January 2008 Transcript: Robert Frost

AJ: Welcome to First Monday Podcast I’m AJ Hannah

Joy: And I’m Joy Austria. Has the Internet killed record companies and traditional radio broadcasting — or — does the distribution methods it provides give rise to greater opportunities for the music business, artists and you the listeners?

AJ: Conversations involving music distribution on the Internet have tended to focus on piracy, Digital Rights Management and copyright. But with the successful financial and artistic self release of Radiohead’s In Rainbows musicians, businessmen and researchers now have an example of a viable alternative to traditional music distribution.

Joy: We spoke with University of Michigan cultural heritage historian Robert Frost about his First Monday paper “Rearchitecting the music business,” online business models, their pitfalls and digital music archiving.

AJ: Bob Frost welcome to the First Monday Podcast.

Bob: Thank you very much.

AJ: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you’re working on these days?

Bob: I do a wide range of things, I teach at the School of Information at the University of Michigan. My major work is actually in cultural heritage dealing with museum objects and museum object databases and that sort of thing. In teaching I teach material culture, I teach an intro course for undergraduates. We’re a professional school and it’s pretty much the only undergraduate course we do, ah, sort of getting the message of info culture out there with the undergraduates. And I’m developing actually a management course. All of this is very odd because I was trained as a French Social Historian initially.

Joy: What inspired you to write your First Monday article?

Bob: Part of it is that I’m a recipient of copyrights from a poet who died, of copyright royalties, from a poet who died back in the early 1960s. A guy of the same name as myself obviously, and I’m very uncomfortable with that fact. That you know I didn’t write any poetry I barely knew him he died when I was ten years old and it seems to me that it’s rather unjust that simply by being born I have the right to get a share of copyrights that my family can charge people to use the cultural materials that one of our ancestors generated. And you know it got me into the whole issue of intellectual property and you know where the returns for creative effort should go.

Joy: What are some of the pitfalls and problems with the current music distribution system?

Bob: Okay well first the structure I should mention in passing that I did a lot of work trying to figure out actually how much musicians get per track or per album per packaged CD how ever you want to call it. And it’s very very hard to tell. I read that musicians for you know a CD that costs 17 dollars musicians get anywhere from maybe 20 cents a track to about 80 cents or a dollar per track. Maybe if they’re superstars they might get a buck and a half, not per track, excuse me, per CD. Most of that money of course there’s a good chunk of retail markup it’s not like clothing where the retail market is one hundred percent, but there’s a significant retail markup there’s production costs, etc. but all in all my sense is that a fairly large disproportionate chunk goes to the intermediaries that we know and love called the record companies.

Now the dilemma to me, and you know one could say that the paper’s along moral argument about these guys ripping us off but frankly to me that’s a less intriguing question because that’s just your standard attack on capitalism as it were. What I find more interesting is to pose it as an information problem, that is, why book publishing record er excuse me music production is a very high–risk sort of operation. The working assumption is that one in ten of the products that are marketed actually make money and they have to make enough money to cover the ninety percent that don’t make money. This to me is sort of an outstanding piece of evidence that says that they really don’t know what their market is.

In other words there’s not a very good feedback loop between on the one hand the record companies and the public they really don’t have a good sense of what the public wants. They’re not getting the feedback they need and whatever feedback they get tends to be thickly thickly filtered through the record companies whose agenda certainly doesn’t necessarily line up with that of the musicians.

I guess to me the real dilemma that we’re looking at here is we have the possibility of a major major cultural explosion. We have the infrastructure to do it, and what we need now is the imagination and the business models to make that happen.

Joy: How does the business model you propose in your article address some of the problems you discuss? Like let’s say I’m an aspiring musician and I want to get my stuff out there. How would I do that with your business model?

Bob: What I’m proposing is basically a radical disintermediation you know that’s academic speak I guess but the basic idea is to number one get rid of record companies they frankly have largely outlived their purpose, they take a huge chunk of revenue for frankly services that can be done by other parties much more cheaply. That said, how practically does this model work? The idea is basically that one can do digital distribution we don’t need a physical product. I know when I you know teach for example all of the stuff I assign is digital if students want hard copy they can print it out. Ditto for music if one wants a CD they can burn a CD. It’s trivial to do one on contemporary computer technology and I’m sure companies like Sony, Panasonic, etc. would be more than happy to produce machines that you just pop in a blank CD it’s connected to the net and it spits out you know a burned CD for you with all of the labeling and everything on it. That said the basic model then is that musicians could go to a site called music dot net and there would be subdomains music dot jazz dot net, music dot industrial dot net, music dot you know whatever you want for the myriad different flavors.

They post their music they post a few tracks and it gets rated by custom by listeners. Listeners realize ah this is where the you go to find music again there’s a potential mineshare problem on the front end. But theoretically you know once that’s dealt with then you know say you want to find what’s hot in fusion jazz or what’s hot in Zouk African music you simply go to the site, go to the relevant area and see what’s been posted. You rate it, you give feedback and as that happens musicians can essentially put out test tracks, trial balloons, etc. they can be downloaded free or they can be downloaded for a small fee, doesn’t really matter and that’s used to get feedback it’s used to build an audience and slowly, gradually, or depending on how much attraction the music, musicians get they can then start producing full packages, single tracks.

I leave open the question of bundling. As you probably know, the CD as we know it is sort of an artifact of the 33 RPM record that is the expectation that it last roughly 45 minutes even pushed up to 60 or 70 now but the bottom line is we have this sort of tradition of packaging that may or may not make sense as I mentioned in the article for some music I think in particular things like Kind of Blue by Miles Davis or Grand Wazoo by Frank Zappa those are bundles of music that are internally coherent by contrast a lot of music that’s out there is just sort of a bunch of songs stapled together and put together in a CD so the bundling question I don’t know.

In essence though the core of the system is a recommendation system, that things get posted and listeners basically solve that feedback loop problem by themselves directly responding and the musicians adapting and beginning to develop audiences and a fan base and that sort of thing through the web medium rather than through the record stores, through Amazon and through that very very slow feedback loop that we currently have.

AJ: Under the system that you’re recommending a lot of it seems to rely on voting or recommendations from listeners and I see a couple of concerns about this. First, being privacy. What kind of information is going to be harvested when people go to vote?

Bob: Privacy — a lot of what I’m doing is I modeled this or thought about this in terms of the very very successful recommendation systems used by Ebay and Amazon. One can always be anonymous in that system, and the system doesn’t really break down because of that because you still get the recommendations you can simply choose to be anonymous. It’s a little, it works I think considerably better if people are more open and you know there’s all kinds of systems that are used by everybody from Slashdot to Amazon to protect email addresses so you don’t end up getting spammed and email bombed by doing that you know by posting on those and making your recommendations.

AJ: Secondly, how do you avoid this type of system turning into a popularity contest like American Idol? Or what happens to music that is you know produced and published purely as art like music put out on the label Table of Elements things that are on the fringe of music. They’re not going to be moneymakers but they are important for artists who are seeking the next big sound or something that sparks their interest or their creativity.

Bob: I think that a lot of my analysis was actually informed by Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail that came out I guess last year. And he was looking at music in there for example and other types of cultural production and realized that the one to many market that dominated mass culture in the twentieth century, and that the legacy of which are the four big record companies, basically go and have always gone for the middle of the statistical distribution you know the bell curve, they go for the very peak of that curve

What Chris Anderson points out in his book The Long Tail is that through web distribution and the ability to build, I don’t like the term niche–markets but I’ll use it anyway, small communities of interest, how’s that that’s better than niche–markets, through the ability to build those through the web and through virtual communities you can have some very very strong loyalties to some pretty obscure stuff. You can have a critical mass that can be supporting avant–garde music, it can be supporting performance art if you can do that somehow on the web I’m not sure you can but in other words I see the American Idol problem in that sort of convergence to a sort of banal mediocrity as a consequence of the old structure of doing things.

The structure that we’re seeing emerging and whether it uses my model or not doesn’t really matter because in fact what we are seeing and I think Chris Anderson is right on this is the emergence of communities of interest that are far outside the mainstream. One of the things I mention in the article for example is that because of this one to many sort of mass culture model that the record companies are built on, we’ve basically lost local music. It’s very hard to tell but what I’m suggesting is a way to build virtual communities of interest around all kinds of different poles of attraction.

You know one could say that the paper’s moral argument about these guys ripping us off but frankly to me that’s a less intriguing question because that’s just your standard attack on capitalism as it were. What I find more interesting is to pose it as an information problem.

AJ: Now archiving must be really important as part of your thought process even just for thinking about what is cultural heritage what should be saved, what can be let go...

Bob: Absolutely...

AJ: The proposal that you make through your paper is very heavy on the digital realm, however it’s been pretty well established that with the rate of how technology is changing music that’s preserved in digital formats now may not be accessible ten, twenty, fifty years from now. What can we do now to help maintain that cultural heritage of music and keep things in the digital realm?

Bob: Very good question. I think we have to assume that whether we like it or not digital preservation or digital forms is what all of our media is now born in. My sense is that once we have music digitally, obviously we can always save lostlessly, we can always move it lostlessly which we couldn’t do in the analog world obviously every copy, I’m sure you’re old enough to remember ever copying a copy of a copy of a cassette and having the result sound like a telephone conversation, a very bad fifties telephone conversation. But with digital we can keep copying and copying and copying without any loss of quality and we can re–rip if necessary.

The basic idea is to number one get rid of record companies they frankly have largely outlived their purpose.

AJ: Bob, what advice would you give to the big labels about catching up with where the rest of the world?

Bob: The only thing I think they can really do is you know, as you know from reading the piece, I think they’re largely obsolete. If they want a future they have to wrap their heads around number one that shooting for that hump in the normal curve and the sort of universal mediocre blandness that we’ve had for the past thirty years simply isn’t going to work. Their sales reflect that, they still keep producing the same stuff hoping that it will stick to the wall, it’s you know it’s like cooking pasta sort of. And my advice would be well you know stop fighting what looks to be inevitable — that things are going digital, that peer–to–peer is out there and assume that there still is money to be made in the music business as intermediaries but the margins will be much smaller and one has to be far more sensitive to the audience rather than just pushing product out there and just advertising it like crazy, heaven forbid you might have to start actually listening to your audience.

The real dilemma that we’re looking at here is we have the possibility of a major major cultural explosion. What digital technology, in particular the internet and the packet delivery systems have enabled is a complete shift from the twentieth century cultural model where we have a small number of music distributors that basically decide what gets published and push it out to a public that is assumed to be passive consumers.

I don’t think YouTube will ever threaten Hollywood you know there will always be demand for a Hollywood. I don’t think that college students sitting in a dorm room strumming a guitar and posting it will ever compete with you know high end music production but they will all have audiences and to me the real challenge is that there are huge untapped audiences out there, there’s huge untapped reservoirs of talent out there, and what we really need to do is connect those together. We have the infrastructure to do it, and what we need now is the imagination and the business models to make that happen. And the tragedy that we’re looking at now is that the incumbents from the old twentieth century one to many mass media model tend to be pretty well determined to keep that from happening.