Had an interesting phone conversation this afternoon with a guy that’s working with the Technology Association of Iowa on videos about IT careers, aimed at middle-school and high-school students. They saw my little “Get To Know” appearance in a local entertainment paper called Juice a couple weeks ago, and for this video they wanted to incorporate something about music and thought I might be interesting for it. (Gene sometimes deals with this sort of thing in the UNI Computer Science department, talking with prospective students and parents about a Computer Science major and what it’s all about, so maybe he’ll like where this goes.)

See, music and tech, especially web/social-media tech, have some interesting common ground right now. There is opportunity for young creative minds with an entrepreneurial bent to implement new ways of connecting musicians and fans.

The web and music downloading have brought a lot more artists to the attention of the average music fan. When I was growing up and becoming interested in playing music, before everybody had the Internet, putting music where people can find it and hear it was an expensive labyrinth, most of which was under tight control by a few very large media corporations. Getting the attention of the record labels was a prerequisite of getting the attention of the public, and getting the attention of the record labels was nearly impossible until you’d already got the attention of a good chunk of public. There were a few smaller companies, independent labels that you’d have a better chance with, but it was a small segment of the public, really hard-core music fans, that were turned onto those. For musicians just starting out, convinced that what they had to offer was good and would be successful if only people got a chance to hear it, there was always one big burning question on their minds: “how do I just get my music out there?” Getting music “out there” meant spending a ton of money on time in a professional recording studio, on the pressing of records, cassettes and CDs, on paying distributors to make those records available to record stores all over the place. Then trying to convince the stores to actually stock them – the stores won’t stock the records if they don’t think they’ll sell them, so then you had to put a bunch of money in advertising, pay another group of special insiders to wine-and-dine radio station management to get airplay, and on and on. All of these things were necessary just to get your music “out there.” Now, if all you want is to make some music available to just about anyone anywhere in the world, all you have to do is put it up on some web server. Putting music where people can get it costs next to nothing. And depending on how picky you want to be about the sound, even the recording has gotten cheaper – technically you can record your album on the very same computer you use to put it up on the Web, and the result can be fairly listenable, unlike the dubbed cassettes we made on our boomboxes back in the old days.

Now that you can put music where people can get it for almost nothing, the real trick is getting people to want it. And this means letting lots of people know it exists and telling them why they might like it – another thing the Internet has changed. Communicating to a large number of people at once didn’t used to be something that us little people had the ability to do. You needed to have or find an in with the heavyweight old-media apparatus that had access to the technology available at that time.

Then, a few years ago, all this raw communication material in the form of the Web started becoming available to everyday people. Theoretically, if you have access to the same Internet that just about everybody else has, you’ve got the raw material to put your words, ideas, and art in front of the whole world and make people aware of it. But there was, and still is, a lot of experimentation going on in the area of how best to apply this raw material (that’s why they call them “applications”), especially in the music game. And what happened was that just as all this raw material was becoming available to the little people, the big record companies made the fatal mistake of totally underestimating the implications of it all, and chose to pretty much ignore it. So the public became ready to find out about, and purchase, music through the Internet, and the big labels were offering them pretty much nothing. Naturally, upstart techies saw an opportunity here, and we ended up with a succession of music web sites and tools, each a little different from those that came before – mp3.com, garageband.com, iTunes, CDBaby, band profiles on MySpace, eMusic, Pandora, last.fm, ReverbNation, Bandcamp, Soundcloud. You can probably name a dozen more sites where people go for music online, and yet what’s striking is how few of them were started by record companies. People are finding out about music from the Internet instead of from the increasingly boring radio. A music business built on highly-engineered big-budget blockbusters is finding its mindshare among the public being chipped away gradually by small labels and unsigned bands using the Internet to get their music in front of people and get the word out. Fewer and fewer people know or care what the #1 song on the charts is anymore. The big-name releases are selling less and less copies, yet more musicians are making a living off their music now than ever before. To today’s young people, the Internet is no longer the “new media,” it’s the default media. All the while, the bloated old record business is kicking and screaming and suing its way into a black hole.

This ball has already been rolling for a while now, but I think online music is still a very fragmented, wide-open kind of thing. No one model of music promotion or discovery seems to have really taken over, and there are still a lot of artists that haven’t quite found their way on board. Even something as simple as having an engaging band blog is an edge right now, and beyond that there are still new ideas to try, concepts that haven’t even been thought up yet. Which is why, if you’re a high-school or middle-school kid who loves both tech and music, this is a very cool time to be alive and contemplating your career, especially if you’ve got good/interesting/crazy ideas and the wherewithal to build something concrete out of them.

This might not be quite the message that the guy I talked to about the video is looking for. After all, he works for an IT recruiting company, and what I’m saying here seems to point towards young people starting their own companies instead of emailing their resume to some recruiter. If you’ve got a good idea for an innovative online music startup, I do think this is a great time to take a gamble on it, especially if you’re still young and crazy. You could end up changing the world and making a lot of money, or you could end up broke and starting over in a more traditional career in a few years, but having had a great time and learned a lot along the way. Either way, you win something.

Or you can do like I do, get a pretty regular job, and then make music and/or do fun/crazy tech stuff on the side, a la the “Sex & Cash Theory.” Maybe that’s more of what they’re after. More young people need to be exposed to the Sex & Cash Theory, it’s a useful model for thinking about what you might want to do with your adult life if you’re young, bright, and creative.

Chuck Hoffman

Chuck Hoffman
I'm from Iowa. I sling code for a living and get pretty into it. I also do some fun things with experimental music and retro-tech.

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