Ever since rhythm and harmony were brought together into the alchemy of music, technology has driven it. Whether it was the understanding of air columns that allowed the earliest confirmed instrument, a sort of flute, to be made 42,000 years ago, or the development of tanning procedures that allowed drum skins to be made, to metalworking and the oldest trumpets, you cannot separate the two. In more modern times, improvements in steel would allow metal strings and so the struck dulcimer around 900CE, much later the fortepiano in 1700 (yes, fortepiano, that’s not a typo). And let’s not forget the arrival of moveable type in the Renaissance that allowed music to be written and mass-distributed - as a result we see the standardisation of music notation and for the first time full orchestral scores as opposed to the solo and small group pieces of earlier years. And we see, during this boom, the impressive maths that gave birth to 12-tone equal temperament, on which all modulation and harmony now relies. It’s interesting to pause here and notice something about the printing press: it caused a panic in some quarters. It was even predicted that the spread of knowledge would bring about the end of civilisation. God forbid, the poor might learn to read. Just bare this historical point in mind.
The Past And Future Of Music
If we’re going to talk about the past and future of music, let's go back to the start. Music has always been driven by technology. This is true all the way back to the dawn of our species. Evidence for how music came to be is of course scant. We used to think that rhythm was uniquely human, that our nearest relative, the chimpanzee, did not possess it. But check out this video and tell me that's true. As for the other half of music, harmony, other animals possess that too, responding to pitches that come together in octaves. Harmony, at least in a basic sense, predates the great apes entirely.
Music has always been driven by technology.
Much later, it was electricity that fuelled great jumps in music. Before we talk about synthesisers or frying pan guitars, there was the phonograph and its spouse technology radio broadcasting. Like the printing press, this accelerated the spread of music styles and innovations. Very quickly, advertisers learnt that they could turn this into an opportunity, with them providing free records for the station to play and in return, the broadcaster would advocate whatever product the advertiser was selling. People’s access to music funded by advertisers. I hope you didn’t think that was a 21st century invention. Yet still at this stage, the vast bulk of money to be made in the music industry came from live performances, be it the traditional operas and concerts, or the new-fangled musicals, or the jazz and swing bands playing over your gin rickey. That would change in the 50s with magnetic tape and cheap, proliferous and high quality music records. It was the end of music, they said. Nobody would go to the concerts anymore. The money would dry up. Everything would be recorded. It wasn’t the end of music, but they were right - the money in live music shrank. A lot. So much so that live concerts became elaborate advertisements to get people to buy their records.
Then what happened in the 00s? The internet happened, that’s what. Limewire drilled a hole in the bucket of recorded music and billions of pounds poured out of the bottom. It was the end of music. Nobody would pay for recorded music now. We would have to move to a live music business model, it would be catastrophic. So much so in fact that recorded music tracks became elaborate advertisements to get people to buy live tickets. People like Apple clawed some money back with their iTunes, a platform that allowed people to pay for music downloads rather than having to bear the burden of downloading it for free with no repercussions… and to the consumer’s enduring credit, it actually succeeded in generating some income. In the last decade, the recorded music market has been stabilised with a revolutionary concept: what if you could get advertisers to fund the market by attaching their wares to pieces of music? And so with that less than unprecedented move, streaming was born. To be fair, there wasn’t much chance of that solution coming any earlier than it did, because most people’s bandwidths wouldn’t have handled on-the-fly music streaming. I, of course, never downloaded any free music in my teens… but if I had done, which I didn’t, it would have taken something like half an hour to download a three minute song. On a bad day that could go up to an hour. Which it didn’t of course, because I didn’t engage in that sort of behaviour. But if I did.
And is it such a bad thing that the money has shifted back to live events? Recorded music brings more happiness to my life than I could express, but in my estimation it’s pretty great that 30 million people see live music each year. That over in America, 44% of people attended a festival in 2018. That’s tens of millions of people walking out of their houses and doing something because of music.
The economics of it...
So what’s the next big change for music? In terms of business models and the way we consume music, not a lot. This is it, for now. That’s quite a claim, so let me explain. At least for the last century, changes in how we consumed and funded music have been driven by new distribution technologies. But it’s reached something of a natural dead end. Recorded music is about as free as it could get, it’s not going to get any free-er. Nowhere left to go. There are attempts on the horizon to pull in more income through things like premium streaming accounts, high-bandwidth recordings and the resurgence of vinyls, but none of these things are new technologies as such nor will they make a very big dent in the music economy. People will always want music to be easy and convenient, and you’re just not going to compete with free streaming on that front. Vinyl growth is still strong but it won't last forever. Like premium accounts it’s a luxury product, and its inconvenience (sorry) will keep it that way. Luxury, by definition, is not the main way people consume, and so these things reach market saturation fairly quickly. The final change might come when high-bandwidth streaming becomes so cheap and easy that it becomes the streaming norm (with the same free price tag). Any further improvements in the quality of streamed music will be made redundant by the limitations of our ear. On the other side of the field, live music is not going to see any great changes for a long time. To justify this we need to delve into the economics of it. And I warn you, this is quite a rabbit hole.
The number of people willing to attend live music is dictated by its availability. How much does it cost to get in, how convenient is it to get to - how much will I have to pay for fuel or a bus ticket? And the ticket costs, in turn, are dictated by the costs of putting on the event. How much does it cost all the bands to drive themselves and all their gear to the location? If you’ve caught the theme here, all these questions converge at transport costs. Unless transport changes, the cost of putting on live shows won’t change and so neither will its market size. Yes, a lot of money goes into advertising and paying for popular acts to play, but advertising is digital and so its cost is entirely fabricated anyway, and the money needed to pay acts can’t change because it’s a zero sum game. Sure, a particular artist’s fees might go up or down, a particular venue might bring in more or less popular artists. But the total amount of money people are willing to spend on live music is unlikely to change within our already developed economies, and so however you slice the pie, there is a set amount of money to go around the live industry. In short, the number of gig-attenders dictates the number of live bands that can be supported and by extension the number of promoters, labels and advertisers that can be supported. The only thing that could change any of this would be a change in transport costs. That’s entirely possible in a future where we use 3D-printed autonomous mass transport powered by free energy from renewable or nuclear sources.... but at least for the time being, that’s not where we’re at. The costs are what they are. What about demand I hear you ask, will that change? Only if people’s disposable incomes change. And that won’t happen for some time either. The reasons for this are a little in-depth and there’s a link here if you want to go into the whys and wheres of it, but the general idea is that we are gaining money from economic growth but losing it to an ageing population which takes out more pensions and has fewer working age people to pay taxes. The two forces cancel each other out, keeping our disposable incomes stagnant. No growth in luxury budget, no growth in demand for live music.
In case you didn't know,
Africa is huge.
But that’s not to say nothing will change in music. After all, we may have talked about business models and ways of consumption, but we haven’t talked about listening habits. Or, if you like, genre. Top dog right now is grime, hip-hop, or whichever closely related term you wish to use. But that might not last forever. Grime & co’s ascendancy can be attributed to its savvy. It has a knack of being the first community to take advantage of a new technology, from sampling to downloads to streaming. Their fanbases gather around it. Their songs are often built around it. But there might not be many fireworks left for music technology. Which means grime is running out of strategic advantages.
The next change in genre dominance will come from the developing world. Those cultures where people are rising out of poverty will suddenly find themselves with enough time and money to make, and consume, music on a western scale. And so it is their genres that will next take over the airwaves. We can already see this happening with the rise of Latin American music (Havana, anyone?). It’s happened as well with C-pop and K-pop, but those markets are more self-contained (and make less effort to produce in English) and so we ain’t going to see much more of that than we already have, even if they overcome their commercial problems at home. Music from Latin America will continue rising for a good few years yet - what then? Some music will reach us from the growth of Iraq and the middle east. Only today, Spotify recommended me an Arab Metal playlist, and given all the conceptions we have about that part of the world its existence is quite the sign. But it will be dwarfed by the next big flood, and it will come from sub-Saharan Africa. In case you didn’t know, Africa is huge. Jazz, hip-hop and R&B are pretty big in Africa but you can guarantee that when the flood of half a continent reaches our music streams we will see many, many new genres being invented.
And for now, that’s all I have to say.