Music's Future: Dylan Vs. Ultragrrrl in the Race For the Sonosphere

I've been taking breaks from the tension of partisan political activity (and my day job in healthcare and informatics) to do more thinking about the future of the music industry. I encountered a lot of fascinating people through my last post on the topic, and have seen some of the new software apps designed to blend digital tech, the Internet, and music.

Here's what I've concluded: too much music available online. It's not in the right format, it's not being packaged correctly, and some of it can only be stolen - but those are only business problems. (True, it may take more visionary business people than the ones now in charge, but that's another issue.)

With millions of songs to download, where does a listener begin? There's too much, it's too diffuse, and there's not enough time. That's why I call it the 'sonosphere' - a vast terrain in cyberspace that's unmapped, inaccessible, and as dispersed as droplets of fog off an uncharted coastline. What we need to cross this geography is ... good navigators.

In order to harness the power of technology and the Internet to revolutionize music, that means the "killer app" of the future is ... people. Not just any people. We need the kind of people who discover great unknown artists and songs and introduce them to new generations. The kind of people who used to perform great cover songs, run pirate radio stations, or once started independent music labels.

For performers, think Dylan (again.) He's been introducing music to his audiences for forty years - everybody from Woody Guthrie to Blind Lemon Jefferson, Warren Zevon to Radiohead. (Well, maybe not Radiohead.) People know he's one of our great songwriters, but it takes Internet surfing and illegal downloading to know that - even now - he's also one of the great cover artists.

He dismantles Johnny Cash's "Train of Love" and reassembles it in novel ways. He channels Dean Martin to sing "Return to Me," and makes Lennon's "Nowhere Man" as scathing an indictment as "Positively Fourth Street."

(And I can't believe he's playing in LA this Friday, and I can't get tickets! Sigh ...)

The Beatles were a great covers band, too. Had they never written their own songs, I would owe them a lifetime's debt just for introducing me to Arthur Alexander. So were the 60's-era Stones. Each of these artists kicked down doors for blues, country, and rock artists that might otherwise have been forgotten.

Covers were arguably also the Grateful Dead's greatest strength (next to Jerry's lyrical guitar). They were likely to offer up anything from Marty Robbins to John Coltrane, Chuck Berry to the Incredible String Band. Like the "cellular automata" beloved by computer scientists - those autonomous programs that build entire ecologies almost by accident - the bands of the 60's wove a universe of music (and literature) that an entire generation could inhabit.

I still remember someone telling me in the 60's that they looked forward to new Dylan albums so that they could "find out what we'll be into next." As I wrote earlier, his radio show could be a model for new music distribution. Link the broadcasts with downloadable music, for sale at a reasonable price, and he becomes a model for the DJ/music mogul of the future: a unique sensibility, an audience that trusts his judgement, an archivist's eye for rare gems ... and a way of presenting it.

Music futurist Gerd Leohard helped create Sonific, a website which allows you to find music that resembles the music you already love. It's a smart idea, one that's also the premise behind Pandora. (Pandora's algorithms have led me to music I love, but have also generated a lot of false starts.)

Platforms like Sonific and Pandora can serve an excellent purpose, but my real question is: What about music I don't know I like yet? For that, you need a guide, a navigator - a "DJ/mogul."

The DJ/moguls of the future can blaze their way through rare music, art, and literature, following their own impulses and leaving a series of electronic transactions in their wake like a meteor trailing sparks. Listeners who are moved by a particular work can buy it then and there, and use hyperlinks and other lateral technology to discover other, related gems.

Here's how it could work: picture Dylan's show with a website or other technology that ensures he makes money off any song he sells (call each song a 'doorway'), and a smaller percentage from any sales that results from later hyperlinks (call that a 'pathway.')

So if you buy Jack Elliott via Dylan that's a 'doorway' sale. If through reading about Ramblin' Jack you discover and purchase a Jack Kerouac book, that's a 'pathway' sale.

Radio isn't the only medium of opportunity. Websites are a natural starting point - which leads me to Ultragrrrl. She's the blogger and DJ whose site became famous as a 'discovery node' for bands like the Killers and Interpol. People began to recognize that she was a trendsetter whose sensibility could be trusted for certain types of listeners.

So far, so good. But what did she do then? She got together with some business people and started ... a record label. Uh-oh. That's a step backward from the future, if you ask me (although she came up with a great name - "Stolen Transmission Records.")

Don't get me wrong - if somebody offered me money to start a record label, I'd do it too. So I'm not knocking Ultragrrrl, who seems very smart. But I think the business opportunities in music aren't in that old model.. Record labels are an artifact of the past. The question for tomorrow is: how do we harness the visionaries and tastemakers like Dylan and Ultragrrrl to create the music 'system' of the future?

Dylan's disdain for business actually puts him in a stronger position, provided that somebody comes along with the technology and vision to support him. The canny old poet/carnival barker, whose sources run to first-millennium prophecies and 19th century dreamers, is an ideal model for the business person/artist of the future.

I hope and expect that other music greats will use their influence to kick down some doors and exploit this new technology. The end result of all the transformation going on in the music industry should be to ensure that artists can become professional musicians and survive, and that audiences have a wide range of music to enjoy and purchase. Business enterprises should serve those goals.

Will it happen? As they say, stay tuned.

A Night Light