Music as the Canary in the Coal Mine

It's been almost 20 years since Napster tipped over the boat. Although it operated only for about 2 years in its original form, the repercussions of what they started are still being felt and we've not yet come through all the changes that Napster wrought. Musicians can't make money. We didn't make any before Napster either. It's just a different kind of not making money. But some have managed to adjust, and more notably many bands and fans came of age in this era, so the idea of free music, "donated" support, and superfans is what they've always known. Computer technology also changed every other aspect of music. Anyone can make music, you no longer need an expensive studio. You don't need a label or a distributor. You just need a computer, some decent gear and software, and an internet connection.


I think music serves as something of a canary in a coal mine. What has happened to the music industry could happen to nearly every endeavor we are now engaged in. This isn't new, but after viewing some recent YouTube videos this idea formed itself in my mind more clearly. Video games have supplanted music as a dominant form of entertainment. Think now of all the video games you can play for free. If you're a semi-serious gamer you might also know about the modding community. These are people who made add ons for many games. Some of these modders might get a little money via donation, but are mostly just doing it for free and for fun. Skyrim is a popular game and one of the most modded I've seen. On the mod sharing site Nexusmods there are over 40 thousand files available. Sure, not all of it is great, but can you imagine the cost to the game manufacturer if they themselves had made even a fraction of those mods? Can you imagine being asked to pay for each one that you wanted to use?


It's not just games. Open source software is common, with some programs like OpenOffice easily standing toe to toe with giants like Microsoft Word. Though not exactly open source, I use Reaper as my recording software. I find it every bit as capable as other programs that would have cost hundreds more. There was a recent announcement that one of the most widely used game engines would be released for free, for all to use.


Back to the YouTube videos, I've seen a number of fan made videos of well known material, and I've seen people's original works. With the available technology, now filmmakers can do what musicians began doing two decades ago. They can make Hollywood quality films by themselves, at home, with their friends, for not much money. Youtube is huge, visual entertainment is massive, and I don't see this slowing down. Homemade videos might never upend the industry the way it happened in music, but with companies like Netflix and Amazon making their own (very successful) shows, less and less you'll need to go through some sort of gatekeeper to make your movie and get it out to the public.


I don't think this is limited just to entertainment. Businesses want to make as much money as they can, and cutting costs is one way to do that. Once self-driving cars become common, how long will it be until cab companies and trucking companies become automated? Already in Japan you can go to restaurants where the food is prepared by robots. Someone also just opened a hotel staffed by robots. When 3D printing becomes even more commonplace than it already is, that will further eliminate the need for workers.


Many people always have and always will make music and art and film for the love of it, not the money. But I really can't see anyone working at Walmart or McDonald's just because they enjoy the task at hand. Manufacturing in the US went through this in the 70s, and never really recovered. That was partly due to automation, and partly due to cheap overseas labor. The economy of the future is not a matter of training people for new industries, enacting policies that promote job growth, or even increasing the minimum wage. The economy of the future is us figuring out what to do with all the people who don't have jobs not because of any reason we have today, but because those jobs don't need to be done by people anymore. This issue becomes magnified when you consider the use of robots and other manufacturing in other countries. It's one problem to figure out what 100 million Americans will do when humans don't have to do those jobs anymore. Add to that a billion Chinese workers.


Where does this leave us? I don't really think any of this is bad, but our civilization isn't taking steps to be ready for these changes. If all of our creative work is done for free, are we all flipping burgers and stocking grocery shelves to pay the bills? If all the mundane work is done by machines, what will everybody do? Can we begin to move to a world where our needs are taken care of without a worry of money, leaving us to pursue our true callings?

(from Sean's personal blog)
blog comments powered by Disqus