The Future Of Music

The title of this rant is slightly tongue-in-cheek. I’ve been to more than a few conferences, parties and beat happenings where, eventually, the subject gets round to THE FUTURE OF MUSIC.

Various plans are wheeled out, usually by coke-eyed neo-yuppies keen on sucking money out of passing venture capitalists. But can they really guarantee that the future consists of passive consumers paying huge sums for DRM-hobbled, lo-fi, files? I’m not so sure.

So, I’ve done my own piece of specious futurology. Enjoy!

WARNING – the following is a highly simplified version of music biz history and structure. That means inaccurate. So steal it at your own peril, lazy music course students!

Old School
Biz 1890

The first music companies were publishers. Long before recording music was even possible, people were happily buying copies of the pop tunes of the moment to pump out on the old Joanna. How were songs made popular? Well, without broadcast media like TV and radio, a lot of a song’s popularity relied on live performances. Music halls and ballrooms were the discos of yesteryear, where you’d first hear a new pop tune. Then you’d have to track down the sheet music and play it yourself if you liked it enough!

The songwriter writes the songs. Performers get paid at gigs. The pop fan buys sheet music of their fave tunes.

Then And Now
Biz 1950

The 20th century saw the rise of the record label. Of course, publishers still existed and now managed revenue from radio, TV etc. as well as printing music. But their cultural (and perhaps financial) importance was reduced compared to record labels.

The label became the equivalent of a movie studio. Labels, through their Artists & Repertoire department, would source songs from writers and then assign them to appropriate artists. Then they’d stump up the money to record the result professionally.

How did pop fans know which records to buy? They’d hear them on the radio and, eventually, see them performed on their home televisors.

But times were already a-changing. The fifties onwards saw the rise of the singer-songwriter, artists who didn’t only want to cover other writers’ work but had a vision of their own. Then the last couple of decades of the century saw the explosion of cheap computer tech. At first, only rich artists like Prince or Kate Bush could afford their own recording studios. By the end of the century, anyone with a home computer had access to better recording tech than the Beatles or Buddy Holly ever had.

In the present day, we have both the business model above and new ones existing side-by-side. It’s a transitional time. There are new music businesses who sell ringtones, digital downloads, streaming services etc. Meanwhile, the major labels are playing catch-up, just like the publishers were when recorded music took off.

A lot of the major record labels that exist today were spun out of existing publishers. Perhaps the same will happen with the digital world? I believe it’s a huge mistake to have record labels managing digital downloads. Having met people in all the major labels, I can tell you I haven’t so far met anyone with even a basic grasp of what the internet is or how it works, let alone how to make money out of it. Each corp needs to launch digital divisions dedicated to the modern world, not stagger on with companies based on expertise that only applies to a business model at least 60 years old.

But that’s my advice to labels who want to survive. As it happens, I don’t want major labels to survive. I think they’ve lost the plot and are dusty relics, obsolete obstacles in the path of artists and art. I want a different future.

Biz 2020

It’s a very simple business model: I write the songs, I perform them, I record them and then I sell them to anyone who wants to listen. In the process I’ve cut out recording studios, labels, publishers, distributors and retailers. So even if I only sell one-hundredth the songs I was before, I’ll get to keep 100% of it. Why should I settle for 3p from a £11.99 CD? I made the damn music. Hmmm… “None of you would help me when I baked my cake, now all of you will help me eat it!” Sounds familiar… For that matter, why the hell does the iTunes version of The Lightning Seeds best of comp cost a whole quid more than the physical CD? This is the madness of record labels – a digital file costing more than actual atoms!

I’m not saying that all artists will be self-recording songwriters, of course. There’ll always be people who don’t want to or can’t record themselves or want to perform only covers. But I believe the majority of music will be made by singer-songwriter-producers. Bear in mind, this includes rock bands who have a tame geek to do their recording, it doesn’t have to be the actual writer. It just means artists don’t have to wait for label money to record their music.

Notice the arrow is labelled ‘Cyberwent?’ I’ve had to label it because there’s a lot going on in that arrow.

Firstly, how the hell do all these musicians get people to hear them, to even know they’re alive? Well, it’s obvious to any sentient being that the existing music press is obsolete. If you’re a true music fan, you don’t wait for print, you go online to find out the latest information about releases or tours. The music press is also, now more than ever before, deeply in the pocket of the major labels. Ditto radio and TV.

This works fine for music megastars: their labels will buy them coverage. But for new musicians, there is less opportunity every year to get heard, to connect.

But every week, I play shedloads of brilliant new music by artists, most of it self-released or on tiny labels. The only way I hear this stuff is because of the internet. I spend hours trawling it, looking for new sounds, new styles.

In the future, we’ll have semi-intelligent agents who learn our tastes. Perhaps they’ll be descendants of the algorithms runs. They’ll run on our home music systems or whatever replaces iPods, keeping notes on what we listen to and storing all those preferences away. They’ll even be able to analyse the music musicologically rather than merely statistically.

Then these agents will scour the net for us, comparing what’s out there to what we already like. The adventurous amongst us could select a low match rate, therefore being surprised quite a lot. The un-adventurous could set their agent to be strict and only source music exactly compatible with their existing tastes. Perhaps you only want to hear love songs today? Maybe you’ve been through a bad break up and only drill’n’bass will do it for you? Whatever you want, your agent will find it for you.

Making It Pay
But will people actually pay for the music?

I believe they will. I know plenty of people of all ages who download music and they all buy CDs. A lot of them, like me, actually buy more CDs now because they’re hearing more music they like.

Sure, there are plenty of leeches who never buy what they’ve downloaded but the important question here is:

Would they ever have bought a CD in the first place?

I don’t think so. These people aren’t fans of the artists. A real fan wants a connection to an artist and buying their music (or T-shirts / mousemats / cufflinks) gives them that connection. Stealing isn’t a connection. There’s nothing I like better than opening up a parcel and seeing a brand-new CD in there, all shrink-wrapped and gorgeous. Mostly, they’re on the artist’s own label and I feel happy that I’ve contributed towards them making more cool music.

So, for me, and most other people I know, illegal downloading is just a new form of radio. We listen before we buy.

The Conclusions Bit
A lot of people will hate all I’ve said above. They’ll be the people who now work at labels, distribution, retail, the music press, tv and radio.

For artists, I think the future is enormously promising. As the numbers of people online grow hugely, there’s more and more potential to find fans for your music. Even if only 0.5% of people like your music, 0.5% of, say 2 billion is…well, you do the maths.

For labels, retailers and the old media, I see a slow slide into irrelevancy and obscurity. Their functions will be subsumed by the net and intelligent agents. I have no doubt that some future version of Google will be able to take your listening preferences and send its search spiders scurrying for new tunes. I think they should call it Moogle.

We have the tech. We have the tech to realise the sounds in our head. We have the tech to record these sounds, perhaps even in 5.1 if we feel like it. We have the tech now to sell directly to anyone anywhere the net is. All we’re waiting for is the tech for them to find us…

Once we have that last piece, you could record a track tonight and have sold twenty copies of it to fans around the world by tomorrow morning.

I’m impatient.