Music wants to be free

"People think you’re a weirdo if your happiness doesn’t depend on the size of your bank account. So you must have balls of steel to do arts. It’s not that bad if you have a few like-minded people around, though.”

Music has always had the tantalising effect of being simultaneously within reach and yet unachievable.

Before Thomas Edison developed and marketed the technology to record sound, music was captured in notation and sheet music and it was a big business.

The concept of musical copyright had its beginnings in the reign of King Henry VIII of England (1491-1547) who licensed the printing of music.

This means that for centuries, if you had a favourite song, you either had to play it yourself or be fortunate enough to pay someone else.

Otherwise you might only hear the song maybe a few times in your whole life.

Then Edison's inventions led from wax cylinders to the discs that were an actual record of the session where the musicians played together.

After the Second World War a new market category developed, where teenagers with disposable incomes became a focus of the recording industry and a genre now known as Rock n' Roll developed.

I have a theory that the introduction of tape as a recording medium played a role, particularly the saturation on transients like the drum hits and expressive singing.

Then guitarists wanted that energy and it went from The Kinks cutting their speakers with razor blades to the development of distortion effects for Black Sabbath.

In many ways Rock n' Roll became the model for subsequent genres, particularly the structures used for popular music but also the marketing.

There was your basic 12-bar blues, if you weren't afraid of "black" music, as well as the Skiffle phenomenon that might've given musicians like Jimmy Page an introduction to playing an instrument before he took inspiration from those earlier Blues songs.

In my lifetime I've heard rap music starting to use choruses through the influence of LL Cool J and producer Rick Rubin, through to rave music similarly adopting these song structures as it moves from illegal gatherings to nightclubs and then TV advertising.

I suspect it was these structures that gave new sounds a recogniseable shape for the ears of consumers. 

This will be the challenge for musicians, balancing the strangeness of new sounds with serving it up in a shape that can fit the model of a song.

Now our lives are so saturated with music that it's not surprising to see the market is reluctant to pay for this product unless they're convinced it is a rare and peak experience, which might be marketing.

So I sympathise with those musicians who find their investment in producing a cultural product is offering diminishing returns.

However, I wonder whether we aren't seeing a return to earlier forms of music consumption.

Back to a time when music was almost incidental to most lives in the sense that peak live experiences of a favourite song were limited.

As well as recorded music offering little return, but maybe there'll be new models of patronage.

Music has played a role in human life forever and that is not going away.

This means the opportunities for many professional musicians are likely peripheral to their own aspirations, such as the local identity who runs the musical instrument shop.

Or someone like me who is making sense of the Edison-branded wax cylinders in a community museum.

We can take our love of music and find the ways it opens opportunities to learn.

Playing music is a wonderful social experience and maybe it's misleading to think we should be monetising all of our passions?