Digital Legacies: Music

Julius Wiedemann dives into the metamorphosis of the modern music industry, brought on by the introduction of digital tools and the democratisation of recording and releases.

by Julius WiedemannPublished on : Sep 07, 2021

Now that streaming has become ubiquitous, it may be time to start to understand how the music industry is going to do from now on. The recording music industry has changed dramatically, but that’s different than saying that the whole industry has been transformed in its entirety. Bars and restaurants still have live music, and retail even now plays music the same way. Music in the arts is pretty much the same, and concerts keep moving people for artists to perform live. Surely the life of artists has changed because they have had to adapt the new realities, where among other things, album sales represent much less of their revenue. The golden age of this triangle record-radio-concert business model is gone, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a golden period happening right now. We must think about it in terms of new channels, and in terms of accessibility to new artists too. Recording companies do not control the industry anymore, which has become much more spontaneous and has given musicians the ability to create what they think is original and authentic.

In spite of all these changes, concerts and other live shows have remained essential methods to experience and consume music | Digital Legacies by Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
In spite of all these changes, concerts and other live shows have remained essential methods to experience and consume music Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

The freedom to record with much less infrastructure has empowered artists. Thirty years ago, the difference between recording in the bedroom and in a studio was gigantic. Not anymore. Software as a service has also come to empower producers to edit music, paying by the hours, to use programs that used to be very expensive before that can improve recordings, and can emulate specific microphones that cost a fortune. We are not talking about perfection here, but instead, striving for excellence. There is no doubt that the democratisation of digital tools has changed music production. It is easy to underestimate the amount of work put together to produce one song, let alone an album. And sooner or later, business models will come up to recognise that.

Digital tools such as music production software have spearheaded the democratisation of the recording process | Digital Legacies by Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
Digital tools such as music production software have spearheaded the democratisation of the recording process Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

This democratisation has allowed for music genres to expand dramatically. From rap to hip-hop , from boys’ bands to rock ‘n’ roll, and from reggae to world music, the recording industry doesn’t command the style that is going to be sold in the next 12 months anymore, and artists are free to do what they think is right. Founded in 1981 by American Express and Warner communications, MTV revolutionised the way we listen to music and associate that with video. Now, we hardly hear about them. Now part of Viacom in the USA, the channel has closed in many countries. It succumbed to Youtube and homemade videos. MTV could be compared somehow with the video rental chain Blockbuster, which was founded in 1985, went through bankruptcy and still exists, but has become irrelevant.

This freedom has empowered more artists to record, fuelling the diversity and expansion of various genres | Digital Legacies by Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
This freedom has empowered more artists to record, fuelling the diversity and expansion of various genres Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

Music produced in English still dominates the international market, but it’s not alone anymore. It’s not uncommon today to go to store and listen to K-pop, Bossa Nova or Arabic in the music in the background. There are about 500 million people subscribing music streaming services worldwide, with Spotify taking about 32 per cent of the cut. The other three big players, Apple, Amazon, and Tencent, have 16, 13, and 13 per cent market share respectively. And Google is in fifth place with eight per cent. The number of subscribers increased by about 100 million just in 2020, which is good news.

New types of media have always signalled a shift for the industry - exemplified by the move from vinyl LPs to CDs and other forms of digital storage | Digital Legacies by Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
New types of media have always signalled a shift for the industry - exemplified by the move from vinyl LPs to CDs and other forms of digital storage Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

New types of media have always represented a challenge for industries. Vinyl LP (introduced in 1948) and tapes (introduced in 1968) have survived for a long time and became part of a powerful business model. From vinyl to CDs, it was a question of controlling copyrights and digitisation, but leveraging the quality of the sound. I once interviewed Rudy Van Gelder, the legendary sound engineer who worked with the masters of Jazz, and asked him how was the quality transition from vinyl to CD, assuming that he loved the vinyl much more. His answer was nothing but surprising. He argued that vinyl was very unstable, and CD was a blessing because it allowed for a much better sound quality and expansion of frequencies. We also frequently forget that the quality of what we listen comes a lot from the equipment we are using, and not the media.

 Spotify is currently the biggest player in the music streaming market, with Apple, Google, Tencent, and Amazon trailing behind| Digital Legacies by Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
Spotify is currently the biggest player in the music streaming market, with Apple, Google, Tencent, and Amazon trailing behind Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

Piracy is still alive, with 32 per cent of music downloaders doing it because they think the price is too high, and another 18 per cent justifying it with convenience. Still, around a third of consumers listen to music that was acquired illegally. And 34 per cent of the Gen Z generation uses stream-ripping. But the truth is that most of us listen to music on YouTube for example, assuming it is all legal. The first video to explode in views was the Evolution of Dance, performed by Judson Laipply, which achieved 70 million views in about eight months during 2003, a record at that time. Today, the Baby Shark Dance and Despacito have achieved over nine billion and 7.5 billion views respectively on the platform. Since 2015, YouTube has launched its own music platform where it also offers subscription without advertising.

While the avenues of music consumption have changed, the artform itself presently occupies an even more prominent role in our lives than before | Digital Legacies by Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
While the avenues of music consumption have changed, the artform itself presently occupies an even more prominent role in our lives than before Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

we share music on social media, we record reels with music that is on our mobile phones, and so many other ways, but music itself is stronger than ever and is part of our lives. It never left. We still sing and we still dance. We feel the same way today when we listen to music that we felt before. They still go through our ears and heads and still enact the same emotions. Music is still part of our conversations. Business models will have to reflect the effort of making music, and consumers should be attentive to that. There is always more great music to be done.

Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.

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