If Music Be Thy Dream Of Filthy Lucre, Press Stop

I always enjoy seeing science fiction prophecies come true. Last month, Broadcastr. This month, Wolfram Alpha’s WolframTones, modestly subtitled “A New Kind Of Music.” (Yes, that would be the same breathtaking humility that led them to originally price the Wolfram Alpha app at a hilarious $50. Fortunately, they subsequently bought a clue.)

It is pretty cool, in a geeky sort of way: music generated by fractally complex cellular automata, in the style of your choice—classical, dance, rock/pop, hip-hop, etcetera. Every composition is unique, and can be downloaded as a ringtone. They lay claim to the copyright on all the generated music, mind you, raising the interesting question of what counts as “fair use”, but I’ll leave that rant to Cory Doctorow. What sort of saddens me about WolframTones is that it’s yet another nail in the coffin of ten million teenage dreams of musical superstardom.

I don’t know if its creator Peter Overmann is a fan of the great Australian science-fiction writer Greg Egan, but I do know that he’s just recapitulated something Egan described twenty years ago in his book Quarantine, in a paragraph that has stayed with me since:

I flop onto my bed, and switch on the room’s audio system. The controlling ROM I’ve been playing lately, ‘Paradise’ by Angela Renfield, is one of hundreds of thousands of identical copies, but each piece it creates is guaranteed unique. Renfield has set certain parameters for the music, but others are provided by pseudorandom functions, seeded with the date, the time and the audio system’s serial number.

The copyright question leaps to mind because WolframTones is yet another entry in the arsenal of resources that today’s musicians can (and probably will, regardless of the legality) sample and remix. It’s getting crazy-easy to make music these days. Gorillaz’ new album The Fall was recorded entirely on an iPad while they were in tour, and they’ve since even released their own iPad instrument. Imagine what they’ll do with the iPad 2 and its new GarageBand. Meanwhile, numerous sites allow musicians to collaborate online.

Heck, why bother learning how to play? Or sing? Consider Ark Music Factory, the evil masterminds behind Rebecca Black’s Friday. For only a few thousand dollars, they’ll write and record your music, shoot your pop-idol video, and AutoTune your voice. Meanwhile, the music industry is kind of dying, meaning there’s less money to spread across more artists. Sure, touring can still be lucrative – but most of that money goes to those who built their brand before the modern era. There are and always will be meteoric new exceptions, but they’re increasingly rare. Music has grown so fragmented and overpopulated that just finding good new music has become a big problem in and of itself1.

I keep tabs on the music industry mostly because they tend to be a harbinger for other kinds of entertainment (not least because the music industry released all their wares in a non-DRMed electronic format, also known as the CD, before they quite realized what they had done.) What happens to music will happen to books, and then video games, and then TV/movies. We’ll see fewer and fewer professional musicians, writers, and filmmakers; instead we’ll see vastly more high-quality work created by part-time hobbyists aided by flashy new technology, and fewer and fewer crossover moneymaking hits. This may be great for fans—we’ll see—but I hope you don’t dream of making music / writing books / directing movies for a living. It was never easy, and thanks to all this amazing new technology, it’s getting even harder every day.

1Full disclosure: I’m currently doing some contract development work for a semi-stealth mode startup named Rexly who are trying to solve that problem.