Mobile Music - Personal Calls from the Wild Frontier
By Carol Posthumus, Fri Mar 15 00:00:00 GMT 2002

People find mysterious powers when it's a personal thing, like music.

"... The ear, as opposed to the cool and neutral eye, is sensitive, hyperaesthetic and all-inclusive, and contributes to the seamless web of tribal kinship and interdependence in which all members of the group existed in harmony." Marshall McLuhan to Playboy in 1969.

Music and radio on mobile, say pundits and mobile executives, when trotting out hot trends, will continue to grow and be the biggest turn-on, mostly, in the youth and gadget-fanatic markets. It's a sure bet, that there's something about music and mobile, that for most of us will invariably go beyond logic. The bottom-line is that music is a personal, and illogical, thing.

Moreover, looking at the powerful Internet-business music reverberations, such as Napster, there's something about music and new technology that takes us into the unpredictable wild. Music, for sure, passes the informal test of "what do people fearlessly, with-wild-abandon, harness corporate computer power for after hours"? The hottest links to music related Internet sites, within "peer groups", whirl around the electric realm between friends with viral efficiency.

Music changes...Luddites into techno-geniuses

Interestingly too, as with erotica, stubborn workplace Luddites - who apparently don't even like to open the first page of a software manual - will transform into resourceful techno-boffins when they want to get their Internet radio or MP3 software to work. When it's a personal thing, like music: people find mysterious powers. However, as many new glamorous music technologies are going onto mobile, they become even more accessible to more people - and simpler to play and be creative with.

14-year-old, Rayne, a peer of the mobile trend-leading youth realm, for instance, shows off a creative kind of delight at being able to compose his own ring tones with his Nokia mobile phone. Rayne's personal communication tool has become a mini music synthesizer, proudly personalized as it is with surfing and skateboarding - "Hook Up, Vans" type - stickers.

Like most teenagers, though, of limited financial resources, Rayne considers music - the machinery and new advancements - as natural as breathing. Already his musical repertoire includes a vast range of ring tones, which are often played to friends: "Listen to this one - ah, that sucks, this one's so cool."

Mobile composers rock the creative impulse

His enthusiasm echoes the professional sentiments of harmonica star and jazz/funk WAR group pioneer Lee Oskar, who signed with Seattle-based mobile entertainment group Versaly Games in January to create and produce "pleasing and fun" ringtones and other forms of mobile music.

"The current ringtones hurt my ears. Versaly is in the right place at the right time. Finally, a company who sees the future, and is working towards delivering the future. My music is special to me and I feel Versaly will distribute it in a manner consistent with my vision and creativity," comments Oskar.

Now, though, as with music mixing software on desk bound computers that some of us enjoyed playing DJ with - people are enjoying being able to create some music on their phones. Rayne, who does not own or have easy access to a personal computer, has never been able to play around with music mixers on a PC. Mobile opens a new door of expression for him. He says: "This is way cool. Listen to this one, one of my favorites - and I composed it myself! This composer rocks."

For teenagers like Rayne: the more mobile and the more flexible, the better. His imagination takes flight when he considers mobile music. "I could really go for music when I surf. Hey, I'd love to take it with me when I go in to the waves."

Changes in music - into the future

Clearly, the nomadic generations, who are living the mobile life from a young age, have very different and multi-hued demands for music on mobile.

We bounced around a few ideas with Neil Johnson, station manager of jazz radio station P4, in Cape Town. Johnson is an original thinking music man. He's pretty much played with whatever media he can get his hands on as a DJ and music manager - radio, television and Internet.

Johnson, for one, feels privileged to have experienced the leaps in technology in the digital age. For him that was the start of the ongoing digital evolution. "We grew up in the new media as workers, and for me, that was the perfect place to be - I am pleased not to have had to experience the new technology waves as a part of management, at a distance."

Give people what they want - it's simple

Johnson says that music and radio - whatever you play it on - boils down to "giving people what they want". Personally and professionally, Johnson is backing the tides of public demand and popular culture - over remote top-hierarchy-driven supply culture. New technology, as in seismic peer-to-peer blasts such as Napster, reflected, with clarity, precisely what people want for him.

"People expressing their demands with new technologies is exciting. The proliferation of new media players, innovations - coupled with the web environment - are really an ongoing evolution, which has, of course, brought a series of shock waves, in the music worlds. New technologies have meant things become not about only hearing the expression of the imposed will of some detached upper management, as they used to be."

Johnson says that he found it fascinating to lead a new Internet radio enterprise for a while- despite chugging valiantly though 'running like treacle' point-of-presence (POP) issues with land Internet bandwidth to get the seamless audio stream surfers required. People, he says, very quickly showed vast enthusiasm, and handiness for setting up the tools, in expressing their demand directly with participative features such as "virtual play lists". In these, individuals in the community would be able to instantly structure the station's play lists.

Communities of interest rule - no more hunting quagmires

Similarly to Rayne and his composer, Johnson says that Internet has also meant the blooming of hobbyist radio stations - which can have loyal specialized followings, that can be global in nature.

More broadly, Johnson reckons that ordinary Internet tools like search engines mean that people are able to go directly to what music they want and get their interests met around the bands they enjoy. "We don't have to battle through quagmires to find music - or lose touch with music we love and information we want around it, when artists fall out with their recording company."

For musicians, says Johnson, the Internet and digital technology has meant a lowering of geographical and cost obstacles - to reach their audiences and put together recording sessions and deals. "Yes, there've been a few success stories out of South Africa with metal thrash bands, for instance, getting followings - and sometimes recording deals - in Germany and France. This follows exposure on the Internet and reaching groups of fans who specifically follow their musical style - and search for new talent on the Internet."

Mobile music - a natural progression in innovation

Notably, music is also revolving more around delivering to communities of interest - which mean that you get what you want - and the use of direct marketing one-on-one techniques. Elaborates Johnson: "I'm a New Order fan, for instance, so I get information e-mailed to me about New Order. It's one of the music services I subscribe to. I don't have to go hunting around - research work which I don't have time for - to keep up with my personal music interests. These are powerful techniques, meaning you get directly to subscribers, that we are starting to use more for radio too."

The move of music - MP3, FM radio and probable music services on mobile Internet - Johnson feels is "great, a natural progression". He says: "It's a fun thing to see new model phones now with MP3 and radio functionality. Making music mobile in this style may bring some fascinating ways at looking at demographics for us in radio - understanding subtle shifts are essential to radio. Knowing when people do things, where they are and when they tune in is important information for us to understand and for our advertisers. Already, as I see it, the youth market - likely the big adopters of music services on mobile - has a totally different style of communicating and using mobile. Their conversations reportedly clock in at an average of 24s, according to some research?! This means it's 'where you? What you doing? Later'."

Wanting: access to music, not old-g style possession

It seems common sense that anyone looking at delivering music services on mobile to present and future markets, will also be considering the divergent new ways youth consume and use music. "Today's young music consumer wants to enjoy access to everything: but they do not, as in days past, necessarily always want to possess. Wanting music means access. Prices can be driven down by this style of wide demand, to enable universal access - not the pricier fixed possession-is-all philosophy for a few," Johnson responds.

"There will be some great ideas around Internet radio on mobile Internet, and there is some great thinking around other concepts such as satellite radio. With these, for me, price and bandwidth issues are relevant - and possibly the barriers to entry are high already if there are collusive elements in place, and could, unfortunately, put the brakes on some great ideas."

Furthermore, besides a need for new ways of looking at cost and pricing models, also, the seamless, all-encompassing consumption and use of music in the digital age style is important too. This stems from the rave culture, in large part. Rayne, for example, who loves creating with his mobile composer - also really enjoys making sound effects by moving (scratching, some would say) the needle around vinyl turntable versions of new music, as part of his musical experience.

Considering the many new business partnerships being forged between music groups and new technology - including mobile and recording companies - Johnson says that new media music relationships, he hopes, will be able to move freely with a lot of new trends and styles, of economy and society. "Business has a habit of creating these amazing new wild frontiers - and then being unable to resist reverting to really old fashioned styles of trying to fence 'em in. Maybe like the new style of music markets they serve, new partnerships will be less about possession and more about free flowing access....and letting music move beyond old style fences and boundaries in a natural way."

Carol Posthumus is a freelance author, analyzing how mobile technology impacts our lives. She lives in Midrand, South Africa.