9: On The Net, Music Is The Ultimate Metaphor

The net will give us the chance to display our inner artists without having to wait for a record contract or big book deal. Videos, music, and literature will be online--and grandma won't be your only fan

Joshua McFadden, a computer and electronic-music major at Oberlin College in Ohio, doesn't need a contract from a big record label. With a PC, keyboard, and a fast Internet connection, the third-year student in a cramped dorm room sends his compositions around the world. "Commercially, I'm not even remotely successful," he says cheerfully. "But once I got a letter from a listener in South Africa."

Across campus, a college sophomore uses the Internet as a massive music library. "You can find anything," he says, reaching out over the campus network with his PC to download a track from a fellow student's computer. He adds the tune to the 800 tracks on his hard drive, including 111 Beatles songs, 25 Pink Floyd tracks, and an entire Lauryn Hill album--all plucked off the Net for free.

Prowling through the dorms is Steve Crandall, a 47-year-old research scientist at AT&T Labs in Florham Park, N.J. He and his colleagues are frequent visitors to Oberlin. And with good reason: These students meet, live, work, and play on a 100 megabit-per-second network--the kind of thing that will one day connect virtually all of AT&T's customers. Crandall studies how students locate the songs they like, when and where they listen, how they respond to levels of sound quality, and how they feel about copyrights and business. The kids are rewriting the rules of online distribution--not just for music but also for books and videos. And AT&T, as America's biggest cable and telephone company, believes it must establish intimate bonds with them. "We've learned things at Oberlin," says Crandall. "Anecdotal evidence suggests that music is replacing pornography as the high-bandwidth killer app."

In the 21st century, we'll all get a chance to be like Oberlin students. We'll tap into an Internet that's gushing with music, video, and books--and feed it with our own creations. Artistic expression will flower, and the boundaries between artists and consumers will blur. Indeed, the Net offers advanced technological societies a tantalizing pathway back to the pre-industrial democracy of art. Electronic instruments and cameras are getting smarter and cheaper. In time, software will allow amateurs to make studio-quality recordings and movies--on a modest budget--that will shock, delight, and comfort the audiences beyond their living room stages.

MATTER OF TIME. What's happening at Oberlin and hundreds of other colleges puts tastemakers at film studios, record companies, and publishers in a quandary. Near term, they face encroachment from the likes of Amazon.com Inc., which has already begun distributing music by unsigned bands. Further down the road, the Internet--or its successor--will give artists the means to promote themselves. Today, software companies with no earnings and few assets can execute multibillion-dollar public offerings. No artist has pole-vaulted to platinum on the Net, but it's just a matter of time.

No doubt the music of a thousand Oberlins will be crazily cacophonous. But don't worry: Human and automated guides will help you find what you want, when you want it--even if you don't know exactly what it is. Longing for that Miles Davis track you heard on the radio last week? Hum a few bars. Software will analyze the melody, download it, and play it. Prefer something similar, but with more edge? Ask your music "bot," a software agent whose sole purpose is to understand your taste. "The technology to do all this exists," says Jack Lacy, a senior research scientist at AT&T Labs. "We just need to put the pieces together."

The hard part will not be technological but social and legal. Intellectual-property rights for CDs, books, and movies are built on implicit assumptions of scarcity: Not everyone can have these goods, since production and distribution resources have been limited--until now. Today's assumptions will fade when access is ubiquitous, and perfect replicas can be made for free.

At Oberlin, for instance, most students say musicians and others should get paid for their work. But the lure of free access is overwhelming. The lines are long at the Seeley G. Mudd Center, where students are copying CDs for personal use. As for student composers, instead of charging for digital versions of their work, some students prefer to give their music away to spread their ideas. "I can always make my money by selling tickets to performances," says Jim Altieri, a fourth-year double-degree student in composition and geology.

The record industry has no intention of fading out. And Hollywood--already nervous about pirated MPEG videos distributed over the Net--would do well to study the record industry's machinations. To stave off irrelevance, music companies are moving to flexible pricing models. At E-music.com, you can purchase music by the track with record companies' blessings. Ultimately, anyone could sell music, says Atlantic Recording Corp. Co-Chairman Val Azzoli. "You read about a band at the magazine rack, push a button, and get a song for 50 cents." Or maybe you'll pay subscription fees to tap into a giant music collection stored on a computer server, paying by the week or month. "The business model will change, and when it does, music will change," Azzoli says.

Whatever new payment schemes emerge, Azzoli believes listeners will need someone to discover and market talent. But is that intermediary the company with the best scouts, the best software, or the best brand name on the Net? Many think the most efficient predictor of what you will enjoy is a community of your peers. And the tools to spontaneously pool and poll such communities are in hand. The primitive precursor is called "collaborative filtering," the mechanism that lets Amazon.com recommend books based on buying patterns at its site. But in the AT&T labs, researchers apply more sophisticated algorithms to analyze and rank artistic content posted on individual home pages at GeoCities, a large Net community recently absorbed by Yahoo! With these next-generation software tools, a surfer in search of content could set the parameters a dozen different ways to discover how community members rate different types of music, movies, or art.

Such tools threaten any industry that seeks to be a purveyor of taste. It will be hard on record companies. But under at least one scenario, they won't have to worry so much about piracy. As the whole notion of "distributing" music gives way to "delivery on demand," popular artists--or companies that represent them--may reap their commercial payoff by aggregating an audience, much as today's broadcast networks do. "NBC doesn't worry if you pirate Seinfeld, do they?" asks Jim Griffin, CEO of Cherry Lane Digital Inc., a technology consultancy in Los Angeles. Neither will the music industry, or whatever it evolves into. The problem of piracy becomes moot, because advertising and marketing revenues increase as more people tune in.

These issues aren't the concerns of most Oberlin students. They've helped establish new modes of listening to music. And through music and technology, they've found a way to sustain the deep emotional thrills of youth long after graduation day. Wherever they end up physically, they can assemble in virtual rooms and enjoy unlimited freedom to listen, see, and explore. Music--and by extension, all of art--is something to create, discover, and share. College students have pioneered these new modes, armed with the best tools of the Internet, and blessed with the technical and artistic skills to make use of them. We should all be so lucky. And as complex network technology becomes simple, invisible, and ubiquitous, we will be.