Digital Musings

I am a child of the 80s. Michael Jackson, MTV, Beverly Hills Cop, Atari, Bart Simpson, Saturday morning cartoons, and just about every other 80s artifact which you can name brings back fond memories of my formative years. While this decade laid the foundation of my love affair with contemporary culture, it was the 90s which introduced me to the digital revolution. I bypassed typewriters and wrote school papers on the RadioShack-issued Tandy 1000 which my moth- er gave my brother Eugene and me in the winter of 1990. I bought my first compact disc in the spring of 1991: Boyz II Men’s Cooleyhighharmony. I surfed the internet for the first time, via Internet Explorer, as a high school sophomore in 1994 at the University of Michigan’s Summer Engineering Academy. I got my first email address as a college freshman, which drastically decreased my handwritten letter-writ- ing output, despite having a long-distance girlfriend at the time. And that was just the beginning. GeoCities-built websites became my source of new music discovery. Google aided my research studies and often times distracted me from it. AOL Instant Messenger helped me to stay connected to my friends, while Black Planet helped me find new ones. By that time, I was completely immersed in the ‘digital world’. But before it ended, the decade had one last discovery for me: MIDI.

MIDI, short for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, is the technology—the digital language—which enables individual electronic musical instruments, computers, and other related devices to connect and communicate with one another. With MIDI, an electronic key- board can sync with a drum machine, for example, and relay their shared performance to a computer for recording purposes. Music, therefore, can be endlessly edited, thereby empowering songwriters to produce full compositions in ‘digital space’...and without the need for a band. With MIDI, I found myself exploring a new world of musical possibilities.

This exploration completely changed the trajectory of my career. Although I studied material science engineering in college, I spent most of my undergraduate hours writing and producing music with MIDI-enabled digital/electronic instruments. Indeed, after graduation I went straight into the music business, co-founding a record label and artist development startup. I was making music for a living...albeit modestly. I produced all the tracks for the company’s debut album re- lease entirely in my bedroom studio, which kept overhead extremely low. The company was one of the early independent record labels to get music on iTunes, and thanks to music commerce aggregates like CD Baby, the sale of products advanced without the need to press ad- ditional CD inventory. I used the company’s website to generate leads, and leveraged an e-mail CRM system to distribute communications to fans and supporters. No doubt, the digital revolution afforded me great opportunity both as an artist and an entrepreneur.

The ubiquity of digital technology also removed barriers for amateur music-makers to create. Programs like Fruity Loops and Cake- walk reduced the financial barrier which expensive recording studios once erected. Creativity was ‘democratized’. Meanwhile, as the inter- net continued to proliferate, the growth of communities of people on- line ballooned. Out of this came the benefit of collective intelligence where people began to share their learnings of these new music creation tools with others in the community through vehicles like You- tube. As a result, amateur music-makers learned from each other, thereby reducing the perception that a lengthy apprenticeship was necessary for success.

Before the advent of digital technology, music-makers also required access to radio in order to distribute their art. And radio airplay, unfortunately, was strictly reserved for, and to a large degree con- trolled by, major record labels. Likewise, very few music-makers could afford to produce music videos. And even if they could, the production quality was low, and access to MTV was limited. The growing internet removed the intermediaries and the gatekeepers, thereby al- lowing these new, non-major-record-label-affiliated music-makers, like me, to reach music fans directly.

These changes also had a massive impact on the music business. The digital medium shift from compact discs to compressed files (MP3s) made the internet the most effective vehicle for distributing and discovering music. Consumers (perhaps surprisingly) accepted varying quality of MP3s; indeed, sonic quality ceased being a discrim- inating factor for music fans, which levelled the playing field for ama- teur musicians and producers. Consequently, there was an influx of content in the market—from amateur creators to superstars with re- duced latency between album releases. And so music fans found themselves, for the first time ever, with more supply of music than time to consume it. This in turn reduced the half-life of cre- ated a kind of ‘dopamine cycle’ in which listeners spent less time ex- periencing specific content. Ironically, the same technology which opened my eyes to a potential career in music—which helped me re- alise my dreams—was the same technology which brought those same dreams to a screeching halt.

The digital revolution forever changed the business of how music is created, discovered, and sold. There were winners and losers, much like in almost every other industry in which technologies have infused themselves. With all these changes, and their subsequent implications, the need for the business community to understand these technologies better is more important than ever.