As Editor for the likes of MusicAlly, The Guardian, and Contributor for The Sunday Times, CNET, Medium's CuePoint, Stylus, T3 and ContempoPlay – Stuart Dredge has almost two decades of experience writing about the music industry.
During that time, we’ve seen the death knell of the Napster era, the rise of streaming and now the threat of a pandemic on the live sector. With that being said, we sat down with Stuart to discuss what trends are emerging now and what he sees for the future of the music industry.
Q. What has been the most surprising change to the music industry in 2020? And what do you see as the next big breakthrough in this space?
A. It feels a bit obvious to say a global pandemic was the most surprising change to the music industry in 2020 – well, to the whole world! But I think the sudden, complete shutdown of live music in many parts of the world, and the anticipation of a hit to come to public performance music royalties from bars, shops, businesses etc, has shed a necessary light on how many musicians below superstar level were reliant on these revenue streams.
It’s probably not a surprise, then, that the debate about artists and songwriters’ royalties from streaming has sprung up again – although it’s been regularly flaring up since the earliest days of Spotify, in truth. The #BrokenRecord campaign here in the UK is interesting because it’s not just picking a single villain and shouting at them, but rather stepping back and criticising the system as a whole: from the lack of price rises for a streaming subscription over the last 12 years, to the kinds of label contracts that make it really difficult for bands from the pre-streaming era to make much money from streaming.
I’m not sure there’s an immediate breakthrough in sight from this: at this point, musicians are talking and tweeting about it; some journalists are writing about it; and a couple of industry bodies here in the UK have got behind it… but there’s not much response publicly yet from either streaming services or the major rightsholders. For meaningful change, they’ll need to be constructively engaged in these discussions, so that would be my hope.
Within this, there’s the debate about ‘user-centric’ licensing – we wrote an explainer on this recently – which I’d love to see lead to a proper trial (as streaming service Deezer has been looking to do) and more understanding of what that model would *actually* mean for artists and songwriters.
Q. With the advent of mass live streaming on platforms such as Instagram Live, Twitch, Youtube, Zoom etc, do you think current music distribution models fit the bill? If not, how could it be better?
A. The current activity around live streaming is clearly driven by the concert shutdown, and artists trying to find purely-online ways of playing for fans – and ideally, making some money from it. Right now it feels like lots of experiments, often with technology that’s still finding its own feet.
I think there’s lots of potential: both from ticketed online concerts (Laura Marling’s last weekend was a really interesting experiment in ‘scarcity’ – restricting the number of tickets available to make it more valuable) and from musicians getting to grips with the tips economies and other money-making features of platforms like Twitch. It’s also positive seeing Instagram, Facebook and YouTube adding (or opening up to musicians) more features for making money from livestreams.
That said, this is also highlighting some awkwardness around licensing for some of these platforms: just this week, Twitch has been hit by a barrage of copyright takedowns for older videos and streams, and is warning people not to (for example) post DJ sets or non-live cover versions. Instagram also had to remind people about what is and isn’t licensed in terms of music on its platform. So there are some wrinkles that will hopefully be solved by constructive licensing talks, in time.
Q. What does commercial music of the future look like to you?
A. I’m 42, it probably doesn’t look that different really for me! With my work-head on, I’m more interested in what it’ll look like for my children, who are just reaching the age where I first fell in love with music. But for them, music is something they discover through TikTok and YouTube, and their first big concert was Travis Scott in Fortnite.
I’m intrigued (and slightly terrified!) by what their relationship is going to be with commercial music. Or whether perhaps they’ll be making music for themselves and their friends: AI is one of the technologies that could be really interesting here, creating a new boom in kids ‘making’ songs for one another, shared via whatever social platforms they’re on at the time.
One thing for myself, is the idea of ‘functional’ music, which is a phrase that people can get cross about in the music industry. Music that you listen to for a particular context or purpose: because it works really well for that. I’ve been spending a lot of time with VR apps like Beat Saber and BoxVR, where the music is really key to what you’re doing.
Beat Saber has some licensed tracks, BoxVR seems more about its own independent catalogue (which is a shame, I can think of dozens of amazing tracks I’d love to be swinging punches at thin air to!) – but I can see how these kinds of apps (see also: Peloton, or even the mindfulness/meditation apps like Calm and Headspace) could play a really big role in commercial music in the future.
Q. How can consumers become more involved in the process of creating and sharing music?
A. Tools to help them make it, definitely: I’ve been playing with an app called Splash, which uses AI-generated beats and loops to help you make, record and share songs. Again, kids might be the most interesting audience – it has a version for the gaming platform Roblox, which is a huge thing for children. So yes, creative, fun tools that help you make music without necessarily having training or skill – almost always just for the fun of it, rather than any commercial goals.
I suspect there may be some very interesting stuff to come around the big social apps here: Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok etc, in terms of in-app tools to quickly whip up music to accompany your posts.
Q. How has the music industry changed with the advent of social platform influencers?
A.I’m not sure the music industry has changed much in response to influencers, to be honest. Some of the ones with musical inklings have managed to turn their social audience into label deals (and of those, the ones with real talent have stuck around - many of us forget now that Shawn Mendes was originally a ‘Vine star’ for example).
Labels have run influencer marketing campaigns and figured out what works and what doesn’t in that sector. There are some interesting music curation brands on YouTube and TikTok (Trap Nation, Flighthouse etc), but we haven’t ever seen the explosion in ‘music influencers’ as we did for gaming – maybe that’s more about copyright barriers.
Oh, and influencers helped the Fyre Festival happen, so there’s that...
I think we’ve watched and learned from the advent of social influencers: some of the audience building tactics they’ve used can be adapted for some artists, and some of the ways they make money have opened up new opportunities for artists too. Lots of little things, but no huge changes.
Q. What technology really excites you in the music space? And what is really driving forward new developments in your mind?
A. I’ve been fascinated by AI-generated music technology for a couple of years now, so I’m trying to keep on top of that and understand what the various startups are doing, and what it might mean. Musicians working with AI as a collaborator is really exciting: recent projects from Holly Herndon, Yacht and Skygge raised all sorts of interesting questions.
I’ve reported on VR for several years now, and have generally been a bit sceptical in terms of my own desire to use it much. But I got an Oculus Quest recently, and BoxVR and Beat Saber alone are turning me into less of a grump about it. Plus the pottery game! I want to do more exploring of this in the coming year, and think about what it means for music: I don’t think it’s just ‘watch a filmed concert from lots of angles’ though.
It’s more interactive. Part ‘how can a music performance be more like a game, with interactivity?’ and part ‘how can you make/learn to play music in VR?’ – there’s a learn-to-DJ app called TribeXR and a learn-to-drum app called Paradiddle that are really interesting on that front.
With the advent of a new age of consumption, there’s been a huge surge in the number of artists, businesses, and publishers exploring how artificial intelligence can change and adapt music. Indeed, Stuart’s interview showed that the rise of contextually based music has interesting implications for both the established music industry and challenger platforms.
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