Domestic Recording Companies (*)

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
17 April, 2018
Editorial: 193
Fecha de publicación original: 14 diciembre, 1999

What the eye doesn’t see the heart doesn’t dream of

The Internet is about to take a giant step out of the physical networks that contain it at present to make its presence felt in the real world. I don’t just mean those big billboards advertising portals or Internet addresses. No, this is something much more personal and significant. The appearance of a wide variety of devices capable of breaking up Internet content into fragments, personalising it and putting it in our pockets will lead to many different types of the Net and the opening up of new environments for internauts to interact amongst themselves as well as with masses of people not yet connected. Next year, this new form of the Internet will be very evident as another expression of its capacity for reinventing itself through user innovation and creativity.

This “release” of the Internet from its natural confines is happening at both extremes of an imaginary landscape. On the one hand, there are (what some would put at the top, but in fact are really at the top, the bottom, below the bottom and all over the place), the owners (possibly feudal landlords as Javier Echeverría calls them) of the infrastructure, the cables, satellites, computers, programmes, cell phones, electronic notebooks, PDA, digital file recorders and all sorts of other devices able to transmit and store digital information. In a word, the owners of all connectable apparatus in all the most varied forms that technological evolution could imagine. On the other (some would say at the bottom, although in fact they are scattered all over intangible Net space) there are those continuously inventing quicker and easier ways of using all these digital things.

On both sides –I was going to say extremes — an explosion of innovation, creativity and inventiveness is occurring. However, there is a substantial difference between them. “Landlords” are party to the logic of the real world, calculating their power over things according to the laws of economics. Users, without even thinking (and this is one of the most underrated and important aspects of the Internet), are determined to subvert that order by applying a virtual logic which relentlessly exercises its power over bits. While the former offer more and more powerful and versatile ways of accessing information from anywhere and under any circumstances –cell phones and PDA are perhaps their best visiting cards at present –, the latter discover new areas for content generation which reorientate the development of the Net over and over again. Two fields in particular, music and publishing, are turning this century’s best known and most culturally significant industries on their heads. In both cases, the driving force behind this turn of events is the domestic environment.

We all know that behind every band, every singer, every musical, there is a record company. A company that as this market has grown, has needed more investment and a certain size to ensure its product reaches the ears of consumers. We all know as well that, to a large extent, what we listen to is what they want us to listen to, what their “experts” choose “bearing the market in mind”. And if the market — that is you or I, our neighbours or the discotheque on the corner–want to hear other music (if we are capable of imagining or creating it), there is very little we can do about it given the phenomenal costs of successfully launching a record.

The perversion of this system has manifest itself, in a subtle way, over the last few years with the progressive discovery of “world music” totally unknown to the music market before (except for the countries where it was produced). We have become acquainted with it thanks to the labour (and here it is best not to add any adjectives) of a few rich musicians and big record companies. The most recent and familiar example of this is the phenomenal group of Cuban musician and singers, many of them in their nineties, who have suddenly been “discovered” and had hit records (despite the fact that they have been performing since they were 14 or 15 years old) thanks to internationally acclaimed musician Ry Cooder backed by a powerful record company. Without both of them, the world would never have heard of Ibrahim Ferrer or Compay Segundo, least of all the Buena Vista Social Club.

And that’s where we were when the MP3 (*) appeared on the scene. a device which turns music into little files which move through the Net like cockroaches: there isn’t a corner or fold they don’t get into. In the beginning record companies saw the danger of piracy and tried in vain to stop the unstoppable. In the past, they managed to wipe out the DAT, Sony’s digital recording system, and various recordable CDs. But these were battles amongst giants, amongst companies of the same of calibre. Now the battle is not amongst equals. There is no political solution because there are no interlocutors. Or, to be more precise, there are millions of them which makes coming to an agreement much more difficult. Despite the fact that big record companies have now formed new super-powerful multimedia groups whose ambition — according to experts– is to gobble up everything in their path and spread their tentacles far and wide leaving nothing for us poor pedestrians (see editorial “The Big Crush”), they have already lost their first battle against internauts and are bound to lose many more.

As if this were not enough, devices to load and play digital music file are already on supermarket shelves. The size of a pack of cigarettes, they can directly download two hours of music from Internet. They still cost a lot (around 200 US dollars). Before next June, they should cost half that. And by next Christmas, the last year of the century, they will probably be given away free when you buy a pair of shoes or sign a mortgage. And that’s not counting the ubiquitous property of everything digital, which will bring music to any connectable apparatus. In fact, there are already cell phones able to download two hours of music files from the Internet and play it in stereo for 11 hours, which is what their batteries last. That’s the way things stand at the moment. Now, let’s take a deep breath. The vast majority of MP3 files circulating on the Net are for pre-recorded music, already published and well-known. How long will it be before the local band , the frustrated singer that the record companies never gave a chance, the guys who play at all the parties, etc., begin to distribute their music in MP3 on the Net? They don’t need a big “mise en scene”, nor more promotion than “word of mouth on the Net” (e-mail), nor the undignified battle to get three minutes playtime on any commercial radio station. In addition technical investment for the recording is minimal and the exposure, in one go, is global. The framework for a new business is already in place waiting for new entrepreneurs, new content suppliers (the musicians) and a public who, until they are given the chance to listen, don’t know exactly what they want. The scene is set to make the life of recording companies, who have spent thousands of millions over the last few years for the control of vast musical catalogues in order to conquer crucial areas of the leisure industry, very exciting indeed. They never imagined that their competition would come from “domestic recording companies”.

Something similar seems to be happening in the world of publishing. The key to Amazon’s success was winning the battle for the Net against giants such as Barnes and Noble on their own terrain: the distribution of books. But, we, the consumers, remain subjected to the criteria of publishers, large and small. In short, the investment and the minimum size of a company required to be able to put a book on the market and promote it. Our books, those written by internauts themselves, have still not appeared on the Internet, or are still unusual, especially because it is difficult to get them out of the Net. The “landlords” of the printing industry have yet to really recognise this market no matter how much they talk about books on demand and so on. And, of course, printing more than a hundred pages is not within everyone’s reach. What is needed is a device similar to the MP3 which can download a book from the Net to be consumed as though it were printed and then reloaded over as many times as we like. The best device so far for this is the Rocket-ebook (***), though undoubtedly there will be others which, like in the case of the music files, will start dealing in well-known books until the leap into “domestic publishing” is taken.

In both cases, music and books, which look all set to become the launching pads for a flood of other trends in different ways of distributing information, education, political debates, citizen guides, video games, etc., the explosive combination begins in the Net and makes its way out into the world beyond, attached to a person, in the following steps:

• Files –musical, text or multimedia — simply shared on the Net.
• Rapid downloading on a device as simple as a walkman.
• Reloading the player as often as you like
• Libraries, discotheques or “multi-theques” filled with protected, licensed or own material.

Thousands of musicians and writers must feel very happy (I don’t know about the rest) that the “great work” they have had in that drawer so long and have been tempted to condemn to eternal fires so often because the publishers they dealt with just didn’t understand it, can now be fed into the computer. As in chess, where you can always find rivals to beat, though they may still be infants, you can also find someone who will like your music or novel. And no-one will be able to rob you of the pleasure of allowing the public to judge for themselves, something you were always denied unless you entered into the wild obstacle race of “getting to the top”. Now there is no top or bottom, simply the Net. And, who knows, perhaps you can even make money from it. And, if not, you can at least become your own record company or publisher and discover new talent whose work we will be prepared to pay for. This is not a prediction: it is already happening.

(*) This text is an extended version of the talk I gave on the 13/12/99 at the get-together organised by Alfons Cornella at ESADE titled “What will happen to the Internet in the year…2000”. “Extra-net” Message 473.

(**) Links to MP3: Everything related to MP3
Own music sales
Another MP3 music shop
Diamond multimedia has created the Rio reader
MP3 y CD reader
Samsung’s Yepp recorder
The Jazpiper
Thomson’s Lyra
A market of MP3 music in Spanish

(***) Thanks to José Antonio Millán, who has an interesting collection of links on the e-book:
To start with, the JAM page about the e-book
Debate on piracy with talk by digital editor Héctor Piccoli.
Printing on request.
Bibliographic novelties: “La propiedad intelectual en la era del acceso universal” (“Intellectual Property in the Age of Universal Access”) and “El futuro de la narrativa en el ciberespacio” (“The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace”

Translatin: Bridget King