Message in the music


"I once was lost but now am found/I'd leave here running, but I'm scared of the flop-eared hounds," sang Noah Lewis in "Prison Wall Blues" when he was a member of Cannon's Jug Stompers, a profoundly obscure group of Memphis street musicians who recorded between 1927 and 1930. The Stompers are the sort of blues musicians who attract the interest of earnest European archivists and, sure enough, when their Complete Works were reissued, both the liner notes and lyric transcriptions had been undertaken by Swedes. It's hard, in other words, to think of any record less commercial, more obscure or less likely to be found in a marketing database. So when my new CD player software dialled up (without asking me) and collected a complete track listing for the Stompers' CD, it suggested that the Internet CD Database is actually some use.

It's not perfect: I have caught it out on things like the second disc of a two-disc set of Chopin Nocturnes. But when you find a mistake, you can enter a correction and upload it. This is the clever part, for almost the entire database has been generated that way, by the users. The owners of the database, an obscure company called Escient, need only connect reliable database software to the Internet, put a clear and attractive interface on it, and wait for their users to do all the hard and boring work of typing stuff into it. And one does. I have never bothered before with any of the numerous CD players which expect me to type in all the details of my collection: why bother, when I can simply pick up the case from my desk and see what's playing? Yet it isn't always obvious which track has which song on it. Though even the simplest and least obtrusive CD-playing programs for Windows will display the track number and the time it takes to play, it's not always obvious where you want to skip to.

Gratitude for having this chore eliminated for almost all my records is enough reason to contribute a little to other people's benefit by typing in corrections. And so the database grows to the point where it really is useful and can come to seem indispensable. Now, when I want to see what songs are on the CD I'm listening to, I only have to move my mouse an inch or two and click instead of shifting my whole hand several feet. Repeated over a lifetime, this inaction could change my life, or at least my waist measurement.

So far this sounds like a typical story of the Internet gift economy. The tiny, altruistic efforts of millions of people are harnessed by computers to make something useful for everyone, in a huge, virtuous circle. But, though that is true as far as it goes, it is not the whole story. When you look up your first CD on the CDDB, you are asked for an e-mail address. And I suspect that this is what makes the whole operation worthwhile for Escient, the company that owns it. What I get from the transaction is a few moments of extra idleness. What they get, over the years, is an unrivalled, gigantic database containing a list of all the CDs that millions of people own and play. Soon it will be hundreds of millions.

It's not just a list of possible customers for software: the CD player I am using is free, too. It is a list of possible customers for on-line sales of CDs or whatever form of digital music replaces them, coupled with very detailed knowledge of their preferences. Perhaps this knowledge will never be used directly: I think a message saying, "Hi, we noticed that you were playing Cannon's Jug Stompers last week. We thought you'd be interested in the new Furry Lewis reissue," would run into some serious sales resistance if you got it today. But in 50 years' time, such things might be commonplace.

Before then, these huge databases will change the world just as surely as the tele-evangelists' databases changed American politics. Somewhere there has to be a marketing company that needs to know whether a taste for Chopin correlates with liking Elvis Costello, and the CDDB people now know as much about these matters as Amazon or CDNow does. The EU is attempting to control this kind of thing in the name of our privacy. But the point about the CDDB is that the users give away their privacy voluntarily. That's hard to legislate against. My only defence is that they now have an awful lot of information about the musical tastes of someone who does not in fact exist: It's a long way from Memphis in the Depression.

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