McLuhan’s “Tetrad” as applied to Music Media

The world of music media has undergone a severe loss of control in the modern era. With the explosion of technology and the ever increasing “ease of access” to most forms of media, large music corporations are losing their grip on their monopoly.

Some might claim that “Art is FREE”, and Music is chief among the art forms that are commoditized. The dawning of peer-to-peer file sharing in the late nineties was not a death sentence to the music industry, but it heralded a new era of music consumption. Bootlegging and unauthorized taping/copying were already issues that the industry had tried to tackle time and time again. Most musicians were liberal enough to not care about bootlegging, some, like the Grateful Dead, encouraged it.

No, the prime opposition to bootlegging and piracy has always been carried by the industries that, till now, had nearly exclusive rights over the music they licensed and distributed. Napster, Limewire, torrent sites, and the manual piracy trade of bootlegging all represented threats to that monopoly.

Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian media theorist, developed several theories on media and their effects. His work concerned the field of visual media, but I find that several of his theories apply to other fields, such as Music and Art. In particular, I wanted to talk about his “Tetrad” theory. Many of McLuhan’s theories involved the “medium” of media, not the media itself. This is a key factor in the realm of commodity media, as the types of media that we consume have remained largely unchanged as time has progressed. The mediums by which we experience them, however, have.

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McLuhan’s Tetrad

McLuhan’s Tetrad describes what the medium’s effects are on its content. What does it enhance, reverse, retrieve, or render obsolete?

Enhancing something, in McLuhan’s model, refers to how the content is “amplified.” Television will “enhance” news by adding visuals and sound.

Reversing something refers to what is accomplished by “pushing the medium to its limit.” A board game, when pushed to the absolute limits, may lead to video games. Video games, pushed to their limits, become real-world experiences, or even virtual reality.

Retrieving, in this scope, refers to what the medium re-establishes. Radio re-establishes the ideas of storytelling, or description without visual assistance.

And lastly, what a medium renders obsolete. Television obsolesces media that does not have both visual and sound, effectively outmoding things like books or radio.


How does this tetrad apply to the field of music media?

Enter, Bandcamp.

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Bandcamp is the face of the “new music marketplace” that the music industry has been fearing since their sigh of relief at Napster’s demise.

For too long, music makers and music consumers have had to purchase and collect music on the terms of the record labels that hold the rights to the music. Bandcamp’s purpose is to create, as their website’s “About Us” section puts it:

“Bandcamp makes it easy for fans to directly connect with and support the artists they love. We treat music as art, not content, and we tie the success of our business to the success of the artists who we serve.”

In essence, Bandcamp offers the individuality of social media to musicians through a form of a subtle commercial format. Each Bandcamp page has a simple layout, consisting of a collection of each user’s complete albums, each with their own unique page with streaming options, buying options, lyrics, album information, and a short bio blurb.

As a musician, you are offered a fairly unobtrusive platform that allows you to sell your music for what you feel it is worth. Either for free, for a set price, or for a “pay-what-you-want” price. Bandcamp takes only a small margin of your profits, as opposed to the large percentages taken by record conglomerates.

Bandcamp enhances the music commerce system by making music sales fast, easy, and profitable for all parties. It retrieves the spirit of independent music commerce, and makes it possible to make a profit on the quality of your music as opposed to its perceived marketability. You do not need to be evaluated to make money on the site, unsigned artists and unknown artists are treated with the same respect that reputable musicians are given.

At its reversed“limit”, Bandcamp becomes a completely new platform for the music industry. Were Bandcamp even more popular, it could completely overtake the notions of “record labels.” In fact, a number of small or independent record labels use Bandcamp as well, as a “blanket” approach to music promotion and sales. This effectively obsolesces the aging record industry, whose music licensing and logistics nightmares prevent musicians from creating or releasing music on their own terms.

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2 thoughts on “McLuhan’s “Tetrad” as applied to Music Media

  1. Tigran — I agree with your preliminary analysis of Bandcamp… although, I must note that it is somewhat biased and not objectively critical. Remember, no tool or technology brings only positive things. Consumers of music inhabit every economic and generational sphere and one must take into account those on the other side of the digital divide that Bandcamp does not reach.

    Setting that aside, I disagree with your assertion that McLuhan’s LOM limits its application to content only. Any analysis of media or technology using the tetrad also looks at behavioral and cultural impact. Facebook changes the definition of “friend”, Twitter changes the shape of the message. One must ask what in the relationship between producer and listener is changed with Bandcamp. Or what shift in the effort and cost of production?

    Bandcamp is really not very different from any other online shopping cart (Shopify, etc.) except that it focuses strictly on music. It takes a 15% share of proceeds… on top of whatever share Paypal or the credit card company is taking. I’m not against profit-sharing, but I’m much more FOR transparency. “Discover amazing new music and directly support the artists who make it” suggests that Bandcamp is cutting out the middleman when they actually ARE the middleman. They have not obsolesced music promotion as much as reshaped and renamed it. As someone who has spent her ENTIRE adult life in both high tech and music, I know that NOTHING is free. But this is a much longer conversation than a comment allows.

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    1. Of course, I never intended to speak entirely as if Bandcamp has or even would replace the standard record marketing industry. While I agree that is biased in favor of Bandcamp, I did so to illustrate the benefits of the individualized marketing strategies that Bandcamp sought to promote. It’s still too young of a platform to suggest that it would topple a multi-million dollar industry, but even in spite of that, I believe that it outperforms the standards that we’ve already seen these industries set.

      Were I to edit this and include the downsides, as you mentioned, would it have a different effect? As I understand it, most new forms of social media and marketing have limited span of influence, and Bandcamp’s success is the most notable (in my opinion) success that these media entities have earned in a while. I do understand the idea of Bandcamp becoming the middleman, I believe that it does so as an enabler to people who wish to use their platform. My only comment is that I did not intend on portraying Bandcamp as an “infallible” entity, as you pointed out, nothing truly is. I can edit or re-write this if you feel it is worth the effort.

      Thank you.

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