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Paradigm Schmaradigm: Rehearsing the Past

Don’t be surprised. You are reading a book and you already know how it turns out. That’s right. We are replaying history. Again and again and again. Like Bill Murray’s character in the film Groundhog Day, sometimes it takes us a little while to realize we can change and that change can be good.


The book starts something like this…


“Long ago in a land far away there lived the music roll manufacturers. When the player piano came along, it started a revolution. The local tavern or movie theatre, and soon even some homes, could enjoy the talents of musicians who were not physically present to perform. And the “industry” was not happy.  ‘This will wipe out the job of the piano player,’ said many.”


“As player pianos became well established, the publishers of the music rolls that operated them worked to protect their market by fighting new ideas. The evil genius, Thomas Edison, invented a way to capture music on wax cylinders and to play back the music with a needle, obliterating the market for player pianos. The people were happy. And the manufacturers of cylinders, and soon 78 rpm platters, tried to tighten their grip on music – unstoppable music.”


“Then the demon of innovation struck again, creating wireless radio signals to bring the performers right to your home along with their band, the theatre troupe, and their comedian friends. For the big insurance and manufacturing companies that sponsored it, radio was a ploy to get the innocent citizens to listen to not-so-subtle advertisements and respond with a feeling of obligation and gratitude for the services that had been rendered them, thus creating ‘brand loyalty’. And other parts of the industry revolted, calling the radio evil.”


The chapters roll on, each a familiar echo of the past: “blank cassettes should be taxed”, “digital tape will put the industry out of work”, “synthesizers will destroy all music”, “computers and MIDI will make artificially talented musicians out of everyone and all art will be lost” … you get the idea.


Pick any history of the music industry and you will see the same story repeated. The powerhouses of yesterday often get wiped out by a new generation of innovative thinkers. Those who can let go of buggy whips and horse drawn carriages and embrace the possibilities of the car drive us into the future. Some innovations work on the first try. Others crash and burn. Revolutionary inventions like the car transform the horse feed stops of the dirt roads into gas stations on the autobahns.


It’s happening again. We live in the most exciting time in the history of our planet. Communication and media access are breaking through all previous barriers. New technologies and possibilities emerge at stunning rates. The limited playlists of radio have given way to deep and broad catalog exposure for independent artists. Singles are back! And music is becoming ubiquitous.


Scott Hughes, one of PassAlong Networks’ founders and a veteran of nine years at EMI, likens what we are seeing to the changes experienced by the sugar industry. Years ago you’d walk into a grocery store and see many brands of sugar in the sugar section. Today you can still go to the sugar section, yet you also find some form of sugar in almost every other aisle. So it goes with music.


Music has been constrained to a few distribution channels. The digital revolution unlocks the shackles, making music available in new ways. As we get to an “always connected” world, music will truly be everywhere with the possibility for each of us to experience it in unique ways. “DIY” (do it yourself) thinking has already made many of us programmers for our own music experiences. 


Paradigm shifts are nothing new. History is repeating itself. Are you a buggy whip maker? Or an automotive pioneer? Don’t hold those old paradigms too tight – they just might drag you down.

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