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WRONG NOTES: a blog of ear reverence

Wrong Notes collects posts on music, art, culture and fun stuff. Also included: news about the Ear Reverends.

Your music library is the medium

Complaints about mp3s / file sharing hurting music sales always miss the elephant in the room: it's the music library that is now the medium, not the individual files.

I'll leave it to someone else to write about this in terms of the record industry, business models, how musicians make a living, etc. I feel it's worth my saying something about this topic because a lot of people, a lot of the time, are getting their recorded music only via digital files—and I think this is limiting our experience of music in a negative way. So, I think it might be useful if musicians say more about this—and I'll try to kick it off here.

The big deal about recorded music is that it's a constant invitation to deeply experience and explore a world beyond your immediate locale. Traditional music—which existed purely in "live" performances, was always immediately local. A lot of people heard the same music a lot of the time—the music of their own people and their place and their time.

Throughout history—actually, from prehistory, there were nevertheless amazing experiences people had, beyond what they knew locally, through the surprising performances of traveling musicians who carried with them old traditions as well as new tunes learned on the road.

(here's a clip from Tony Gatlif's amazing movie, Latcho Drom — this is such a great music film and expresses a lot about musical roads that connect across people, places and times:)

Through recordings, we have access to so much music from so many times and places. And, as much as the primary experience of music is always visceral and emotional, we almost always have access to text and information of all kinds (including film footage, as above), about the recorded music we hear—importantly, this often helps us hear more music / hear more in the music.

A Music Library

A "music library" is just one basic way to describe the music in our lives in terms of this world of information we have around what we hear. Our lives as music lovers are spent in the music libraries that we inherit from our families and teachers, that we share with our friends and lovers, and that we craft ourselves in and around our other daily activities.

One way to talk about record labels, record stores, radio stations, streaming music services, digital download sites, etc., is that each is itself a music library. Even as recording artists, we implicitly create libraries of our own music that tend to known as our "catalogs" of recordings.

Prior to the digital distribution of music, all of these different library creators / curators used various physical and/or analog broadcast media to share their libraries with others. And, the record album or radio show were important not simply as bags of random music tracks, but as collections where the collection itself had some kind of meaning.

If you collect LPs still, or regularly listen to radio shows still (I do both), you probably have a good sense that you get something else, beyond just listening to music, through these experiences. I think it's handy then to talk about that larger experience as "the medium." In this sense, LPs are a medium not because individual LPs hold audio tracks, but because they are part of how one creates a music library made up of audio, liner notes, the way you order your records on the shelf, what records you share with whom, how you know you want to listen to Elvis Presley's greatest hits on a sunny Saturday morning, etc.

The Limit

So, what's going on with our shift to digital music libraries is not a matter of the audio on vinyl vs mp3s or other digital formats. What's going on is that the format of the library is no longer your record shelf, but it's the user interface of iTunes and the iPod. That is the big change that totally changes how people relate to music—specifically, how people hear music (the thing I am more concerned about) and how people buy music / pay musicians (which is also relevant, but a topic I am leaving for someone else to write about).

Put bluntly: the user interface for iTunes and the iPod—that is, how you interact with music through those interfaces, is optimized for mostly a superficial and disjointed experience of music. That's fine in the sense that it's perfectly fine to sometimes listen to music in a superficial or disjoint fashion. And, it's also fine in the sense that one can, with not much effort, be a bit better librarian than iTunes expects—it doesn't punish you much for trying.

But, given how readily we can create digital interfaces (e.g., web pages), it's stupid sad that we don't have digital music libraries that really blow our minds in terms of how deeply and widely they invite us to explore music.

An Ideal Scenario

In an ideal scenario, there would be digital music libraries / players / devices that provide an interface to music not just as a list of media files, but as webs of information, including videos, photos, art graphics, visualizations, info graphics, games, social network info, educational / informative text, creative writing, lyrics, alternate takes, live versions, cover versions, etc.

Every track itself shown as a cool interface to a lot of good stuff, not just a file!

In this kind-of scenario, imagining someone wants to share Come Together with me: they may send me a media file, or they may send me just a link into to the web of that song. But, with either, the library / player / device itself would give me not only audio, but also a window into a lot of other, related / extra stuff I could access. Some it, I would already have. Some of it, my friends would have. Some of it I could get for free. Some for one-off purchase. Some as part of a subscription, etc.

Ongoing, the library / player / device would always keep a view of that extra stuff very handy for me—even advertising it to me in some contexts. This kind-of library / player / device could, by design, highlight the compelling-ness of lots of stuff beyond the audio.

What's Next

Who wants to make me a better digital music library? I think that's the question we music lovers should ask more vocally. And, I think we music producers should keep pushing for people to build music library interfaces that support the works we want to release—that combine audio and video and images and text and, most importantly, links and collections and musical relationships.

There are both business and artistic potentials around the design of better music libraries. As I've said before, at some point, we musicians won't just need to release mp3s instead of CDs, we'll need to release our own players / libraries / devices.


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