Words: Grace Wang
Visuals: Howie Thompson
Last year, music sales saw its first significant growth in 15 years. Though the adaptive, relentless nature of technology (and particularly the internet) played a big part in killing the music industry’s growth a decade and a half ago, we’re slowly seeing tech coming to the rescue of these very musicians, labels, and the industry they’re in. 2016 saw a number of advances in virtual reality, algorithms, and apps find out ways we think technology will be innovating in music in the coming year.
1. Human intelligence > algorithms in music discovery
As algorithms in music discovery sophisticates, we’re seeing a parallel rise in platforms that champion human curation. Although Spotify’s algorithm-driven Discover Weekly and Fresh Finds accumulate tons of followers, something about a curation with a narrative or a persona behind it feels more meaningful to fans. This probably explains the popularity of Apple Music’ Beats 1 Radio, with shows hosted by big names like Drake, Q-Tip, and Mary J Blige.
On a smaller scale, there are platforms like 22tracks, where label Brownswood, or parties like Work It curate weekly playlists, and listeners can filter by city as well as genre. And then there’s 8tracks (taglined “handcrafted internet radio”) which lets anyone create and follow playlists. Listeners can search via artist, mood, or activity—after searching “MF Doom + chill”, I got “Late Night Maurauder Beats”, “Cerebral Lyrics and Beats”, numerous variations of “music to get high to”, and even “Madlib for Dummies Vol.1”. For me, being able to visualise the blunt-toking beat head behind the playlist no doubt makes it much more enticing.
2. More diversity due to intelligent, grassroots online radios
The ease of access to local and online radios (Balamii, Radar Radio, Worldwide FM, Reprezent, Beats In Space, Berlin Community Radio, just to name a few) has brought with it more diversity in individuals with a desire to host shows. Established DJs are not the only ones flexing their musical knowledge, just as perfected mixing skills are no longer a prerequisite for someone who wants to share their collection. Whether welcomed or not, the lowered barrier makes for a more diversified and democratised landscape, which means a wider range of artists will be represented.
3. Music listening gets even more social
It’s not just radio shows or online playlists that are exposing fans to new music: apps are increasingly making their platforms more social, so sharing becomes easier than ever. SoundCloud or Spotify’s Facebook integration are obvious examples, and we can see a similarly peer-to-peer mindset on Bandcamp’s revamped app, which lets you scroll through a feed of like-minded fans, small labels and friends. There are also new apps like cymbal.fm—coined the ‘Instagram of music streaming’, it lets you collect albums, ‘like’ songs, and follow friends, bloggers, and musicians like Pusha T.
4. Virtual reality albums + interactive music videos
Frank Ocean’s 2016 visual album Endless, release in tandem with Blonde, was a 45-minute video featuring new songs from the album. Fans could also watch (on top of listen to) Beyoncé’s Lemonade last year, but as visual albums become the norm, innovative musicians like Childish Gambino are looking towards virtual reality records. Due to ship later this year, the VR version of Awaken, My Love! will come with a headset, and access to exclusive VR live performances from the PHAROS experience. We’ll also expect to see more from Bjork, who hosted VR album-exhibitions at galleries around the world last year.
But what’s even more interesting are the interactive experiences, like Santigold’s video for Can’t Get Enough of Myself, where, appropriately, you can put your face into her music video. Even more impressive are ones where listeners are given control not only over the path of the video, but the composition of the music. Have a play with the Jeff Buckley rendition of Just Like a Women, it makes you feel like an omnipotent conductor.
5. More inventive album releasing
The past few years saw the industry go through an awkward teenager phase with the surprise-album phenomenon, trying out any bold move to figure out what works and what doesn’t (remember U2’s iTunes hijack gift?). 2016 was shaped by streaming exclusives: albums that were only available on certain music streaming services during the initial period of its release. The Tidal-exclusive Life of Pablo was complete with a dash of Kanye-exclusive controversy: after telling fans that it will never be available elsewhere, the album could be streamed everywhere and available for purchase on his website.
As Frank Ocean similarly signed a streaming exclusive deal with Apple Music for Blonde, Universal publicly banned the practice for its artists, due to the potential of alienating fans, damaging musicians’ careers, and limiting the commercial prospects of everyone involved. But other major labels have kept quiet, signifying a reluctance to challenge the streaming giants, especially as profits surge due to the rise of subscriptions. One thing is clear though, the phenomenon of self-releasing has given artists an unprecedented power over their labels, meaning that we’ll continue to see exclusives, and more innovative ways of dropping albums.
6. Experimental live shows
There were many great things about Childish Gambino’s live show last year (the same event that you’ll be able to experience via the VR album). First, fans had to download an app to buy a ticket, which locks the ticket to their phone as a countermeasure to scalpers. Then, concert goers surrender their smart devices, so they can fully enjoy the experience. Taking place in a giant white dome at Joshua Tree, dancing zombies and creatures moved interactively to their environments, and as Wired reports, Childish Gambino worked with Microsoft to create motion-capturing sensors, so to build perfect movement into the avatars. We definitely hope to see more live shows that are as smart and thoughtful in 2017.
7. Music ownership > music rentals / The rise of Bandcamp
Bandcamp sent out their 2016 report last week, and basically, every aspect of their business was up last year. Going through our list, we can’t help but notice their part in many of the categories. The platform’s very social, and Bandcamp Daily is perhaps one of the most diverse representations of musicians out there — I frequently come across never-before-seen artists on the feed, and end up buying their album. Their radio shows, hosted by Andrew Jarvis and friends, has impeccable selection, and lets you add songs and albums to your collection while you listen, or buy directly like on Balamii.
Unlike Spotify, where thousands of plays give artists little return, Bandcamp operates via a ‘Fair Trade Music Policy’. “They also have cool incentives, like, you pay one price for 320/WAV/FLAC rather than a tiered service,” Louis Helliker-Hales of Chaos in the CBD tells me, “plus they send you up-to-date payment summaries so you know how many people have preordered the album.” The underground house producer hopes to self-distribute via Bandcamp eventually, so to have more control over their revenue.
We may also be seeing a rise in music ownership rather than rentals. If the spike in record sales are any indication, consumers increasingly want to own tangible things (even if it is a digital mp3 file). Not only do album sales make for a more sustainable business model, streaming services, though hailed as the saviour of music in 2016, are still monopolised by the few giants, which ultimately puts major labels over musicians.
Last Friday Bandcamp donated 100% of their profits on every sale of a digital album, record or merch to American Civil Liberties Union, to combat the recent unconstitutional executive order in the US. So get those Wishlists emptied in the name of anti-discrimination.