This page is the full text of the preface of the book Net, Blogs and Rock'n'Roll: How Digital Discovery Works and What it Means for Consumers, Creators and Our Culture by David Jennings, published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing, London and Boston, 2007. See copyright notice.
When recorded entertainment was hard to get hold of, fans used to dream of having vast libraries of audio and video material at their fingertips. Thirty years ago, the range of records you could buy outside major cities and specialist shops was limited, and when it came to visual entertainment you got what the broadcast and cinema programmers wanted to give you. A few fans were committed enough to put in the time and effort to find out about material outside the mainstream and then to track it down, but neither of these tasks was easy and these dedicated detectives were the exception.
In the twenty-first century we live with an economics of abundance in music, television, film, and games. The internet has made it possible to track down almost anything, legally or illegally, with a few clicks of a mouse. We have what fans used to dream of. There are many more routes — from blogs to reference sites to online entertainment stores — that lead us to new material and let us try it out on demand. We are seeing a profound change in the way we make cultural discoveries. In the digital age everything is available, with each item vying with the millions of others, old and new, that can be found in the unlimited expanse of the internet. Our problem now is scarcity of attention.
If you want to explore new music nowadays, you might check out iTunes, subscription services like Rhapsody, free advertising-supported services such as Napster or Qtrax, and tens of thousands of niche online radio stations, unlicensed file sharing sites, or artist videos on MySpace and YouTube. Then there are the services popping up everywhere on the net that analyze what books, music, and films you like and generate a personalized list of recommendations. Some even put a kind of robot DJ in your computer or digital music player that sequences a playlist for you, adapted to your tastes and moods. When friends recommend a band or a film, you can find out more by consulting a reference site like allmusic, or perhaps pay a visit to Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia where anyone can chip in and contribute their expertise.
All of these routes are part of the digital discovery process. With the expansion of on-demand access, coupled with the richness of information and perspectives that comes with blog culture, we are crossing a watershed. We do not have to depend so much on coincidences to discover new entertainment that will tickle our individual fancies. We do not have to go out on a limb by making risky purchases, or wait for recommendations from friends. The digital means of research are within easy reach to even the most casual of consumers: reviews and audience ratings, historical and career context, lists of related material, and samples of the material itself.
The central focus of this book is on music discovery — how it has changed and how best to respond to these changes — because music is a bellwether for other forms of entertainment in many ways. The fan economy for music has been around for a long time. It is richly developed within different genres and age groups. The challenges of unlicensed file sharing hit music first, and its fans have embraced blogging and social networks in a big way. The intelligent filtering technologies for making automated personalized recommendations of stuff you might like to check out are most advanced in the world of music, because they have more data to build on. Most of the problems — and the solutions — in terms of digital discovery are coming to music first. And where music leads other media may follow: audio and video downloads on iAmplify; television on Tape It Off The Internet; venues and events on Eventful and Upcoming; ebooks on Fictionwise; travel advice and experiences on RealTravel.
The challenges of the fan economy
Many aspects of the era of abundance are highly desirable. It offers the enticing prospect of a "celestial jukebox" where you can pull down almost anything you can think of from a digital store in the sky and listen to or watch it at your leisure. But, as with many significant changes, it also brings disruption and challenges. Google may promise to index and organize all the world's information, creating a reference source of almost God-like omniscience, but having information organized for you is one thing; deciding what to look at next is another. This is what could be called the "problem" of discovery, and it manifests itself in different ways for different groups: the creators of entertainment, its consumers, and the services that connect them.
As creators, whether we've just made a multimillion-dollar film or a three-song demo recording, we want to know how to attract and hold the attention of an audience that is bombarded with choice and, once we have hooked them, how we can get our fans to spread the word and build buzz. As consumers we have to struggle to keep up with everything that's going on and balance friends' recommendations with media hype and our own idiosyncratic hunches. Finally, as professional reviewers, broadcasters, and those in the new breed of digital stores and services, the problem is how to shift gears from being the gatekeepers that we were when consumers had only to decide between Tower Records and an independent store, Rolling Stone and the New Musical Express, Top of the Pops and MTV Unplugged, to being facilitators of the interaction between entertainment and consumers in an era of infinite choice. As media enterprises we need to understand all these changes so that we can develop strategies to meet them head on.
Unsurprisingly, there is no single solution to such challenges. We pick up the scent of discovery in many different settings, online and offline: from reviews, discussions, and stories, from personal recommendations and recommender systems, from overheard exchanges, and from the unusual radio station that was playing one time in our uncle's kitchen. Because we pick up leads in anarchic ways and all over the place, there can be no one service that provides an all-encompassing discovery solution for music, film, books, games, or other domains.
Perhaps the most significant shift that comes with the economics of abundance is that now we are spoilt for choice in ways to discover new entertainment, the tables have turned in terms of who makes the running. Consumers are no longer sheep who can easily be herded toward some Next Big Thing that has been hatched up in the studios and marketing departments of television companies, radio stations, and Hollywood. The means by which we can find out about interesting new material are limitless. Mainstream television and radio, press, even Amazon and Yahoo! have to live in a world where we can switch our attention elsewhere in a few clicks. The producers will seek to shepherd us toward their offerings, but when it comes down to it, all of us are free-range explorers.
Net, blogs and rock 'n' roll
The potent combination of advances in technology and the laissez-faire culture of sharing discoveries is what creates the Net, Blogs and Rock 'n' Roll recipe. The net provides a platform where data, content, and comment can be combined and made available to multiple audiences by multiple routes. Blogs provide the diversity and participation in spreading buzz, fueled by individual, authentic voices and relationships between people. Rock 'n' roll injects the attitude and the appetite: the sense that life is too short to spend time waiting for every i to be dotted and every t crossed. The energy comes from the hips as well as the head — discovery and exploration are never ending.
The Net, Blogs and Rock 'n' Roll recipe helps us make sense of the potentially disorientating and ever-evolving landscape of discovery. Instead of looking out through a restricted window, like the porthole on a large ship, we can all be on the bridge, with a 360-degree view and the captain's prerogative to steer in whatever direction we choose. More than that, the copy-and-paste capabilities of digital media and Web 2.0 enable us to remix what we see and re-present our own versions of it. Songs are no longer welded to the fixed sequence of a vinyl groove, but can be mixed with others from different sources in a playlist, or used to soundtrack home movies.
The technologies known as Web 2.0 provide a platform that enables and accelerates social explorations, which reach into corners of our culture that mass media have largely ignored. Many of us like some popular hits, but we also like quite a lot of "non-hits" (it's just that we all like different non-hits, which is why they are non-hits). In his landmark book The Long Tail, Chris Anderson charts a dramatic change under which sales are no longer so exclusively concentrated on current hit titles but are distributed across a wider spectrum, right down to the tail end of the charts where, thanks to infinite digital shelf space, even obscure titles are better able to find niche markets. This brings with it a whole new set of business challenges.
No one is in charge of digital discovery. Blogs and the "tearable web" are wrenching the reins from professional media (whose ties with producer industries are sometimes perceived to be too cosy), making it easy to share opinions, and easy for fans to help each other. The defining characteristics of blog culture include:
- An open form of mass participation in media where anyone can contribute.
- A conversation, not a lecture or a broadcast — there is no "final word."
- No commissioners, no editors, self-publishing with no infrastructure of control.
- Mostly a noncommercial activity (corporate blogs and mainstream media blogs exist, but are arguably not what the ethos of blogging is really about).
- The fan economy is a gift economy, rewarded by recognition and in-kind returns from fellow contributors.
- A focus on the individual, authentic voice.
- Part of a wider activity of personal networking, finding like-minded souls, and building communities of interest.
Fans and the entertainment industries that service them have to adapt in order to tap the riches of this era, and understanding how discovery works is fundamental to this. Consumers can learn how to exploit and integrate the unprecedented sources of discovery at their disposal. Creators can help their work find its market and tap the energies of fans in spreading the word, generating new revenue opportunities in the Long Tail. Media businesses can learn the multimethod techniques that lead to discovery in order to build their profile with fans and grow their revenues. Online and broadcast companies and the press can come to an understanding of how the landscape has changed, how discovery has moved to center stage, and how they can best inform and engage with free-range consumers when their role as gatekeepers for discovery is on the wane.
Against this background, DIY and independent creators are well placed to benefit, partly because they have less to lose by licensing their material, and also because the costs of setting yourself up and finding a potential audience are falling all the time. Garageband.com is one such grassroots DIY endeavor, aimed at helping musicians and fans help each other. Members can upload their own recordings, provided they agree for these to be heard by other members and licensed for inclusion in podcasts without charge. Members' reviews and ratings provide feedback to the artists, as well as creating charts of the popularity of different artists and tracks. From there it's a case of "survival of the fittest," as the songs with the best ratings get most exposure to Garageband.com users and stand a better chance of being discovered. What is being created through Garageband.com (and similar sites like Jamendo and Amie Street is an amateur economy that in some ways parallels the mainstream music industry, with its own bands, critics, DJs (podcasters), fans, and charts.
How to read this book
Throughout the book I use the metaphor of foraging for interesting material, which, with the associated idea of picking up an "information scent," depicts the way discovery can involve either an extended search or a happy accident when you catch the smell of something good blowing on the breeze. It also captures the fact that discoveries frequently depend on mixing together information and clues from many sources. The first chapter gives examples of what discovery looks like in practice and how it works on the net.
Part II outlines how in the fan economy people are taking discovery into their own hands. While some fear that iPod culture is cutting people off from each other by enclosing them in their own personalized cocoons, we will see how communities of consumers come together and how the volunteer effort of even small numbers of committed fans can inform and influence others. Tracking what other people like is a key way of picking up the scent of new discoveries, and everything from blogs to charts can help with this.
In Part III we look at the changing role of intermediaries between creators and their audiences, from critics to the new breed of social networks and recommender systems that aim to help us make discoveries. We'll explore how analysis of the "genetic" make-up of music can help match discoveries to your personal tastes, and how blog culture and "crowdsourcing" can augment traditional broadcast and written media, rather then replacing them.
Part IV shows what new technologies and techniques are speeding the journey of discovery: how Web 2.0 adds a social dimension to searching and browsing, while buzz marketing methods encourage bloggers and fans to spread word-of-mouth recommendations. This part brings together the previous chapters into the Net, Blogs and Rock 'n' Roll recipe for discovery. The final chapters review the implications for consumers, creators, and the media — and for our shared culture.
Please read the book as though foraging for your own cues and clues on how digital discovery works. The themes and patterns that jump out at you will depend on your interests, and you can dig deeper via the resources signposted in the Notes and the blog at www.netblogsrocknroll.com.
First published in Great Britain by Nicholas Brealey Publishing in 2007
© David Jennings 2007: The right of David Jennings to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be further reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording and/or otherwise without the prior written permission of the publishers. This text may not be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise disposed of by way of trade in any form, binding or cover other than that in which it is published, without the prior consent of the publishers.