Photo by “lapolab”

I’ve been talking about this a lot recently, and it seemed appropriate to try and capture my thoughts about it here in blog form while it’s still pretty fresh.

Most of the ideas aren’t mine, but like all academics, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants in order to see a little further. The particular giant carrying most of the weight in this instance is Marshall McLuhan.

The central premise of this is that media are environments. That is, we don’t consume media – we inhabit them. That sounds a little needlessly obtuse, but it’s really quite simple: throughout history, we have lived in a world saturated by one media form or another, and that changes over time. And by ‘media form’ I mean ‘the main way in which we take in our information’.

Our brains get information about the world through our senses. Our senses are connected to whatever the main media happen to be at the time. And when those media change, we change. And like a frog slowly boiling, we generally don’t realise it’s happening to us while it’s happening.

The five ages
We have been through five main ages of media, each with its own unique characteristics. As we move from one age to another, the media environment alters, and the organism of our brain has to adapt to its new environment. It evolves. Not metaphorically – it actually changes. Our wiring is different in response to the different technological context we find ourselves in.

This isn’t complex, but it is important – in particular when it comes to everything I have to say about music and the internet… but also in general. It affects culture, society, law, politics, art, commerce and our own fragile psychologies.

I’ll take you through it.

1) The Oral Age

Photo by focus2capture

Human beings are hardwired for narrative. Always have been. As soon as we figured out how to make words, we’ve been telling each other stories – and some of our most compelling and enduring myths come to us from the Oral age.

The medium was speech. It was the campfire storytale. The oratory of Homer. The story was present before us, and we could interrogate it as it played out.

And in the oral age, the main way in which music happened was communally. As part of celebration or mourning, gathering or ritual. In this context, music’s an extension of speech. In many oral societies, there are actually no musicians, because music is just something everyone does. It’s not a profession.

Now, that’s not universally true for all cultures, of course, and over time, there are some oral cultures that turn music-making into something else. They are the troubadours and buskers. They show up and they entertain with songs and stories from their travels – and they are rewarded for their craft.

The oral age pretty much starts at the dawn of human civilisation, and unless you want to make the case for a gestural age before it (grunting and pointing to communicate), it marks the first media age. The first period through which human beings had a means by which they tended to communicate, and take in information and form an understanding of the world in which they lived.

The Oral Age lasted, to make it a crudely round figure, about 10,000 years.

2) The Scribal Age

Photo by Muffet

And then we invent writing. Writing’s great. We can now take those stories, and we can preserve them. No longer do they have to be passed down from generation to generation by painstaking repetition and rote learning. Now they can be captured in a permanent form and recalled at will – brought back to life from the page.

Writing was more complicated than mere speech though. For a start, it required the skill of literacy, and that wasn’t evenly distributed for the most part. Besides, there were very few texts.

In order for a copy of a text to be made, what would ordinarily happen is that some scribes and monks from my monastery would come and visit your monastery in a different part of the world. It would take them months to travel there, they would copy a book by hand – character by character, line by line – and then they’d make the journey back to my monastery where it would sit in my library, where only my monks were allowed to read it. And only the important ones at that.

Sadly, when texts are so precious and rare, sometimes great calamities can befall them. Like the fire that wiped out the Alexandrian Library, taking hundreds of thousands of irreplaceable scrolls containing a large chunk of all recorded human knowledge with it.

But writing allowed for stories to be captured, studied and repeated faithfully in one telling to the next. The guy with the literacy could stand up the front and read in sermons to a congregation of illiterate and accepting attendees. After all, you can’t question a text. It says what it says.

And there were, of course, musicians who not only possessed this skill of literacy, but were able to compose and create works by making marks on paper. And so the profession of composer emerges – and before long a man named Bach is making copies of his works, handing them out to his assembled team of musicians, and they would perform for the entertainment and dancing of the guests at the party of Mr Bach’s rich patron.

Roughly speaking again, the Scribal Age lasted around 1,500 years – depending on which continent you happen to live.

3) The Print Age

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik

So, along comes this Gutenberg guy and makes a machine that uses the concept of movable type (hundreds of years after the Chinese first think of it, as it happens) and before long, he’s mass producing books.

This turns out to be the biggest revolution in human history since the development of writing. Because not only can speech be captured in text on a page, it’s now almost a trivial exercise to make and distribute multiple copies of that knowledge.

Now everyone can have their own Bible. Everyone can come to have a personal relationship with their saviour – or print and distribute leaflets suggesting that perhaps they don’t need one… or that the saving that needs doing is one of political reform, or an intellectual and cultural enlightenment project.

At any rate – the message is now in everyone’s hands. Literacy spreads like wildfire. Before long, people are nailing their edicts to church doors, or sitting in private taking in information at their own pace – the words going into their brains like beads on a string.

Our brains change radically. We develop an unprecedented sense of the individual. We discover sequential logic and cross-referencing. And with mechanical reproduction, we invent the industrial age.

Music, as a business, of course, flourishes – and before long there is a real industry. The industry is called music publishing – and the main way in which money is made from music is through the creation, distribution and retail of dots on pages. People can go into a shop, buy a famous song, take it home, and play it badly on the piano in the parlour.

The Print Age lasted a good 500 years. You’ll notice that number keeps getting smaller.

4) The Electric Age

Photo by Johny hanging head down from the tree

Then suddenly – Bam! Marconi, Edison, Franklin, Faraday, Volta, Tesla, Morse and Bell change the world again with their magnets and sparks and whatnot.

Not only can culture be mass produced, it can now be captured as audio or images – and mass broadcast. It’s one thing to read a book that someone else is also reading and be able to have a conversation about it. It’s something quite different again to simultaneously witness man setting foot on the moon along with millions of other people all across the globe.

The radical shift in media environment that the Electric Age brings about is what exercises McLuhan the most. The effect of that media shift on our minds is something that he is now perhaps best known for: “The Global Village” – which is not, as you might think, some sort of caring, sharing ‘hands across the water’ thing (villages can be quite problematic and claustrophobic collections of people).

At any rate, the Electric Age completely transforms our media environment again. The main way in which our brains take in information about the world in which we live and how we can make sense of it is fundamentally altered.

And for music – with electricity, of course, comes recording. Now you can not only have a famous song in your living room on a piece of paper – you can have an idealised performance of that song, by an international artist… and unlike the piano in your parlour, it will sound the same every single time you play it.

Of course, this was a massive challenge to the music industry that came before it. The sheet music publishers WERE the music industry – and these recording companies threatened their livelihoods. Besides, how were local musicians going to make any money in concert halls if a single artist in another country could record one performance of a song and sell it all over the world?

And the answer is – pretty much everyone had to adapt. The old sheet music industry fought the recorded music industry tooth and nail. Hell, the recorded music industry even fought radio. Who was going to buy records if people could hear them for nothing on the wireless?

But just as the previous models of music business had survived in some marginalised form from one age to the next, it’s still possible to buy sheet music today – and it’s still possible to make money making and selling it. It’s just not the main way that happens anymore.

The Electric Age is characterised by TV shows, radio airplay, records, tapes, CDs, retail stores with display shelves, top 40 charts, superstars, the dream of being signed to a major label and the album and single as the main ways in which music is produced and consumed.

The Electric Age lasted for about 100 years. It’s over. We think it’s still the main thing, but it’s not. We’re in a new age now.

5) The Digital Age

Photo by Dawn Endico

We’re in the Digital Age now. This is an epochal change, just as the other ages represented fundamental differences in our media environment and – more importantly – who we were as human beings.

We can’t see how different it is yet, because of what McLuhan called the ‘Rear View Mirror’ effect. We always look at our media environment in reverse – and certainly in the early days. We see where we’ve come from – and not where we’re going, or even where we are.

The content of any new medium is its predecessor. We might think we’re watching TV online, listening to internet radio or reading newspapers on the web. That’s not what we’re doing. We’re on the internet and that’s different.

Sidebar: There’s no such thing as internet radio
Just as our great-grandparents coined the term ‘horseless carriage’ to talk about those strange motorised buggies that noisily made their way up and down their streets – and used the phrase ‘wireless telegraphy’ or just ‘the wireless’ to talk about radio – we use transitional phrases to demonstrate our lack of understanding about what’s really going on.

Cars aren’t carriages without horses, and radio isn’t telegraphy without wires. Telegraphy may be communication over distances, but it’s point-to-point communication, not broadcasting. When we try and describe a new medium in terms of its predecessor, it just shows we haven’t understood and internalised its real meaning yet.

Internet radio, web newspapers and online television are similar misunderstandings and transitional phrases that reveal our ignorance.

Almost everything about radio changes in the digital environment. How it’s transmitted, what the production process is, the political economy of it, the professional practice, the mode of reception, the audience configuration, the legal framework, its linear and time-bound nature, the geographic constraints, and so on. About the only thing that’s the same is the fact that noise comes out of a speaker at one end.

Put it online, and it’s not radio. At least, not in any way that we’ve previously understood it.

What’s different?
You could fill a blog with all that’s different about the media environment in the digital age. It so profoundly and radically impacts upon everything we do that it’s once again changing our brains.

The way in which we take in information and how we make sense of the world around us is increasingy digital, rather than broadcast or print. It’s quite literally reshaping us and rewiring our brains.

From mobile phones to laptops, sat navs to digital cameras, YouTube to Skype, iPods to USB keys – what we surround ourselves with – the media environment we’re immersed in – has fundamentally changed.

And while the record industry, the film industry and the publishing industry remind us that we are consumers and they are the content providers – we have the opportunity to remember that it wasn’t always this way, and it needn’t be a characteristic of the Digital Age. In fact, it probably can’t be.

Like sheet music when recordings came along – recordings are now becoming marginalised. CD sales are not declining because of piracy, but because CDs are the last hurrah of the electric age.

But don’t forget: you can still walk into a shop and buy sheet music – it’s just not the main way in which music is produced and consumed anymore. Likewise CDs.

The dwindling record business
I saw data last week that showed that the record industry now represents the economic value of just less than a third of the music industry overall. And that’s the countable and counted music industry, which is far from the full picture.

But we have a choice. Despite the fact that it seems I’m saying that technology makes us what we are – in fact, if we understand the process, we can choose the adaptations that we make, rather than simply have them happen to us. This is not an entirely deterministic process.

That’s a much longer discussion. The point I’m trying to make here is that digital is different. It’s as revolutionary and game-changing as writing, print, or the discovery of electricity.

The internet is not a marketing platform for bands and nor is it merely a marketplace for content. It’s the current media environment.

The way to make meaningful musical content in the 21st century is not simply to make records and then point the internet at them – any more than you would put on a play in a theatre, point cameras at it, and call it a TV show.

Of course, people still want recordings of music. People still want broadcasting. People still want sheet music. It’s just not the main way in which music is produced and consumed anymore – and increasingly so. Make an album, by all means – but do consider the fact that you’re deciding to operate in an increasingly shallow end of the pool, economically – and even culturally – speaking.

We’ve been in the digital age for about 20 years. Our media ages are getting shorter. History’s speeding up. So whatever it is you’re going to do to adapt to the Digital Age – do it now.

So how is the Digital Age different exactly?
I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating – the shift to the online environment is not a shift in format. This is not like the change between vinyl and CD. It’s more like the shift from printed sheet music to recordings and broadcasting. This is a complete transformation of the media environment, and of the ways in which people behave, adapt and operate in that media environment.

And this new media environment is not set up in a broadcast, mass production paradigm. This is not a one-to-many medium, like radio, television, newspapers and so-called ‘traditional’ music distribution.

This is a conversation.

Our brains are evolving again. As our new environment envelops us, we become involved in the biggest conversation our world has ever known. That’s different and it radically changes who we are, and what we say, make and do.

There are only two types of content of any value online: conversation, and the things about which the conversation takes place.

Stop making Electric Age media – start doing Digital Age stuff. Stop making records, start having conversations.

There’s a lot more to say about this, and I’m bound to do so in blog posts to come. I’m also in the process of bundling this idea up into some sort of ebook. This is mostly what I’m thinking and talking about these days. Stay tuned.