Saturday, 25 September 2010

Sounds Like Dystopia

"It's the year 2010 and you wake to a familiar tune playing softly. It gets you out of bed and makes you feel good. As you walk into the bathroom, your Personal Media Minder activates the video display in the mirror, and you watch a bit of personalized news while you get ready for the day. You step into the shower and your personalized music program is ready for you, cued up with a new live version of a track that you downloaded the other day. It is even better than the original recording, so while you dress, you tell your "Taste Mate" program to include the new track in your playlist rotation.
You put on your new eyeglasses, which contain a networked audio headset, letting tiny earbuds slip into your ears. You switch on the power, and the mix that your friend makes for you starts to play. Music pours into your consciousness. It becomes yours.
After breakfast with your family, you head off to work and the Personal Media Minder asks if you wish to finish the audiobook you started yesterday morning. You confirm and listen while you walk to the train that takes you to your job.
During the day, your headset and other wireless devices help you communicate across the network, with your friends, associates, network buddies, and "digital peers." The headset also keeps you connected to that hard rock collection that you really love to listen to. Meanwhile, a variety of new songs, new versions, and remixes of tracks that you truly dig, along with your old favorites, continues to come your way. Using TasteMate, you access and trade playlists, and recommend a couple of songs to your friend in Seattle, and they get added to his rotation. Music propels you through the day.
On the way home, you choose your usual dose of news, sports, weather, and the latest dirt on your favorite bands and movie stars. The headset syncs to the active 3D displays that project images just in front of your eyes, or onto the communal screens available on the train and at home. You decide what you hear and see, and who can share in the experience. The Media Minder blends and delivers the programming you select, along with whatever variety of new music you decide to explore. It also determines how that music is chosen, with the help of the TasteMate program.
Back at home, you cruise into the evening with the house system sending soft dinner jazz to various speaker systems in your house, as you serve up one of your culinary specialties, then pay your bills. One of these bills is your media and entertainment subscription, which includes your monthly music, video, network, and communications charges; it's always lower than your heating or water bill. Incoming calls from your friends blend into the programming that surrounds you, as you see fit. After dinner, you clean up, perhaps enjoy a couple of games with friends across your virtual network, and begin to wind down with some New Age derivatives of Mozart's original compositions, which you discovered late one night while cruising through the music sharing channels. . . . "
- The Future of Music (2005)

For those of you to whom, like me, the above seems like a vision of hell to exceed Dante's darkest fantasies, it may come as something of a shock to discover that it's authors, David Kusek and Gerd Leonhard, regard this is something to look forward to, something to eagerly anticipate and benignly encourage. Over some 190 pages, the authors expound their notion of "music as water: ubiquitous and free flowing" as the coming paradigm of all music consumption. No matter that almost every page displays their absolute stupidity with regard to music. They don't even understand water.

For when Leonhard and Kusek propose a model of music as water, they are evidently not talking about music as a publicly funded, state-run monopoly. No, their supposedly utopian vision of the future of the music industry involves the transformation of music into a privatized utility. "Do we feel that water companies have undue monopolistic powers, and do we consider water to be a "product"?" They ask rhetorically, as though the expected negative response was so obvious as to scarcely require thinking about.

But when three multinational corporations control the water supply of over one hundred nations; when water privatization in England and Wales has led to an increase in price, an erosion of working conditions, an increase in household disconnections, a deterioration in the service provided, and no increase in water quality; when the IMF-imposed sale of the water supply to the Cochabamba region in Bolivia led to the Bechtel Corporation of San Francisco gaining legal ownership of all of Cochabamba's water supply - even its rainwater - and ultimately to the notorious Cochabamba Water Wars of 2000; perhaps we should start to question the "undue monopolistic powers" of the water companies, and perhaps we ought to question whether this is a model we want to follow for the provision of something as precious as music.

Before I am accused of taking a metaphor too literally, however, let's examine what Kusek and Leonhard actually have to say about music, about the kind of music we might be listening to in this bright future of theirs, and what it might sound like. Precious little, as it turns out. The sound of music seems to be of little concern to these self-styled futurists. In the above-quoted paragraph they offer us some "familiar tune playing softly", a little "hard rock", a touch of "soft dinner jazz," even "some New Age derivatives of Mozart's original compositions," (I particularly like the way they had to point out that Mozart wrote "original compositions" - such a novelty will it be to actually compose in the coming era of endless re-versions, remixes, and derivatives).

They trumpet themselves repeatedly as champions of the "niche", the "emerging", "new music" and "indie labels". All the exciting new marketing tools of the digital age - from video game syncs to corporate sponsorships - are framed as opportunities to smash the prevailing hegemony. And yet, when it comes to providing examples, we are faced with an array of staggeringly familiar names: U2, Blink 182, Sting, Phish ... Hark! What refreshing new sounds be these coming up from the underground? The confluence of the names of all these rock dinosaurs with Leonhard and Kusek's shiny new tools is not merely contingent or coincidental. The fact is, far from breaking the hold of the major labels, opportunities like having your song in the latest EA Sports game are only available to artists already deeply embedded in major label structures.

The authors never tire of chanting how this brave new world will increase the "diversity" of music available to the listener, and yet almost every means they chart to do so will undoubtedly have the opposite effect. They may criticize the traditional radio DJ for following playlists, but at least live radio with live human presenters offers the possibility of a maverick emerging who will bring strange and unusual acts into a sort of mainstream - John Peel being the classic example. On the other hand, expecting diversity to emerge from the algorithms in a web store like Amazon which tells you "people who bought this may also like ..." can only be folly. There is no John Peel algorithm. Such automated software will never surprise you (unless it's broken), only ever offer you the same sounds under different proper nouns.

Futurists have form on this matter. Kusek and Leonhard are not the first to mistake more stuff for enlarged real choice. Back in 1970, Alvin Toffler, in Future Shock, wrote of the "incomparably more diverse" wares to be found in the new supermarkets then fast becoming ubiquitous. Even as Toffler criticised the "architectural sameness" of the supermarkets, he boasted of their "gastronomic diversity" - and even architecturally, he was convinced that, given time, "Uniformity will give way to diversity." As the term "futurist" ceased to refer to a type of artist or political thinker and became a kind of profession in itself, from Toffler's course at The New School to net evangelists like Leonhard and nanotech prophets like Ray Kurzweil, it seems to have necessitated an almost total neglect towards precisely those disciplines in which the future was once most at home: aesthetics and politics.