Quibbles and Bits

A Brief History of Life, The Universe, and Everything

Episode IX – Apocalypse Now?

It is my contention that the music industry – by which I mean both the creation and consumption of music – is ripe for a major upheaval.  Digital audio has forever changed the way we consume music, but at the same time the music industry is trying desperately to cling to the financial models which drove it a generation and more ago and which no longer serves its consumers.

There are two major challenges that the industry faces.  The first is to monetize their assets (i.e. get you to pay for the music you listen to).  The second – perhaps surprisingly – is to get you to care more about what you listen to.  The monetizing issue is one which most audiophiles are quite familiar with, and in any case is more of a business than a technology discussion.  But the “getting you to care” bit is perhaps more nuanced than you might have realized.  Its importance lies in the fact that if consumers don’t care, then it no longer matters what your financial model looks like.

As a great unwashed mass, we have become accustomed to the Radio Station concept of music consumption.  We tune in to a station we like, and listen to whatever they happen to play.  Beyond choosing the station, the idea of deciding what we want to listen to doesn’t come into it.  We allow the radio station to choose for us.  It seems we tend to like the idea of being constantly ‘surprised’ by what comes up next.  Accordingly, right from the start, CD players have usually had a ‘shuffle’ button which randomly shuffled the order of play of the tracks on an album.  [For the life of me I can’t see the appeal of that, and I know of nobody who has ever actually invoked that feature on any routine basis, but the feature has largely persisted.]  Today, that ‘shuffle’ feature is commonplace on computer audio playback software such as iTunes, where individual users can engage it to create their own ‘Radio Station’ experience.

There is currently quite a lot of effort that goes into creating this ‘Radio Station’ experience in modern playback software.  In iTunes, for example, it is called ‘Genius’, and you use it to create random playlists of nominally similar material.  In order to do that, iTunes relies on its ability to know stuff about the music in your Library.  But what does it know, and how does it know it?

For software like iTunes’ Genius, the only information it has to go on is what it finds in the music’s metadata, and I described the origins of metadata in the previous issue of Copper.  But the metadata you find in music files – and certainly the metadata that iTunes supports – is limiting to say the least.  The titles of the song and the album, the Artist, the Composer, the Genre, that’s about all there is to it.  And that was fine by the people who invented and introduced embedded metadata in the first place.  Their main objective was to provide an informative display on the computer screen of what was being played, and to enable a superficial ability to organize the Music Library according to useful categories, and it worked quite well according to the objectives of the hour.  However, in today’s massively-interconnected, information-driven age, we have run into the limitations of what this simplistic metadata system can deliver.  Consider what’s in the metadata, and compare that to what you can uncover by giving the name of the track to Mr. Google!

There are, broadly speaking, two major aspects to this that we need to think about collectively.  These are (i) what should be in the metadata (and, conversely, what shouldn’t)?; and (ii) who gets to decide?  Already, the music industry has dragged its collective feet and accomplished exactly nothing, which has encouraged the community of enterprising individuals to step in and fill the gap.  They have done so, by and large, on two fronts.  One community is attempting to establish massive on-line databases which can identify individual recordings and associate them with vast tracts of related metadata.  They have even found a way to monetize what they are doing, such as Gracenote (who started off as the free CDDB) which now charges handsomely for its service, whereas MusicBrainz and Discogs remain free.  Meanwhile, another community, working much less formally, is trying harder and harder to establish all-encompassing metadata standards which attempt to clarify what fields should exist, what data should go into them, and how that data should be stored in them.  Good luck with that.

These two communities still work independently, due to the combination of an immovable mass of self-interest and the absence of an irresistible force to draw them together.  The desired endgame here is a scenario where, with regard to any given music track, we can access any information that we might want about it, in a structured and consistent manner.  Not only does the technology that can allow this to happen already exist, it is also quite surprisingly mature.  So, for example, if I’m playing a Beatles song, and I’m wondering who the producer was, that information should be no further than a mouse click away (or even a tap on the screen).  And with another click/tap it should be a trivial thing to bring up all the other tracks in my music library that were produced by the same guy.  Right now, there are no technological objectives that prevent such a high-performance system from being developed and deployed without delay.

To a large extent, though, the door to that stable has been left unlocked – if it was even installed in the first place – and the horse has already bolted.  Technology is starting an inexorable move away from the concept of individuals maintaining their own personal music libraries, and towards one where we will just download what we want from the Internet, when we want it.  Already, TIDAL is offering this concept to audiophile users with CD-quality data.  The next step will be to integrate the metadata capability of the Gracenotes of this world with the music distribution model of the TIDALs, and empower them with a game-changing user interface – the one component that is yet to emerge.  When that happens, everything – but everything – will change.

But just how is that going to happen?  The music industry – whose very future we are talking about here – has proven conclusively that it prefers looking backwards rather than forwards.  Those involved in metadata don’t have the muscle to make anything happen, and TIDAL is still struggling to find a critical mass of relevance.  I said in my previous Copper post that Apple is going to move in and eat everybody’s lunch, just as they did with the mobile phone industry.  They have the financial muscle to take on the music industry, the technical chops to execute and deliver it, and an immediate and pressing business need to make their next big move.  Oh, and don’t be fooled into thinking that the music industry will be their focus here.  It isn’t, not by a long shot.  It’s the whole entertainment industry, driven mainly by Movies and TV.  The music end of things is just going to get swept up in the maelstrom.

And when it does, we at the ‘high end’ – like the music industry as a whole – will still be staring at our own navels.