In 2001, Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard and electronica star Jimmy Tamborello started collaborating on a side project that would end up producing one of the best loved albums of the decade. The collaboration was called "The Postal Service" in recognition of the process by which the musicians collaborated, sending new bits of track back and forth by snail mail until the album was complete.
It is fitting that the album, feeling at once analog and digital, and produced in a manner facilitated by one of the older communication methods of the Modern Era, came at the beginning of the decade that saw the Internet enter a new phase in which the defining experience of being online shifted from passive consumption to active, collaborative creation.
Fast forward to 2010, the last year of the same decade. Inspired by a video of a young fan performing one of his compositions on You Tube, renowned composer and conductor Eric Whitacre—known for pushing the boundaries of classical and choral music—created a choir entirely online. Recording and posting a video of him silently conducting one of his choral pieces and sharing the sheet music for all the vocal parts, he put out the call for singers from around the world to perform the pieces solo and on video. Putting together almost 200 submissions from a dozen countries, in March he released the world's first virtual choir.
In the introduction to the video, Whitacre remarks that the experiment was "...all about somehow connecting all of these people all around the world...these individuals, all alone, together...For me, singing together and making music together is a fundamental human experience, and I love the idea that technology can bring people together from all over the world and still participate in this transcending experience." His second virtual choir, previewed for the first time today at TED in Long Beach, features the voices of than 2,000 people representing nearly 60 countries.
It is fascinating just how clearly this decade has shown the music industry to be completely and totally unable to keep up with people's desire and capacity to create. It is not just the mechanism of distribution that is changing, but the mechanisms of creation and consumption of music, as well. Genres aren't just being blurred, they're being smashed to bits and remade in ways unlike anything that has never been heard. Musicians who have never heard of each other much less been in the same studio together are becoming collaborators by virtue of other artists who heard a way to mash them together to create something entirely new. More and more, people are turning things that were never intended to be music—from movie dialogue to news stories to the sounds of daily life—into music.
Electronic musician Pogo calls this "remixing real life," and today is using online fundraising platform Kickstarter to pre-sell music and get donations from his fans, who then vote to send him off to different parts of the world to capture sights and sounds and remix them into songs that capture the spirit of the real world.
The music industry has to evolve to ensure that artists have a viable mechanism to make a living. Yet, still, there is something immensely heartening about looking back at a decade that started with an album made by two friends sending physical tapes back and forth in the mail, and ended with a composer unleashing the passion of hundreds of people around the world to create a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. It suggests that technology is a tool of humanity and in the service of creativity. And it suggests that, ultimately, we create music not for the business of it, but because it is in our souls to do so.