In the beginning, music was live. People needed to be in the physical presence of an artist to hear his/her sound, or they were charged with creating music on their own or with a group of friends. Later, radio and TV emerged and distributed music (and other forms of art) directly to the home and individuals. This one-to-many distribution allowed for tremendous scale and equally tremendous profits. On the heels grew another billion dollar industry in printing songs onto the latest-technology materials (vinyl, 8-track, cassettes, CD’s…), and picking a price at which to sell to a hungry public looking to rock-out whenever they wanted; end users could now own their own content. Business was great for corporations, record labels and most importantly the rock stars themselves. Average enthusiasts amassed enormous record collections (whose monetary contribution to the record label could be easily calculated by the number of discs or LP’s on the shelf), the idea of “copying and sharing” was not part of the public conscious, and the labels and artists had total control over their art and income.
Things changed. Earlier precedents are probably available, but as a supportive and adoring fan, innovative bands like the Grateful Dead began allowing the audience to record live shows (CTRL+F “Recordings of Shows). They allotted specific areas of the venue to those recording onto Hi-Def equipment and even allowed them to plug into the sound board. The practice went viral, ultimately giving way to some of the best quality and most circulated Dead music today, including Dick’s Picks. Recording and copying music on your own terms (and dime) grew unbridled and the consequences were tremendous. Aided by exponential technology, the processes for recording became easier, cheaper and better. Digital was born and transferring old analog files to digital bytes became a piece of cake. People amassed their own personally-manufactured libraries of music, on CD’s and eventually computer C: drives, created mash-ups and altered albums into mixes, shared new music with friends, and all the while enjoyed more savings in their back accounts.
Soon the internet came of age, and very smart individuals like Sean Parker saw the potential to take their cherished music collections and share them with the world. The one-to-many model was unraveling as “many-to-many” began to explore the limits of its reach and anyone with an internet connection became a provider of music content.
And we are still exploring. Innovative new sites and strategies continue to surface across the web offering music for free or literally cents on the dollar, and the music industry is wrapped up in a cat-and-mouse game trying to rethink the business model that made them so powerful and profitable for 60 years (rough estimate). They exercise the law and go after illegal distributors targeting both individuals and businesses with some success, they try harder and harder to encrypt the music they distribute and limit sharing with DRM restrictions, and most significantly they dip further and further into the musician’s pockets in order to stay profitable. “360 Deals” are the new standard in industry contracts, entitling the label to a piece of everything the represented artists does. On one hand the benefit is that we are witnessing a return to roots as live music and concerts become the primary revenue generator, however concert tickets have become astronomically expensive and even more discouraging is that musician continually to see less and less of the profits for their hard work, creativity and performance. And musicians are the ones that should be most protected and rewarded; at the end of the day the entire industry implodes without innovators at the source, and quality and variety suffer tremendously when the artists are not appropriately compensated. Suffice to say that almost everyone involved agrees (musicians, corporations, consumers, providers, etc…) that music as a business is a mess and in a state of reactionary fixes rather than proactive solutions.
Such is an extremely bastardized story of the music industry and its on-going struggle. Music was an easy initial target for the digital revolution. Songs were easy to transform into bytes (as were words and images), but unlike paintings, photographs or even books, their value (in a strictly monetary sense) was not in owning originals. According to a traditional understanding of work and appropriate reward, the proliferation of Picasso pictures and Ansel Adams photographs across the internet was less threatening because the value of the art to the collectors, auction houses and artists was not compromised. To a lesser extent the value of books and literature was also preserved, until recently, because it was harder to quickly copy and effectively scale sharing, better insulating the publishing houses and writers. However if the experience of a book could be achieved in 2 minutes, took less time to copy and print, and had earlier access to better mediums for consumption (Kindle and iPad), the publishing industry would have likely faced its current predicament much sooner.
All of the above in mind, a similar story is developing that will involve numerous industries formerly less affected by the digital age. If you do not already know about 3D printing, you should because investors, entrepreneurs, journalists and manufactures are all thinking about it and the disruption it could bring is immense. A video tells a thousand words and here is also an excellent white paper outlining the potential up/downside of the technology.
3D printers have existed for a long time, most obviously for architectural modeling application and CAD, however only recently has the technology become cheaper and more accessible to the public; MakerBot now offers the “CupCake” printer for $750. To put things into perspective, just as CDR drives became standard hardware in all computers and laptops and allowed individuals to print music onto CDs, 3D printers like the Cupcake will soon make their way into the home and allow individuals to start printing metal, glass, fabric, and plastic into desired objects like furniture, wine glasses, clothes, and toys. The applications are endless and exciting to talk about, but it is equally important that we spend energy thinking about how to properly blueprint the future of the 3D printing, in order to avoid a similar trajectory to that of the music industry and ensure that the artists and designers at the source are protected. Behind every well-built toaster, perfect-pair of jeans, and seamlessly-functional electronic device is a designer (or team) pouring hours of creative might into transforming ideas and aesthetics into the physical objects we interact with daily.
As evidenced by the recent history of the music industry, interests are not always aligned, so going forward it is critical that expectations from all sides of the table be fully understood and considered. I invite everyone (close friends, acquaintances, 3rd degrees of connection and the world) to join from your myriad of backgrounds (art, law, manufacturing, business, teaching, journalism, finance, fashion…) in ruminating on and beginning to compile a list of ideas, do’s and don’ts, opinions, and hazard signs to help better guide the 3D printing story to come. As technology improves and cheapens, this inflection point will dramatically affect individuals and businesses across the world on multiple levels (consumption, job availability, design, price, etc) and it seems smart to start planning ahead of time in order to avoid the pitfalls of the music industry ran into down the road. No need for propriety, political correctness, semantics, or full sentences. Just dedicate some time for thought in your busy day to engage in discussion now and avoid blindly stumbling through later. Here are some starters:
- Innovation and design will be paramount, but what will happen to the artists and designers at the source?
- They may be marginalized and forced to deliver as much content as possible in order to compete; Volume at the sacrifice of quality and value
- They may become demi-gods and indispensable to growth; the only providers of valuable design and products, with digital 3D blueprints that the public will willingly pay large premiums for
- Thousands of new “voices” emerge, and the average person has the potential to become a top rated designer/creator/innovator, self-learning the tools necessary to create and market his or her own goods and become his or her own engineers and mechanic (similar to the environments that niche message forums are currently fostering)
- Other scenarios?
- Demand for basic raw materials will rise at a local level as people need to fill their printers at home
- Average brick and mortar retailers may start selling thousands of colors and textures of metal and other raw materials to meet customer needs, slowly shifting away from the finished products currently in their store fronts.
- People experimenting with printers will have constantly evolving needs and tastes and likely want quick access (around the corner) to a place that sells materials and has examples of final finishes and colors of the products they are working on
- In the short term, copyright laws and similar forms of IP protection will be useful in protecting corporations, artists, designers and inventors, but in the long term efficacy will dwindle and open-source/freedom of information will prevail
- Large scale manufacturing will be severely impacted, and the need for businesses to out-source production in order to compete on price will diminish. The implications for a country like America which supports innovation and risk, and currently suffers from unemployment due to out-sourced production, are very favorable
- Learning modalities in education may change worldwide to favor more creativity, application, individual thought, computer design, etc.
- Optimizing search and user recommendations for end users will be paramount. Etsy.com is a great example that demonstrates the need for improved search: the plethora of options from unique merchants on the site is fantastic and enriching from a grassroots level that gives everyone a voice, however at the same time it can be very overwhelming. Surfing the site, it seems almost happenstance that you end up buying items from one page and not another. My mom recalls when buying a kitchen stool meant picking from one of five options, not scrolling through 5,000+ pages and adjusting your preference and trying to remember them on the fly.