[Recently I came looked for this piece that I'd published on Future Now in 2005. Since Future Now has moved, I decided to repost it here.]
One of my all-time favorite songs is Sting's version of the classic Jimi Hendrix song "Little Wing," which he recorded on Nothing Like the Sun. (The solo by Hiram Bullock is one of the very best performances in the crowded rock pantheon of great guitar work.) It's also very different from the two best-known versions of the song, Hendrix's original and Derek and the Dominos' cover (each of which is very different from the other), much jazzier and quieter.
This evening, after a long meeting at my kids' school, I visited the Internet Archive's Live Music archive, and looked around for other versions of "Little Wing." The Internet Archive is a pretty remarkable resource: it has several thousand Grateful Dead concerts, for starters, and every song in the archive is free. Turns out there are about 50, recorded all around the U.S., spanning more than a decade, by a bunch of bands you've probably never heard of.
So I now have a playlist on my iPod that consists of nothing but different covers of "Little Wing:" acoustic folksy version, hard-edged blues versions, versions that were clearly derived from the Hendrix performance, versions that were clearly derived from the Derek and the Dominos (there are almost dueling interpretive schools devoted to this single song).... I could listen to the same song-- and yet not quite the same song-- for about three hours.
Oh, and I bought one version on iTunes, the Corrs' intimate, Celtic-inflected cover.
Strange? Slightly obsessed? Perhaps (and just the kind of behavior you want in a researcher). But I think the Internet Archive, and the relationship between its offerings and what's available on commercial services, tells us something about the future of user-created content and its relationship to more conventional media.
Blogs are not going to compete with newspapers; cell phone cameras aren't going to replace photojournalists; and the Internet Archive's music database isn't going to kill iTunes. Ultimately, they're going to occupy different niches, and play off each other, because user-created media is going to be best at capturing performances, events, conversations, and other things you might think of as valuable ephemera: things that can be quite worth preserving, but have an element of unpredictability about them.
For me, a great example is conference talks. There are lots of really mediocre conference talks, and some terrible ones; but there are some that are great, and a few that generate some terrific discussions afterwards. But what happens to that moment, or to those conversations? In the past, if you were lucky, the people who were in the room would remember what a great job you did, and how engaged and excited everyone was by your performance and the ideas that were generated. Now, though, thanks to the miracle of conference blogging, it's relatively easy to both record and retrieve such moments-- and to build on them later.
Likewise, 99.99% of cell phone camera pictures won't be newsworthy; even mobs of users aren't likely to put any photojournalists out of work. But they can have three virtues. One is immediacy-- the sense, reinforced by the very amateurishness of the production, that You Are There. Another is multiplicity-- having lots of cameras providing multiple perspectives on a single event. Third, and most important over the long run, is simple presence: just being at an event that a reporter isn't).
The same relationship will hold for music on sites like the Internet Archive. There are a million phenomenal concerts that live on in the memories of the people who were there, but are never heard by the rest of the world. To take one example more or less at random, one song I recently downloaded is a cover of "I Shall Be Released" by a performance by a folk/bluegrass/etc. band named Cornmeal, recorded at a memorial concert for a friend of theirs. I have no idea who the band is, and don't know if I'll go back and get more of their music, but this version of "I Shall Be Released," played in memory of a friend and fellow musician, is tremendous-- one of those small moments that deserves to be preserved. ABC will cover a presidential press conference, no matter how dull it is; on the other hand, Sony Music is never going to record a show in some small club in San Francisco (not to mention Asheville, Williamstown, Eugene, Biloxi, Austin, Lower Merion...), no matter how good it is. Likewise, Marcus Eaton's acoustic version of "Little Wing," or any of Zero's more free jazz/bluesy versions, aren't going to replace Derek and the Dominos: an individual performance may be terrific, and it's interesting to see how different artists reinterpret the same song, but Eaton and Zero need the classic recordings to, as it were, play off of.
All the talk of blogs replacing newspapers, or bottom-up media destroying top-down media, is wrong. Each can do things well that the other cannot; and ultimately they'll end up complementing each other more than they compete.