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INDEPTH: DOWNLOADING
What will the music of the future sound like?
By Dan Brown, CBC News Online | March 11, 2004


There's little doubt that the internet has changed the way people consume music. For most of today's young music fans, illegal file-sharing sites like Kazaa (as well as industry-sanctioned sources such as Canada's Puretracks) have replaced the local record store as the primary supplier of the latest hits. What this means is that there is now an entire generation growing up that knows no other means to get music apart from downloading.

At some point in the future – maybe in 15 or 10 years, maybe fewer – some of those young people will become musicians and start producing music of their own. Although there has been plenty of debate about the legalities of downloading, one important question has so far gone unasked: will downloading affect how pop music sounds in the future?

In other words, will the way that people access music have an effect on the content of that music?

The example of blogging provides a useful parallel. Before the internet became commonplace, blogging as a form of literature did not exist. Gradually, however, it has emerged as a distinct way of writing with its own conventions separate from other literary genres. Blogging is a very clear example of technology shaping the manner in which people communicate ideas and emotions to others.

Will the same thing happen with music? The short answer is that no one can say for sure how the evolution of music will be changed by any given technology.

When the electric guitar entered the mainstream, for example, no one predicted the impact it would have – not only did it change the way rock and roll sounds, it brought with it a whole new attitude of musicianship. In the same vein, no one could have predicted that in the year 2004 – years after the demise of the vinyl 45 – the typical single would still be about three minutes long.

The longer answer, however, is more complicated. Music experts do have some rough ideas of how pop songs will evolve in the internet age.

David Menconi is the music critic for the News and Observer newspaper in Raleigh, N.C. He says we don't have to wait to see the effects of downloading; according to him, the future is now.


Credit: Justin Hampton
Menconi points to the much-talked-about Grey Album by DJ Danger Mouse as a perfect example of the sounds to come. The record is a so-called mash-up, meaning that it combines elements from two other recordings already in circulation – in this case, the Beatles' White Album and The Black Album by rapper Jay-Z.

"That's a record that just flat wouldn't exist if not for file sharing," says Menconi.

Although mashing two albums together would have been possible in the pre-internet past for a DJ with the right equipment and lots of patience, the web means everyone in cyberspace has access to the tools to do the same thing in less time with less effort.

Menconi thinks that mash-ups as they exist now are stunts because DJs are trying to shock people by juxtaposing the most unlikely sounds. But he believes that, gradually, the mash-up will become an aesthetic in itself, which will lead to more diverse music.

"If you grow up with this just sort of in the air, there'll be more and more oddball combinations," he says.

Robert Thompson, a pop-culture expert at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y., agrees that this is one possible path the evolution of music could take.

"Music now has the possibility of having a much larger gene pool," he says.

In Thompson's view, people who are interested in music are more likely today to come across influences on the internet that are outside the mainstream. It would not be unusual for an aspiring musician to download a tune from, say, an obscure techno band in Japan. That would have been impossible two or three decades ago; that kind of music could not be found in the bins at the neighbourhood Sam the Record Man.

"There are more mutations out there than before simply because there are more opportunities for something to actually get into the distribution system," Thompson says. This is in part because the power of the record companies, the traditional gatekeepers of taste, is dwindling.

What all this means is that the influence famously attributed to a band like the Velvet Underground by legendary music producer Brian Eno becomes more of a likelihood. Eno once said that even though only a handful of people bought the first Velvet Underground LP, every one of that handful went out and started a band of their own. With the internet, the chances of discovering little-known groups is so much greater.

"[People who are downloading are] dabbling in a fringe that simply didn't exist before. And that kind of fringe has got to ultimately get put into the equation of what that generation then creates," say Thompson.

Thompson likens the downloading situation to the advent of cable television. When cable was originally introduced, it was just another means of delivering the same old television programming. Four decades later, though, cable has had a huge impact on TV content. Because of shows like The Sopranos, cable is now seen as the natural home of the most innovative producers in the business.

"In the long run, I think when you change distribution it's going to have an impact on the music industry," Thompson adds.

"So you would have a series of generations of more and more unusual sounds, more and more diversification," echoes Henry Jenkins, the director of comparative media studies at MIT in Cambridge, Mass.

Jenkins sees the internet having one other major effect on musical content: songs will become more topical. This is due to the fact that an artist can easily bypass the traditional infrastructure – going into the studio, sending singles to radio stations – and make songs available for download almost as soon as they're written.

In this model, musicians are like troubadours of old, commenting on events as they happen in real time. "It would be a blog form of music," Jenkins explains.

All pop music would evolve according to the theory of hip hop espoused by former Public Enemy front man Chuck D., who likened rap to "the black man's CNN." Pop would be a format for instant commentary.


The "Red Hot Chili Peppers" bassist Flea performs on the final evening of Woodstock '99 Sunday, July 25, 1999, in Rome, N.Y. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)
Music critic Menconi says he has already seen this idea at work. When the U.S. invaded Iraq last year, for example, bands like Green Day, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and REM made protest songs – songs that were not sold commercially – available for download on their official sites: "There were scores of protest songs out there � that were very quick and of the moment."

The same sort of thing happened earlier this year when Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean gave his now-famous over-the-top campaign speech, the so-called "Dean scream." No sooner had the former Vermont governor spoken than his not-a-victory address was uploaded and mixed with all manner of music.

All of this paints a rosy picture of pop's future. There is another school of thought, however, that says that instead of increasing the range of possible influences and subject matter, downloading will have the opposite effect. According to this view of the future, pop songs will become something like the opinion of life espoused by philosopher Thomas Hobbes: nasty, brutish and short.

In this way of thinking, downloading's relentless emphasis on singles – which are more convenient to download than entire CDs – is helping to speed the death of the traditional album. The net result will be that tomorrow's musicians won't be exposed to album cuts and B-sides, the offbeat sibling of the radio single.


R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe throws fruit to the crowd during a free concert for fans at a main downtown Toronto intersection, Thursday May 17, 2001. Thousands of people jammed the streets for the only performance of its kind planned by the band in North America. (CP PHOTO/Aaron Harris)
A young person growing up 30 years ago, for instance, would have been exposed to all the tracks on an album like Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon. If that same person were growing up today, they would have the option of picking and choosing the tracks they want to listen to.

If you add this fact to today's media environment, which rewards sensation, the prospects for creativity appear grim. "What that would lend itself to is a generation that writes two-minute songs that are just completely over the top," theorizes Menconi.

And not everyone sees virtue in software like Apple's GarageBand, which allows computer users to cobble together pre-recorded loops. Gil Moore – the former member of Triumph who now owns the Metalworks recording studio in Mississauga, Ont. – says this is the equivalent of selling consumers player-piano rolls. "You're not going to teach people to play piano doing that," he says emphatically.

"All they're going to do is add to the clutter of crummy stuff."

But Mark Milne, the co-owner of Sonic Unyon, a small label in Hamilton, Ont., is optimistic. This is because he doesn't think the people who are interested exclusively in Christina Aguilera or Justin Timberlake are likely to become serious musicians later in life anyway: "I think the people who are downloading Top Ten singles aren't really interested in music, and aren't interested in being musicians. They're interested in getting something for free."

Milne believes those who are truly devoted to music will still be able to find obscure influences, they just won't be doing so at their local record store. And the oddball music they download will definitely be a part of the mix in the future.

"It's something that won't play out for a long time. Give those people a chance to hear all that stuff and make something with it."






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QUOTES:
"There are possibilities now available through downloading and the internet that weren't available there before."
- Pop-culture expert Bob Thompson on what music will sound like in the future

"I think the most obvious thing that it will do is make boundaries a lot more fluid and not as rigid."
"Shorter, louder, more in-your-face seems like the direction that's going to go."
- Music journalist David Menconi on what pop music might sound like in the future

"It makes more sense to teach people to play instruments than it does to give them computers that are loaded with sounds that are synthesized and saying 'Why don't you edit together a bunch of sounds.' It doesn't make you a musician. It just makes you an idiot."
- Former Triumph member Gil Moore on software like Apple's GarageBand

"Now, you don't have to rely on the local retailer to have done the initial work for you. You can do the initial work yourself."
- Sonic Unyon co-owner Mark Milne on how the internet helps music enthusiasts

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