Look at any recent trend in the music industry and you’ll find Ralph Simon connected to it in some way. YMCA, 360-degree music agencies, Radiohead in the US, The mobile ‘ringtone’... The list goes on.
Ralph Simon is considered one of the modern founders of the entertainment industry. For the past 18 years, he has been a music industry giant, mobile innovator and thought-leader, paving the way for the modern entertainment industry that is so prominent today. But he hasn’t stopped there…
Ralph has expanded his reach to explore what’s next for consumers worldwide. From officiating the first-ever e-sport tournaments in Indonesia to staging virtual reality concerts, or even shopping for the latest sneakers at Sneakercon.
Naturally, Ralph Simon was a perfect choice for our New Perspectives interview series. We sat down with him to discover what he sees for the future of music and technology.
Q. From when you started in the 1970s to the present day, what has been the most remarkable shift you’ve witnessed in the music industry?
A. For me, it’s very hard for me to look back further than the last 3 years. Nevertheless, what has remained a constant throughout my career is the importance of good composing and good songwriting – That’s the mark of a great Artists and Repertoire (A&R) division within a label. Just look at Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, Kool & The Gang, alot of their music is marked by these key features and their reputation reflects that.
This is something that has become increasingly more important with the rise of music streaming services. A huge percentage of record label’s revenue stems from streaming services these days and the impact that has had on songwriting has been profound.
Interestingly, platforms such as Spotify and Pandora have resulted in an overall shortening of songs in general. Look at U2 or Bon Jovi, the average song lasted around 4 minutes, now, songs average around 2 minutes. Unless a user listens past 30 seconds of a song, the artist doesn’t get paid, so naturally, we’re seeing songwriters and producers bring the song hook further and further forward in a track.
Certainly, the age of rapid consumption and the attention economy is having its own impact too. You just have to look at social media to see how attention spans are much more suited to the shorter tracks of today.
Q. Is music driving the culture to the same extent it did before?
A. It really depends on what you mean by culture; each generation has its own media poison. If we’re referring to the younger generation – your Gen Z or millennials shall we say – I would argue that video is the driving force behind a lot of the cultural shifts we see today. Just look at Youtube, Tik Tok, or even Fortnight, these platforms are often even more dominant than music in defining trends.
Compare how much each market is worth. The music industry makes up $26 billion worldwide, video gaming, $140billion. Video gaming is the future, and even more so after a global lockdown.
In this way, you can start to see what people are watching and how that is impacting the top performers in the charts. Look at Baby Shark or Despacito, they're a prime example of this!
I think music is something that catches up with you later in life, shaped by your past experiences and personal tastes a little more. Certainly, it’s all about the attention economy, but you still need something that touches people emotionally. It can’t all be meaningless – they like storytelling – now more than ever.
Q. How has the global pandemic shifted your perception of music consumption and the future of music?
For a start, you just have to look at the shift in the way we work to see how the whole ecosystem and economy has shifted online. The rise of Zoom isn’t confined to traditional office workers; Directors and songwriters are turning to Zoom to perform their work. In general, music consumption is going to shift even more so towards music streaming in the absence of live content.
There are of course still very obvious challenges to the music industry. For instance, festivals? Global tours? A large orchestra? How are they expected to practice and perform?
Q. What technology do you see dominating the consumer economy next?
A. VR is one of the most talked-about and featured technologies in the media. Yet one of the biggest obstacles to its widespread adoption is the lack of a shared experience. Unless it’s in the form of a silent disco, it hasn’t manifested the same sense of community that many of the most successful consumer technologies have achieved. Just look at the rise of Tik Tok, Instagram, or Twitch, these platforms allow people to be connected in a way that is infectious.
Q. How has globalisation affected the music industry? And what part does music have to play in emerging markets?
A. Globalisation has seen a huge shift in the types of music we consume as well as shaped the way we produce music. Take the Philippines as an example, with a large ex-pat community, their artists often sing both in English and in Tagalog. This paves the way for English speakers worldwide to enjoy, but also drive engagement from their ex-pat community as well as those at home – it’s a global approach to songwriting and it has proved successful.
K-pop has also had a huge impact worldwide, it will sell out at Madison Square Garden every single time. Just look at Little Mix and One Direction, they borrow from these themes and replicate it for their own success, they all follow the same blueprint.
Q. The benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing, if you could change anything from your career what would it be?
A. I find it difficult to look back and I never look back on my career and lament the things I cannot change. Life is a series of events and coincidences, for example, I never would have moved to the UK without the poor situation in South Africa and in turn, that would never have led to the career that I had today. If I could change anything about myself, I would have had the patience to read music and play like Henrik Schwarz.
I think the UK has much to learn from other countries though. In the UK, we make up a very small percentage of the world’s population yet we account for 13% of the global music business. Yet, if you look at the importance of music in schools, our education system is lacking. In a country such as Sweden, everyone has to learn an instrument at an early age, and the output of talent from that country is astounding.
At the end of the day, creativity is everything.
Q. How do you constantly stay up to date with the latest trends?
A. If you’re involved in a creative industry, you’ve got to always be on the hunt for the best and brightest mind in their field. You’ve got to read a lot, watch a lot, and most importantly, learn how to survive on two hours of sleep a night!
Pete Tong did an interesting podcast with Bob Lefsetz worth listening to on this, back in the glory days of Ibiza you would work all evening and party until the next day and then do it all over again.
Q. What exciting projects are you working on right now?
We’re producing a video right now to raise money for UNICEF, along with Bob Marley’s sons, artists throughout the world will perform One Love to raise money for this amazing charity.
I’m also on the hunt for the world’s next virtuosos. So far, we have an exceptionally talented young guitar player from Milan, someone from South India who can play two pianos blindfolded, and a young woman from Guilford who shows a lot of promise. People are really hungry for great music, not just the sort of the aural wallpaper we see so much of today.
A personal project of my own involves working with a Jazz musician, Ben Sidran, composing a track called ‘Thank God for the F Train’ which brings me back to my days in San Francisco.
Ralph Simon is someone who constantly invests himself in searching for the latest trend and examines ‘what’s next?’ for our culture. To understand what the next biggest thing is going to be, you have to understand what drives community and shared engagement. At AI Music, our mission is to serve music in a way that is tailored to everyone – yet also equally shared.