The Future of Music Distribution, as Predicted in 1989

I’ve been a Spotify user for a couple of years, and it never ceases to amaze me how much music is available on the service. There are some notable absences, of course – the Beatles, Taylor Swift, Neil Young, anything on the ECM label (e.g. early Pat Metheny), the Portsmouth Sinfonia –  some regrettable, some not so. But overall, it’s an astonishing collection.

As I was listening to Spotify last night, I was reminded of a paper I co-wrote way back in 1989, when I was a graduate student at Dartmouth College.

The paper, entitled “Digital Networks: The Future of Music Distribution” [50MB pdf] and co-written with my classmate Cliff Kussmaul, predicted that high-speed digital networks would radically transform the music business. Besides making predictions, it also gave some historical perspective, outlining how previous technologies – the printing press, recording, radio – had also resulted in huge transformations.

It was a pretty good paper, and our prof, Jon Appleton, recommended we submit it for publication. I can’t remember whether we actually did submit it, but what I do know is that it wasn’t published, which is a shame as in retrospect it was quite prescient!

I like this line from the introduction: “There is no doubt that the emerging all-digital communications and recording technologies raise the frightening prospect of a drastic drop in the value of intellectual property”.  Given how little composers and musicians earn these days from Spotify and other streaming services, that concern certainly appears to have been justified.

I lost my soft-copy of the paper, but I still have the dead-tree version, so today I scanned it – in full colour and at high resolution to get the full effect of the yellowing pages, rusty paperclip marks, and Jon’s comments in pencil in the margins. You can download it here. Enjoy!




About Gerry Beauregard

I'm a Singapore-based Canadian software engineer, inventor, musician, and occasional triathlete. My current work and projects mainly involve audio technology for the web and iOS. I'm the author of AudioStretch, an audio time-stretching/pitch-shifting app for musicians. Past jobs have included writing speech recognition software for Apple, creating automatic video editing software for muvee, and designing ASICs for Nortel. I hold a Bachelor of Applied Science (Electrical Engineering) from Queen's University and a Master of Arts in Electroacoustic Music from Dartmouth College.
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