HOW TO SAVE THE FUTURE OF MUSIC
Music’s in trouble. With physical sales waning and streaming short on profit, most musicians are struggling to make money. But a new initiative could mean that, before long, all of us will be dancing to a different tune
BBC Music is planning to put out an app in 2016. “So what?” you may say. “We don’t need another music app.” Indeed, but this one is not aiming to be the next Spotify. It is inspired by Apple Music’s Beats 1 radio service. We think this gives us a glimpse at the future of the music business.
Music distribution, as it stands, faces a major problem: it is unsustainable. Physical sales are in decline, even with all the positivity surrounding the comeback of vinyl. Digital downloads have been steadily falling since 2012.
Streaming is clearly the way forward, but none of the services is making enough money to survive in the long run. Rdio is dead, cannibalised by Pandora. Qobuz recently went into receivership. Even Spotify, the most ubiquitous of the lot, is making heavy losses.
The massive record labels hold the copyrights and so are better placed to weather the financial storm, yet they too are feeling the pinch. But it’s worse still for the musician who depends on streaming services to provide a steady trickle of income. If that stream dries up, it is the beginning of the end of recorded music.
What to do? For starters, let’s drum up more interest and ramp up the number of paying customers. That’s where the BBC Music app’s direction serves as a crystal ball. Little has been announced about this app, but the BBC has said it has plans to go big on personalisation – the core principle behind Apple Music.
Why personalisation? Because it is no longer enough to offer a massive library of music. There must be more of an incentive for people to sign up. When MP3 players and ipods came along, the idea of carrying all your music in your pocket was an appealing one. Now we have all the world’s music just a tap away, and it is overwhelming. So there has to be a degree of curation, selection and recommendation.
That said, it is not acceptable just to trawl through data. Spotify knows your preferences and where, and when, you listen – but that does not encourage trust.
BBC Music reckons the solution is part man, part machine. Let’s say the numbers identify a group of people who are into Gregorian chanting. That’s where a human might suggest they listen to Magna Canta.
‘Data-led hunches’ is the term offered by video streaming giant Netflix, and things are certainly going well for them. In the future, music recommendation will straddle the line between autonomy and automation.
Curation adds value, but it is still passive. Streaming services need to be more interactive if they are to draw people in.
Let’s look at Youtube. It is ruled by internet celebrities with viewing figures that dwarf the biggest music stars. Take Pewdiepie, a 25-year-old Swede who posts footage of himself playing videogames and swearing. His channel has nearly 41 million subscribers. Adele? Just under nine million.
It’s not because an angry Nordic geek inherently has more appeal than a pop star. It’s because he engages. He might take suggestions. He might post comments, interacting with fans and offering a degree of authenticity.
We’re not saying Adele needs to start replying to every comment that comes her way, but spontaneity generates buzz and these days it is buzz that gives you online clout. In-progress lyrics, inspirations, footage of an artist eating pizza – this is the sort of connection that engages. More personality than personalisation – and personality goes a long way.
In the long term, there remains the issue of power, held by the record labels in an outdated business model that does little to further the creative aspirations of artists.
Grammy-winning artist Imogen Heap is leading a revolution. “Let’s say I decide I want to give my music away for free to students or people over 60,” she says. “Currently, I can’t do that, even though it is my music.”
Her solution: turn the whole distribution system upside down to create ‘fair trade music’.
“I no longer have a record label. I’m out of contract. Which means I’m free to experiment and find a way of working that works for the artists.”
She paints an image of a streamlined music industry that prioritises the relationship between artists and fans. In this world, artists receive payment directly to their websites. Publicly accessible contracts would show how much any collaborator is owed. Money is automatically and appropriately shared.
Online shops and streaming services? They’d get their music from the artist’s website, same as everybody else.
This is not as far fetched as it sounds. The infrastructure for such a system already exists in the form of a global network of interconnected computers. It is called the Blockchain, and it is the next step for the internet. defines the Blockchain as ‘a shared, trusted public ledger that everyone can inspect, but which no single user controls’.
Essentially, everyone’s computer is used to form a gigantic public record, relying on safety in numbers. The system does not tolerate discrepancies, which means it is tamper-proof. Theoretically, it is the most secure way to publicly record information and transactions – so secure it underpins Bitcoin, the digital currency.
Would this system work for music? Possibly. The record labels won’t be pleased, but it would straighten the tangles of music ownership and open the path to fair payment, ultimately leading to a healthier industry.
British musician Imogen Heap in her home studio