Because the iPod and iTunes has had such a fantastic impact on the music industry, I have to wonder if another industry shaking revolution like it is possible? I’m reading The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria, where he praises the U.S. for economic innovation, so I assume for us to stay ahead of the pack we’ll have to keep inventing new tech to market. We’ve seen a lot of technological change in the last 50 years, but does that mean we’ll see constant growth in the next 50 years?
And will other emerging capitalistic markets start beating us at our own game? Zakaria claims that America is not declining but the rest of the world is rising. That means both new markets and new competitors. But will anyone anywhere create another product like the MP3 player to change the marketing of music again?
I remember the days before video recorders – where few people saw the advent of the VHS revolution coming, but once it was underway it was very easy to accept a steady stream of new tech acronyms like CD, PC and DVD. The MP3 was even more revolutionary and economically disturbing because music moved from physical objects to bits, bytes and electrons. There was no need for any of these inventions other than convenience, which shoots down that old theory about necessity being the mother of invention. We’re now into the HD and Blu-Ray upheavals.
I originally started collecting music by buying 45s and LPs. Then I had to start over with CDs. And for a short while a few years ago I had started moving to SACDs. I’m hesitant to make another move, but I’ve finally committed to the MP3 format. The question is, will I have buy my favorite songs all over again in another format in the future?
But back to my questions about iPods. Assuming that the iPhone is really an iPod merged with two other revolutionary technologies, a cell phone and a computer, is there theoretically room for a new paradigm shifting music device? If Steve Jobs sanctioned subscription music there would be a slight bump in the iPod road, but not much. People would still be listening to music with white plastic buds in their ears. Once you get rid of the physical media where is there room to invent? Sure, we could talk science fiction and imagine ESP delivered music, but we have to stay somewhat realistic.
Maybe I’m not imaginative enough, but no matter how much I rack my brains I can’t imagine a new gadget for music. I can imagine variations on the current iPod, lots of them in fact, but they’re all just improvements: larger hard drive, larger flash memory, better sounding headphones, tiny built-in Hi-Fi speakers, SACD quality files, better filing systems, but nothing that offers drastic change. I feel the same about personal computers and televisions. Once you go beyond the physical medium of DVDs like DVRs, improvements are more of a matter of storage space and video quality.
Gadget junkies are going to need to look elsewhere for big society-changing technology. Before long I think the geekiest of geeks will be buying home solar power generators. If you can generate a significant portion of your own power, getting into a plug-in hybrid cars is the next gizmo that’s going to change society. Now those two technologies are going to be huge game changers. It will be like the iPod – you won’t need to buy that much gas to run your car – or at least not much compared to how things are now, and the secondary fuel may not even be gasoline. See the trend – away from the physical. Think 1950s movie science fiction where all the aliens did everything with glowing balls.
Mechanical evolution is moving towards fewer moving parts (hard drive to flash drive) and away from the physical (CD to MP3). Electric cars have a lot fewer moving parts, and fewer parts in general. Solar energy panels, LCD TVs, iPhones don’ have any moving parts. If computers move to flash memory storage and became completely net oriented, they could even jettison the optical drive, and the only moving parts would be in the keyboard.
There’s a chance that Blu-Ray won’t even catch on because we’ve already gone beyond the physical with online movies and DVRs. I would buy a Blu-Ray player now if it was $99.95 and get discs from Netflix, but if they don’t bring down the price soon they will have competing products that distribute HD video over the web, or cable companies will figure out a way to distribute HD programs on demand. Cable companies are already teamed up with Rhapsody and other subscription music services to provide songs on demand.
My guess is the end is near for revolutionary gadgets for music, movies, television, audio books, e-books and other media that can be digitized. What we will see is refinement in software. Putting a cell phone, GPS, camera, computer into an iPod styled package isn’t revolutionary, just evolutionary. What makes the new iPhone 3G so exciting is the software. Now that the iPhone is opened up to developers it becomes very promising for endless speculation of what it could be, but it’s still the same old gadget. That’s why Google saw the Android phone as such a big deal – open development – build it and they will come.
If a person could ask his iPod to play the ten most played songs on iPods in America during the last 24 hours, that would effect the music industry. If she could ask for the top iPod songs from Russia, India or Dubai, that could have a new kind of impact too. Or if you’re on a road trip and could ask your iPod to play the most popular songs of the towns you are passing, that would be another interesting variation. The Zune song sharing feature is very cool and Apple and others should copy it.
All those features effect the distribution of music, making music more global and making it more social. Sheet music was the technology for spreading music in the early days. The first gadget to change the world of music was the phonograph. Then came the radio, creating the mass audience. To understand the impact of radio watch Ken Burn’s Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio, which you can buy from Amazon or rent from Netflix, but if you want even more details, track down the out-of-print book by the same title written by Tom Lewis. The phonograph went through many refinements including the CD, but ultimately, the ethereal MP3 player replaced it.
At first the MP3 file technology, combined with technology to play the file set music free. Bad for the industry. The goal of the music industry is to sell music as widely as possible. Illegally free MP3 music has a wide distribution, but it’s not necessarily the best way to promote music. Kid’s pretty much stole what they already liked. Radio has always been the best medium to educate people about new music, and it’s always been free too, because it came with programming and promotion.
What will be the next big revolution in the music industry won’t be a gadget but software. The networked computer part of the iPhone and iPod Touch has the ability to promote music in ways never possible before. Whether you buy songs 99 cents at a time, or subscribe to them at $15 a month, getting you to commit ear time to a song is the dream of all musical artists. People have complained about the stale rotation of Top 40 music for decades, but with a world of hundreds of countries and thousands of cultures, and all their musical history, there’s a lot of music to discover and play.
Let’s say you want to get into music history, wouldn’t it be fun to tell your iPod to start with 1950 and begin playing the Top 100 Hits of that year and move forward in time, and then use your click wheel to rate the songs. Or buy a future edition of “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music” from the Teaching Company and have it play full pieces while it instructs you about the history of music? Or buy a special edition of Richie Unterberger‘s history of folk rock and whenever you hear the narrative mention a song, it pauses to play the song.
Just remember, it’s not about the iPod stupid, it’s about music. What we want is great music. What we want is for as many composers, performers, producers and publishers to become wealthy or at least make a good living as possible. We want music to stimulate the economy. We want it to be a driving force in culture and art. Every decade needs their own Beatles, Springsteen, Madonna and Prince. Modern pop music is produced like candy and not art. It needs more new waves like Rap and Hip-Hop before they got tired like rock, jazz and country.
I’m willing to call it quits with the development of MP3 music technology. I don’t need any more convenience. What I miss is the excitement I got from music back in the 1960s when I was growing up. What I love is discovering a new song that I’ll play over and over again for two weeks. It’s been a long time since I’ve found such a song. Susie and I are watching The Beatles Anthology, an eight part DVD documentary and it’s riveting. I don’t need or want a new generation of iPods, what I want is the new Beatles.
2 thoughts on “Beyond the iPod”
“Maybe I’m not imaginative enough, but no matter how much I rack my brains I can’t imagine a new gadget for music.”
Neither can I… but I didn’t imagine the ipod, either, and if someone in 1945 had told me that the monstrous room-filling calculating machines that were being built were the forefathers of a major music storage format that people carried in their pockets- and one of the county’s most popular forms of home entertainment, and a way for people to find porn or get in arguments with other people on the opposite end of the planet- I would have thought he was completely insane.
The vast majority of people, including me, have no material incentive to make any major effort to figure out things like that. But there are thousands of minds- inventors, engineers, investors- who do. Now, it’s entirely possible that ipod-style technologies are the end of the line, either forever or at least within our lifetimes. Such things happen- decades of automobile development have resulted in basically the same thing with more power, better safety features, and fancier gewgaws. But technological advance is not totally predictable, and the information-producing capacity of the market process is vastly beyond that of even the greatest conscious mind. There’s very little any of us can do to predict what people will and won’t come up with.
John, I agree with you completely. It’s impossible to know the future, but it is fun to try and guess. And generally when someone predicts something won’t happen it’s more likely to happen then when someone predict something will happen. The future is ornery like that. I know when I do something like that I’m begging for trouble, like I am here. But I still like to speculate, even on the negative.
Right now I can’t imagine the music industry ever selling music again on a physical media and it catching on as a mass commercial way. However, let’s get wild here. What if they could invent a gadget that projected an image of the band that was as real as visiting them in a live studio or seeing them in a club? Let’s say such an experience can be recorded on a cube with 50 terabytes of information, and you could buy a player for $500 and each cube would cost $50, like in the range of a video game system. I think such an invention would catch on.
Neil Young is making a complete retrospective of his career on Blu-Ray – that kind of thing could certainly catch on. I’ve seen bits of it and it’s extremely multimedia. I want a copy, which means I need to buy a Blu-Ray player or a Playstation 3.
But for just consuming songs the MP3 player will probably be the medium for quite awhile.