Music distribution and re-mediation: Content and context

I find the concept of re-mediation quite useful for illuminating the transition from an old to a new medium.
In the case of photography, for example, it started out as a way to make perfect Stillleben paintings, in the case of film it began as a way of capturing theater plays–photography re-meditated painting, film re-meditated theater.

What’s happening right now in music distribution is that the emerging digital medium is re-mediating physical distribution. Think about it for a minute, the MP3 files littering your virtual desktop even look like little CD:s (at least on Mac OS X they do). You still buy them piece by piece, you download them, you collect and manage them. Even the names we use to describe these things; “albums”, “tracks”, hint at the history from which they originate. Coverflow attempts to bring back the feeling of flipping through a stack of records, etc.

It’s not until we manage to bring out the unique characteristics of a new medium and thereby fully realize its potential, that we can really say that the transition from one medium to another is complete (In fact, it’s never really complete–it’s a continuous, ever-changing movement…).

Today we’re beginning to see the true potential of the web as the coming dominant medium for music distribution, as its unique characteristics disrupts the legacy economic models of the industry.

So what are these unique characteristics? Again, I’d say the most important one is the link. If we free ourselves from the old mindset, stop thinking about files for a moment, and start thinking links instead, we’re opening up a new world. A link is not just a way to get to a piece of music, it’s a doorway to a unique place, a living, evolving context. Since this place is comprised of content, but perhaps more importantly of context, let’s call it content-context. Or to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, like Alex and I did in a recent talk, “any sufficiently interesting context is indistinguishable from content”.

In an economy of links, the “most relevant” content-context always wins. It gets the most exposure, it gets the top position in search engines, it attracts the most attention. In this world, quality is relevancy.
A link is far more lightweight than an mp3 file, not to mention a physical carrier. It changes the game because it can be passed around in a few seconds rather than minutes or hours. It can also turn into a widget–emerging standards show how elegantly this will happen in the future. In this light, it’s unbelievable that it took so long for so many music and web companies to make link-passing easy, and that quite a few companies including iTunes, Beatport (Sorry, but your site still sucks), MySpace and a few other big players still don’t seem to get this (Last.fm, Imeem, Songbird, SoundCloud, Spotify and Topspin are a few of the ones who do). Making it hard to link to a piece of content-context is one of the strategically worst thing a web-based company can do, in my opinion.

With 100:s of millions of people with the tools in hand (Twitter, Facebook, Email, etc) to broadcast links through their personal networks in a split second, any piece of content-context can gain huge attention in just a few hours. This is where the web is really unique compared to the old mediums. And this, perhaps, is the single strongest driving force in the ongoing medium shift…