✘ What makes things 'Better Than Free' in 2022?
And: Next wave of Crypto Music; Rock stars for abortion rights; Web3 DAW remix contests; Standardizing social captial; Anghami updates algorithm for older hits
Kevin Kelly is well-known for his 1,000 True Fans hypothesis, but he wrote another equally thought-provoking article in 2008 called Better Than Free. In it, he explains how the internet drives prices towards 0, a theme also central to the book Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson, former editor-in-chief at Wired, which Kelly founded.
Kelly explained the newly formed 2000s status quo as thus:
“This super-distribution system has become the foundation of our economy and wealth. The instant reduplication of data, ideas, and media underpins all the major economic sectors in our economy, particularly those involved with exports — that is, those industries where the US has a competitive advantage. Our wealth sits upon a very large device that copies promiscuously and constantly.”
When he wrote those words, it was against the backdrop of piracy. It was still 3 years before Spotify would launch in the US. Streaming subscription services and iTunes struggled to stem piracy’s tide. The internet had opened information and culture up: people wanted free access. Gerd Leonhard, a media futurist prominent in the music space at the time, posited that people want something that ‘feels like free’ meaning that free can still make money, e.g. through third-party subsidisation like ads or bundling deals.
Kelly’s piece addressed the issue head on:
“When copies are super abundant, they become worthless.
When copies are super abundant, stuff which can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable.
When copies are free, you need to sell things which can not be copied.”
His piece dove into 8 “generatives” — characteristics that generate value — ranging from immediacy, personalization, interpretation, authenticity, accessibility, embodiment, patronage, to findability.
In 2008, the force that pushed the price of music to 0 was a distributory force, meaning: it was easier than ever to distribute music painlessly and for free with anyone in the world (even if it’s not yours). In the years since, online services and creative digital strategies have brought new revenue streams to music and the distributory force no longer pushes the price to 0 (although it is a condition that the entire digital music landscape has had to shape itself around).
We now have an abundance force: it is easier than ever to make music and share it online. Over 60,000 tracks are added to Spotify daily. Music making software keeps evolving, making it easier to create things that sound good enough. AI is the accelerating factor here.
I won’t be revisiting Kelly’s 8 generatives or suggesting the addition of any new ones, mostly because the original 8 hold up incredibly well. What I do want to look at are the opportunities that exist when you intentionally strip music of its value. This is what creative collective Killing A Friend recently did, cutting their album into 29-second snippets, so that it wouldn’t trigger any plays or royalties (streaming services only count from 30s).
They put it to the test, even building a ‘click farm’ that would stream the album day and night, but at the end of the year their 2021 Wrapped showed 0 Streams, 0 Listeners, 0 Hours, 0 Countries.
Through community and scarcity, the crew is now turning its Worthless Album into a Valuable Album:
“Ownership of this NFT will be represented by each season's tokens (editions of NFTs), with 50% of the shares being transferred within the first nine seasons. Additionally, each season represents the album in its current form. As seasonal NFTs are collected, the album starts to change visually, sonically, & experientially until that particular season sells out.
Upon sellout, a new season unlocks, shape- shifting the album once more and unlocking further experiences, products, visuals, etc.
The remaining 50% will be allocated in season 10. This way—when the album becomes the most expensive work of music ever sold—it'll be fully owned by the community that helped it reach this status.”
Let’s hold this up against some of Kelly’s generatives:
immediacy ✅ — by owning an NFT fans can show that they were first, that they were early. Influencing season unlocks and the shape-shifting nature of the album adds additional immediacy.
authenticity ✅ — you’re buying directly from the artist and are involved in their journey. Since it’s an NFT, you can prove the provenance forever.
embodiment ✅ — the music is available for free in the embodiment of streams and even freely distributed vinyls, yet the embodiment of this music in NFTs adds value for the right people.
patronage ✅ — I don’t think I have to explain this one.
The thing with value cycles is that they are… well, cyclical. When distributory forces drove music’s price to 0, streaming services and new digital strategies arose in reaction and brought value back. The world’s music was aggregated and business models evolved in this context that make it a) easier to participate and b) harder to make a living if more people are participating.
We are now at the same place in the cycle as we were in 2008 — which coincidentally was a time of economic hardship, much like the present. The aggregator winners of the previous cycle focused on accessibility, findability and personalization. This cycle, for music, the focus appears to be more on the generatives in the checklist above. Web3 and its tech stack, despite all its usability problems and frequent bad behaviour from people hoping to make a quick buck, addresses many of these generatives in ways better than the status quo can. As kinks get ironed out, we’ll move towards mass adoption and the complicated tech will move into the background as it did before (remember: before you could ‘follow’ accounts, you had to manually subscribe to their RSS feeds — this was hard for most people).
If you enjoy this speculation on generatives, here’s more recommended reading:
🎸 In the ’90s, a new breed of rock stars organized for abortion rights. Could that happen today? (Suzy Exposito)
“The Palace show would soon propel a national movement guided by rock bands. Feminist Majority enlisted the help of the late Rick Van Santen, an L.A. punk promoter and co-president of live event company Goldenvoice. By 1992, the Rock for Choice shows were headlined by platinum bands like Soul Asylum, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam.”
🌊 The next wave of Crypto Music (Dan Fowler)
Excellent piece by long-term web3 x music builder Dan Fowler, diving into topics like Identity and Trust, Curation and Risk, Rights and Licensing, Communities, and more.
💻 How web3 DAW Arpeggi runs a remix contest (Arpeggi Labs)
Arpeggi is one of two prominent DAWs that are building ‘on-chain’ (the other is Endlesss). It’s long been proposed that rights management on blockchains implies that the info should be captured as soon as it leaves the DAW. I remember it being flagged in a 2016 week-long ‘blockchain lab’ at Music Tech Fest, although most people including myself dismissed it since at the time it seemed unrealistic to expect something like this from the status quo of DAW builders (also another problem: who cares about the data? Where does it go? Who verifies it?).
The element that was missing from DAWs was something that made it more social and created a meaningful context for attribution & derivation. Both Endlesss and Arpeggi are exploring what can be done, with the link above showcasing what a DAW-native remix context looks like in a world where exported tracks contain all the metadata in NFTs, so that transactions can automatically take this info into account through smart contracts (e.g. when distributing the money paid for something).
🤝 Standardizing Social Capital (reka.eth)
“The benefits of a global, permissionless, decentralized network where your social graph is truly owned by you are clear as day. There are concerns of distorting the human element of relationships and the details of data storage, privacy, accessibility and how much we'll put on-chain are still up for debate.”
📈 Anghami algorithm updated for older tracks and binge listening (Stuart Dredge)
“The company’s rankings will now include older tracks that have been given a new boost by social media and other sources, rather than focusing on frontline tracks.”
Interesting move in the context of hits being revived through TikTok virality and syncs like Kate Bush’ Running Up That Hill.
Someone built a playlist based on the Ruth Langmore character in the Ozark series, who would often be seen listening to 90s hiphop. Fresh approach to a playlist and extending characters from tv shows to other places.