Tuesday, November 07, 2006

What's the difference between the best music you've never heard and the best music you have heard? Apparently the answer to that question is not obvious, as evidenced by the recent article by Techcrunch writer, Marshall Kirkpatrick.

Quote Marshall:
"while many of us may be interested in discovering new music similar to our existing tastes - the lower production quality and lack of familiarty [sic] with independent music makes it less popular for more reasons than just limited distribution. Most “independent music” is not very good."


"I find that the sheer majority of so called “indie bands” just aren’t very good."


"On musical tastes, the new features are all about indy (sic, lol) music, which I am too often disappointed in."
The fallacy of these statements is that you can remove the word indie or indy [sic] from any of them and they are still true. Only 3% of artists reach a modicum of successful record sales and even fewer are profitable franchises. Given these statistics, the word "indie" as used by Marshall is completely empty. Even U2 was once an "indie" band that famously didn't know how to play their their instruments and couldn't get most people to listen to their music. Sir George Martin, who discovered the Beatles, recognizes that the next worldwide hit band is right now a nobody in a garage. That's why he supports GarageBand.com. Well that and he doesn't think the traditional ways of discovering music are going to be successful at finding them. Yes, Marshall, most music is "in progress", and "indie" until enough people find it to be enjoyable that it's no longer "indie".

And that's what's really at issue here, Marshall seems to prefer the erudite opinions of aspiring "music critics" at HypeMachine to any sort of analytical system of making recommendations. He disagrees with George Martin and the millions of people using Last.fm and iLike.com. He believes ultimately that music should be chosen by "experts".

If I'm I'm misconstruing his position, it is only because I am giving him the benefit of the doubt. I'm assuming that his reasons for liking HypeMachine are exclusive of characteristics shared with iLike/GarageBand. For instance, it can't be because Hype Machine reviewers write long commentary on the tracks. Otherwise how could he not at least respect the GarageBand system where reviewers are expected to leave detailed commentary on hundreds of thousands of tracks? It also can't be because he prefers recommendations from real people, since that is the primary activity on iLike as explained to him in comments by Ali.

So what's left to differentiate HypeMachine and therefore define Marshall's opinion on the big question? He likes the tastes of the bloggers at HypeMachine? No, if that was all, the smart thing for him to do would be to invite those HypeMachine bloggers to be his Friends on iLike. Then he would not only know about what they chose to write about, but he would know all their other favorite songs according to how often they actually listen to them. I mean, what is iLike if not a huge enabler of lightweight, automated mp3 blogging.

The difference of opinion arises because underlying Marshall's position is a distrust for the democratization of tastemaking. He doesn't have a problem with experts per say, but he just doesn't like the current ones (the big record labels) and would like to have some that fit more closely with his own tastes (a totally reasonable desire by the way, just not one he will be able to impose on the rest of us). This is also evident by his nod to Pandora (who use bonafide experts, Phds).

Let me return to my original question by quoting the last paragraph from Ali's comment:
"It is hard to believe that I [Ali] find myself having the long-tail debate with a blogger. Not long ago, professional journalists claimed “blogs are amateur and bad journalism,” and people like you [Marshall] proved them wrong. The same applies to music, as Internet distribution and cheaper recording tools are changing the game. The only difference with music is that systems for enabling the best indie music to rise to the top are still being refined."
I think part of the problem is that the long tail metaphor is a useful one to describe the vast majority of amateur activity on the internet, but that is not what we are talking about here. What we are talking about is aspirational activity: the effort by newcomers in a medium to use new technology to make an end run around the "oldies" and the systems set up to protect "quality" (or their hegemony depending on your perspective). Bloggers like Marshall and the bands on GarageBand aren't content with being part of the long tail. They want to launch from the long tail into what Mark Cuban recently called the "vert ramp". The want to move from being the best unknown media to being the best media, period.

If I have succeeded in teasing out the subtleties of Marshall's position, then the argument between us is really a dialectic to be resolved by history. He (and to a lesser extent Pandora) represent the conservative side: that the project of new media is to replace old experts with (more and younger) new ones. Last.fm, iLike, Ali and I represent the progressive side: that the project is to replace experts with something new and better, organic and social filters.

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