The Medium is the Music: An Essay on Digital Music

I realize that this post may be a bit lazy, but I’m in the process of writing a take-home exam this weekend for my social semiotics class, and I’m a wee bit panicked at the moment. So, I decided I would post an essay I wrote for a previous media studies take-home exam because it involves music and new media. It may seem a bit too academic for a blog post, but I think it’s a relevant topic for those who are interested in music and the study of media in general. The question for this exam was to discuss the following Wired article about Universal and its CEO Doug Morris and their being completely unprepared for new media in the music world: http://www.wired.com/entertainment/music/magazine/15-12/mf_morris . In addition, we were supposed to reference Neil Postman’s book Technopoly and Mark Poster’s book Information Please. It was actually one of the more fun essays I’ve ever written.

The Medium is the Music
Seth Mnookin’s article about Doug Morris, the CEO of Universal Music Group, reveals how the music industry’s major, and costly, mistake was its inability to understand the nature of digital media in relation to traditional analog media. This error extends to the music industry’s misunderstanding of the Internet as a medium as well. Mnookin demonstrates how not only did Morris err in failing to recognize the changes that digital music and peer-to-peer sharing would pose, but he also initially responded in a way that attempted to control a medium – through lawsuits against Yahoo, YouTube, and MySpace for using Universal music videos without paying for them, and through charging Microsoft’s Zune Marketplace for using the Universal back catalogue – that cannot be controlled by traditional means, and perhaps not at all. As Mnookin notes, “the more restrictions you put on your files, the more you encourage customers to turn to illegal services to get songs the way they want them.”
Mark Poster views the potential of the Internet and peer-to-peer music downloading as having two possibilities: “an Orwellian extension of governmental and corporate controls or a serious deepening of the democratization of culture” (193). In Mnookin’s article, it appears that Morris and Universal Music tends to favour the former more than the latter. Because Universal’s goal is to increase profit, and because its primary way of achieving this goal is through selling music, Morris ostensibly still sees peer-to-peer downloading of music as theft. Poster argues that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), who also view MP3 sharing as theft, was making errors in their understanding of media differences: “In their suit of September 2003, the RIAA acted as if downloading music files is the same thing as taking a music CD from a retail store without paying for it. This claim of equivalence is a political move that ignores the specificity and differences of each media – CDs and digital files. When the CD is taken from the store, the store no longer has it; when the file is downloaded, the person sharing the file still has it” (189). Morris’s “blasting MP3 players as merely ‘repositories for stolen music’” makes the same assumption as the RIAA, an assumption which does not make sense in that digital objects like MP3s are copied, not actually stolen in the traditional sense of theft. This issue also complicates and evades traditional copyright law. Poster states: “Copyright law covered the medium in which inventions or acts of genius were embedded for reproduction” (197). However, now that the medium has changed from traditional ones like printing presses and CD manufacturers to the Internet and its attendant programs, the nature of how production and reproduction function has changed drastically.

In explaining these fundamental shifts, Poster writes: “Digital cultural objects do not fall under the laws of scarcity and the market because they require almost no cost to produce, copy, and distribute, and like ideas they do not diminish when they are given away” (195). In this way, digital cultural objects threaten the capitalist market and those, like Morris, who gain most from it. If music is no longer viewed as a commodity, but instead a public possession that does not require economic power to exist or be distributed, then corporations like Universal seem to be obsolete under this new system: “In short, digitization changes the nature of the producer and the consumer, blurring the boundary between them” (Poster 195-96), and “Digitization threatens the media corporations because one no longer requires great amounts of capital to produce, reproduce, modify, and distribute cultural objects” (198). Mnookin writes that Morris and Universal’s “current moves – DRM-free songs and the Total Music subscription service – aren’t about serving consumers, at least not principally. They’re aimed at taking on Steve Jobs and, specifically, limiting the power of iTunes,” meaning that it appears that Morris has still not completely understood the nature of the new media and how it is changing the capitalist market for cultural products.

Morris insists on continuing to think about competition within the traditional capitalist system, and his long-term competition is not other corporations, but those who understand the new media better than he does – the consumers themselves. Not only is there a serious threat to the cultural corporations of America, but there is a further political link in that, for the US, cultural objects are “second only to defense in export value” (208). If the national economy can no longer support itself through cultural exports like music, the entire country will be affected, and the government may be more likely to try to step in and control media sharing; however, as demonstrated by the control problems experienced by the music industry, there would be great difficulty policing the Internet for media sharing, especially under current laws. The global networked nature of the Internet also poses a dilemma because every country would have to adopt the same laws regarding media sharing, a daunting task, and it would not necessarily safeguard against constant innovation in technology finding ways around these laws.
The constant innovation in the sharing of digital music creates an interesting paradox in which the very foundations of the capitalist system are the cause of its problems. Despite Morris’s acquiescence with giving music away through Total Music, Mnookin points out: “The irony is that if he decides to base his plans around DRM, Morris will be missing the larger truth that has propelled his business for the past 30 years. Ultimately, it’s convenience and ease of use that drive new media formats.” Morris’s attitude demonstrates this paradox in that “If the music industry wins its case against Internet technology, capitalism loses its legitimacy as the bearer of progress” (Poster 190). With the advent of digital media and file sharing networks over the Internet, the progress narrative of capitalism is halted because the advances that appear to be in the processes change the nature of the product; in a McLuhan-like way, the medium becomes the message.
Furthermore, this aspect of the Digital Age has been overlooked by the music industry, and it ensures that process exceeds content in its importance and dominance. Neil Postman argues that “Because of what computers commonly do, they place an inordinate emphasis on the technical processes of communication and offer very little in the way of substance […] The computer is almost all process” (118). By looking at the issue of digital music sharing in this light, it seems that the computer and the Internet value speed and reach of communication over what is actually being communicated between users; this is not to say that people do not care about the music they listen to, but that they feel entitled to it because of the very process and medium that makes it available to them.
In Mnookin’s article, Rio Caraeff, executive VP of Universal’s digital strategy, says “the company will eventually need to transition from running a product-based business to running a service-based one,” including ringtones, subscription services, and deals with mobile providers. This shift in strategy shows how the attempted control over the products, which are arguably the content of the medium, has been shifted to control over the form of the medium; in effect, Universal realizes that music and many other cultural products are no longer physical, tangible commodities, and their existence is both fluid and public. This issue also raises the question of what happens when something becomes part of the public domain, and with the Internet, what is actually public? As Poster demonstrates with his discussion of internet identity theft, everything tends to become externalized through the medium of the Internet, radically changing the perceptions of privacy and the public domain.
Besides the loss of profit for the corporation, the music industry’s main argument against peer-to-peer file sharing is that it is also violating artists’ royalty benefits. Poster gives three reasons to refute this argument: it is not necessarily true that artists receive compensation for the reproduction of their work, file sharing does not mean the sale of commodities, and the artists themselves have “borrowed” from others in the creation of their art (201-02). He also argues that most of the royalty money an artist earns is taken by production costs, and that distribution of an artists’ music has not been a fair process before file-sharing in that radio stations and DJs were often bribed to play certain artists on heavy rotation (205). The “unfairness” of file-sharing is unfair to the industry only because it negatively affects the industry itself and has nothing to do with popularity being an indication of music’s status as an art form.

The recent tactic employed by Radiohead in allowing their fans to choose the monetary value of their latest album poses an interesting alternative to current music download practices and raises particular issues about the capitalist market and the value of cultural objects. Since Radiohead was no longer attached to a contract with a major label when they released their latest album, they chose to release their album as a download and those who wanted it could pay any amount they deemed worthy of the album, including paying nothing. The average price chosen by those who purchased the album turned out to be £5 (approximately $10 US), which perhaps places the album at a slightly lower price than it would have sold at conventionally; however, considering the record company was not involved, thus not making money from it, the band likely made more profit per album than by selling it through a major label, which would have taken a higher percentage of each total, thus increasing the price presented to consumers. Also, there may have been a higher percentage of people who paid a considerably lesser price than the average, but would have illegally downloaded it for free elsewhere otherwise. A tactic like this may not have worked as successfully without a high-profile band with an established, strong fanbase, but it does change the way in which people think about music and other cultural products. By allowing consumers to assign their own worth to a cultural product, Radiohead relinquished the control that Morris and Universal refuse to.

There also many bands with profiles on MySpace, who are either unsigned or are signed to a truly independent label or distributer rather than an “independent” branch of a major label. In these bands’ cases, they remove the middleman of a major label and sell their music directly to their fans. Because music production technology has also become more available and relatively cost-efficient to use, many artists no longer need a major label to pay for studio time or producers. The role of major labels as having promotional clout is also waning with the amount of buzz being generated by either the artists themselves or independent music bloggers. Most recently, an independent act named IAMX (www.iamx.co.uk), which is based in Europe, managed to tour successfully throughout North America without any promotion outside of their Internet networks and “street teams” composed of fans. In effect, they have cut out the need for a major label for production, distribution, and promotion. While Morris and Universal have chosen to attempt “an Orwellian extension of governmental and corporate controls,” artists as diverse as IAMX and Radiohead are embracing “a serious deepening of the democratization of culture.” The difference lies in the recognition and understanding of the new media and its inevitable effect on capitalism and culture.

Nude – Radiohead

House of Cards – Radiohead

We’re in the Music Biz – Robots in Disguise


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The only certain thing that is left about me

There is no part of my body that has not been used

Pity or pain, to show displeasure's shame

Everyone I've loved or hated always seems to leave


So I turned myself to face me

But I've never caught a glimpse

Of how the others must see the faker

I'm much too fast to take that test

The Smiths Queen is Dead

A dreaded sunny day

So let's go where we're happy

And I meet you at the cemetry gates

Oh, Keats and Yeats are on your side

A dreaded sunny day

So let's go where we're wanted

And I meet you at the cemetry gates

Keats and Yeats are on your side

But you lose 'cause weird lover Wilde is on mine

The Clash London Calling

When they kick at your front door

How you gonna come?

With your hands on your head

Or on the trigger of your gun


Charles Windsor, who's at the door

At such an hour, who's at the door

In the back of an old green Cortina

You're on your way to the guillotine

Here the rabble comes

The kind you hoped were dead

They've come to chop, to chop off your head


Then you came with your breezeblocks

Smashing up my face like a bus-stop

You think you're giving

But you're taking my life away


Won't someone give me more fun?

(and the skin flies all around us)

We kiss in his room to a popular tune

Oh, real drowners


Don't walk away

In silence

See the danger

Always danger

Endless talking

Life rebuilding

Don't walk away

Walk in silence

Don't turn away in silence

Your confusion

My illusion

Worn like a mask of self-hate

Confronts and then dies

Don't walk away


You don't want to hurt me

But see how deep the bullet lies

Unaware I'm tearing you asunder

Oh there is thunder in our hearts

Is there so much hate for the ones we love

Tell me we both matter don't we

The Associates Affectionate

I don't know whether

To over or under estimate you

Whether to over or under estimate you

For when I come over

You then put me under

Personal taste is a matter of gender


I wake at dusk to go alone without a light

To the unknown

I want this night inside of me

I want to feel

I want this speeding

I want that speeding


You'll never live like common people

You'll never do what common people do

You'll never fail like common people

You'll never watch your life slide out of view

And dance and drink and screw

Because there's nothing else to do

Vanilla Swingers

All I have is words, words that don't obtain

And I feel I'm a stain on your horizon

So I stay away - it's easier that way

And there won't be no-one I need to rely on

Is it him, is it me

Or is there something only I can see

How did I get here, why do we blow around like straw dogs on the breeze

I'm a special one, what they used to say

But I've to stay on, finish levels-A

You don't need exams when you've read John Gray

The Indelicates American Demo

And nobody ever comes alive

And the journalists clamour round glamour like flies

And boys who should know better grin and get high

With fat men who once met the MC5

And no one discusses what they don't understand

And no one does anything to harm the brand

And this gift is an illusion, this isn't hard

Absolutely anyone can play the fucking guitar

JAMC Darklands

And we tried so hard

And we looked so good

And we lived our lives in black


Plucked her eyebrows on the way

Shaved her leg and then he was a she

She says, hey babe,

Take a walk on the wild side

Said, hey honey, take a walk on the wild side


Hide on the promenade

Etch a postcard:

How I dearly wish I was not here

In the seaside town...that they forgot to bomb

Come, come, come - nuclear bomb


Back when we were kids

We would always know when to stop

And now all the good kids are messing up

Nobody has gained or accomplished anything

Wire Pink Flag

Prices have risen since the government fell

Casualties increase as the enemy shell

The climate's unhealthy, flies and rats thrive

And sooner or later the end will arrive

This is your correspondent, running out of tape

Gunfire's increasing, looting, burning, rape


Well, maybe there's a god above

But all I've ever learned from love

Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you

It's not a cry that you hear at night

It's not somebody who's seen the light

It's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah


And what costume shall the poor girl wear

To all tomorrow's parties

For Thursday's child is Sunday's clown

For whom none will go mourning


My body is your body

I won't tell anybody

If you want to use my body

Go for it


Oh it's opening time

Down on Fascination Street

So let's cut the conversation

And get out for a bit

Because I feel it all fading and paling

And I'm begging

To drag you down with me

Mansun Six

And you see, I kind of shivered to conformity

Did you see the way I cowered to authority

You see, my life, it's a series of compromises anyway

It's a sham, and I'm conditioned to accept it all, you see

Japan Gentlemen

Take in the country air, you'll never win

Gentlemen take polaroids

They fall in love, they fall in love


We just want to emote til we're dead

I know we suffer for fashion

Or whatever

We don't want these days to ever end

We just want to emasculate them forever

Forever, forever

Pretty sirens don't go flat

It's not supposed to happen like that

Longpigs The Sun

There's no perfume I can buy

Make me smell like myself

So I put on perfume

To make me smell like someone else

In bed

Calvin Harris I Created Disco

I got love for you if you were born in the 80's, the 80's

I've got hugs for you if you were born in the 80's, the 80's


Does his makeup in his room

Douse himself with cheap perfume

Eyeholes in a paper bag

Greatest lay I ever had

Kind of guy who mates for life

Gotta help him find a wife

We're a couple, when our bodies double

Simple Minds Sons and Fascination

Summer rains are here

Savaged beauty life

Falling here from grace

Sister feeling call

Cruising land to land

No faith no creed no soul

Half a world away

Beauty sleeps in time

Sound and fury play

Bloc Party Silent Alarm

North to south


Running on


As if to say, as if to say

He doesn't like chocolate

He's born a liar, he'll die a liar

Some things will never be different


LCD Soundsystem

Well Daft Punk is playing at my house, my house

I've waited 7 years and 15 days

There's every kid for miles at my house, my house

And the neighbors can't...call the police

There's a fist fight brewin' at my house, my house

Because the jocks can't...get in the door

Johnny Boy

I just can't help believing

Though believing sees me cursed

Stars Set Yourself

I am trying to say

What I want to say

Without having to say "I love you"

Josef K Entomology

It took 10 years to realise why the angels start to cry

When you go home down the main

Your happy smile

Your funny name

Cocteau Twins Bluebell


Doesn't she look a million with her hairagami set

Hair kisses 'n' hair architecture

Yes, she's a beautiful brunette angel from heaven with her hairagami set

Hair kisses 'n' hair architecture

Augment a beautiful brunette

New Order Power Corruption

How does it feel

To treat me like you do

When you've laid your hands upon me

And told me who you are


You must let her go

She's not crying



Feeling like I'm waiting

Modern times



Hating to distraction

Just leave them alone


Girls in the back

Girls in the back

Puressence Don't Forget

They say come back to earth and start getting real, yeah

I say come back to earth and start getting real

I know I can't


So I walk right up to you

And you walk all over me

And I ask you what you want

And you tell me what you need


The problem of leisure

What to do for pleasure

Ideal love a new purchase

A market of the senses

Dream of the perfect life

Economic circumstances

The body is good business

Sell out, maintain the interest


Sitting in my armchair thinking again and again and again

Going round in a circle I can't get out

Then I look around thinking day and night and day

Then you look around - there must be some explanation

And the tension builds

Psychdedelic Furs

India, India

You're my love song

India, you're my love song

In the flowers

You can have me in the flowers

We will dance alone

And live our useless lives

Ladytron Light Magic

They only want you when you're seventeen

When you're twenty-one

You're no fun

They take a polaroid and let you go

Say they'll let you know


No consolation prizes

Spit out your lies and chewing gum

Cut off your hair yeah that's it!

If you look like that I swear I'm gonna love you more


All the neighbors are startin' up a fire

Burning all the old folks, the witches and the liars.

My eyes are covered by the hands of my unborn kids

But my heart keeps watchin' through the skin of my eyelids


Prince charming

Prince charming

Ridicule is nothing to be scared of

Don't you ever, don't you ever

Stop being dandy, showing me you're handsome


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