More from Spook Country - this time protagonist Hubertus Bigend is explaining the state of the music industry to an ex-musician from a band called The Curfew. It is probably the best short history of the industry I've seen.
"In the early 1920s," Bigend said, "there were still some people in this country who hadn't yet heard recorded music. Not many, but a few. That's less than a hundred years ago. Your career as a 'recording artist'" - making the quotes with his hands - "took place towards the end of a technological window that lasted less than a hundred years, a window during which consumers of recorded music lacked the means of producing that which they consumed. They could buy recordings, but they couldn't reproduce them. The Curfew came in as that monopoly on the means of production was starting to erode. Prior to that monopoly, musicians were paid for performing, published and sold sheet music, or had patrons. The pop star, as we knew her" - and here he bowed slightly, in her direction - "was actually an artifact of preubiquitous media."
"Of a state in which 'mass' media existed, if you will, within the world."
"As opposed to?"
Much (most) of what we call media is currently in an - historically - anomalous situation. Pretty much all of the major forms of popular entertainment can be instantly and endlessly reproduced by amateurs. TV, film, music, even a lot of games, to the point that they become effectively public goods. The market for cinemas is broken because - beyond the advantages of the size of the screen - the business is all about gatekeeping something that has become ubiquitous. So for TV, so for music, so - we seem forever on the verge of finding - for books.
But this apparently natural, allegedly inevitable transition to ubiquitous media - media as "free as the air", as Prince liked to say before he realised the real fun was in suing his fans - could be the merest blip in the history of media technology. You can at least envisage the beginnings of a swing of the pendulum the other way when watching Beowulf in 3D at the Imax (try downloading that experience off the Internet to watch at home). Sure, a big room in which you show films that you pretend are new or exclusive is now obvious nonsense...but envisage a media technology that really provides an experience that can't be replicated at home, at least for the next thirty years (except by millionaires), and you've suddenly got a business model again.
Not that this will help the music industry a jot. Charging money to reproduce music was indeed "a technological window that lasted less than a hundred years". But we draw the wrong conclusion if we try to learn from that the - beguilingly attractive - lesson that all media is on the road to becoming inevitably as free as the air. All you need to believe today is that more media technologies are already on their way. Of course they are.