Networks and Culture

Disintermediating the “industry:” The New Tastemakers

All told, music consumers are increasingly turning away from the traditional gatekeepers and looking instead to one another — to fellow fans, even those they’ve never met — to guide their choices. Before long, wireless Internet connections will let them chatter not only on desktops, but in cars and coffee shops, too. And radio conglomerates and MTV, used to being the most influential voices around, are beginning to wonder how to keep themselves heard.

“The tools for programming are in the hands of consumers,” said Courtney Holt, executive vice president for digital music at MTV Networks’ Music and Logo Group, who formerly ran the new-media department for Interscope Records. “Right now it almost feels like a fanzine culture, but it’s going to turn into mainstream culture. The consumer is looking for it.”

If Pandora and other customizable services take off (and so far that’s a big if), they could shift the balance of power not just in how music is consumed, but in how it is made. “You now have music fans that are completely enabled as editorial voices,” said Michael Nash, senior vice president for digital strategy and business development at Warner Music Group, one of the four major music conglomerates. “You can’t fool those people. You can’t put out an album with one good single on it. Those days are over.”

While it may be true that you can’t fool all these people, it does suggest that promotional battles in this industry are going to get increasingly bloody and manipulative.

Consider, for example, the implications of this discussion of Pandora:

Pandora’s innovation is to focus on the formal elements of songs, rather than their popular appeal. Say your favorite song is Aretha Franklin’s recording of “Respect.” Pandora will make you a personalized soundtrack that could include Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination” and Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.” (Why? Click twice and learn that Pandora thinks the Gladys Knight tune resembles “Respect” because it includes “classic soul qualities, blues influences, acoustic rhythm piano, call and answer vocal harmony and extensive vamping.”)

It may not take 21st-century technology to deduce a link between Ms. Franklin and Ms. Knight. But the more you tell Pandora about your tastes, the more creative it can get.

I’m reading Joseph Turow’s Niche Envy at the moment, and this recommendation engine strategy is a fundamental part of his story — the modern advertising industry abandoning the notion of mass markets in favor of the creation of specialized consumer classes (and thus target markets), with information disclosure as the ticket to evaluation for membership in the club of elite consumers. In his opinion, we’re only seeing the beginnings of this unholy marriage of consumer envy, market stratification and information technology. And, while I’m not done with it, he does make some good points.

While personalization technologies certainly carry the potential for a market of endless manipulation and market stratification, they also could be used to further democratize the marketplace. While it is clear that current trends are toward a less democratic market, I see the question as what will it take to reverse that trend without requiring that every consumer have a PhD in computer science.

And while moves like those cited in Gaming The System might have some effect, it’s unlikely that it’s the answer — although it is amusing.