A World with All Kinds of Music

Intellectual Capital , October 22, 1999

Obituary writers marked the recent death of Sony co-founder Akio Morita primarily as a reminder of business and technological success. Morita, in most accounts, symbolized the rise of Japanese industry from the ashes of World War II. But Morita also represented one of the greatest cultural transformations of the 20th century, a transformation in which Sony played an important, but by no means singular, role: the spread of on-demand, increasingly personalized music.

We take it for granted, of course. No one alive can remember a world without recorded music, and few of us fully recall life without portable music as well. We read Laura Ingalls Wilder's stories of a fiddle-playing Pa and think of them as charming tales for children, not chronicles of a frontier in which music-making technology was rare and precious. Surrounded by music, we cannot imagine the irresistible appeal of a Pied Piper.

A mere century ago, however, inexpensive, high-quality music, available to anyone, any time, any place, was the stuff of utopian fiction. In his 1887 bestseller, Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy imagined America in the year 2000 as prosperous, harmonious, and filled with wonders. His 19th-century time traveler was impressed greatly by a telephone-based system that broadcast live concerts 24 hours a day.

"If we could have devised an arrangement for providing everyone with music in their homes, perfect in quality, unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood, and beginning and ceasing at will," he exclaimed, "we should have considered the limit of human felicity already attained, and ceased to strive for further improvements."

Having attained the "limit of human felicity," we citizens of the actual future conduct vicious fights over music. Music has become political, just as religion once was. It is the subject of "culture wars." Hence Tipper Gore grabbed headlines in the 1980s when her husband sponsored Senate hearings to further her campaign to clean up popular music. Bill Bennett plays a similar role today.

Less moralizing critics bemoan musical plenitude per se. Writes Jacob Weisberg in Slate, "What we lack is a flourishing common, or national, culture....Meanwhile, pap abounds."

Bellamy did not imagine that future. His perfect world was centrally planned, administered by wise and benevolent bureaucrats. Music was plentiful by 19th-century standards, but extraordinarily limited by ours. There was no room for pap-or for experimentation. Bellamy's system offered only well-established styles, few enough to accommodate the full range of programming with four simultaneous live performances.

Contrary to Bellamy's vision, we didn't get abundant music the way we got tap water, through a few carefully controlled pipelines. Instead, the recording and broadcast tools created by Morita and others delivered music not as a utility but as an increasingly customized product. No planner would have produced the musical variety we currently enjoy. It is beyond the imagination of a single mind.

Records and radio spread new musical ideas, preserved old forms, and wove connections spanning oceans, continents, and ethnicity. Artists adopted ideas from musicians they could never have met. The Internet has intensified that process, as have ever-falling equipment prices.

Twentieth-century technologies heightened the importance of the individual artist, creating what economist Tyler Cowen calls "performer-based" genres, like rock and country, which transmit their "musical and aesthetic vision through personalities and talents of specific music-makers." These new genres are more particular, more varied, and faster to evolve than the "composer-based" genres, notably classical forms, which are transmitted purely through notations on paper.

Some critics imagined that musical exchange would sterilize world music, stamping out variety. Writing in 1968, the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax predicted a "global grey-out," the destruction of traditional folk music by Western pop. What happened instead was a proliferation of genres-some regional, some worldwide, all capable of crossfertilizing each other. Sociologist Orlando Patterson, writing critically of Lomax's static vision, calls the result "near hypercreativity."

We generally think of music as a product of art rather than commerce or technology. It depends, in fact, on all three. Together, these great dynamic systems match individual creativity and individual desire. They thus generate change, variety, and an endless array of critics-all determined that music, like the rest of society, should conform to "one best way."

That would be a terrible deal. By tolerating music that pleases others but not ourselves, we preserve a system that has delivered a historical wonder-a felicity higher even than Bellamy imagined. We can listen to perfectly performed music to suit any mood or taste at any time, music that moves us in ways particular to our individual senses and our individual souls.