite pop, Bulgarian choir, Zaireansoukous, Gambian kora and Indian Ghazals,” he explained.

More than 2,500 delegates and 1,400 companies from 97 countries attended the trade fair, along with more than 425 national and international journalists — including 100-plus radio broadcasters.

All WOMEX’s 240 stands were sold out and filled by more than 400 exhibitors, including numerous umbrella stands of countries, regions, networks and other joint venturestructures. The expo even included a film festival, according to WOMEX organizers.

“The final full day of WOMEX sees a sold-out trade fair, bustling conferences, another night of dazzling showcases open to delegates and the public — and the biggest and most dynamic WOMEX in our 12-year history,” said WOMEX’s Seligman.

Bigger Niches

With fundamental battles over digital distribution standards and music rights still very much unresolved, these are turbulent and difficult times in the music industry.

If the turnout at WOMEX ’06 in Seville is any indication, it’s only a matter of time until they’re worked out — in one way or another. In the interim, the groundswell of listener support for genres such as world music, as well as the innovative use of new digital music technology and the deepening of musical niche markets, will likely carry on with few restraints.

“Digital technology has helped niche artists reach a larger share of their niches. I think the mainstream has narrowed to the point that the concept of a niche artist crossing over into large-scale popularity is fanciful,” opined Martin Johnson, a New York-based music journalist.

The rapid rise and spread of digital music technology “has hastened the disintegration of a highly inefficient corporate structure,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

Asked how the music marketplace will look in the future, he replied, “Beats me — I didn’t see it coming as quickly as it did. I would imagine that at this rate, fifteen years from now, the big labels will exist primarily as executors of existing catalogs, and most new music will be transmitted via new technology. Fifteen, hell! Make that five to seven years.”

Digital Music World, Part 1: An Expanding Universe

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