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31 July 2007

Taking Advantage of Web 2.0

Robert Davidson Image: Robert Davidson  
© Topology

I decided some years ago to give away many of my scores. Why would anyone give away what they might be able to sell? For the same reason McDonald’s sells cheap ice creams – so they can get you into the shop to buy more profitable items. More directly, it’s similar to why TV stations give away free shows on air, or why Google gives away software – so they can sell advertising.

At the scale I operate on as a composer, it makes sense to use scores and some recordings in a similar way, as loss leaders – to give them away as promotional materials in order to make it easier for performances and recordings to happen. Performance rights and royalties offset any money that I miss in sales (or don’t miss, since most people downloading the scores would probably not have bought them anyway). My music is able to become more widely known, indirectly leading to commissions and engagements, as well as many non-financial rewards. Separating promotion and distribution from direct income may allow other goals to be more effectively reached.

Perhaps we in the Australian new music community need to be more actively documenting each other’s – not just our own – work... My teacher Terry Riley (www.terryriley.com) provides a nice early example of this. One important reason his 1964 composition In C has been so influential is its availability – Riley encourages people to make and distribute copies (particularly easy with a single-page score). It’s also so flexible that almost any group of performers can make an effective performance.

Following Riley’s example and inspired by Open Source software philosophies, I’ve been giving away scores online for some years, resulting in a marked increase in international performances (this week included Kazakhstan and New York) and several broadcasts that would be unlikely to have happened otherwise. Creative Commons licensing allows me to control the use of the material to an extent, without needlessly hindering performances and distribution.

The loss-leader approach to digital content is a strategy that could apply to a number of possible business models for ‘dot composers’ (as Julian Knowles calls those of us who work with notation as a primary medium). ‘New business models are proliferating, and sticking with the old ‘come to our exclusive club’ approach is not going to make sense for many of us for much longer’ Julian opined to me over coffee at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), where he’s just starting in a leadership role (he’s also a very interesting creative musician).

Julian and I were talking about how ‘Web 2.0’ – the rather over-hyped online trend of services emphasising collaboration and many-to-many publishing – can be better harnessed by people in the Australian new music scene. A quick look around at some of the prominent music/video services (discussed in more detail below) doesn’t show a strong presence of Australian composers and new music groups.

...evaluation of creative work needs more hierarchy. There needs to be evaluation of the evaluators, criticism of the critics.We wondered together why many colleagues are not taking advantage of promotional possibilities offered by Web 2.0. Is it because there is – even now in the 21st century – a strong attitude that contemporary classical music, to be any good, has to be unclassifiable? That placing category tags on your musical artefacts is akin to putting a box around your brain?

Unsurprisingly, given the USA dominance over the Internet, American composers are much better represented. They are easy to find within the new recording distribution methods too – iTunes (www.apple.com/itunes), epitonic (www.epitonic.com), Yahoo music (music.yahoo.com) and others represent many USA composers and ensembles, but Australian equivalents are very thin on the ground.

The Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org), which seems to be increasingly the first port of call for my music students, is similarly skewed towards the USA in relation to new music. The category of ‘Contemporary Classical Music Ensembles’ (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Contemporary_classical_music_ensembles), for example, is dominated by USA ensembles (Alarm Will Sound, California EAR Unit, Relâche and many others).

Anyone can edit this encyclopaedia, but it’s not kosher to blow your own trumpet. Perhaps we in the Australian new music community need to be more actively documenting each other’s – not just our own – work here by writing and editing entries about our colleagues. That way we all benefit. (I’ve just gone off and created an entry for Graeme Koehne (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graeme_Koehne) to avoid hypocrisy here).

Web 2.0 rewards this kind of communal thinking – it’s fundamentally based on ‘harnessing collective intelligence’, according to Tim O’Reilly who originally coined the term (O'Reilly 2005) . It’s what originally gave Google such an edge in search, as the company popularised page ranking algorithms.

The Wisdom Of Crowds (Surowiecki 2004) is one way of arriving at some semblance of accurate information, but I think evaluation of creative work needs more hierarchy. There needs to be evaluation of the evaluators, criticism of the critics. This is approached by some prominent meta-weblogs such as Digg (digg.com) and Redditt (reddit.com), where users and comments can be rated. Sites such as Amazon (amazon.com) and Epinions (www.epinions.com) have been at this for some time (before Web 2.0 was mentioned in any case), using trust algorithms to rank opinions and critics. A really powerful system would do this recursively – those who evaluate the evaluators could also be evaluated and so on. This is something akin to how peer review works, the time-honoured way of measuring quality, pervasive in arts funding and research assessment. Peer review is, however, often criticised for being centralised, entrenched and conservative. Would Web 2.0 approaches allow us to keep the positive aspects while avoiding these pitfalls?

Elsewhere in this issue, Richard Vella and Jon Drummond outline a research project that I am also involved with – ACID Press – that is looking at how to manage online peer review of creative work. The system would allow communication between evaluators and creators at every stage of development, from idea to final product, and recursive evaluation as discussed above.

Let me move on to looking at some specific free Web 2.0 services that may be worth the attention of those of us working in new music, starting with the two behemoths.

Sharing music recordings

MySpace (www.myspace.com): It’s starting to labour under the weight of spam, but this site remains a crucial part of many musicians’ promotional strategy, with millions of artist pages in a huge variety of genres. Up to four recordings can be uploaded for streaming or downloading from an artist’s page, so there is a lot of music to listen to on the site. The killer feature of the site is that artists can link to other ‘friend’ artists, thereby making nuanced self-definitions by association. It can be an effective way for people to discover your work via ‘friend’ artists they know. Another prominent metric is the number of page visits, used as something of a status indication. Several music publishers, including Boosey & Hawkes (www.boosey.com), have started making pages for their represented composers.

YouTube (www.youtube.com): Like MySpace (which Rupert Murdoch bought for approximately US$327 million), this video sharing site has solidified as a major silo for digital content – making it worth Google’s investment of US$1.65 billion. It is very widely used by pop artists to promote their work and increasingly represents a wider range of genres. It is often used as a storage space for videos which may be embedded on an artist’s website or elsewhere.

Last.fm (last.fm.com): This is rather like the grownup version of MySpace. It has a stronger emphasis on profiling users’ musical taste and recommending related music, so has the potential for directing targeted listeners to your work. There seem to be a large number of thoughtful, reflective artists represented here, writing sophisticated weblog entries. The categorisation system is not as pre-defined as MySpace, both users and artists can tag tracks, and artists can make ranked charts of their favourite linked artists.

iJigg (www.ijigg.com): This very new service scores points for simplicity – it is set up like a straightforward weblog with music recordings taking the place of news entries. Uploading a track is extraordinarily simple and fast. Users rank and comment upon tracks, which are simply categorised. The higher rank a track receives, the more prominent it becomes, with exponential results.

Internet Archive (www.archive.org): This is a vast archive that is already ten years old. It is probably best known for its remarkable collection of public-domain movies, used by many in the cut-and-paste communities. It is also host to large collections of contemporary classical music recordings categorised by keywords, and again it is dominated by Americans. Anyone may add content, which users can then rate and comment upon.

Jamendo (www.jamendo.com): Another rating and recommendation system for music recordings, Jamendo is also strongly connected with Creative Commons licensing. It operates in a similar way to online labels such as epitonic (www.epitonic.com) and Magnatune (www.magnatune.com), with emphasis on directing users to buy CDs of the music they like (though the tracks may be freely downloaded).

Most of the sites above work best for musicians who participate in the community, becoming fans as well as producers of music.


Sonicbids (www.sonicbids.com): this is not strictly free; it just has a free trial period. The purpose of sonicbids is to connect promoters/festivals and artists, providing space for an online electronic press kit. The site has recently entered a formal partnership with Australian Independent Record Labels Association, and several unsigned Australian acts have received festival bookings through the service.

Sharing sheet music

In the online environment, the concept of ‘music’ pretty closely equates with ‘recordings’. Sheet music is a much smaller game. I would love to see this area grow. I miss the 1980s journals of scores like Soundings because reading scores of other ‘dot composers’ is often more rewarding than listening to performances or recordings – it shows the source of ideas clearly. Musical analogies to open source software have tended to focus thus far on making available individual channels from multi-track mixes (ccMixter (www.ccmixter.org) and the Freesound Project (freesound.iua.upf.edu) being perhaps the leading examples). I wonder if the musical score is a more accurate analogy for software’s open source code.

Finale Showcase (www.finalemusic.com/showcase): Using the Finale Notepad plugin, users can read and hear scores, as well as perform some editing (such as transposing) in many cases. Works are categorised by ensemble, genre and difficulty, but there is no rating system other than a top ten list of the most downloaded scores. A lot of very mediocre work surrounds some gems and it is a lot of work to sort them out.

Sibelius Music (www.sibeliusmusic.com): Composers may sell their scores through this collection, which similarly uses a plugin (Scorch) for users to listen to the scores they are reading. An mp3 recording may also be attached to each score. Sibelius charges a 50% commission on each sale, though composers set their own price (which may be zero).

Free collections: There are several large collections of public domain and Creative Commons licensed scores, including Mutopia, the Choral Public Domain Library and the International Music Score Library Project, all of which are dominated by traditional repertoire, but which offer a good solution for hosting scores you may wish to make freely available to performers.

With new services appearing almost daily (and I haven’t even mentioned blogging, podcasts and any number of other possibilities), there really is no need for composers and performers to build their own website and databases to host digital music assets. It becomes more crucial to strategise how to tweak the existing, main-road services to advantage.

And advantages there are. This technology offers unprecedented possibilities to connect directly with very specific audiences on any scale and with very flexible niche boundaries, from extremely narrow to mass audiences. It makes it viable and profitable to sell CDs (through services such as CD Baby) in very small numbers, attractive for those of us working in small niches. It makes international performances of your works a very realistic proposition and provides instant access to detailed, hierarchical knowledge about your compositions, including scores and recordings of the works themselves. Best of all, it promotes participation in communities around interesting music – it can be just as rewarding being a music fan as opposed to a musician in these scenes. To harness these possibilities requires no real technical knowledge – it just takes a little time and effort.


O'Reilly, Tim. What is Web 2.0? 2005 [cited 30 September 2005]. Available from http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/a/oreilly/tim/news/2005/09/30/what-is-web-20.html.

Surowiecki, J. 2004, The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies, and Nations. Doubleday, New York.

Subjects discussed by this article:

Robert Davidson is a composer and music lecturer at Qld University of Technology. He studied composition with Terry Riley and leads the postclassical quintet Topology, for whom he plays double bass.


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crowd outta control

Dear David,

with respect it's the crowd that put Bush in the white house twice and kept Howard in power here for 10 years. I think you rate our species too highly if I may say so! Democracy and music equals mostly lame pop music.

And handing over your creative work to Murdoch is fine providing you don't rely on it to earn a living...somebody has placed my pieces on U tube anyway without asking (is that stolen or what?) so I don't have to bother to put it up there.

In my experience, it is still personal contact and knowledge that'll get you a decently paid gig - I don't think the internet has helped the musician very much in that regard. The professional muso is more devalued now than at any time in history.

As a place to look for information, the internet is fine and immediate. But as a prime minister once observed about his cabinet - they are better informed but none the wiser.

all the best,

Jon Rose

at last

Now we're gettin' somewhere.

pop may eat itself but art music is often a hands on affair

That may be so Jon. But democracy, and its marvellous institutional patronage of the marginal arts in sheltered workshops, oh, I mean, university music departments, also produces some pretty freakin' lame 'art' music an' all.