The Future of Music5 October 2016
On the November 19 2003, the course of music history changed forever. The exponential rise of an Australian musician, a creative maverick set to revolutionise music composition with his mix of formulaic country-rock, distinctive facial hair, and brazen, uncompromising patriotism, bluntly faltered on national television. I’m talking, of course, of the night Shannon Noll was robbed of his rightful prize on Australian Idol.
Since that fateful night, the music industry has drifted rudderless through torrid tides without a true blue battler to ameliorate its decline. Internet file sharing has crippled the dominant business model. The accessibility of technology has fostered new sounds and platforms for musical expression. Obnoxious, pre-pubescent boys periodically burst onto our cultural smorgasbord and often defy rationality to cement longstanding careers in the entertainment business. Not one of them has a Southern Cross tattoo. Not one!
As for our Noll-less future, the predictions are both exciting and grim. Fellow musical genius David Bowie predicted in a 2002 interview with the New York Times that digitisation would make record labels less relevant, copyright regimes weaker and music sales generally less profitable, leaving gigs and touring as the main revenue stream for artists. ”Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity”, he said, describing with frightening accuracy the ubiquity of near infinite music libraries through online streaming.
Bowie’s prophecy has largely been realised. Spotify boasts over 1.1 billion users worldwide, who played a whopping 14.8 billion tracks in 2014. Intellectual property rights regimes have crumbled due to online file sharing and the industry increasingly accepts that low-pay “gateway” models like Spotify are the only way forward. Furthermore, the IFPI music lobby predicts that $9 billion dollars has been wiped from annual recorded music revenue, falling from $24 billion in 2002 to $15 billion in 2015. However, 2016 was a landmark year with digital revenue overtaking physical products for the first time in history and contributing to a 3.2 per cent growth in overall music sales.
Online streaming services are evidently an inextricable part of tomorrow’s music scene but its impact on music revenue is clearly negative. Of Spotify’s 1.1 billion users, only 12.5 million pay for the service and 50 million are supported by advertising. Almost 95 per cent of users are freeloading. For each song played on the service, the artist’s record label charges a standard fee, culminating in 70 per cent of Spotify’s revenue being paid to artists. Thus, the profitability of such platforms for investors is minimal and has contributed to recent hefty losses abating the otherwise buoyant revenues in the sector. Furthermore, the fees that are paid to artists are substantially smaller than most high-profile musicians are used to. So, is Spotify killing the radio star?
Radiohead’s Thom Yorke has labelled Spotify “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse”. Taylor Swift famously pulled her content from Spotify in November 2015, writing in a column for the Wall Street Journal, “I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists and creators of this music. And I just don’t agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free”. The industry consensus is that, in the future, an artist’s revenue will depend far more on their live performances (where ticket prices continue to soar, with no depreciation in demand) than on their album sales.
“The whole ‘changing download dollars into streaming cents’ issue continues to haunt streaming”, says music industry consultant Mark Mulligan. “With streaming services struggling to see a route to operational profitability, the perennial issue of sustainability remains a festering wound. The emerging generation of artists such as Avicii and Ed Sheeran, who have never known a life of platinum album sales, will learn how to prosper in the streaming era. The rest will have to learn to reinvent themselves, fast – really fast.”
As for the artistic character of the free music we’ll all be guiltily enjoying, several trends suggest a further creative modulation in a constantly evolving industry. Firstly, electronic instruments are continually increasing in sophistication, allowing artists to indulge in a near endlessly broad palette of sounds. Of particular note is the LinnStrument, a kind of computer keyboard which users can program to control a near infinite array of sounds. On its grid-like display, the x-axis controls pitch while the y-axis controls the kind of sounds, which can be customised with various effects. While the digital availability of thousands of sounds is not a new occurrence, LinnStrument places these sounds into an unprecedented, accessible format.
The transformation of pop composition is perhaps best exemplified through the work of rapper/uninvited philosopher Kanye West. West’s innovative and influential use of sampling, vocoders and eclectic instrumental choice exemplifies how modern artists can employ technology to enhance their sound, to challenging new heights. The aural pleasantness of electronic sounds is often brought into question, however, with traditional instruments more strongly associated with beauty and elegance than electric bangers. For instance, Lou Reed praised West’s album Yeezus for its daring abrasiveness, yet the raw electronica was at times too much for the late, great Velvet Underground star. “He starts the album off with that typical synth buzzsaw… all gussied up and processed,” he wrote in a review for The Talkhouse. “I can’t figure out why he would do that. It’s like farting.” How far the electrification of sound can go will depend on the fearlessness of producers and the temperament of listeners’ ears. Watch this space.
The internet is also likely to facilitate the proliferation of micro-genres. Whilst the dominant sounds of pop are going nowhere fast, the internet facilitates greater connections between fans across the world, allowing for the emergence of niche fan communities. Ever heard of dark bass, progressive heavy electro rock, air pop, glitch soulazz, country dance, soul trap and conspiracy rock? Neither have I (and that last one sounds vaguely threatening) but these popular niche genres have seen exponential growth in the online sphere, garnering thousands of views.
Finally, the immersion of music in the politicised debate culture of social media (often scornfully called the “outrage machine”) is an increasing trend. Particularly, debate around Beyoncé’s “Formation” video has ushered in a new realm of music criticism. Described by New York Times reviewer Nitsuh Abebe as “an op-ed with drums” in its explicit intention to provoke, Beyoncé’s thoroughly modern employment of multiple mediums and platforms of dissemination provides a blueprint for future musicians seeking to facilitate a multilateral conversation over their artistic endeavours.
“These days it’s both the song, and the scale of the event surrounding it,” said Abebe. “One song, one digestible thing, with millions of people standing in a circle around it, pointing and shouting and writing about it, conducting one gigantic online undergraduate seminar about it, metabolising it on roughly the same level that cable-news debate shows metabolise a political speech.” In future, the spectacle of music may be just as important as its substance.
On balance, the future of music involves less money and more Beyoncé. Of course, it did not have to be this way. If eight columns writing about the future has taught me anything, it is that we are all fucked and can only gaze nostalgically at a yesteryear less sordid, and imagine what may have been if Lady Luck had drawn a different hand at crucial moments in our history. What if Al Gore had beaten George W. Bush in the 2000 Presidential Election? What if the single Liberal politician who stayed home on the day of Tony Abbott’s one-vote leadership win had taken a Panadol and come to work? What if Shannon Noll had won the 2003 Australian Idol Grand Finale?
I’d like to thank the reader for taking this eight-column journey into the future with me (thanks mum, I really appreciate it). I’d like to leave you with one clear message – take your future into your own hands. If the Australian people cannot be trusted with deciding their nation’s greatest musical talent, they cannot confront what is to come. Good luck.