The Music Industry: Music in the Cloud

June 10, 2010

It may read like a slice of vintage techno-hippy jargon, but using the term "cloud" as a metaphor for the internet has increasingly found favour among music industries commentators.

The cloud was initially proposed by the internet's 1960s and 1970s frontiers-people, the so-called Zippies, whose proposals for the flow of all information through online networks seemed little more than a geek's pipe dream as recently as the early 1990s. Just as magazines such as Wired and Mondo 2000 sounded the clarion call that "all information must be free", so the copyright industries smirked in arrogant disbelief that the Zippies' claims could be more than bad cyber-fiction.

Today, we realise that there was a lot more fact in cyber-fiction than was acknowledged in the internet's earliest years. For the music world, of course, this acknowledgement may have been delayed somewhat by more than a touch of ostrich-like heads-in-the-sand behaviour. As a result, recent years have seen the record industry struggling to keep up with technological shifts. This year, however, is widely regarded as one in which new industry models will finally take centre stage in music's industrial processes.

In this clearly written account, Patrik Wikstrom embraces the notion of the cloud as a representation of music flowing free and readily available on demand - albeit at a price. In so doing, however, he reduces the full reach and variety of the music industries into three integrated industries (recording, publishing and live performance), which he then presents as one singular "music industry".

There is nothing unusual about this of course. In fact it is a common misconception that the music industry operates as a singular entity. Indeed, Wikstrom refers to the multitude of industries that make up the music business throughout this text, but to support his vision of the cloud, he forces an often-complex debate into a simplified form.

Not that this reductionist approach is a huge problem, as the author has effectively produced a book that is at once accessible and illuminating. Indeed, it is in Wikstrom's often oversimplified redeployment of old business models to fully explore the business implications of the cloud that this book's strengths lie. In using these methods, Wikstrom is able to convey a number of dense ideas in a way that a first-year undergraduate will easily understand.

Where this book is at its best for the postgraduate music industries scholar is on the subject of creativity as consumption. Here, Wikstrom's analysis reveals the full extent of the music consumer's active embrace of creative interactivity. His evidence is largely centred around the cases of the recording artists Nine Inch Nails and Imogen Heap, and their online projects that encouraged fans to download "parts" of their songs for remixing purposes.

It is not a marketing technique that is entirely new, or indeed unique to the internet (artists such as Moby used hard-copy CDs to deliver "parts" to fans for remix competitions in the mid-1990s), but what is interesting is that such activities raise huge questions about ownership and about concepts of the definitive finished song. Although they are not considered in this book, it is perhaps in these areas that the cloud will truly deliver its most powerful challenge to the copyright industries; a space in which creative music-making is an ongoing conversation that belongs to no one particular producer.

It is perhaps too much to expect that the slow-moving machinations of the music industries will grasp such developments in sound sharing - they have, after all, only just got to grips with the idea of streaming and file sharing - but it is a shift that is occurring today, and that needs further discussion.

The Music Industry: Music in the Cloud

By Patrik Wikstrom. Polity, 256pp, £45.00 and £14.99. ISBN 9780745643892 and 5643908. Published 15 December 2009

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