The Empowered Consumer

Until now most recording artists have gone about making a new record by simply using conventional mass media means, by creating a musical statement around an album and delivering it to passive consumers in a one-directional manner. Even today, the consumer still has little or no say in the matter of production, and is considered only when tallying up sales numbers. This has no effect upon the creation of the album itself (it has already been produced and released), though the sales figures might affect the next album’s production.

In the mass media culture of the 20th century artists and consumers were two separate groups of people who never met. There was no social contact between performers and listeners, no personal interchange between artists and fans.

But in the folk cultures of the past, everyone was a musician of sorts. That is, everyone was involved in creating music in the community, at least on some level. Music was a community affair. Everyone played or sang along, or were at least in attendance as active spectators. We were participants then. There were no professionals, no expert musicians. Everyone shared in the making of music. Christopher Small called it “musicking“.

Our print culture of the past 500 years has slowly put an end to this. We have relinquished control over our cultural artifacts (folktales, songs, writings, artwork, etc.) and have handed it over to professionals. As a community we quit being producers and became consumers.  In turning that control over to professionals, we created what Lawrence Lessig refers to as a “Read-Only Culture”, a no-questions-asked society in which we embrace a “look but don’t touch” approach to creative content. We have even put a fence around it and call it “intellectual property“.

We have created an environment in which those who use the works of others without permission are considered thieves and pirates and under many circumstances are prosecuted for their actions. Vilification of offenders is directed not only at those who copy and resell recordings, but at those who perform the simple act of playing another’s song in public. Think about it… If your cell phone rings in public with a copyrighted ringtone, you’re breaking the law. The rights of the individual to own and control artistic creations have become sacrosanct and inviolable within our mass media culture, and the function of the community as an active participant—a function that had previously ensued for thousands of years—has been dismissed. More and more, those “individuals” who own and control our intellectual property–our songs, films, books, and other works of art–are large corporations. But corporations don’t create anything… people do.

Control is changing.

The 20th century mass media system continues to function, propelled by its own inertia, but its momentum is decelerating as it crosses farther into the realm of the digital. Not only the recording industry but radio, film, and television industries as well, still employ the old mass media methods—top-down, centralised, one-to-many, specific and specialised. These are now giving way to the digital—bottom-up, decentralised, many-to-many, automated and generalised. Most artists today still create their music within last century’s paradigm, choosing to delay a song’s release until they have created a collection—an album. It’s the same old 20th century concept, a product that is produced using a one-to-many philosophy that ignores the centuries-old traditional ideas of folk culture and community driven music.

We continue to move steadily away from the mass media aproach—linear, proprietary, and centrally controlled—toward the digital—an ecology of random access that is communal and decentralised. Our means of playback has moved away from the proprietary devices—record players, tape machines, and CD players—that were largely controlled by the same industry that created the music played upon them. Consumption and playback of music now moves toward open, non-specific devices: computers, cell phones, iGadgets, and other digital appliances. These are no longer seen simply as media players, but as access points, entryways into the digital world that stores not only our musical content, but the fabric of our everyday lives.

We no longer carry our music with us but instead choose to store it in the cloud. We need only possess a connected device—a cell phone or digital player—in order to listen to our music on demand. Place and time are no longer important, and only our ability to connect is required.

Ownership no longer matters… access does.

Digital culture by its very nature returns control to the community—at the expense of the individual. Collective intelligence is replacing the expert; crowd sourced information is replacing professional opinion. For better or for worse, the authors of Encyclopedia Britannica (professionals & experts) have been replaced by the authors of Wikipedia (the general public).

The thing to remember about the digital domain is this: we’re all in it together. It’s no longer a zero sum game. One man’s gain does not equal another’s loss. One man’s gain is everyone’s gain. We might not all get along here, but it’s a community.

Peace