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What I Wanna Listen To






Music wants to be freed

When Music Unbound was first launched, we used the phrase "music wants to be freed!" as a distillation of our agenda. It was a take-off on the famous slogan of the Internet "information wants to be free" -- a rallying cry for the free propagation of information and data of all kinds, in this new networked-information age.

At Music Unbound while we believe that there are exceptions to this ideal (some information will never be created if it cannot be compensated for the cost of its creation/production, particularly such things as recorded music), the basic notion is still sound: the more fluidly information is propagated to individuals on demand, the more powerfully our democratic system will work for those individuals. The First Amendment is being turbocharged by the Net, and though it may lead to some turbulence (and Music Unbound may even be contributing to some of that turbulence!), the fruits of that free flow are worth the challenge of such turbulence many times over.

Our agenda has been to diagnose the structural forces that shape commercial music and to explore and encourage ways to restructure the economics of the music business in ways that might lead to greater variety of music and musicians able to make some sort of living professionally with their original music. Today's music world is hourglass-shaped, dominated by big-time celebrities at the top, and populated by a swarm of wannabees at the bottom. Precious few reside in the middle class, and those who are there are more often than not just passing through on their way up to stardom or on their way down to avocation. We've looked for ways that the middle ground might be opened up to those with less than celebrity-sized markets but who nevertheless create original, quality music that deserves to be sustained full-time.

I wanna listen to what I wanna listen to

Our current slogan takes the concept of freeing music and focusses it on the central dynamic of the music business: the relationship with the audience as fans and consumers. Until recently the music business has been so dominated by mass market techniques that the individual voices of the audience are increasingly drowned out by the much narrower average taste of demographic target markets that determine how money is channeled from consumer product advertisers to radio marketers. The fundamental change that is now possibly within reach is to reclaim the flexibility of individual choice among the audience as a primary driving force for market economics. Custom-casting / audio-on-demand could make everything completely different.

In our article A Modest Proposal: Audio Programming From Online Catalogs we describe a proposal for setting up such a system in the not-too-distant future, building on platforms that already exist today. The central idea here is that by returning full power of selection to the consumer, a much wider variety of music, both in style and in numbers of performers, might become economically feasible at a wider variety of levels of volume and profit. (See also Who Really Controls Radio for a more in-depth discussion of the paradigm shift between broadcasting and custom-casting.)

It is gratifying that since August 1997 when this was first published, the battle cry of "back-listings" has become widely voiced in the music business as a desireable and reachable goal. Whether the particular method proposed in our article is the one that achieves this result is largely irrelevant; the impact of wider success of the entire catalog of recorded music will inevitably support variety in the business. We believe that this in itself will be a powerful force for vitality in the arts of music, as constrained by the businesses of music.

When technology can empower individual users to satisfy their entire range of desires, music products and musical acts will be able to more reliably attain their genuine market potential, without being filtered through the crude authoritarian prizms of mass markets. The slavery of music marketing to mass market averages is what increasingly constrained it so deeply in the last one to two decades, and escape from the exclusive dominance of that paradigm is the best chance to reverse that trend.

-- Dan Krimm, 7/98

Plug.In '98 update: One step closer to the dream, announces collaborative filtering to create custom channels of music programming in its 100,000-deep catalog.