Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Spotify

A while ago I wrote about the future of rock and roll. The future, in my view, was that that rather than being bought, music would either be swapped for data (email addresses), or would be provided through an on-demand streaming service where listeners stream tracks for free so long as they listen to ads.

The 'music for data' half of that future arrived a while ago, with Radiohead's 'honesty box' release, In Rainbows; the second half has now arrived too, with the release of Spotify.

Spotify is a program which, once installed on your computer, allows you to legally stream pretty much any song you want (using an iTunes-style interface). But every three songs or so, you have to listen to an advert before you can play another track. Alternatively, you can pay £9.99 a month to listen to as much ad-free music as you like (about the cost of a newly-released chart cd).

Spotify represents a revolution in how we consume music - and if this way of listening to music becomes the norm (which I'm pretty confident it will), the implications for the music industry are enormous. There are three areas which I think will be particularly affected.

First, I've got a feeling that Spotify will slowly spell the end of the line for iTunes and other digital download services. Ok, so you can't currently download anything from Spotify on to an MP3 player - you have to play tracks through a computer that's connected to the internet. But that scenario is likely to change quite quickly, thanks to mobile broadband connections. If people can start streaming music from the internet onto their mobile phones using Spotify and 3G connections, then the need for MP3s becomes redundant (indeed, a Spotify application for the iPhone is already being discussed).

The second big impact is going to be on radio stations that primarily broadcast music. If a mobile phone version of Spotify comes along, you can pretty much take any music with you, anywhere. I'd be amazed if this didn't have an impact on the likes of Radio 1 and Radio 2. They might have to change their content somewhat to attract new listeners - I can imagine a lot more chat or documentaries about particular artists becoming a part of their schedules, to compensate for the fact that people are getting their music on the go elsewhere.

Finally, it's going to impact artists. If Spotify or a similar service becomes the de facto way to listen to music, then the whole idea of physical album sales is finally dead. Musicians will generate income from each play on Spotify - the PRS will make sure of that - but I doubt it will be as much as the income that physical cds used to bring in. Also, if the number of people who listen to radio stations falls, then so will royalties, so it will be hard for us rock and rollers to make money that way too.

Ultimately what all this spells for artists is that in future, the real money is going to be in gigging. Instead of record deals, we'll be looking for promoters to put us on a tour - in fact, I think the record companies are slowly morphing into promoters.

That's because a live performance by your favourite band in a real venue is one thing that the internet can't yet provide...but watch this space.


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Monday, 6 April 2009

The 3-D internet

There's been a lot of talk about Google Streetview of late (the UK version of which launched recently). Most of it has been about privacy issues. The press focussed on the fact that people were likely to get caught out (or perhaps burgled) as a result of that black car with the Googlecam on top doing the rounds. Love affairs blown. Joints cased. Dudes walking into sex shops in Soho being highly embarrassed.

Well, perhaps that may be so. But the real story is far more interesting.

What Streetview does is give us a hint of the way that the internet is going: 3-D. With Streetview, you can walk down a street, take a left turn, swing around, cross the road, have a look at something that catches your eye - all rendered beautifully. It's extraordinary.

If I may be so bold as to make a prediction, I reckon what will happen next is that certain businesses will allow users to 'go into' buildings - to click on them and be taken inside. At the moment, using Streetview, you can just 'stand' outside say, WH Smiths at Kings Cross. But in time I reckon you'll be able to click on it, go in, stroll down an aisle and order some books. Or click on a Domino's Pizza, have a bit of a stroll around and order, well, a pizza. Go into a HMV and buy a record. Walk sheepishly into the aforementioned shop in Soho and order something for the weekend. Or perhaps you might do something slightly more cultural and explore the exhibits of the Tate Modern - yes, you might one day be able to look at a urinal and a pile of bricks in an entirely new way altogether, and from the comfort of your own home.

If this comes to pass, we're going to be looking at a 3-D internet, where sites are no longer flat pages but virtual places to be explored (and most likely, shopped in). In fact, some of this has already been happening to a degree: the Second Life community is a 3-D online world which can be explored in the manner I'm describing. And people spend millions in its virtual shops. But so far, its userbase is still only a small percentage of internet users.

A more 'general' shift to 3-D seems like the logical next step for the net - where the 3-D, virtual world becomes the default browsing experience. Websites are still, generally speaking, flat pages with text and images on them, but the creation of Streetview gives us a glimpse of an internet which is really more of a virtual world; where websites could be housed within virtual buildings; where a chatroom is a virtual bar.

And technology being what it is, all this could get very sophisticated, and fast. Virtual reality isn't just about a visual experience; there are a host of devices - from headphones to helmets to 'wired' gloves - which all serve to make the virtual experience more physical. If the internet goes 3-D, computers get very fast, and physical devices are made available that let everybody 'touch' the virtual world, we are suddenly in the realm of science fiction: the holodeck from Star Trek's Next Generation.

Captain Picard aside, in the not too distant future, the internet could well morph into a virtual world that is indistinguishable from our own. It sounds far fetched, but so did the motor car, electricity and a mouse that grew a human ear on its back.

So bizarrely Google Streetview raises an existential question. If the internet goes down this route, it will become a man-made universe, perhaps one day turning into a digital dimension running in parallel to - and feeling just as 'real' as - our own. This points to the obvious: is 'real' life actually just a digital, virtual experience? After all, pretty much all life in our 'real' universe works like a computer program, built by a set of coded instructions in our DNA. And (okay, paraphrasing a bit here) physics is basically all about electricity and numbers - just like the internet.

Damn, it's The Matrix. A Keanu Reeves film explaining the meaning of life. What an annoying conclusion to have to come to. But believe me, not as weird as you might think.


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