#22 What we get wrong about the future of music


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What we get wrong about the future of music

Music – what we listen to, the way we listen to it, even the way we think about it, is changing.

What we get wrong about thge future of music: do the old rules governing how we think about music no longer apply? Credit: Graphics: Ours4TheMaking, Photo: Unsplash

Music – what we listen to, the way we listen to it, even the way we think about it, is changing. But when we try and imagine what music might be like in the future, could we be getting something fundamentally wrong?

This isn’t just a story about new technologies, although that’s part of the picture.

It’s about way we experience music and the role it plays in our lives.

Because it’s changing.

Our idea of popular music

Our idea of popular music and its significance in our lives and in our culture was largely forged during the late 20th century, with its unique clutch of cultural, social and economic forces, such as the rise of individual identity and consumerism (i.e. ownership).

And music mirrored these forces, at times inspired them and provided the soundtrack.

And, that sense of what music means and its place and role in our lives, is also a product of those times.

But, we live in different times today, certainly with different technologies, but also with different ideas about ownership and identity, how political and social ideas are portrayed in music, and indeed the purpose of music altogether appears to be shifting.So, when it comes to imagining what the future of music might look like, do the old rules still apply? Or do we need a fresh approach?

▶️Paying and playing: How we connect with artists

Here’s a gentle provocation: music doesn’t matter anymore because of the shift away from owning music to either getting it for free or streaming it via subscription.

The old model was that, if you wanted to listen and re-listen to a favourite song, you’d need to walk or cycle or take the bus to your local record shop. 

You’d scour the shelves and shortlist the records that might make the cut. And then you’d be faced with a choice. You probably couldn’t afford more than one album, so you had to choose.

And this wasn’t an idle or passive choice.

The vinyl record or CD or Cassette tape you bought would determine part of your identity,…shape the mix of your music collection that graced your shelves and be rifled through by friends.…determine your cultural touchstones for those late night conversations with new acquaintances at parties.…inform your understanding of the world and your place within it.

Well, perhaps not every record did all all of that.

But, from a practical point of view, your choice would determine what music would be stuck on repeat on your stereo for the summer.

Ownership brought us closer to our favourite artists.

So if to own music was to choose between artists, what does music that’s widely available for ‘free’ or via subscription mean for our connection to artists and their music?

Does it mean we care a little bit less?

And this artist and audience decoupling isn’t just about if or how we pay for our music. It’s also about how we play it.

The role of playlists

More and more of music is listened to from playlists curated by some of the big platforms like Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music.

Two thirds of streams flow from these three alone: 33; 17; 14 per cent respectively. A Vox analysis estimated that almost 7 in 10 songs streamed on Spotify in 2017 were via editorially-curated or machine-generated playlists.

(Side thought: This playlist figure is stark: first, it reminded me just how little we actively choose the tracks we listen to; and second it raises the question: how many playlists are not curated by a person, but with AI? And how do I feel about that?)

(Answer: I’ve stopped listening to playlists.)

But let me ask you something, that playlist song you liked the other day, can you name the artist?

⚙️Music as a tool

And let’s turn to another curious development: the shift towards music as a tool.

What do I mean by this?

Music is being pumped out to new places and packaged in new ways to new audiences: be that gamers playing Fortnite or fitness enthusiasts saddled up on Peloton.

But do you really play a computer game or jump on your exercise bike to listen to the tunes?

Here, the music is a tool: to enhance the experience and ambience.

Ok, you might say, but Muzak has long been a feature of shopping malls, elevators and airports. Isn’t that music as a tool, a kind of “functional music”, if you like? Yes, I’d agree.

Moody blues

But what’s interesting is not necessarily the rise in piped music to communal online and offline spaces, but the rise and rise of people choosing to listen to ambient music to induce a particular mood or mind ‘performance’.

During the pandemic there was a rash of new releases pitched at listeners seeking out a certain state of mind: to be relaxed; to be soothed. This uptick in interest for ambient music mirrored similar trends in downloads of mindfulness apps, like Headspace and Calm.

Moody beats​

Taking this idea of ‘music as a tool’ further, we can find hours and hours of music that have been engineered specifically to help us sleep or concentrate.

Binaural beats aim to synchronise music of different frequencies with our brains to help us concentrate or feel more calm.It’s less about melody or politics or fashion or rebellion. It’s more about harnessing the physical properties of music – their vibrations – to induce specific states of mind, on demand.It’s music as a practical tool to help us navigate and perform better in modern life.

One curious example, if a little more niche, is ASMR.

Experienced only by some people, Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response is where exposure to certain sounds or visual stimuli, such as gentle movements, tapping, scratching or whispering, can trigger tingly sensations, often starting in the head which make their way down to the top of the spine.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield and Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK found that those who experienced the phenomenon had “significantly reduced” heart rates, and showed significant increases in feelings of relaxation and social connection.

As the world approaches three trillion music streams in a single year, how many of those streams will be “utility-beats” and “tingle-tones” – musical tools designed help us think more sharply, sleep more deeply and feel more relaxed?

🐦Music as content

So what of music itself? 

In these media-drenched times, does music become just another form of content? Does music cease to be that thing of unassailable beauty that can capture the cultural zeitgeist and bring about real-world change?In this brave new world, is music merely ‘content’?

Is an artist’s core purpose to create music that moves people? Or, is it set to be reduced to an hour-by-hour struggle to attract and retain fans’ attention by any means necessary, be that an update, a post, a video or a photo? Oh yeah, and perhaps the odd song here and there?

Do musicians, in order to be successful, need to be first and foremost content-creation maestros?

In a world where artists become increasingly anonymous, where music is used more like a purposeful tool, and where audiences, with essentially unlimited access to music, care a little bit less passionately about it, the place and role of music in our lives is and continues to change. And if we shouldn’t expect music to mean the same to us and others in the future, perhaps our criteria to judge music should adapt also to allow for how it moves us in new ways? In other words, is our outlook of the future of music suffering from a form of “extended now-sightedness“?

Ultimately, the story of change in music is a story about change in us. But I do wonder if popular music as we think of it, had a ‘moment’ where it was fashioned by fleeting forces and rose to its prominent place in our lives, but that that moment has passed.

To be replaced by another…

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