The Next Paradigm Shift

I’ve got a new hero, and his name’s Chuck D.

For those of you who don’t know, Chuck D’s been front man for Public Enemy, a politically-savvy rap group that’s been around since the late ’80s. Since the release of their seminal album “Yo! Bum Rush the Show” in 1987, Chuck D and PE’s been surfing the edge of the music industry, tweaking sacred cows with their never ceasing commentary on American society and the music biz. And now Chuck D’s discovered MP3.

MP3 allows anyone with a decent computer to compress and transmit CD-quality audio across the Internet in files small enough for sub-10 minute downloads. Easily played back with a variety of freely-available software packages, the MP3 format has recently become the bane of the music industry, which sees it as a nearly unstoppable medium for music piracy.

And music is getting pirated — check out some of the MP3 newsgroups on Usenet, and you’ll find files for just about any song, artist, or genre you could imagine. And no one can stop it.

The music industry’s responded by getting behind a new pay-for-play music standard, but as anyone who’s been around since the copy-protection wars of the ’80s remembers, no anti-piracy standard goes un-cracked for long. While music companies have long enjoyed a virtual monopoly on duplication and distribution of music, the combination of readily available recording tools and a global Internet has those record execs mighty nervous. And that’s where Chuck D comes in.

It seems that Chuck D got sick of waiting for PolyGram to release Public Enemy’s new “Bring the Noise 2000” album. What did he do? He released it in MP3 format on his web site. PolyGram got miffed, ordered the album pulled, and has since gone on to initiate legal action. Not to be undone, Public Enemy has since released a new single “Swindler’s Lust” in the even-more-tiny MP4 format. He’s promising more to come.

So has Chuck D become my hero — me, the mild-mannered interactive marketing geek? Because Chuck D’s the first major figure in the music industry to wake up and smell the web-based coffee. Rather than gripe and moan and dig his fingernails into old paradigms, Chuck D’s seen the future and sees that it’s all about disintermediation. (Could that be what the “D” stands for?)

In a recent “Wired” interview, Chuck D lays it all out on the line: “Say an independent label has a studio. If a label cuts a record, it has to go out and distribute 10,000 pieces of hard-software in order to get exposure. The Internet eliminates that need, so an independent can test a market without ever pressing a CD. The demo, as we know it, will be eradicated.”

He continues: “It’s great for the musician. Instead of just depending on a song and a video, the Net will bring back live performances. Artists will be able to release a song every two weeks, instead of waiting for six, seven months for a label to put it out. A band can become like a broadcaster.” (Wired, March 1999)

This isn’t fantasy — it’s happening right now on sites such as mp3.com which have over 140,000 new titles available for free download. Saehan, a Samsung spinoff, has released the MP-Man MP3 player which allows downloaded MP3 files to be dumped into a portable Walkman-like player that allows you to take your downloaded music anywhere. And Lycos just recently debuted , a net-search portal for all that is MP3.

What does this mean to us web marketers? First of all, it shows how a fringe phenomenon can garner wide-ranging acceptance when people start to catch on to a cool new technology. A year ago, MP3 files were being swapped by geeks in college dorms. Today, it’s becoming a viable commercial format.

As Chuck D has recognized, the Net gives us an unprecedented opportunity to put the means of production and duplication into the hands of everyone. When software and music doesn’t have to be distributed via an outmoded system of physical distribution channels, the opportunities expand exponentially. Now, anyone can become their own music label with an investment in a computer, some cheap software, and a web site.

As the means of production and distribution become more distributed, culture and commerce are bound to become more distributed, too. And so will attention.

The money makers of the future won’t be the ones who can bind up the ever-unraveling threads of content into a single skein, but the ones who can make it easy for those who have a particular interest to find it quickly and easily. This doesn’t necessarily mean mega-portals — it may mean that mini-portals based around everything-you-want-to-know- about-X will arise and grow in popularity.

The portals of today are too big to be useful. The portals of tomorrow will serve as home bases for particular constituencies — or appear to be individual portals for a small group. People will see the sites they need to see, without being forced to wade through gigabytes of junk they don’t need.

As advertisers and marketers, we must be prepared. As broadband gains acceptance, I’d bet you a donut that the next MP3-like battle isn’t going to be about audio — it’s gonna be about video.

Five years ago, 3 meg MP3 downloads would have been thought to be too big to be a viable medium in a world with 14.4 modems and 100Meg hard drives. Five years from now, 100 megabyte video downloads over 500Kps broadband into 100 Gig hard drives might seem like child’s play.

As record companies now have to deal with a world that makes their product infinitely copyable and easily transmittable, television will have to cope with the same possibilities in the future. And as everyone becomes a broadcaster or a record company or a multimedia provider for smaller and smaller segments, our marketing strategies will have to morph to match.

We weren’t prepared for what’s going on now — we can be prepared for the future.

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