Andrew Keen on New Media

The Napster bloodbath damaged music more than Lennon's murder
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The Independent Online

How is the digital revolution changing the way in which music fans own their music and identify with musicians? To what extent is the internet rewriting the history of rock 'n' roll?

Old-fashioned music publications like Rolling Stone underestimate the role of the internet in shaping musical history. When, in the summer of 2004, the magazine published its "50 Moments that changed the history of Rock 'n' Roll", the digital revolution – with the exception of the iPod – barely got a mention.

Whereas Rolling Stone included the December 1980 assassination of John Lennon in its top 50 moments, it failed to include a much bloodier homicide – the June 1999 launch of the free peer-to-peer website Napster, an event which has unintentionally resulted in the destruction of much of the traditional recorded music industry.

Almost a decade after Napster unleashed its deadly plague of digital piracy, the internet continues to fundamentally rewrite the history of rock 'n' roll. To (mis)quote Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man": something is changing and none of us know exactly what it is. Popular new social networking and user-generated sites like MySpace appear to be simultaneously a midwife and an undertaker to the music industry. Casualties of the online music revolution include the many traditional record labels, bands, radio stations and retail music stores in long-term economic decline. And yet, in parallel with this destruction, many new digital enterprises are resurrecting the industry by pioneering radically innovative models for the creation, distribution and, above all, ownership of music.

So, if we could add a 51st moment to the Rolling Stone list, a moment that will forever change the history of rock 'n' roll, what would it be?

This is the moment when traditional ideas about ownership both of the music and the artist forever change. Music fans' relationships with artists have always been emotionally complex but economically simple. The most successful traditional rock 'n' roll artists – the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, U2 etc -- have successfully sold their fans the illusion of ownership in their brands.

Take Dylan, for example. One of the original top 50 Rolling Stone moments included that infamous moment in July 1965 in Newport, Rhode Island, when the hitherto acoustic folk singer went electric. The audience – Dylan's "fans" – went beserk, yelling at him and booing him off stage. They were implying that they "owned" Dylan, that they had an intrinsic right to determine what music he played. But, of course, they didn't – the complexity of their emotional investment in Dylan's identity co-existing uneasily with their simple economic investment in his music.

It's taken more than 40 years for the economics to catch up with the emotion. But now the times really are changing. Today, the business relationship between artist and fan is being revolutionised by clever online start-ups such as Sellaband and Slicethepie which are radically changing the all-important relationship between music fans and musical artists.

Sellaband ( www.sellaband.com) is an Amsterdam-based start-up managed, ironically, by a pan-European team of seasoned music executives from EMI, Sony BMG, Columbia and Epic. The site has already generated 18 artists who have each successfully raised the necessary $50,000 (£25,000) to record and distribute an album. Slicethepie ( www.slicethepie.com), a British venture launched in June last year, has just received $2m from a group of private investors including the director of Microsoft, UK. These innovative internet businesses allow fans to invest directly in artists, transforming music consumers into entrepreneurial talent scouts, and allowing them to own the music of the artist they helped to discover.

And that 51st moment which changed the history of rock 'n' roll? Perhaps it will be, in the not-too-distant future, when a Sellaband or Slicethepie band goes multi-platinum, making its owner-fans both rich and happy. This moment would equal John Lennon's assassination in historical importance. It might even warrant a mention in Rolling Stone magazine.

To embrace or fight Web 2.0?

I've just read two new books which come to absurdly different conclusions about the identical Web 2.0 revolution. One imagines that social networking, wikis and blogs represent the end of western civilisation; the other believes that this same digital transformation represents the dawn of a glorious new age for mankind.

New York University digital guru Clay Shirky's new book, Here Comes Everyone: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations argues that the internet's three Cs: collaboration, conversation and community are magically transporting us to the digital promised land. Shirky wants us to talk and talk till we drop. The more we chatter with one another online, he says, the more we will replace unnatural social hierarchy with the all-too-human democracy of self-organising communities.

Meanwhile, internet critic Lee Siegel advises us to keep schtum. In Against The Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, Siegel argues that the only way to maintain one's dignity in the internet age of ubiquitous self-authored content is by maintaining one's silence. So zip it up, Siegel advises. In the age of the electronic mob, we resist by saying nothing.

Siegel and Shirky should chat with each other on the internet. My guess is that they would find digital communications to be neither quite as good nor as evil as they imagine. They might even collaborate to translate their online chit-chat into a more nuanced interpretation of the Web 2.0 revolution.

Two new ventures doomed by unoriginality

Everything on the internet is forgivable except unoriginality. And last week, I'm afraid, saw the release of two strikingly unoriginal new media businesses which appear to be instantly forgettable.

How important is the technical quality of online music videos? For PluggedIn ( www.pluggedIn.com), a Southern Californian music video start-up launched last week, video quality is everything. What supposedly distinguishes PluggedIn from MySpace, Hulu, YouTube and the hundreds of other me-too online music video sites is its self-proclaimed "near DVD-quality videos". But I've heard this one before from any number of online video start-ups. And, besides, who really needs near DVD-quality to watch music videos captured on cheap camcorders by amateur videographers?

Then there's Peter Gabriel's new internet thing, The Filter ( www.thefilter.com), a personalised, collaborative, wisdom of the crowd (blah, blah, blah) recommendation engine for multimedia online content.

Oh dear. As if we really need yet another unsatisfying algorithmic version of Pandora or LastFM. It would have been more original to invest The Filter's $8.5m (£4.3m) start-up costs in a library of music, movie and video reviews written by expert human beings. Who forgot to tell Gabriel that the new, new thing on the internet is the proven good taste of the professional critic?

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