The Future of Music: A Vision of Post-Format

Formats have shaped and dictated the evolution of recorded music. The constraints that formats set have, in turn, become the creative frameworks within which music has operated. Now, in the internet era, formats are becoming a thing of the past – and yet the way in which music is made and distributed still conforms to the old physical world. It is time for a change in how we think about music, right from the creation process through to what a song actually sounds like. Here is a vision for what the future of music could be.

Bringing dead sounds back to life

When Edison invented the phonograph, a denigrator called it a machine ‘that brings dead sounds back to life’. Conditioned by the recorded era, it is hard for us to conceptualise a time when music only existed in the moment and was never heard exactly the same way twice. Nevertheless, this is a historical anomaly – a legacy of physical media. Songs became fixed, static and permanent because that was the only way we could squeeze music into little discs – mummified echoes of live performances.

Over time, as recording techniques and technology improved, the recorded song developed into its own art form, with multitrack recording, effects, synthesis and programming enabling the creation of sounds that could never be truly replicated live. Now, with physical media accounting for an ever-smaller share of music consumption, there is no need to adhere to its constraints. We have 14 track albums because CDs were designed to fit Beethoven’s 9thSymphony; we have static recordings to serve legacy distribution models; we have three minute songs to fit radio schedules. All three straightjackets can be discarded. Here is how:=

  • Write and produce for the medium: We are already locked into a process of music being designed for Spotify success, through so-called Spotify Core and with the industrialisation of song writing seeing songs stitching together the best hooks from multiple songwriters. Much of this can be reductive, dumbing down to the lowest common denominator.However, it is the execution and intent that requires attention, not the strategy. In fact, it needs pushing further – much further. TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and Spotify are all dramatically different propositions with equally diverse use cases. So why would we expect a song to perform equally across each one? What video producer would create a meme for Netflix, or a two-hour movie for Snapchat? It is time to follow video’s lead and write for where the song is going to be listed to most. Lil Nas X when writing Hometown Road was focused on making something viral, something that would blow up on TikTok. The idea that songs should have fixed lengths, choruses, verses – all of this can now be played with in the mainstream in the way that it has been on the experimental fringe of music for many years. This time, it is to give listeners what they want rather than for avant-garde expression.
  • Ditch / evolve the album: Just 16% of consumers listen to traditional albums and an even smaller 10% listen to full albums on streaming. 59% of consumers say they are listening to albums less because of streaming playlists. The album is not dead, but its addressable audience is far smaller. Now a new generation of artists is coming through who grew up with playlists, not albums, so do not even think in album terms. Of course, many artists, especially older ones, still want to write albums and they absolutely should do so. They should not, however, expect the majority of their audiences to listen to them in full. There will always be exceptions (Ed Sheeran, Adele etc.) but the direction of travel is clear. Artists and labels need to rethink what the album should be. We’re beginning to see artist contracts that stipulate numbers of tracks rather than albums. This is hugely positive and will enable far more creative freedom. Artists need to start pushing the boundaries, pulling every lever available (e.g. more tracks, fewer tracks, all tracks at once, over time, mixing in spoken word, images and video, EPs etc.). The only rule should be that there are no rules.
  • Fill the space between recorded and live: Despite its ‘dead sounds’ origins, the recorded song is an established entity with established consumption patterns that is not going to disappear in any meaningful timeframe. But that does not mean that it has to be the only entity. Technologies such as live streaming, real time tipping, comment streams, virtual gifts and collaboration tools can be used to create music experiences that are neither live nor recorded, but something in between. Imagine an artist doing a pay-to-view live stream in the studio, with a set of beats in a shared folder that the audience can drop in and out but that only changes what they each individually hear. Then the guitarist starts cycling through a few riffs, and the viewers upvote their favourite one in the comment stream. Then as the keyboard player starts, listeners change the synth patch, but again just for their own stream. Think of this not as a blueprint for what the format could be, but an illustration of how to think about it. To create something that is unique, that exists in the moment and creates an indelible bond between artist and fan. 

This was not a definitive list of what post-format innovation needs to do but instead three principle areas of focus and illustrations of how to structure thought. Now it is time for creative artists, writers, labels and tech companies to pick up the baton and run with it. Standing still is of course an option, but in the increasingly competitive attention economy, if music does not up its game there can be no complaints if it loses share to video, games and social.

Backing Both Horses: The Thinking Behind Tencent’s UMG Stake

As long expected, Tencent is poised to take a stake in Vivendi, reported to be 10%. While the news might not be surprising, there are a number of important factors at play:

  • Tencent fast-tracked? Given that various entities stated their interest in investing in UMG, Vivendi appears to have fast-tracked Tencent. This might well be because Tencent showed the most appetite for paying a premium, and therefore Vivendi wanted to close the deal so as to create a price that subsequent bidders would have to work with.
  • Betting on both horses: The investment community is increasingly viewing music as a battle between rights and distribution, with Spotify versus UMG as the publicly traded vehicles through which the contest can be backed. Tencent already secured around 5% of Spotify via its Tencent Music Entertainment subsidiary back in 2017, and it is now securing 10% in UMG. Tencent is backing both horses in the race.
  • Investing within constraints: Back in 2016, concerned about capital flowing out of the country,Chinese authorities implemented restrictions on Chinese companies investing in overseas entities. This has compelled Tencent to focus on minority stakes rather than outright acquisitions. The UMG stake fits this investment framework.
  • Outgrowing China: Tencent had a 74% market share of the Chinese music subscriptions market in Q2 2018. While growth in the market is solid, it is slowing. Tencent will recognize that there is only so much remaining near-term opportunity at home. Being a part of the global market is a way of ensuring it is not constrained by its domestic marketplace.
  • Proxy wars: Back in 2018 I argued that Spotifyshould be wary of Tencent setting itself up as a competitor in markets where Spotify is not yet established (Russia, sub-Saharan Africa, some Asian markets etc). Tencent may still do this, and this may be part of the preparations, but for now ByteDance looks the most likely candidateto pursue this strategy.
  • Look east:While streaming is giving an old industry new legs in the west, China’s music industry is effectively being built from scratch. As a consequence, it doesn’t have decades of irrelevant baggage. This is seen in China’s music apps. Western streaming is all about monetising consumption; China’s isabout monetising fandom. If the Western music industry was born today, it too would be putting social at its core. Many argue that apps like WeSing can only really work in China – but I remember people saying the same about mobile picture messaging when i-mode was getting going in Japan nearly 20 years ago. Just look at TikTok’s global success if you need any further convincing.

Take Five (the big five stories and data you need to know) August 5th 2019

Spotify – steady sailing, for now: Spotify hit 108 million subscribers in Q2 2019 – which is exactly what we predicted. Spotify continues to grow in line with the wider market, maintaining market share. Subscriber growth isn’t the problem though, revenue is. As mature markets slow, emerging markets will keep subscriber growth up but with lower APRU will bring less revenue. Spotify needs a revenue plan B. If podcast revenue is it, then it needs to start delivering, fast.

Fortnite World Cup: It can be hard to appreciate the scale of transformative change while it is still happening. A few years from now we’ll probably look back at the late 2010s as when e-sports started to emerge as a global-scale sport in its own right. Epic Games’ inaugural Fortnite World Cup pulled in 2.3 million viewers on YouTube and Twitch, was played in the Arthur Ashe Stadium and the singles winner picked up more prize money ($3 million) than Tiger Woods at the Masters and Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon.

Facebook trying to do an Apple, and an Amazon: With 140 million daily users of its Watch video service, Facebook is positioning to become the video powerhouse it always looked like it could be. Now it is trying to follow in Apple and Amazon’s footsteps and make itself a video device company too. Currently in talks with all its key video competitors, Facebook wants to add streaming to its forthcoming video calling device. That would leave Alphabet as the only tech major without a serious video household device play (unless you count Android TV).

Ticking time bomb?: Having recently hit 120 million users in India, TikTok clearly has scale, but it also has a rights problem, calling in the UK Copyright Tribunal to resolve a dispute with digital licensing body ICE, which characterised TikTok as being ‘unlicensed’. This feels a lot like the days when YouTube was first carving out licenses. Sooner or later TikTok is going to need a licensing framework that rights holders will sign off on. Matters just took a twist with TikTok poaching ICE’s Head of Rights and Repertoire. It’ll take more than that though to fix this structural challenge. 

We’re competing with Fornite: Yes, more Fortnite….fresh from World Cup success and on the eve of the Ashes, the English Cricket Board said ‘There’s 200 million players of Fortnite…that is who we are competing against.’ Do not mistake this for a uniquely cricket problem, nor even a uniquely sports problem. In the attention economy everyone is competing against everyone. And while Fornite might be the go-to for middle-aged execs bemoaning attention competition (yes that means you Reed Hastings) the trend is bigger than Fortnite alone, way bigger.

Why Facebook Can Be the Future of Social Music, But Isn’t Yet

Facebook recently secured licensing deals with music rightsholders in India, an important step in what has thus far been an underwhelming social music strategy since first inking rights deals in June 2018. Facebook has the potential to be a giant in social music, in no small part because most streaming music apps do such a poor job of social functionality themselves. Instead it is Asian streaming apps that are largely setting the pace, with the occasional western breakthrough (normally from Chinese companies). So, what does Facebook need to do to deliver on its undoubted promise? Look east…

Facebook has little motivation to become a streaming service in a traditional sense. There is little room for a new global scale player in the streaming space and the wafer-thin operating margins are not so much well understood as they are simply an open wound for the sector. Facebook’s move was always going to be one that focused on creating social experiences centred around connections and personal expression. It is a sound strategy, but one that has not yet been executed. However, it is not alone; indeed, the streaming music marketplace is woefully non-social.

social music landscape midia research

Personal identity has always been at the heart of what music is. The music we listen to helps express who we are and, especially in formative years, helps shape who we are. In the analogue era, music fans could immediately convey who they were with shelves of vinyl or CDs. The very act of buying an album or single once showed that you had skin in the game for your favourite artists. Saying ‘I’ve got that album’ meant you cared enough about that artist to part with cash. In the streaming era, however, those shelves have been replaced by lists of files stored in the cloud, and ‘I’ve listened to that song’ has little inherent weight.

The self-expression void

This self-expression void needs filling, but in the west YouTube and, to a lesser degree, Soundcloud are really the only global scale streaming services meeting this need with features such as comments, thumbs up/down etc. In Asia though, things look very different. Tencent has built a portfolio of music apps that are either highly social (e.g. Kugou, Kuwo) or that are social expression first and music second (WeSing). Japan’s Line has followed a similar path.

Social music apps serve young audiences

In the west, social takes centre stage outside of streaming apps. A number of smaller apps such as Vertigo are emerging that focus on creating engaged micro communities around music. The standout success story is TikTok, which is run by Chinese company Bytedance. TikTok picks up where Musically left off (which of course was bought and then killed off by Bytedance). But, as exciting as Musically was and TikTok is for giving consumers a way to express themselves through music and dance, they appeal first and foremost to tweens and teens. TikTok is used by 31% of 16-19s, but just 2% of the overall adult population (interestingly, Musically had exactly the same penetration rates at its peak).

Facebook is not fulfilling its potential

All of which brings us onto Facebook. Facebook, through its portfolio of social apps, has an opportunity to deliver a portfolio of social music experiences that appeal to multiple age groups and use cases. This could be TikTok-like experiences for younger Instagram users, music greetings on Messenger, sound tracked stories on Facebook, or even delivering social layers directly into the streaming apps themselves. Of course, it is doing some of this already but to really deliver, Facebook needs to go beyond – far beyond. Social music experiences have not hit mainstream outside of Asia because the right formats aren’t there yet. Facebook has the potential to deliver but needs to innovate out of its comfort zone to do so.

Social music could be the next format

The decline of closed-format consumer electronics was the death knell for music formats – streaming is a business model rather than a format. But it is clear that the market needs something new. Streaming growth will slow and user experience innovation there has been limited. There is a risk that 2019 can look a lot like 1999, i.e. a long-established format going strong in a growing industry with the prospect of a fall around the corner seemingly ridiculous. Social formats may be the next much-needed injection of growth. If streaming monetizes consumption, social can monetize fandom. The question is whether Facebook can seize the mantle.