Though the shape and sound of traditional musical instruments hasn’t changed much in the past several decades (or in some cases, the past several hundred years), the way we make, listen to, and monetize music has been completely overhauled. Some of these changes have been objectively good for both musicians and listeners, while others have been more questionable. In any case, things are progressing forward, and it’s important that we recognize how these changes are manifesting. That way, we can emphasize the most advantageous new developments and consider alternatives for those that are less favorable.
Access to New Resources
For starters, musicians have access to new types of resources to create and distribute their music, which is leading to innovation in the composition, structure, and growth potential of songs.
- Solo recording. While it was always technically possible to do your own recording, today’s high-tech, low-cost equipment makes it feasible for anyone with a few hundred dollars to spare. Outfitting a room of your house with some light soundproofing equipment and investing in a quality microphone can get you started, which means you won’t have to drop serious cash on renting recording studio time, nor do you need to make a bold impression on the right people before you can make strides in the industry.
- Professional production. Thanks to the connective potential of the internet, you can hire professional music producers to mix, master, and polish your sound. If you have a talent for writing and recording, but aren’t familiar with the technical aspects of production, it’s an easy way to drastically improve the quality of your sound.
- New instruments and sounds. Speaking of sound, new synth equipment and recording programs have given musicians access to more diverse soundscapes than ever before. It’s possible to realistically replicate the sounds of musical instruments, mimic the styles of eras past, and even invent new noises to include in your work.
- Remote distribution. The internet also makes it possible to distribute your music to anyone and everyone, for free. Most of us are already used to this paradigm, and take it for granted, but as little as 20 years ago, it was near impossible to break into the industry without having a connection.
New Modes of Listening
Tech has also dramatically changed the way we listen to music. First, there are new technologies that change how we receive (and perceive) sounds, like better-quality headphones and speaker systems. But more importantly, the platforms and mediums we use to play music in the first place.
The real game-changer here is the combination of high-speed internet and big-time streaming services. Streaming music has several major advantages:
- Wider distribution potential. Many streaming services offer at least some free music streaming, albeit with a caveat like having to put up with ads. But the widespread availability of internet access and mobile devices means that musicians have a wider potential audience than ever before.
- Non-committal and convenient listening. Listeners also benefit from streaming services. They can keep all their music in one place, organizing playlists and preferences, and experimenting with new content. They can also cherry-pick songs and bounce from artist to artist, rather than committing to a whole album purchase.
- Universal access. Streaming services offer listeners more ways to connect, even if it’s through a single account or a single app. Streaming apps are available on a wide variety of devices, and your playlists and history carry over from one device to another, making music both portable and more convenient for users.
- Discovery potential. Modern streaming services typically have built-in discovery engines, or features designed to recommend new music to listeners. This is both a new online marketing channels and positioning opportunity for musicians and a chance for listeners to discover music they otherwise wouldn’t.
But it also has some downsides:
- Lower payouts and profitability. Music streaming services like Spotify are notorious for underpaying musicians. Artists often make fractions of a cent per stream, making it necessary to make money by selling merchandise and/or touring.
- Compression and interruptions. Streaming also puts pressure on artists and producers to create more compressed files, which can interfere with streaming quality. The presence of ads can also interrupt the average listener’s experience, cheapening it or disrupting the natural flow of an album of work.
- Silos and exclusivity. Different streaming services may have exclusive access to the music of certain musicians. Most apps also attempt to greatly increase customer loyalty, to the point where they can’t switch to another app. This creates silos of music listenership and can be prohibitive for people who want an eclectic experience.
Technology is going to continue to shape the music industry, inside and out, regardless of how you feel about it. In fact, machine learning algorithms are already starting to write and produce their own songs. Spending too much time romanticizing the music industry’s past can be counterproductive, but we also need to think critically about the technologies we adopt moving forward, or else we could compromise or stagnate the growth of an entire art form.