Sell Features, Not Songs

The recording is old news. Last century. Dead. The Access versus Ownership debate should have finished 10 years ago, but we’re still bickering. Access models (eg. streaming) are not supposed to replace Ownership models. They’re supposed to power a new reality, a new age for the Music business, in which the record industry possibly has no place.

“The Music industry” has become synonymous for the recording industry, just as it was synonymous for sheet music publishers prior to the rise of the recording companies. With new technology, come new companies, and the old companies move into the background. The new Music industry will likely not consist of those that depend on the recording (eg. major labels, or even Spotify), but those that apply technology to change what it means to listen to or interact with Music, just as the recording did in the 20th century.

Even the creative process will have to change.

Interactivity

Prior to the invention of the record, Music was far more participative than it has become throughout the age of mass media and mass consumption. Back then, if you wanted to hear your favourite song, you better know how to play an instrument, or have a member of the household who sings well, or you’re simply not going to hear it. That sounds extremely restrictive given our current reality, but it also gave Music certain characteristics that made it richer:

  • Music was participative
  • Music was mostly a social experience
  • Music was more intimate
  • Music sounded a little bit different every time
  • Music belonged to everyone

I believe these are natural characteristics of Music, that got temporarily pushed into the background in the age of Mass Media and Western individualism. Entertainment and Culture became passive, and the ownership of Culture became less ambiguous, economically. A Creating Class arose, and a Consuming Class. The companies selling the output of the Creating Class benefited from the passiveness of the Consuming Class, because you couldn’t consume high margin products while you create.

The KLF’s Bill Drummond about Recorded Music

The KLF’s Bill Drummond about what the recording took away from Music. From 1:23. Quote below.

“As the technology to record music evolved through the twentieth century, it sucked in and seduced every form of music around the world. They all wanted to become recorded music. They all wanted to become this thing that could be bought and sold. And that narrowed the parameters of what music could do and be. And it took away from music a big part of what can make music powerful, which is about music being about time, place, and occasion.”

Brian Eno about Recorded Music

Ambient-pioneer and creator of the famous Windows 95 start-up sound Brian Eno said of Music in 1996:

“Until 100 years ago, every musical event was unique: music was ephemeral and unrepeatable and even classical scoring couldn’t guarantee precise duplication. Then came the gramophone record, which captured particular performances and made it possible to hear them identically over and over again. […] I think it’s possible that our grandchildren will look at us in wonder and say: “You mean you used to listen to exactly the same thing over and over again?”

Introducing Interactivity

The recording is not the end of the line for Music. Every medium is a transition to the next medium.

Most people call performed music “live music” — 

some people call recorded music “dead music”

The Media evolved and spawned Computers, the Internet, Video Games. The latter a highly Interactive example of Culture that went on to give birth to MMORPGs, where large Communities of players Interact and define their own Meaning, participatively. A particularly good example of the aforementioned elements coming together is Minecraft, a world-creating game where players work together to build whatever they can dream of. Deadmau5 uses this to enter a digital world of fan art and interact with his fanbase. Imagine what that’s going to look like with the unstoppable momentum Virtual Reality currently seems to have. The Consuming Class has become the Creating Class: Consumption and Creation are becoming, in part, synonymous.

Why is Music still static by default?

Why am I not being offered more ways to interact with Music?

Look at the gaming industry. It’s a 1,000 times easier to get someone to pay to unlock a ‘special ability’ than it is to sell them a piece of content.

Intimacy and Immediacy

The old Music industry is not interested in creating Intimacy. It’s hard to scale. The dominance of the recording industry’s model depends on hundreds of thousands of well-timed sales, and a long-tail that provides income until 70 years after the death of the Creator.

Yet the fact that we carry computers in our pockets that are more powerful than the PCs on our desks a few years ago, and always connected to the Internet, offers amazing opportunities for Intimacy and Immediacy, ones that fans are happy to pay for. It means that Kevin Kelly’s theory of a 1,000 True Fans will become increasingly easy to apply for a growing number of Creators.

The rise of Intimacy and Immediacy will benefit those Creators who work with small teams, who are open about their creative process, and involve their fanbase early on in this process. This enables them to secure funds through crowdfunding, as opposed to trying to secure investment from large corporations, whether recording companies or brands.

One can create dynamics of social competition within a fanbase. Who can recruit the most new fans, or active members? Who are the most valuable contributors to the Creator’s wiki? Who spend the most money on merch and who have the most complete collection? The ones that rank highest, get access to perks. A weekly 1 hour video chat with the top 10, weekly 10 minute preview of what you’re working on for the top 50, 20% discount on merchandise for the top 200, etc.

An app that has a great idea for how to get people to actively discover new Music, engage with it, and feel part of the artist’s success is Tradiio. It gamifies Music discovery and lets users invest virtual coins in songs they believe in. This helps artists rise to prominence on the platform and earn rewards. If this platform evolves from a reward-based game, to a real economy where users can purchase coins and artists can cash out, it would be a good example of the type of company the new Music industry will be made up of. Just to mention some other exemplary companies for music’s future: look at Smule and Sonic Emotion.

More on Games

The Gaming industry got into the same mess, at the same time, that the Music industry got into, brought about by the fact that what they thought was their product could suddenly be communicated through networks at zero cost. A whole new Gaming industry emerged with the arrival of connected devices: smartphones. Instead of charging money for the game, they made the game free to play and highly social, and instead charged for a limited set of actions.

Treat money-poor, time-rich fans as well as the money-rich, time-poor, because it’s the former that provide value for the latter.

Music needs a new format that’s feature-oriented, rather than content-focused. The content remains central to the experience, but the interaction around the content is what brings in the money. Likewise, playback of recorded music will remain important in the future, but perhaps not as the part of the industry that rakes in the most important part of Creators’ incomes.

Examples

There are countless examples of companies pioneering the future of Music. From aforementioned Tradiio, to ones started by game developers, Music business serial entrepreneurs, and artists themselves. First let’s start with an example from another part of the entertainment industry.

Example: Affectiva & Portal Entertainment

The former is an emotion analysis startup spun out of MIT Media Lab in 2009. The latter is a studio which produces ‘movies’ for interactive devices. According to a recent article on Wired, using Affectiva‘s software, Portal Entertainment is creating a horror series that’s “exactly as scary as you want it to be”:

“The software will read your emotional reactions to the show in real time. Should your mouth turn down a second too long or your eyes squeeze shut in fright, the plot will speed along. But if they grow large and hold your interest, the program will draw out the suspense.”

Imagine applying that to music… Some companies are already closing in on that.

Example: Inception, by Hans Zimmer and RjDj

Music producer and film composer Hans Zimmer collaborated on an app for the Inception movie, with RjDj, a company that specializes in Context Aware Music and Augmented music, founded by one of the co-founders of last.fm, Michael Breidenbruecker. Hans Zimmer on the project:

“There’s a thing I’ve been searching for and I’ve been working on forever now, is a way to get beyond recorded music. To get beyond ‘you just download a piece of music and it’s just always the same’.”

The application they made draws information from the world around the user, and transforms it into fantastic music. It seems as if you’re being immersed in dreamlike worlds, as happens in the movie.

They continued their collaboration and made another app for The Dark Knight Rises. RjDj also created a Reactive Music game called Dimensions, which owes its name to the trippy effects of the Augmented Music that make it feel like you’ve just crossed into another dimension. The game is free-to-play, and offers in-app purchases to unlock new experiences or further augment existing ones.

I asked two of the people behind RjDj whether people are ready for adaptive music. This is what they had to say.

Michael Breidenbruecker:

“I think many of them are ready. Apps like Inception or Dark Night Rises show that people are really into this sonic experience. The problem is how this is presented packaged. I can tell you from experience that not many people hear the difference between 5 hours of generative music and 5 hours recorded music. So really… no one cares if your music changes all the time through an algorithm and never sounds the same or if [it] is a preproduced track. Music has to have a reason why it is dynamic and not linear… that’s why we sync it to real life.”

Robert Thomas:

“I think Inception especially proved that if the experience is delivered in a way that makes sense, perhaps within a bigger conceptual framework, then millions of people can understand it and really like it.

As for people understanding the depths and details of how reactive music changes. It is very very easy to lose a huge part of the audience here. I think its fair to say that only musicologists and very serious music listeners could pick out the ways in which detailed generative music is changing for instance. Making a reactive music experience meaningful requires that the listener can tangibly feel that the change in the music is linked to his / her activity or life in some direct and hopefully emotionally powerful way.

Often making linear music is about manipulating the emotional state of the listener into particular states of mind over time for dramatic effect. Reactive music poses a different set of possibilities – what if the music is manipulated by them / their emotional state? As a composer this is totally different – its like using a sniper rifle instead of a shotgun – you can make your music hit exactly the right spot for the moment.

Adaptive soundtracks are actually quite common in games, where the Music transforms depending on the player’s absolute and relative position (it’s called Dynamic Music). Some developers are chucking all the other game elements aside to focus fully on that.

Example: Proteus

Proteus has been described as a non-game. The game (or ‘game’) was developed by one developer and one sound designer, and places you on a mystical island. There’s nothing there to kill, no need to score points, and you can’t die. All you have to do is to wander around the island to discover new areas and to enjoy the way objects around you influence the soundtrack. This is the literal embodiment of the phrase ‘soundscape’. The changing seasons, different weather conditions, time of day, and varying ecosystems all have an impact on the Music.

I asked David Kanaga, the game’s sound designer, whether this is something anyone could do, in order to understand whether this could become a more mainstream medium for Music:

“Yes, anyone could do it. It’s maybe even more natural than writing static music in a way. That said, very few people are doing it, and maybe it takes years of UNLEARNING, which maybe means everything needs to be played again, to stop fixating on what’s successful and beautiful in recorded music, in Sgt. Peppers and Pet Sounds, to find the play aspect of those and to move on, to stop admiring recordings.. improvise only, this is the tactic that i’ve been practicing myself to try this unlearning.. no serious learning is needed, really, but the UNLEARNING is totally necessary.”

Example: Biophilia, by Björk

In recent years many artists have taken to releasing albums as apps. Björk had a particularly interesting take on it, releasing her album as a 3 dimensional galaxy that can be navigated and interacted with. The app even became part of MoMa’s collection.

Through the use of in-app purchases, the user can unlock new parts of the galaxy, which provide new Music to Interact with.

Example: Don’t Be Scared LP, by DJ Vadim

Ninja Tune veteran DJ Vadim released an ‘immersive album’, which allows users to interact with different elements of the song, recomposing it according to their own wishes. What better way to create a sense of Intimacy between your fans and your Music.

Example: Central Park (Listen to the Light), by BLUEBRAIN

Then there’s Bluebrain, a musical duo that produced their own apps, location-aware albums, one of which can only be used in New York’s Central Park. In a way it’s similar to Proteus, except in this case, the soundscape is mapped to physical locations rather than virtual.

Example: Weav

Recently a new music startup by one of the creators of Google Maps started making waves: Weav. Weav’s aim is to simply make music elastic. Unlike Spotify’s new feature which picks songs that match your tempo while running, songs on Weav’s platform will actually adjust to your pace. The team created tools for musicians to create dynamic music: you don’t just write the song, you also program rules for it to recompose itself and adjust to different tempos. Co-founder Lars Rasmussen:

“We believe that as our lives become increasingly digital, and as our increasingly powerful mobile devices play greater and greater roles in our lives, having a song that can change and adapt — in real time — to what you are doing will become increasingly important. And delightful. This is why we built Weav.”

Conclusion

If you’re waiting for disruption in the music industry, don’t look at the big platforms like iTunes or Spotify. They belong in the Age of the Recording.

Look at platforms that offer actual Interactivity, Immediacy, Intimacy, and Involvement. Now more than ever can Creators help give shape to future formats of Music, and to new ways to connect the listener to the Music.

Imagine Music in the Age of the Internet of Things.

Music may be static, but it doesn’t have to be. And the relation between Creator and Fan certainly shouldn’t be.


Bas Grasmayer (@basgras) is a music startup consultant, and former Product Lead of Zvooq, the leading music streaming service in Russia & CIS. He’s best known for his thesis The Answer is the Ecosystem: Marketing Music through Non-Linear Communication and has previously spoken at conferences such as Amsterdam Dance Event, European Lab, Midem and Sochi Winter Music Conference.

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