Music to my ears

Music to my ears, transformed

By Roopen Roy Jul 16 2013

Tags: Op-ed


NEW TUNES: Today’s music listeners want freedom. They want to listen to any genre of music at any time, anywhere on any device in a connected world, They share music instantly across oceans as well

A senior executive of State Bank of India once narrated to me a fascinating story. The Bank of Bengal, which later merged into the Imperial Bank of India, was then headquartered in Kolkata. The Bank employed several punkha-pullers. Their task was to manually pull fans (punkhas) to mitigate the effects of heat and humidity in the city.

In 1898, this activity ch­anged. The Calcutta Electricity Supply Company began po­wering electrical fans. In the archives of the bank, there are reports of angry agitations by punkha-pullers who became redundant due to the new wonder. The story was no different in the west. When automobile was invented, horse-drawn carriage and its ancillary businesses collapsed. The winning trick was no longer to produce a better designed horse-carriage or a cheaper buggy whip. The key to survival was: how quickly was one able to quit the moribund business and start a new one.

We have seen disruptive innovations in the imaging business. Kodak was shipwrecked in the digital storm. Bookstore companies like Borders bit the dust. It is now the turn of music. In the taxonomy of Ni­cholas Negroponte of MIT Labs, music has been transformed from “atoms” (that is, physical tangible objects) to “bits” (the smallest unit of digitised content). Once upon a time, humankind listened to music on gramophone records. We also needed a device to play music, which evolved from a gramophone to a CD player. We also required the “atom” of the physical storage unit (such as the CD) to play any music.

Today’s listeners (‘consumers of content’) want freedom. They want to listen to any genre of music at any time, anywhere on any device in a connected world. They want to share music instantly across oceans. Friends want to listen to a specific number together at the same time even if they are separated by time zones.

In this disruptive revolution, those on the side of the ‘buggy-whip’ debate are arguing that music on the web is not of high quality. Therefore, aficionados will never abandon discs. They are completely missing the point. In the early days of digital photography, there were serious quality issues in the images. The photos were grainy, the definition was poor and the range of colours left much to be desired. But all that changed over time. Today, digital images are rich and brilliant. Besides, they can be improved, modified, stored, shared, easily retrieved and, should you wish, printed. Any disruptive innovation improves beyond imagination with time.

In the case of digital content like music, compression technology will continue to improve by the day. The speed of communication will increase dramatically while the cost of dissemination will plummet. Content will be ubiquitous. Digital content will increasingly be stored in ‘clouds’. If you have bought a Tagore song at an online music store, you should be able to listen to it in Seoul or Sao Paulo on any device of your choice in your hotel room using fast connectivity.

Dramatic innovations are occurring in the ways digital content is stored and how it is distributed through multiple channels. However, the rate of change at the content creation end is less dramatic. Of course, there have been improvements in sound recording, acoustics and stage performance technologies. But you still need an exceptional solo vocalist to sing or a superb orchestra to create the captivating music of Mozart or Bach. There is no alternative, yet to an enchanting performer like Beyonce or Adele. They conjure up the magic that creates millions of ‘listening and viewing footfalls’.

The content creation ecology ought to be kept viable. To do so, the business model must fairly compensate the artists (that is, content creators) and producers. The first nettle that must be grasped with both hands is piracy that steals from artists and producers. Unless it is contained, content creation will enter a death spiral. As we find new sources of revenues from music, new models must be created to share them with stakeholders and particularly, artists. There are a number of developments happening on the channel front as well. The traditional media of CDs and DVDs will continue for some time. They will increasingly be distributed by online stores rather than high street shops. Content will continue to be sold and downloaded in digital format from online stores such as Apple, Amazon and other web-based stores.

In near future, new media companies may create stores in the ‘cloud’ dedicated to specific artists. Google, which owns YouTube, may dedicate secure channels to producers and ar­tists from which consumers can stream or download content. Recently, I came across a YouTube channel set up by an established Indian music company. It has some of their latest albums that you can stream and listen on your computer or download them on your mobile.

There are also sites where artists are placing high quality recordings for direct sales eliminating ‘middlemen’. One such site is Bandcamp, an online music store and a platform for promotion of independent ar­tists with some 6.5 million so­ngs. In 2010, Bandcamp became famous when Amanda Palmer and Bedhead gave up their record labels and started selling them at this site, along with using Twitter for promotion. Bangladeshi folksinger Anusheh Anadil has placed her album Rai on Bandcamp. You can download it for $1 or for any higher amount you may consider appropriate.

Future revenues will come in from a combination of user fees (pay per viewing or listening), subscriptions, advertisements and outright download charges (akin to online sales). Thus, one could assert that nobody can stop a technology whose time has come. What will not change, however, is the magic of music and the enchantment of a superb performance by a great artist. Mercifully, a singing robot is a few years away.

(The writer is managing director of Deloitte Consulting, India. These are his personal views)