Playing ‘what if’ with digital music and The Dead
Sunday’s New York Times included an interesting feature by Ben Ratliff on how the canon of great Grateful Dead concerts has been forever altered by ever-expanding access to the music and the debating facilitated by online databases.
The piece reminded me of an interlude where the Dead were thought to be, for a brief moment, flirting with taking on a pioneering position in the digital music revolution. In 1999, the surviving members of the Dead considered — and ultimately rejected — an overture from a venture capital group and Microsoft to make the contents of the Dead’s tape vault available online. I wrote about the debate when I was a reporter with Canoe.ca in Canada, but most of the chatter was monitored and reported by Dead fans.
At the time, it appeared that the Dead/VC/Microsoft deal was close to sealed, with only Phil Lesh vetoing the arrangement. This was almost 10 years ago, before iTunes and iPods shaped the way music is now purchased and enjoyed by millions of music fans. So it’s fair to ask what if the Dead had signed on with silicon valley and helped steer what would become the drive to shift music sales online? What if Microsoft, and not Apple, enjoyed the big bump of being first to successfully offer online music?
If Microsoft had used the Dead’s archive and cachet with fans to build an effective, efficient and reasonably priced online music model, would that have been enough of a beach head to forestall the development of iTunes? Could Bill Gates and company have fast-tracked (what would ultimately be) the Zune and pre-empted the iPod? And if those two pieces were in place, would Apple have thrived? Or survived?
If the Digital Dead deal had been done, it might not have worked. Look at the market iTunes goes after. Something tells me the most active segment of their market is significantly younger than Dead fans (I know, that’s an assumption … but still).
By now we take for granted that Apple is the music technology company. Their nifty (but not necessarily thrifty) combination of software (iTunes downloads) and hardware (iPod, iTouch, etc) is accepted as part of the modern musical landscape. How very different it all might be if the main purveyor of online music was also the same team that brought us Vista and those Jerry Seinfeld commercials?
Then again, they still might have faired better than the major labels.