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Book Review: Net, Blogs and Rock ‘n’ Roll by David Jennings

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"For existing and emerging artists…this is actually a great time, full of options and possibilities," former Talking Heads lead singer David Byrne recently wrote in Wired magazine. "The future of music as a career is wide open."

The veteran musician's optimistic outlook is warranted. Although CD sales are down, illegal file sharing is up, and the music industry is in flux, there's never been a better time for artists to take control of their careers. Digital technology has made music production and distribution cheaper.

But digital technology has opened up a dizzying array of products and services from which to choose. As Wired editor Chris Anderson explained in The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, the era of the "hit" or "blockbuster" was caused by the artificial scarcity of limited physical shelf space and air time. In a world with virtual shelf space and alternative broadcast outlets, consumers are shifting their attention away from a narrow range of products at the head of the demand curve and toward a broader range of niche products in the tail.

David Jennings, a media consultant, psychologist, and author of Net, Blogs and Rock 'n' Roll: How Digital Discovery Works and What it Means for Consumers, Creators and Culture, says that "[i]n the digital age everything is available, with each item vying with the millions of others, old and new, that can be found in the unlimited expanse of the internet. Our problem now is scarcity of attention."

Given this scarcity of attention and virtually limitless choice of products, how do creators of these products and marketers help consumers discover them? In Net, Blogs and Rock 'n' Roll, Jennings explains in rich detail how discovery works in the digital age and makes predictions about the future of discovery.

Drawing from his own experiences finding new music and movies, along with interviews with tech and music industry experts, Jennings has produced a book that will appeal to music fans of all levels of devotion, entertainers of any genre, entrepreneurs, software developers, and industry insiders. He brings together a large amount of information to provide a coherent and readable assessment of how people discover entertainment products, how intermediaries and marketers help connect people and products, and how creators can maximize the ways people discover their products.

For example, he breaks down music listeners into four broad categories: Savants, Enthusiasts, Casuals, and Indifferents. These groups (and their subgroups) discover music in diverse ways. Savants ("Everything in life seems to be tied up with music") are more likely to look for and try out new music on their own, while Casuals ("Music plays a welcome role, but other things are far more important") may be more influenced by the market and charts to filter what new music they hear.

With music tracks running into "the tens of millions," creators and marketers strive to find ways to make it easier for people to find things. In what's probably the best chapter in the book, Jennings highlights a commercial venture called The Music Genome Project, which "cracks the code" of content and recommends music that users "don't yet know but may wish to buy."

The online music service Pandora uses this method. Based on listening preferences, Pandora recommends songs with similar traits, such as the sex of the lead vocalist, "use of modal harmonies," "emphasis on instrumental performance," and "minor key tonality." While the average listener may be unfamiliar with some of these terms and have little interest in breaking down music this way, creators and marketers may find the project quite useful.

"By analyzing everything from the latest new releases to Long Tail obscurities," Jennings writes, "we could filter out all the stuff that won't appeal to you, leaving just the essence that will."

Jennings explains the role of "intermediaries" like eMusic and All Media Guide and professional reviewers and editors who help consumers navigate through a sea of entertainment products. In the digital age, the professionals serve more as a "guide on the side" than a "sage on the stage" as they've traditionally done. With tools like blogs and wikis, the days of gatekeepers are gone. Former gatekeepers and present intermediaries are using the new media to facilitate discoveries.

Although the central focus of the book is on music discovery, the "rock 'n' roll" part of the title is a reference to the spirit of self-expression, rebellion, and a do-it-yourself attitude toward discovery in general. It conveys the sense that this energy "comes from the hips as well as the head—discovery and exploration are never ending."

Net, Blogs and Rock 'n' Roll will help you understand the challenges of digital discovery and inspire you to become part of the solution.

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