Either that, or Comcast will build a “slow lane” of the Internet where we have to pass by several artist streams before getting where we actually want to go. It could be the “downtown” of the Internet.

A Case for the "Artist Economy"

Technology has put much of the art world in an interesting place. Technological vectors continually promise consumers easier access to art, but instead of removing a barrier for artists to be discovered, a myriad more complications have emerged in light of these advancements. The digital revolution has made aesthetic consumption more convenient than ever, leaving consumers with an expectation of instant gratification rather than an aspiration for the greatest possible aesthetic quality. Online art galleries, streaming services and video hubs like YouTube have made it possible to acquire practically every work of art ever produced with only a few simple keystrokes.

"That’s enough Internet for today."
...Or, you might accidentally stumble upon literally anything else. Tread carefully.

While this widespread availability of art is great for the consumer, this has resulted in a mass commoditization of some forms of art, including music. (I’ve actually talked about this before - as a musician, the state of the music industry is quite interesting to keep track of.) This phenomenon is exemplified by the current feud between Spotify and Taylor Swift, the latter of whom claims that streaming services like Spotify devalue the music itself, and make it harder for artists to earn the money that their work warrants. In addition, some companies have started adapting to the idea of changing the way streaming services work, with Bandcamp appearing at the forefront.

Bandcamp’s new model for streaming is particularly interesting, as it’s no longer using musical tracks or even albums as their unit of commerce, instead letting the user subscribe to an artist. For a price that the artist defines, users can get instant access to everything the band posts, even possibly receiving exclusive content through the Bandcamp app. This signifies a huge shift in how the music economy works, with the artist themselves being the product up for sale. If streaming models like this catch on, the artist could have significantly more power in the way their music is sold.

Either that, or Comcast will build a "slow lane" of the Internet where we have to pass by several artist streams before getting where we actually want to go. It could be the "downtown" of the Internet.
Alright, maybe a lot of artists have been a product for a while. But this way, maybe they can actually get paid well.

It would be particularly interesting to see if this new “artist economy” ripples into other forms of art as well. Music is already a fairly “tribal” economy, in that consumers tend to follow an artist almost religiously in hopes that they will produce more art of a style similar to what they have previously released, and leave if that artist strays from their perceived authenticity. Other forms of art generally don’t have quite the same concept of a following, and are judged more on purely aesthetic qualities (e.g. picture how an interior designer shops for visual art, judging it on how well it fits in the room). What if people started selling a connection/relationship with artists in other media, much in the same way Bandcamp has started to do for musicians?

Given the current state of the music industry, one thing is certain: the traditional methods of selling music aren’t viable anymore. This industry has always worked on selling consumers improving levels of convenience, from vinyl up to digital audio files, but the industry has shifted to a point where convenience is expected, not simply desired. The technology is already in place to gain access to any song we want to listen to instantly, so some form of infrastructure will have to be built on top of that service, whether that be a relationship with the artist or some other benefit no one has even dreamed of yet. There are exciting times ahead for art, and technology will be integral in moving the industry forward.

Drawing guitars is surprisingly hard on a tablet.

Has Music Been Commoditized?

The digital revolution has done a number of great things for the music industry. In recent years, music has become increasingly accessible, both in the way we purchase and consume the art. The first incarnation of the iPod/iTunes ecosystem was a major breakthrough on both these fronts, with services like Napster, Rhapsody, and Grooveshark changing the game for music ownership and discovery. SoundCloud has provided a simple and straightforward way for people to share and discover independent artists, and Shazam has paved the way for music discovery/identification in the real world.

Still, for all the advances that have been made, the music industry is in a tough spot - for musicians, at least. A documentary called “The Distortion of Sound” highlights some of the troubles regarding how an artist’s work is received by their audiences. Though it misrepresents some of the technical details of the process (which is understandable, as it aims to show differences in sound quality using YouTube as a vector) it does portray the way art is filtered to adapt to the new models of consumption: valuing storage space and pure volume over sound quality and dynamics. Many of the subtler nuances artists instill in their works are never heard by most audiences, whether that be due to subpar listening equipment or albums distributed in compressed and adulterated form.

Drawing guitars is surprisingly hard on a tablet.
We put so much importance on having access to as much music as possible, yet we never truly hear most of it.

Even beyond sound quality, much of the experience built around an artist’s work has been lost to convenience. Consumers used to go to the record store and pick up a CD, reading the album notes and establishing a connection with the artist themselves. We also used to listen to complete albums more than only selecting specific tracks, if only due to the fact that changing albums was a hassle.

The many factors working against experiencing recorded music in its purest form bring about an inconvenient truth: recorded music has become a commodity. Even the newest music is abundantly available through a wide range of channels, including YouTube, Spotify, and Pandora. The concept of being able to own music (though that talk has always been bogged down in licensing technicalities) has increasingly lost relevance, and there is no longer any value in having access to a specific song over any others. The economic value does not exist in the tracks themselves, but in the services provided on top of them - most notably, streaming.

If the music industry is going to evolve again, there will have to be some other value built on top of recorded music. Whether that value is as simple as added insight into the production process or something more experiential, something else needs to be introduced to move the industry forward. Ideally, whatever this is could bring some value back to the artists as well, since the industry is currently not fair to those producing the art by any means.