The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music that no one ever talks about

I vaguely recall in 1997 when David Bowie issued celebrity bonds, recently chronicled at a fan blog. I didn’t see them as a big deal: celebrity artists already had front-loaded payment via contract with record or other media companies, and their catalogs trade-able via ownership by the same, mostly public, companies. I suspect that despite the gimmick of individual celebrity bonds not taking off, an even larger proportion of such artists’ careers are effectively securitized these days, as their contracts with public companies are broader in scope (360 deals, covering live performance and everything else, in addition to recording sales and licensing). Am I wrong?

I recall more clearly a 2002 Bowie quote mentioned by the fan blog:

The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music will take place within 10 years, and nothing is going to be able to stop it. I see absolutely no point in pretending that it’s not going to happen. I’m fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years, and authorship and intellectual property is in for such a bashing…Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity. So it’s like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again.

A lot of ambiguity and contradiction can be read into that quote, but “I’m fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years” taken alone is unambiguous, and turned out to be totally wrong. I didn’t think Bowie’s prediction was sound in 2002. Had I written down a prediction in 2002, it probably would’ve involved muddling along, with only minor differences from my prediction of last year. But I may not have expected essentially no change at all, in any direction.

In hindsight, this is unsurprising: the free/open/[semi]commons has offered zero product (noting that the product is marketing and distribution, not cultural works) competition to proprietary popular culture, and near zero policy competition, excepting last minute rearguard actions. Both “sides” have stayed well within their comfort zones, far from changing copyright (utilitarian works, digital delivery of locked-down entertainment). What trend I can make out does not look good: innovation is happening faster on the locked-down delivery side, in part because that side has less of a problem with a vision of info regulation constrained to the domain of copyright, and it doesn’t have an informal side which largely serves as a marketing and price discrimination mechanism for its opposite.


It was and is sad that the first thing to come to mind regarding the “absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music” is with regard to copyrestriction rents rather than changes in what one hears due to culture and technology (eg new genres and instruments), admitting there is an interplay, especially among industry and culture.

One idle speculation about this interplay I’ve made for many years, but don’t recall writing about: to what extent has copyrestriction, through encouraging the creation of new works with exclusive rents, made culture less shared — not only in the sense that all cannot access and use the culture around them — but also in the sense of being more fragmented across subcultures, and especially across generations? At the same time, copyrestriction probably encourages mass spectacle, which is anti-fragmentary, though distasteful to me.

But I’m fairly confident that however we muddle through the future of info regulation — even in the unlikely event of copyrestriction dystopia or abolition (perhaps dystopia from the perspective of copyright advocates; I would love to see a dystopian future story from that perspective) — the sounds enjoyed by many will both be very different from those enjoyed today, but also not at all a transformation of everything we ever thought about music.

3 Responses

  1. Rob Myers says:

    I remember someone arguing in the comments at Lessig’s blog, apparently seriously, that without strong IP rights the singularity would not come about. A “Left Behind” parody about copyright abolition would be funny, but wouldn’t answer your desire.

    Recorded Music has been ironised, the form has remained the same but the content has changed. The cultural smog and collapsed history of the Internet, the rise and fall of American Idol and Rock Band, the album promoting the tour rather than the other way round, iTunes vouchers at Starbucks. If you lived in music in the era somewhere between Frank Sinatra and Napster, that is “everything changing”.

    But maybe I’m just channeling a Nick Hornby character there…

  2. gurdonark says:

    I don’t think it’s this first ~decade that is the real change decade. This last decade is merely the forerunner. Now, the next decade, that’s the one to watch.

  3. Rob, love the parody idea. Thanks for adding to my desire list.

    Surely someone has attempted to characterize change in the sounds we hear over time. I’m dubious Sinatra->Napster was peak, but happy to learn otherwise.

    gurdonark, I’m inclined to agree and hope so at first blush, but am downright uncertain.

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