Music Gets Personal (Crack Magazine)

An article co-written by me and Adam Corner for Crack Magazine, published July 2011

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MUSIC GETS PERSONAL

Imagine buying a song, but each time you listened to it, it was different. If you’ve got a Mac, you don’t need to imagine it – you can go to http://www.bronzeformat.com and listen to the first release on a pioneering new musical platform called Bronze Format (the track’s by Gwil Gold, who along with the producer Lexx created Bronze Format). There is no original – each time you listen to it, the pre-programmed parameters of the song gently morph so that every play is subtly different. It bears repeating: there is no original.

On its own, it would be easy to dismiss Bronze Format as a fun but ultimately self-defeating detour from the serious business of Listening To The Song. But other developments currently taking root in the musical landscape suggest that it might just be the first signs of a quiet revolution in the relationship between listener and artist.

Last month, the Kaiser Chiefs (of all people) released what they described as the world’s first ‘bespoke’ album – twenty songs were made available on the band’s website, and for the price of an album download, fans could choose the ten songs that they liked the best. Other than raising the amusing possibility of perhaps only a fifth of the audience singing along to any one song at Kaiser Chiefs gigs, the concept of listeners choosing their own musical adventure is a potentially powerful new development. It’s a transfer of power from the band to the listener – or more to the point, from the record company to the listener. When listeners start curating their own listening experiences, and the music comes straight from the band’s website to your portable listening device of choice, what is the function of a record company at all?

Perhaps sensing precisely this question floating on the winds of change, Bjork’s label One Little Indian have grabbed the interactive bull by its digital horns and are releasing each single from forthcoming album Biophilia with its own dedicated App, containing interactive games, so each person who listens to the song and buys the App will get a different post-purchase experience.

So is this just a desperate search for a way of monetising an industry that can no longer sell conventional products? Or is it the dawn of something fundamentally new – a level of personalisation that has never been seen before? The implications for ‘owning’ and ‘collecting’ music are potentially huge – if there is no longer an original version of a track, if you can curate your own album or get lost in your own app-song interaction, how will people share memories of ‘classic’ albums in years to come? There is no original.

In some ways, no one ever really hears a song in exactly the same way as everyone else – the myriad of memories (or otherwise) that contextualise the listening experience means that the sound in your head is never quite the same as the guy next door’s. Maybe all the new technology bundled up in Bronze Format and Biophilia are just making this subjective variability more tangible.

So how feasible is it that – someday – more music will be consumed this way? Some music is already a fleeting, one time experience. The Bays, for example, are a band who don’t release any recordings and only perform live improvisations that last an hour (or so). This idea of music as a transitory experience (rather than a commodity) has always set The Bays apart from other bands as a bit of a curio. The music industry made its millions on the assumption that music would always be packaged and sold. The Bays were a movement towards music that couldn’t be frozen in this way – they advertise themselves by stating ‘Performance is the Product’. Is Bronze Format the next step?

Inevitably, new technology will allow the experience of listening to music to develop in ways we can’t even imagine. Fighting the progress is like eating soup with a fork. But at the moment it is difficult to see how any movement towards transitory music could have much of an effect on the musical mainstream. Pop by definition depends on a song being recognisable for what it is.

So for the time being, the personalisation of music is something that will be explored by the auteurs – Bjork, Richie Hawtin or perhaps even the increasingly ADHD bass artist Zomby. But like any good boundary-pushing development, the exciting part is the potential. Where do we go from here?

Man, machine, music….repeat until no longer the same.

Words: Adam Corner & Helia Phoenix

Image: Adam Chard

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