Asymptopia

Music and technology have a hybrid moment

Asymptopia
Illustration by Jason Stout

"The record age was just a blip. It was a bit like if you had a source of whale blubber in the 1840s and it could be used as fuel. Before gas came along, if you traded in whale blubber, you were the richest man on Earth. Then gas came along and you'd be stuck with your whale blubber. Sorry mate – history's moving along. Recorded music equals whale blubber. Eventually, something else will replace it." – Brian Eno, The Observer, Jan. 17, 2010

Brian Eno, ever the forward-thinker, makes a good point there. The record business is in the new blip, a whirl of user-generated trial and error, where new products and apps get sized up in seconds, chewed up and spit out, and repackaged as something else you just have to have. There's now a generation more familiar with tapping away on whatever device is in front of it than putting another album on the home stereo. Which isn't a bad thing. We have no choice but to evolve. That's put us on a unique frontier.

For musicians in this era of receding labels, this means taking matters – and technology – into their own hands. Same goes for music consumers seeking out new ways to find and access music in the ever-expanding "celestial jukebox," especially when the concept of who owns and controls music is getting more and more tangled in the Web. Eno's blubbery analogy can be found in every crack of this year's South by Southwest Interactive and Music Festival panels, as all facets of the music business converge here in Austin to deal out the future, shooting big ideas out of the cannon to see where they land. Here's to history moving along. – Audra Schroeder

Is the Brain the Ultimate Computer Interface?

SXSW Interactive: Saturday, March 13, 9:30am, Hilton F

With technology getting smaller and more integrated, what if devices like the iPhone are eventually the size of a contact, and we just place them in our eyes to be online? Or MP3 players become chips implanted in our ears that let us control what music we listen to. We'll adapt because we'll be the machine. Does that sound like science fiction?

"You're absolutely right; that could happen," says Christie Nicholson, a contributing editor at Scientific American. She's giving a talk at SXSW Interactive on the brain and its infinite possibilities as an interface. Scientists have already proven a macaque monkey's brain can move a robotic arm via electrodes attached to its motor cortex and that paraplegics can move cursors with thoughts. As technological singularity creeps up on us, that scenario doesn't sound so crazy.

"Moore's law, the law that computers have been under since the late 1960s, will come to a close in about 2013," she explains. "It was a prediction that the amount of computer power on a chip would double every two years per unit cost. Cost would go down; power would double. That's why we've been able to go from computers the size of a room to an iPod. There are billions of transistors on a chip now, but eventually they'll become so small they can't distinguish between a one and a zero."

More recently, British artist Luciana Haill composed music via EEGs monitoring brain waves fed through a computer program on the Future of Sound tour in the UK, something Nicholson wasn't as familiar with, but she suggests that as an interface, the brain goes both ways, accepting info and projecting.

"I could see there being something like a thought-based piano," she says, "but there are some things we still just don't know about the brain and neural code."

It's an exciting possibility in this age of constant updates, but the logic behind what's ethical and what's not will no doubt get fuzzy. – Audra Schroeder

The Cloud vs. the Paradise of Infinite Storage

SXSW Music: Wednesday, March 17, 12:30pm, ACC 15

Welcome to Asymptopia, derived from "asymptotic," where the curve gets closer and closer to a line but never reaches it. Your host today is Sandy Pearlman, distinguished dean's chairholder of the Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Montreal. In rock tongues of the ancients, that translates into Blue Öyster Cult cabalist, Clash enabler (Give 'Em Enough Rope), Black Sabbath manager, and close personal friend and cohort of the Dictators ("working with Handsome Dick Manitoba is not work"). Ask Pearlman about his Music panel, and his mostly uninterrupted 40-minute treatise pulls up a virtual teleprompter that scrolls through the philosophical structure and reasoning of a scholar speaking in real time:

"The Cloud is being set up as the next regularly scheduled Internet gold rush. As it bears on music, the thinking is that all our musical assets can be extracted from the Web on a real-time basis, either stored up there or extracted by streaming or downloads from the Cloud, the cloud of remotely located, stored, and accessible music. This is really a cool idea in theory. The problem is that it makes one completely dependent upon the continued existence of these assets and on the good will of the people controlling the assets, on the capabilities of the networks delivering these assets, et cetera.

"And all of these are actually very iffy propositions.

"At exactly the same time, this thing I call the 'paradise of infinite storage' is becoming a reality. That's a situation wherein costs for local storage have become so cheap they're crashing toward the zero point. Right now, anyone with a computer and an extra $1,000 could store all the music ever recorded in the history of the world, locally, on their desktop, in a pretty compact form – let's say a 10-terabyte hard drive array. Soon enough there will be solid-state storage devices the size of a big bar of soap, and then the size of a guitar pick, and soon so small they will be capable of being implanted within you. So you could, let's say no more than five to 10 years from today – no more – walk around with all the music ever recorded in the history of the world in an implanted principal device within your body.

"I call this whole situation Asymptopia, a universe where virtually every media object will be accessible at a cost of virtually nothing, and the space required to store all the stuff is also moving toward virtually nothing. I'm exaggerating, but not by much." – Raoul Hernandez

How Will We Listen to Music in 2020?

SXSW Music: Wednesday, March 17, 3:30pm, ACC 16B

"I think we will not be successful in finding out how we will listen to music in 10 years," admits Jonas Woost, former head of music at Last.fm, in reference to his SXSW Music panel. "However, we can make good estimates. I was always interested in how quickly, really over the past 10 years, the way we consume music has changed already."

In 2000, major labels still rode a cash crop of CD sales on the backs of boy bands and pop idols, and Steve Jobs was still a year away from unveiling Apple's game-changing iPod. Yet even then, the seeds of the music industry's shift into digital upheaval were already beginning to bloom, sprouting the current expectations of mobility, instantaneousness, and consumer-based value of music.

Rounding into the next decade, similar outlying trends portend the digital music future that lies ahead. The move to cloud-based computing has begun to mainstream the viability of subscription-based music services like Spotify, and with iTunes' recent acquisition of streaming site Lala, traditional models of personal music ownership may well be culturally quaint by 2020. Combined with the ubiquitous accessibility provided by mobile devices, from smart phones to the coming onslaught of tablet computers like the iPad, the only elements hindering music's shift to the cloud are remediable network capabilities and labels' willingness to license to streaming services.

"The problem in regard to having international access to all that music, like rights issues, this sounds very much to me like when the radio business first started in the United States, when there was exactly the same kind of reluctance," offers Woost.

With the shift from music as a physical product, a number of new digital formats are also emerging that seek to enhance the listening experience through multimedia. Possible successors to the MP3, such as MusicDNA, add metadata that connect a song to peripheral collateral, ranging from bands' social networks to special artwork to the ability to purchase concert tickets. Likewise, the current popularity of location-based check-in services like Foursquare or Gowalla look toward a personal level of interactivity at shows that could provide an immediately monetizable exchange through mobile payments.

Whatever may emerge over the next decade, the dust from the music industry's digital shift seems to be settling, with viable models finally emerging that serve both fans and artists. – Doug Freeman

Girl Talk
Girl Talk

Why Hasn't the Record Industry Sued Girl Talk?

SXSW Music: Thursday, March 18, 5pm, ACC 13A

"Nothing is sacred to me," mash-up maestro Gregg Gillis, better known as Girl Talk, boasted to the Chronicle backstage at Lollapalooza 2008. "Everyone is influenced by their favorite bands, and they take pieces of that and try to reinterpret those ideas into something new. Nirvana was influenced by Sonic Youth, by the Pixies. Why should I not grab everything I can and everything I am influenced by?"

The answer is a bit more complicated than one would expect. While Girl Talk's dance music sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen – his copyright-challenging breakthrough LP, 2006's Night Ripper, used more than 300 song samples without permission or licensing – not one of those artists, nor their labels, has yet challenged the use in court.

"In his case, it's such a stark example of someone obviously transforming the source material," relates Alex Kreit, director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at San Diego's Thomas Jefferson School of Law. "The record industry might fear that they won't get a favorable outcome in court, and that would detract from the general market for licensing of samples in hip-hop songs and elsewhere."

Girl Talk's defense boils down to Supreme Court decision Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. In regard to 2 Live Crew's 1989 parody of Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman," the court expanded the protections of fair use to include, along with commentary and criticism, parodies created for profit. Without even trying, Girl Talk's mixes are both commentary and parody, mirroring the pace and disposability of our consumer-driven culture.

"The idea runs into First Amendment law," Kreit expounds. "If people didn't have the right to critique or parody other people's work, that would significantly impact people's free speech. The same holds true arguably for music. What's been less clear or treated differently is hip-hop sampling that's not being done for parody but in more of a referential way. There is a strong argument that it's fair use, but it doesn't fit as nicely into those parameters."

While nothing has changed on the books, there does appear to be a greater understanding in the courts and the music industry about the transformative nature of sampling. After all, Girl Talk samples both songs named in the Campbell suit on his 2008 chaser, Feed the Animals.

"I don't think sampling should be legal automatically, but there should be more specific lines drawn as far as opening it up to things that aren't hurting anyone," Gillis commented shortly after the release of Night Ripper. "That's just the way the flow of information in our society works, building upon previous ideas. ... Record labels need to recognize that and learn how to see it as an advantage for their artists." – Austin Powell

Suzanne Vega
Suzanne Vega

Artists: Getting a Digital Ass-Kicking?

SXSW Music: Saturday, March 20, 3:30pm, ACC 15

One of the best-known and most beloved folk artists to emerge in the past 25 years, Suzanne Vega uses the Internet to the fullest with Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace pages she often updates herself. Her 1980s standard "Tom's Diner" was used in the refinement of the MP3, earning her the nickname "The Mother of the MP3," and Vega was the first major label artist to perform a concert as an avatar in Second Life.

"My mother was a computer systems analyst for the New York [Metropolitan Transit Authority] from the 1970s onward," explains the singer. "One of my earliest memories of computers was coming into the kitchen at home and there was this thing in there that was the size of a small refrigerator. It was a computer, and she told me she was accessing the library at Hunter College."

As a smart, thoughtful observer of the world through song, Vega offers digital sympathies.

"I think ultimately technology can be used in a soulful way," she muses. "The way that you would use a paintbrush or a pen. You can artfully use technology to communicate with other people, to create music. Up to a point.

"I've used GarageBand for a while. It's good if you want to sketch something out. Ultimately you do have to get the people in there to play the idea."

In February, she self-released the first of four planned CDs, what's being called the Close-Up series, reimaginings of her best-loved songs. Vol. 1, Love Songs is now available exclusively (in stores) at Barnes & Noble.

"They were the only ones that came calling, and they were so excited about it that they moved the release date up a month." Of course, it's also available on iTunes, as well as through Vega's website.

"I believe in getting paid for what you do," states Vega unapologetically. "I've heard all the arguments, and I know 'information wants to be free.' What about produce? Does it want to be free, too? I kind of feel like I'm talking into the wind here, because I've been on panels with teenagers and to them, 99 cents is a choice between a song and a meal, and they're going to take the meal at that price and get the song for free.

"I'm not militant about it, though," she laughs. "I have to say that." – Jim Caligiuri

Artists, Labels Embrace Virtual Worlds

SXSW Interactive: Tuesday, March 16, 9:30am, ACC 18ABCD

Remember life-simulating computer game The Sims and how revolutionary it seemed in 2000? Then Second Life came along a few years later and was like, "Hey, your cyberself can go wherever it wants." Now 6-year-old California-based concern IMVU.com takes it a step further, offering a 3-D, avatar-based social network where users can furnish rooms and buy clothes for their avatars, as well as interact with others in various settings.

Lee Clancy, senior vice president of product management for IMVU, says the idea developed around users wanting to decide what they buy or sell in the "virtual economy," which has unlimited potential in terms of music. In late 2008, IMVU opened a music store with MP3s available for streaming.

"The store has major label and independent music, and you can personalize it, create a mix for your room," he explains, "and then anyone who's in your room at the time can hear it too, and it becomes a social experience, not just listening to something on your iPod. You're able to talk and have a shared music experience as well."

Actually, you must have people in your room if you want to play your mix, which makes it sort of an alternate reality dorm. Clancy mentions his demographic is half 13-18, half 18-24, with 70% female users. The mall-like, no-parents aspect of IMVU would certainly have appealed to me as a teenager, but as I clicked through the site with my disconcertingly proportioned avatar, walking from bedrooms to nightclubs, I became increasingly wary of male avatars with spiky hair surrounding me, A Night at the Roxbury-style, and fled. This a big business, however. With roughly 40 million registered users, IMVU's revenue doubled in 2009, and its traffic now equals that of Second Life. That allows IMVU freedom to expand on what it offers, and the music front is changing next.

"Through our arrangement with some of the indie labels, it's quite easy for an indie artist to get their music into the catalog," Clancy adds. "It becomes a kind of promotion, but it's still an emerging area; we're not a music discovery site yet. Sites like MySpace and Facebook are kind of in-and-out social networks, but we try to be more immersive, like a video game or watching a movie." – Audra Schroeder

Crowdfunding Music: Raising Money From Your Fans

SXSW Music: Wednesday, March 17, 3:30pm, ACC 17AB

As Austin's Shearwater prepared to release its latest album, The Golden Archipelago, frontman Jonathan Meiburg sought to include an ambitious corollary to the music: a 75-page dossier containing an eclectic assemblage of artifacts and notes from his academic field studies of various islands around the world. For fans of the band, the idea was a contextual treasure trove; for Shearwater's label, Matador, it was an infeasible pipe dream.

"We didn't have the dough to print the dossier ourselves, and Matador, though they loved it, couldn't figure out how to package it with the record," notes Meiburg. "It's too big, too heavy. So this seemed like a good way to cover the printing costs and see if there really was interest in such a thing."

"This" was the Web-based "crowdfunding" platform of Brooklyn start-up Kickstarter, which launched last April. Focused on funding creative projects, Kickstarter allows artists to reach out to their fan bases to fund endeavors, setting their own monetary goals and the rewards they will offer their supporters in exchange for financial pledges. Shearwater easily eclipsed its target of $6,000 for production and distribution of the dossier, ultimately raising $10,115 from fans.

"I think that with social media and the way that commerce is so much about affinity now – that desire for a closer connection for the things that we buy and consume – I think that art is a natural place for that," offers Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler. "That sort of cultural shift is a really big one, and one I hope really changes our whole economy around creativity."

The revolution of crowdfunding and micropayments is one of the few promising trends in an otherwise bleak economy, especially for music. Not only can artists and labels gauge interest and commitment in a project before investing capital, but fans can also achieve unprecedented connection to the artists and creation of art.

"I think as fans, we always want to have a closer relationship to our stars, and we just never got that opportunity before," says Strickler. "Something like Kickstarter lets us be part of a band's story. Now, it's not like, 'I saw the Beatles at the Cavern Club'; it's, 'I helped make the first Beatles' 7-inch.' Before, you either had to know somebody or you had to blow a roadie to get that kind of access. It's changed, which is good for everyone – except the roadie, I guess." – Doug Freeman

Dave Allen (l) with Gang of Four, Emo's 2005
Dave Allen (l) with Gang of Four, Emo's 2005 (Photo by John Anderson)

Social Networks and the Future for Musicians

SXSW Music: Wednesday, March 17, 2pm, ACC 12AB

"The Web is malleable, asymmetrical, and doesn't play nice like TV. There are no one-to-many controlled channels on the Web, so brands and agencies don't understand why they can't get attention."

Dave Allen's gone from one side of the music industry mirror to the other, from bass player in Gang of Four to general manager of EMusic.com. Most recently, he's been writing about music on the MP3 blog Pampelmoose.com and focusing on his Portland, Ore.-based marketing company, Fight, co-founded with Justin Spohn and Rob Shields. Fight works as a "brand strategy agency focusing on the social Web." More to the point, its focus is the future of the Web for musicians.

"As a society we have forgotten to think about the future, and that is our loss," Allen says. "We have become obsessed with short-sightedly hoping the next gadget or application will better our lives and our experiences. Technology only shortens the distance between us. These tools, such as Twitter, Facebook, texting, are just that: tools. Anthropology shows that there is an innate human need to be part of a tribe and to remain in touch. This confusion over technology's role in society really muddies the water."

Do you envision one day having a sort of streamlined global network for music?

"Not really. I'm more interested in learning how an 8-year-old girl today wants to access music. I see record companies and musicians simply messing around with almost identical models, trying to replace the dollars they were used to earning through music sales. For instance, Spotify is not a game-changer. It's more of the same. Ask young people what they want, then give it to them. McDonald's discovered that offering healthier food and fresh espresso at reasonable prices worked really well, so they broke their own mold and pursued that avenue to great success. One of the executives from Spotify is giving a speech at South by Southwest. I predict that whatever he says will be championed by those who are desperately looking for help. They will hang on his every word and begin talking about how Spotify will save music."

As a musician that was recording in the "record age," do you think in 2010 it's sort of pointless for musicians to keep releasing physical product?

"I think it's completely pointless to simply release a CD. Think of that 8-year-old girl I mentioned earlier. Does she want a CD? I doubt it. So what's required is first and foremost the release of music as an 'event.' Do not follow the traditional, worn-out methods. Reinvent the idea of what a release of an 'album' should now be. Cirque du Soleil is a far cry from Barnum & Bailey's. – Audra Schroeder

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Christine Nicholson, Sandy Pearlman, Last.fm, Girl Talk, Suzanne Vega, IMVU.com, Shearwater, Kickstarter, Dave Allen, Gang of Four

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