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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2003/05/28
by John Zinkand

The Music Distribution Prescience of Frank Zappa

The growing pains of the music industry have been audible to the general
public lately. Record sales are way down as the technology available on the
internet makes it possible for folks to swap music files, usually in the
form of mp3s, using free peer-to-peer sharing software like Morpheus,
Kazaa, or the now defunct Napster. The industry is struggling to maintain
viability in this technologically advanced age by any means possible. And
now live music traders can even trade music in SHN format that provides much
higher quality CD sound.
But the industry, led by the good folks at Apple, seems to have found a way
to become more technologically advanced and commercially viable with the
launch of their iTunes Music Store. They have over 200,000 songs available
for download in high quality sound for only 99 cents apiece. And so far all
indications point to iTunes being a smashing success. They sold over one
million songs in their first week when expectations were only to sell that
many songs in the first month. It certainly is an amazing new direction and
business model for the music industry. And what’s even more amazing is the
fact that Frank Zappa envisioned this system of music distribution about
fifteen years ago.
Most people think of Zappa as an avant-garde composer, off-the-wall artist,
and astute commentator on politics and current events. He was definitely
one of the most prolific musical artists of the 20th Century, churning out
volumes and volumes of music. But what many people don’t realize about
Zappa was that he was also a budding entrepreneur and inventor. Zappa’s
gifted mind was bubbling with creative ideas that included a holographic TV
projection system, a late night adult TV show, and a brand new way of
distributing music. As I perused the pages of Zappa’s autobiography, The
Real Frank Zappa Book, his thoughts on the future of music distribution
jumped out at me in particular.
Frank knew what was up. Having been a reluctant participant in the music
industry for so many years, by the late 80’s he had some grand ideas of his
own. He recognized the exorbitant cost of materials and shipping involved
with the traditional vinyl record album sales business. He also recognized
that, in the current system circa 1988, only the newest records chosen by
"the latest and greatest of whatever the cocaine-tweezed rug-munchers decide
to inflict on everybody this week"(1) would be available to the listening
public. Of course, if these decisions were incorrect, the bulky albums were
returned for recycling at a great expense. Not to mention the volumes and
volumes of music that didn’t happen to be the latest and greatest hip new
thing. That stuff never even made it to the limited shelf space of record
stores and was consequently doomed to die a slow painful death of obscurity.
Zappa saw it as a travesty to not have a particular record company’s entire
artist catalog available for perusal and purchase. He knew real music
lovers were passionate about the music itself, not the next hip album as
commodity neatly packaged by industry execs. So way back in 1988 he
outlined a business model that is strikingly similar to what Apple has just
done with their launch of iTunes. He proposed that record companies’ back
catalogs would be archived in a computer database that would then be
accessible via phone lines. Then users could pay a monthly fee to access
the entire catalog and download as much music as they wanted. He even
proposed combining TV images of the original album art during the recording
process so consumers could enjoy it while listening to their new music
purchase. "In this situation, fondlement and fetishism potential is
supplied, without the cost of shipping tons of cardboard around."(2)
iTunes has the exact catalog database that Frank envisioned with users
being able to pick and choose which songs they want. Even cover art is
available for download and printing on a home computer, thus addressing
Zappa’s concern over packaging and shipping costs. Frank even foresaw that
things were moving to a digital format and recognized this as a potential
problem due to the high cost of CD’s. "They [CD’s] are smaller, contain
more music and would, presumably, cost less to ship.but they are much more
expensive to buy and manufacture. To reproduce them, the consumer needs to
purchase a digital service to replace old hi-fi equipment (in the seven
hundred dollar price range)." (3) While his idea of CD’s being costly is now
laughable (a spindle of one hundred blank eighty minute CD’s goes for thirty
bucks these days), foreseeing the digital direction of the music business is
commendable.
Zappa’s idea was ahead of its time, although all of the technology was not
quite in place during his lifetime and the idea never really got off the
ground while he was alive. Luckily, Frank’s active mind was not only
concerned with writing and performing creative music with the help of some
of the finest musicians on the planet, but also with how to cheaply and
effectively distribute that music to the listener. And while Frank Zappa
may be more widely known as a freaky musical artist with a penchant for the
absurd, bizarre, or sexual, one can easily see that his vision is not only
the future, but also the now, of music distribution.
(1) from The Real Frank Zappa Book, pg. 338
(2) from The Real Frank Zappa Book, pg. 339
(3) from The Real Frank Zappa Book, pg. 337

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