Digital Music Prophet
by James Paton
When one thinks about Frank Zappa, he is (depending on the intellectual capacity of the person) generally recognized as a musician, songwriter, composer, producer, director, conductor, satirist and politician of unwavering talent and unmitigated wit. He is often seen, as the title of one of his numerous albums claims him to be, ahead of his time. Exactly how far ahead of the curve he was though, very few people will have actually realized.
Aside from his incredible, genre-hopping musical career (and the various other tangents that he explored), Frank had a few ideas that actually fell through the cracks, doomed to be recognized as nothing but abject failures. He proposed to write and stage a bizarre show for the closing of the FIFA World Cup in 1990 (featuring appearances by Hitler and an image of the devil, personified by Elvis Pressley), he devised a concept for his own nightly television show, and on top of these, he also recognised the expense that the music industry incurred by relying almost exclusively upon the phonograph record format. This was in the early eighties, prior to the advent of the compact disc, after all.
He was understandably worried that, as it had become the norm for the industry to shamelessly promote and force feed the popular acts of the moment to the unwitting public, great musical releases were being removed from the shelves of record stores due to the limited space they afforded. And to this particular problem, he devised a rather interesting solution."Put aside momentarily the current method of operation and think what is being wasted in terms of great catalog items, squeezed out of the marketplace because of limited rack space in retail outlets, and the insatiable desire of quota-conscious company reps to fill every available slot with this week's new releases."Whereas the record industry saw home taping as a vile force that was stealing much needed cash away from them (they were clearly struggling after all), Frank saw it as something that could be turned into a positive. The solution that could keep real music alive, whilst substantially reducing the distribution costs to the labels. "It is our proposal to take advantage of the positive aspects of a negative trend afflicting the record industry today: home taping of material released on vinyl."
His concept, was that digital copies could be made of the entire back catalogues of each and every label, and stored in a central location that consumers would be able to access from the comfort of their homes via their telephone lines or cable television boxes. He whole heartedly believed that the music lover wanted to consume music and not the frivolous packaging that the product comes housed in.
"We propose to acquire the rights to digitally duplicate THE BEST of every record company's difficult-to-move Quality Catalog Items (Q.C.I.), store them in a central processing location, and have them accessible by phone or cable TV""All accounting for royalty payments, billing to the consumer, etc., would be automatic, built into the software for the system."However, he also proposed that for such people (like myself) that enjoy both, the cover art and technical information of an album could be streamed to users via just one of the many unused cable TV channels-even whilst the download of the album was taking place-to give the consumer the full album experience. Due to storage limitations at the time though, he also proposed that the available downloads could be rotated on a monthly basis, and that listings for these could be distributed to users to keep them up to date on what was available, and when.“...a visualization of the original cover art, including song lyrics, technical data, etc., could be displayed while the transmission is in progress, giving the project an electronic whiff of the original point-of-purchase merchandising built into the album.”He also pointed out that automated billing software could be easily integrated into the system; speeding up the process and further reducing the costs to the labels."Monthly listings could be provided by catalog, reducing the on-line storage requirements of the computer.”So, exactly how far ahead of his time was he then? Well, according to Wikipedia, there was an astonishing 795 million single track downloads in 2006, up from just 160 million in 2004- this equates to a revenue growth of around $1.6 billion. And this, of course, doesn’t even take into account the wealth of full album downloads that have taken place over the same period either. After a fairly slow start, this effectively marks the point when consumers began to shift their attention away-en masse-from physical music releases towards download services, a trend that has only continued to grow since, finally usurping the compact disc from its perch at the top of the music medium pecking order.
It is rather sad that despite the growth of digital distribution in recent years, Frank will never receive the recognition that he deserves for creating this concept so many years ago, and that his idea will forever be perceived as nothing other than a colossal failure, despite the fact that the figures most assuredly prove otherwise. We, however, know the truth, and now whenever someone claims that Frank Zappa was indeed ahead of his time, you’ll be able to point out roughly how far forward he truly was, roughly twenty-four years by my calculations.
CITATIONS: All quotes come from The Real Frank Zappa Book which FZ wrote with Peter Ochiogrosso (published by Pan Books, 1989).
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