Not something that happens
But the way something happens
-- Charles Ives,
Essays Before a Sonata

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Frank Zappa's prophetic imagination for the music business

I was reading through The Real Frank Zappa Book, as told to Peter Ochiogrosso, and came across a remarkable document, "A Proposal for a System to Replace Ordinary Record Merchandising." In this prescient 1983 essay, Zappa foresees many of the transformations that have rocked the music industry since the opening of the original Napster in 1999.

"... think what is being wasted in terms of GREAT CATALOG ITEMS, squeezed out of the market place because of limited rack space in retail outlets, and the insatiable desire of quota-conscious company reps to fill every available niche with THIS WEEK'S NEW RELEASES."


Zappa would have loved Amazon.com and the other Internet-era merchants based on providing the "long tail": multitudes of niche products rather than a few blockbusters aimed at a mass audience. Yet the Internet is a technology entirely absent from Zappa's 1983 vision. He imagines that sound recordings will be transmitted by telephone or cable TV (an emerging technology in 1983) rather than through a dedicated data network. When he talks of album art and other details being transmitted to a TV screen while the music loads, he sounds almost as if he is describing digital cable channels such as Music Choice (which are not an ideal medium for encountering Zappa's music).

Another major technological advance Zappa does not foresee is the encoding of digital music in compressed formats such as mp3. In 1983, research for such compression schemes was still in its infancy. Transferring digital music as uncompressed data, using the analog modems available in 1983, would have taken an eternity. I remember dialing into BBS systems with a 300-baud modem connected to a Commodore 64, and plain text scrolled across the screen at about my reading speed. There were faster modems then, but nothing even close to the broadband connections we enjoy today.

Finally, it's fascinating to note that Zappa's vision for the music industry of the future looks more like Rhapsody than iTunes:

"We propose to acquire the rights to digitally duplicate and store THE BEST of every record company's difficult-to-move Quality Catalog Items [Q.C.I.], store them in a central processing location, and have them accessible by phone or cable TV, directly patchable into the user's home taping appliances ... The consumer has the option of subscribing to one or more Interest Categories, charged at a monthly rate, without regard for the quantity of music he or she decides to tape."

Rhapsody, unfortunately, has struggled to reach a market share of 7%. Something in the psychology of music consumption still leads most people to buy a single-purpose music hardware device (iPod, etc.), then to "buy" songs or albums one by one. (I put "buy" in quotation marks because in many cases, the transaction is more like a "lease" that only allows you to do certain things with the audio file.) The idea of music as a subscription accessible from any device (computer, mobile phone, TV) has not caught on as much. Even Rhapsody seems to be moving away from this business model and is now offering mp3 downloads.

Isn't it ironic that today, Zappa's music is hard to find at the online music retailers? Currently Rhapsody lists only 31 tracks composed by Zappa, and none of them in his original performances. iTunes has more than it used to, but still only a fraction of his releases. Is it merely nostalgia that leads the rights holders for the catalogs of the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Frank Zappa to resist offering this music digitally, forcing one to consume the music through older technologies such as the CD or LP?

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