Niche culture and the web

The internet is vastly more about culture than it is media, but the extent to which media IS culture these days has a way of blocking the cultural aspects. For people still grappling with the notion that the web is a place and not merely a set of pipes and content, this seems far too abstract to comprehend. Yet comprehend it we must (those of us in traditional media), for our future lies therein.

Witness the remarkable story — as published in today’s New York Times — of Korean guitarist Jeong-Hyun Lim, the creator of the “funtwo” version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D as viewed on youTube seven and a half million times. You need to see this video and read some of the comments to get a glimpse into the magnitude of what’s before us. You also need to read Virginia Heffernan’s wonderful account of how this came about and her insight into the why’s of posting something like this on youTube. The web, it turns out, is the gathering place of the hyper-niche, each being birthed at the bottom and using whatever tools the net provides to “be” what THEY want to be.

If you follow the leads, this Everest of electric-guitar virtuosity, like so many other online artifacts, turns out to be a portal into a worldwide microculture, this one involving hundreds of highly stylized solo guitar videos, of which funtwo’s is but the most famous. And though they seem esoteric, they have surprising implications: for YouTube, the dissemination of culture, online masquerade and even the future of classical music.
I think it goes far beyond that, but this story is a marvelous case study of one niche. And here’s the thing: for the bottom, it isn’t at all about money, and that’s what makes it so hard for traditional media and culture types to figure out. As Heffernan points out, if this was the music industry, the “funtwo” video would’ve been platinum many times over by now, based on the number of views of the video. And what does Jeong-Hyun Lim think about that?
Online guitar performances seem to carry a modesty clause, in the same way that hip-hop comes with a boast…

…Even as they burst onto the scene as fully-formed guitar gods, they hang back from heavy self-promotion. Neither JerryC nor funtwo has a big recording contract.

At a moment in pop history when it seems to take a phalanx of staff — producers, stylists, promoters, handlers, agents — to make a music star, I asked Mr. Lim about the huge response to the video he had made in his bedroom. What did he make of the tens of thousands of YouTube commenters, most of whom treat him as though he’s the second coming of Jimi Hendrix?

Mr. Lim wrote back quickly. “Some said my vibrato is quite sloppy,” he replied. “And I agree that so these days I’m doing my best to improve my vibrato skill.”

Go watch the video and see if you aren’t both amazed and entertained. Then ask yourself what this means for institutional music distribution.

People are endlessly inventive, and they know better than we do what they like. Granted, this story is heavily influenced by Asian culture, but look how far downstream they are in the uses and applications of the web and especially mobile technology.

Finally, this guitar world only scratches the surface of not only what’s to come but what’s already there. And isn’t it remarkable that nobody’s asking the permission of the mainstream to do any of this? The music industry, like so many other institutions, has wrapped itself in laws and rules, because it long ago stopped being about music. This internet niche is the opposite, and that’s a serious, serious threat to the status quo.

BONUS link: Cory Bergman writes at Lost Remote about the continued heavy-handed strategies of the music industry. Now they’re going after tablature writers, people who listen to music and write the notes and finger positions to enable others to play the tunes. The industry is claiming copyright infringement (what else?) and threatening the sites that post tabs. This is stupidity gone to seed. Talk about killing the goose that laid the golden egg!


  1. Terry –

    Given how Funtwo’s video performance has gained such widespread awareness, imagine the impact that previously-unknown musicians can have with a truly new musical instrument – the Thummer – that’s even more expressive than the electric guitar.

    The musical instrument industry has a mantra that “new instruments don’t sell” because – if they rely on traditional brick-and-mortar distribution – they don’t. The cost of having a salesman stand there and demonstrate the new instrument’s benefits is just too high.

    However, the Internet can aggregate the geographically thin global demand for such a new musical instrument, reaching potential customers with pre-sale demo videos, post-sale instructional videos, and – as with Funtwo – amateur music videos that show off the new instrument’s capabilities.

    Can the Thummer grow successfully from a small initial niche to achieve mainstream success? I think so (but then, as its inventor, I would!), because it delivers three unique benefits. First, its keyboard is a “Periodic Table of the Intervals,” exposing the structure of music in a simple, consistent manner that is easier to grasp than on traditional instruments, thus making music easier to *understand.* But then, there have been lots of such keyboards proposed before, and none have ever succeeded in penetrating the mass-market – so that’s clearly not a sufficiently-compelling advantage, by itself.

    Second, the Thummer has the potential to be the most emotionally-expressive musical instrument ever, by allowing the musician to control more degrees of freedom than ever before – up to 13 simultaneous variables (with internal motion sensing; up to 7 without). No other instrument – including the electric guitar, which is a great instrument – even comes close.

    Third, the deep structure of music – as exposed by Thummer’s keyboard – is the same across many musical cultures. This consistent structure is not exposed in the piano keyboard or the guitar fretboard, which are therefore only useful in very narrow range of tunings. Not only does the Thummer support a much wider range of tunings – and therefore the music of more cultures – but the performer can change the Thummer’s tuning on the fly with a thumb-controlled joystick (or foot-pedal, or whatever), providing a novel musical effect that was never before possible. Will musicians embrace the tuning bends, tuning modulations, and tuning progressions that this makes possible?

    There’s no way to know, in advance. But the Internet makes it possible for the Thummer to profitably reach a geographically thin niche, giving its members the opportunity to explore the creative potential of this new instrument, in a way that simply wasn’t possible pre-Internet. If they and the Thummer create cool new music, the Internet similarly provides them with the means to bring this music to the world – thereby demonstrating the value of the Thummer and increasing its sales in a potentially niche-busting positive feedback loop.

    Your article’s comments regarding the self-effacing and humble nature of the Web is interesting. On the one hand, I’ve experienced this same humility in the scientific and engineering community, and appreciate its inherent openness to new ideas, of which the open source movement is perhaps the epitome (hence the Thummer’s open-sourcing its software and even its firmware). However, venture capitalists have a very low tolerance for humility. They only want to hear about how you are going to crush your competition, dominate your market, and generally behave badly. The haven’t quite caught up to the idea that one can make seriously big dollars by behaving well, adding value, and making the world a better place for everyone. (If there are any VC’s who want to argue this point, please, prove your sincerity by investing in Thumtronics.)

    Thanks for your excellent posting.

    Jim Plamondon
    CEO, Thumtronics Ltd
    The New Shape of Music™
    Western Australia (really!)

  2. Sniperblackout says

    I think that everyone has to realize the uprising of the guitar solo once again in the cultures around the world. “Funtwo” and some of the bands throughout the world allow us to recognize the help that it can bring to the songs everywhere.

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