Producing and Consuming Transmedia Music: Perspectives on the Future of Electronic Music in the YouTube Economy
While the details of exactly how are debatable, it is uncontroversial that 1) mainstream adoption of web as the backbone of daily life, 2) the digitalization of information goods such as books, movies, and in the context of this paper – specifically music – and 3) the related economic issues, are affecting the cultural consumption of both the Internet-using and non-Internet-using populations around the world.
As of May 31, there are 2.1 billion people online out of Earth’s overall 7 billion habitants (Internet World Stats, 2011) and while precise statistics for actual usage patterns in terms of % of Internet population who are consumers of digital music don’t yet exist, the worth global worth of digital music markets are estimated at 4,6 billion US dollars (IFPI Digital Music Report 2011) without taking into account music that was not paid for. The following paper discusses how the web influences the production and consumption of digital music through increasing transmediation of music and the rise of the amateur music creator.
Transmedia: The Aesthetics of Immersion
Owning to the increasing convergence of art with technology, musical artists have a larger array of digital tools to express their ideas over a variety of media platforms. These ideas may belong to the same story-universe, extending the aesthetic of the artist to new audiences — in which case the artist is engaging in transmedia storytelling. Examples of musicians extending from only making music across other media abound and musicians of diverse style and content create content that goes beyond their traditional art.
In 2008 the Flaming Lips, an alternative rock band crossed media boundaries and released a full feature movie titled Christmas on Mars, funded by the band’s record producer Warner Brothers and directed by the bandleader Wayne Coyne (IMDB). While the movie was a commercial failure, fans appreciated it and this single act extended the band’s music into the annals of transmedia history, as directing a feature was something bands normally don’t do, save many a musician who starred in movie roles as an actor. A researcher of transmedia storytelling, Michael Monello finds their creativity incredibly inspiring, explaining in the Culture Hacks podcast how the band imagines everything they do “as part of the Flaming Lips world”.
In October 2010 another musician, the hip-hop megastar Kanye West released a half-an-hour short film that extended the concept of a music video in length (a common music video is 10 times shorter) and again extended the role of the musician, as West – in addition to singing – was also the director of the film.
One month later, the hip-hop heavy-weight Jay-Z created an alternative reality game for his autobiography Decoded, a book that allowed fans “literally decode the lyrics of 11 studio albums to unlock details about Jay-Z’s personal history and life” (Hartman) where each page of his book were spread over diverse locations in metro cities such as New York and London. The locations were creative, such as the bottom of a pool or the insides of Gucci jacket in a store window. Each location was inspired by the content of that particular page and people could go out and hunt for them in sequence based on clues released online, learning about Jay-Z’s connection to that location in the process. Fans could literally “walk through Jay-Z’s life where it happened” leading to millions of impressions of pop culture coverage (droga5, 2011).
Justin Bieber’s video Baby with 430 million views became the most watched music video in YouTube history early 2011 (IFPI Digital Music Report 2011). Only 3 months later, in May 2011, Lady GaGa whose character holds a gripping presence across both online and offline platforms “was the first artist to reach 1 billion views on YouTube” (Hernandez, 2011). Lady GaGa is the Star Wars of music in the sense of being among the first who’s aesthetic of a baroque character plus perceived authenticity is so unique that it travels across platforms. She is able to “construct an emphatic relation with her fans” (Vellar, 2010). Lady Gaga’s presence has risen to such levels that she dwarfs popular world leaders like the US president Barack Obama by follow count on social networks.
Audience numbers aside, artists create transmedia extensions that also add intrinsic value to their art. In October 2011 Björk released her album Biophilia – a work of concept art – which in addition to music inspires to learn about biology, physics, astronomy and science in general through a series of musical mobile applications for the iPad. Her tour incorporates “educational lectures and nature footage and a publicity campaign that included [...] National Geographic and the scientific journal Nature Medicine” (Mitchum, 2011). Another raising example is Nicki Minaj with her multiple characters however she’s very new so the question is staying power, without mentioning whether she is using multiple platforms for her story but the potential for her characters is there.
A contemporary band doesn’t necessarily have actual singing members; it can be a virtual band, such as Mistula in the Philippines, whose fictional characters write their own music and keep a blog (Sterritt, 2011). One doesn’t have to know how to play an instrument or how to sing but can be in the role of the world-creator and the character-designer. With the aid of the computer one can find a way be a rockstar and look great doing it.
One of the most successful bands to have emerged in the early stages of such development was Gorillaz; a band that didn’t have physical members shown to the audience at all but rather was a “four-piece animated band [that] was created by former Blur front man Damon Albarn and Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett […] They have sold tens of millions of albums, and currently hold the Guinness Record for Most Successful Virtual Band” (Sterritt, 2011).
When creativity is allowed additional freedoms traditional formats start to break down. The web is essentially form free; traditional forms such as a music television shows or a music videos do not necessarily apply. Experience is the design paradigm. An artist no longer creates a piece of music or expresses one emotion but rather creates an entire world. What matters is if the content produced by the artist is something that each member of the audience personally wants to see and whether it gets to a particular person through one of the channels they use throughout the day. What is exciting about the emergence of transmedia storyworlds in music for someone who is not an established international star but just starting out is how one can “just start creating things on a small scale and start building an audience for your world” (Monello, 2011).
Amateurism: The Rise of Everyone
It is not only established artists backed by media conglomerates and with transmedia budgets that are looking for ways to extend across media. Consumers want to learn to produce music too; and many are already doing it – the rise of the amateur culture in the literal sense of the word is a large, notable trend. Amateurs as people who do something for the love of it create music for their own enjoyment and share it online with an audience of friends and followers. While some these amateurs would like to be world famous, the economics of digital music mean that someone with a few thousand fans but no actual buyers or subscribers needs to have an alternative revenue source to survive – such as a paying day job.
Kusek and Gerd propose the “music like water” model, where content is paid for by a single monthly subscription and individual use of each media is without the friction of payment (Kusek & Leonhard, 2009). If music is going to be everywhere and all the time, then the process of paying for something as small as one song each time you want a new song is an enormous waste of time. More money will still be made in live events because it feels real and that authenticity is what people are willing to pay for. One does not pass by the nightclub bouncer with the same feeling on ease that one downloads a piece of music. There are far-reaching question of whether “access will replace ownership […] if you can hear whatever you like, whenever you want to hear it” (Kusek & Leonhard, 2009) and perhaps “[a]ccess is better than ownership” and this makes intellectual property obsolete. (Bertini, 2011) .
Online collaboration greatly facilitates producing music. Music files are relatively small and one project may be perhaps a few gigabytes including all source materials. This makes music easier to collaborate on than, for example, a movie project that consists of hundreds of hours of high-resolution footage weighing in terabytes in source data. Cloud-based filesharing such as Dropbox, Box.net, SugarSync, Amazon and many others allow for storage and synchronization of projects files and the changes each collaborator makes. Electronic music can be produced on an inexpensive laptop computer without expensive musical instruments. People with an entry level Internet connection can collaborate on making a project and share the task of specific part in the digital music, such as beat-making, vocalism or mastering.
The sum of human knowledge on the topic of making music is accessible on YouTube and other parts of the web. The work of the best musicians is free to watch and large numbers of potential collaborators are accessible for creating one’s own music through networks like SoundCloud. An aspiring digital music producer may learn by imitation from the YouTube channel of someone in Canada, Switzerland, the UK or Japan. As long as they share a common language, there’s a way to share experience.
Consumer content distribution happens on the same channels as content distribution by established producers. There’s no difference on the platform: both commercial and non-commercial content are available on YouTube and on SoundCloud. The crucial factor is the quality and personality of one’s work. One needs to be better and different than the millions of others trying to be a musician on the same networks. A German digital musician who went back to producing a cassette, when everything is digital and put together a collaboration with a string quartet of classical musicians to stand out from the “50.000” other digital musicians in Berlin, says “Unique” is the most valuable word in a “crowded environment” (Goldmann, 2011).
One’s career in music is more in one’s hands than in the previous decades. A musician is one’s marketer looking for audiences online. Audience may be negligible for someone who fails to appeal to a specific demographic. But good (in the sense of relevant to a specific audience) content gets discovered. A short timeframe is important because for something to become viral it has to rise to TOP10 lists on YouTube and become a news story on pop culture blogs. If one’s music can achieve this, it may be featured on the front page of YouTube raising the viewer count even further.
In rare cases an audience of millions may appear overnight if the content should spread rapidly enough (2 days in the case of YouTube and Facebook) and become a viral hit on social networks. With the popularity of books like “Your Band is a Virus” a global market seems to be in reach. While only a few succeed, the perceived ease of starting and the stories of success are an incentive hard to ignore. A rare success like the story of Justin Bieber who’s video became so popular on YouTube that a producer had to sign him to a label inspire new musician to try their luck, skills and their talent.
Musicians from poorer areas of the world, such as African countries join in with increased access to Internet due to the process of installing new backbone cables connecting both East-Africa and West Africa with fast Internet. This allows for new sources of inspiration and interesting acts of remix. For example, the music and dance of Kuduro in Angola was created as a remix response to Jean Claude Van Damme dancing in an action film video and was mixed on a laptop by Tony Amado into a music style that took over the Portuguese-speaking world (Antonio, 2007). At the other end of the same phenomenon, established artists like Beyoncé remix dance they’ve seen on YouTube as in her video Run The World (Girls) with a group of Tofo Tofo dancers (Leila, 2011).
More music is being consumed every year and this is probably a rising trend (IFPI Digital Music Report 2011, 2011). With the rise of the web – and increasingly mobile devices – people are going to consume more music than before. The audience around the world who has access to Internet will raise and so will the global consumption.
As movies, music, books, media converge into experiences, new ways of consumption emerge. Music is being consumed at the movies (Flaming Lips, Kanye West); music is becoming a game (Jay-Z); music is released as a series of apps (Björk), music is becoming a virtual reality (Gorillaz), etcetera, and etcetera. Pop culture phenomena extended across media is looking for an audience because in the 16 hours of attention economy of a person’s day the biggest question is whether one has the time to consume your content; every entertainment property is competing with another and to stand out one must be unique and offer something new and exciting. The floodgates are open and success is up to the musical creativity and marketing ingenuity of the artist to build a following.