Column: What Do You Mean, Broken?!?

Kyle Bylin, Associate Editor (@kbylin)


Since publishing my latest essay I’ve started to wonder whether or not I delivered a concept that was useful and at least somewhat universally understandable.  No doubt there is some rather abstract thinking and big ideas in the essay that aren’t the easiest things to grasp, and some of its argument may be flawed.  What about the central purpose of the essay, which was to examine the ‘broken’ state of the traditional music consumption system, was that message communicated, and in a way that was clear?

I’m afraid that it wasn’t and for that I apologize.  So I thought I would take a moment to try to reflect on that concept and reveal some of my thinking behind it, as it relates to the bigger picture of the plight of the record industry in the digital age.   More so, how the ‘broken’ consumption system relates to a more familiar topic that I’ve argued previously: The Death of the CD-Release Complex.  To quickly review, what that terminology entails is the collapse of the symbiotic relationship between fans and the record industry, where fans discovered music through the same mediums that the major labels used to promote new music.

These mediums, or as I also tend to refer to them, these specific delivery mechanisms—mainly commercial radio, MTV, big-box retail, and print—provided the framework for the modern record industry.  Taken together, these mechanisms form what I’ve described as the traditional music consumption system.  The “traditional system,” refers to the complex set of rules governing a fan’s interactions with the system and their experiences with music.  These constraints, along with the biases of the system, and that of the specific delivery mechanisms that govern it, promote ranges of social behavior in audiences.  In the case of the traditional system, I argued that the key things it encouraged were the act of collecting music and the gradual development of taste.  So then, what do I mean when I say that the traditional system is broken?

To clarify, the traditional system is not ‘broken’ in the sense that it’s not working. Quite obviously, that’s not the case because for a good number of people, it still aligns with the ways in which they discover, acquire, consume, and discard music.  Rather, the traditional system is broken in the sense that it—under the weight of many technological, cultural, and societal shifts—has been forcibly separated into pieces, thrown into a state of disarray and confusion, severely weakened, destroyed financially, and put out of working order.  Furthermore, the traditional system is broken because it lacks parts that are necessary to meet the complex needs of a new population of digital fans.  Simply put: the traditional system is optimized for a different era than the one we are living in today—where fans watched videos played on MTV; discovered music on commercial radio; and where Tuesdays were the day that they went to the store and picked up the new album.  That said, it’s also important that we understand what’s causing the traditional system to break.

According to legal scholar Larry Lessig, “The Internet is architecture to enable unforeseen and unplanned innovation to occur.”  What’s happened in the digital age is that—first with Napster, then with the companies that followed in its footsteps, and the social ecology of music culture that grew up around these innovations.  A new, more chaotic Internet era music consumption system emerged; one that isn’t governed by any specific delivery mechanisms.  Although the Internet era system has equivalent delivery mechanisms, and some sites and services are certainly used more than others, the most important differentiating factor between the traditional system and today’s, is that no particular medium over the others allows for a generalization of taste and assumed 'known artists’ between crowds of people.  Mass broadcast radio enabled an effect to that degree. Consider that many of us have listened to the same music simply because there wasn’t enough airtime on stations to give everyone exactly what we wanted.  Therefore, we had to all agree on listening to music that everyone ‘kind of wanted.’  As a delivery mechanism, commercial radio created an environment; it, along with MTV, big-box retail, and print promoted ranges of social behavior that were compatible with the traditional system.

In contrast, the Internet era system, lacking specific mechanisms, does no such thing.  Since the Internet era system is, in effect, customizable to the needs of each individual fan, and it brings with it a multitude of mediums, there will be many different ranges of social behavior.  Most of these social behaviors have proved to be incompatible with many of the assumptions that the record industry is operating under.  This is why, in part, the traditional system is breaking: it no longer aligns the social behaviors of those who were ‘born digital.’  In readily engaging with and immersing themselves in, the Internet era system this population of digital youth has adopted different ranges of social behavior; ones that are increasingly pushing the traditional system to a breaking point.

In my opinion—beyond the rise of the networked audience, and the personalized music experience; the death of the CD-Release Complex, and the fall of mass marketing; the fracturing of the media landscape into niches; the end of the format replacement cycle; the explosion of alternate and immersive entertainment options; the convergence of top-down corporate media and bottom-up participatory culture of the Internet; the social epidemic of file-sharing; and the evolution of social music—the ‘broken’ condition of the traditional music consumption system is of the most important topics that we should be discussing now.  Instead, we have people like The Cult's Ian Astbury, out of arrogance and ignorance, decrying a moment in popular music history that Chicago music critic Greg Kot, author of Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music, proclaimed to be the story of the decade.  Additionally we have journalists like Nathan Harden proclaiming a population of digital youth to be the murders of global rock brands.

Such things are argued about and given credence.  Yet, in most cases, no one challenges whether or not these people have misunderstood the causes of complex events, and have in fact oversimplified their opinions, often at their own peril. This is at the expense of stupefying the general public’s understanding of the plight of the record industry in the digital age, more than they enlighten.  In reality, there are clearly much, much more important issues to discuss, examine, and ask questions about.  Issues like the ‘broken’ state of the traditional system.  Issues that are drowned out by moral panics, so-called music journalists, and washed up rock stars who now feel the need to voice their opinions about these ‘problems,’ without pausing to consider that the system beneath them is the very thing that’s in need of examination.

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