The Biggest Music Tech Innovations & Trends of 2017 — So Far
2017 has been a banner year for advancements in music technology.
The shifting landscape of the industry has seen some amazing product launches in both the hardware and software sectors, as well as a massive increase in music-based startups that have drawn huge funding based on cutting-edge technologies, each promising to address the post streaming-era value gap in a unique way.
Let's examine some of the biggest trends in industry practices and technological innovations that have hit the market over the past year.
Apps, Apps, Apps
The exploding market for software-based production tools has led to a massive upsurge in the availability of tailored audio tools for tablets and smartphones, with a concurrent growing market for peripherals that allow those devices to plug directly into traditional studio gear. Applications ranging from synthesizers to modular midi controllers to complete digital audio workstations are now all available for your preferred tablet, smartphone, or mobile device. Still concerned whether a relatively inexpensive DAW or synth app can produce professional results? GRAMMY-nominated producer and artist Steve Lacy (of The Internet) produced "PRIDE.," from Kendrick Lamar's chart-topping album, DAMN. entirely on his iPhone.
Classic Gear Refreshes & Reissues
Even while the suite of mobile/tablet audio production offerings expands steadily, there still remains a strong demand for the reliability and dedicated application of hardware. With the popularity of dance/electronic music in major domestic and international markets continuing alongside the persistent practice of mining musical nostalgia for nuggets of pop gold, many synthesizer manufacturers have hit pay dirt by resurrecting and re-releasing updated versions of their classic gear. Companies like Roland and Moog have closely watched the growth in popularity of samples and software recreations of their best-known 70s and 80s gear and have rebirthed venerable items like the TR-808 drum machine and the Minimoog Model D.
"Rewinding" To Old Formats
Despite the fact that music consumption via streaming has seen a 76 percent year-over-year increase, international consulting firm Deloitte estimates that vinyl record sales will still comprise about 6 percent of all music industry revenue for 2017. The returning demand for vinyl is thought to be based largely on the desire for a physical good that accompanies or supplements the less tangible experience of streaming music. The bottleneck with vinyl, however, is the higher cost and relatively small number of pressing plants still in operation. The solution that has presented itself is perhaps even more unlikely than the resurgence of vinyl: the rebirth of the cassette tape. The format still has a long way to go before it will compete with vinyl's current sales numbers (which could top 40 million units this year), but the cassette format did see a 74 percent increase during 2016, according to Nielsen's year-end report.
RFID wristbands have emerged as a staple of major music festivals. Along with the added protection against ticket fraud and other security concerns, the wristbands have begun to incorporate a wider suite of additional features. These often include various ways of capturing audience data points for later analysis and event management iteration, but a big area of interest has been the move to "cashless concerts" and live music experiences. Research has demonstrated that customers using mobile pay apps via their smartphones for food and drink purchases tend to spend more heavily than they do when pulling cash or a card out of their wallets, and some festivals have begun adding mobile pay features to the RFID chips in their festival wristbands. The next big thing, now that this tech is being increasingly proven in the large-scale festival scene, is exploring how it will scale down to smaller venues. Cashless concerts at your local venues? The wait may be shorter than you think.
App Integration Deals For Streaming Services
Concurrent with the massive spikes in streaming music consumption, the major players in the digital service providers market have made big strides in ensuring their products stay in use as easily and as often as possible. This pursuit of an "always on" status for music apps has to potential to reap huge benefits as the market continues to ripen. Earlier this year, Spotify and Waze inked a deal that makes it easier to control each other's products without leaving one app or the other. Meanwhile, Apple Music and Ticketmaster have built a new partnership integrating easy ticket purchases and tracking of upcoming show dates from directly within the music app. Amazon has rolled out greater internal integration between its own piece of flagship hardware, the Echo, and Amazon Music, even introducing "Alexa" functionality as a new personal assistant function for smartphones, intended to compete with Apple's Siri and Android's Bixby.
A major concern that still lingers even as streaming continues to dominate the industry is the audio quality bottleneck: so much work gets put into sonic quality, soundstage presence, and many other aspects of production, just to end up compressed and downscaled and beamed through tiny smartphone speakers. With improvements in data transfer rates for smartphones and increasing adoption of fiber-optic networks capable of higher bandwidth around the country, it has become substantially more feasible for streaming services to investigate high-fidelity, or even completely lossless, streaming offerings. The Recording Academy's Producers & Engineers Wing also reaffirmed its commitment to helping the industry pursue high-fidelity streaming earlier this year with a unique hi-res "Audio Pavilion" at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Smart Speakers Mean Good News For Streaming
Voice-controlled smart speakers like Google Home, Amazon Echo and the forthcoming Lenovo Smart Assistant, among others, have been steadily infiltrating homes since 2014. Earlier this year, research firm eMarketer estimated that nearly 35.6 million Americans would use a voice-activated speaker at least once per month during 2017 — marking an astounding 128.9 percent year-over-year growth. Amazon’s Echo still owns approximately 70.6 percent of the market share, and with the recent integration of the Echo's Alexa personal assistant capabilities with new mobile app functionality and Amazon Music Unlimited, there's no question that streaming services will see a usage boost from the uptick in smart speaker adoption in American homes over the coming years.
Playlists: The Human Element
When Pandora launched in the early 2000s, it revolutionized internet radio with its then unheard-of technology, built on the back of its founders' previous endeavor, The Music Genome Project, which introduced the world to automated algorithmic music selection. This and similar tech would become the backbone of many streaming services' recommendation features for the next decade and beyond. However, 2017 has seen a marked shift back to the integration of a human element into some aspects of playlist curation. Since Spotify introduced their Discover Weekly feature back in 2015, it's been estimated that around 8,000 artists owed at least half of their streaming plays to the weekly human-curated playlist 2016. Silicon Valley has taken note, and the practice of bringing back in the human element to automated services both in and outside the music industry has been all the rage.
I, Composer Robot
On the flip side of streaming services bringing in humans to displace algorithms, robotics and artificial intelligence researchers are starting to pave the way for original music composed entirely by machine. Using deep learning algorithms and big data analysis techniques, Ph.D. researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have built a marimba-playing robot that is capable of devising and performing original melodies and song structures, including complete multi-part harmonies and chord progressions. The resulting robot, Shimon, is the result of nearly a decade of research.
Look Up, Look Down, Look All Around
The buzz around VR and 360 video peripherals has been quietly building, still waiting for the big "killer app" to push the market in one direction or another. One area that's showing huge promise is the potential to incorporate 360 video into the live concert experience for fans unable to get tickets or make travel arrangements to attend their favorite shows and music festivals. On Oct. 4 GRAMMY-nominated band Matchbox Twenty broadcasted a concert from Denver that was being billed as the "first fan-controlled virtual reality experience." Alongside live music broadcast in 360 video, 2017 has seen numerous artists, including the Chemical Brothers and Gorillaz, release VR and 360 experience music videos. These cautious steps into a new medium are just the beginning —expect the market to explode in the coming years.
Augmented-Reality Instruments & Interfaces
Another outgrowth of the rise of VR and 360 video peripherals has been the development of augmented reality technology — that is, virtual images overlaid on physical surroundings so they can be explored within a real-world space. Synth hardware manufacturer Behringer has now launched an augmented reality interface for their new flagship synthesizer, the DeepMind 12. What's particularly exciting about this new technology is the potential to begin incorporating augmented reality into the studio space, allowing engineers and producers to truly "see" their mix processes in a previous unthinkable way.
Ditching The Wires In The Studio
Another exciting development may soon be hitting studios everywhere: wireless recording. Earlier this fall, iZotope debuted their first piece of audio hardware, the Spire Studio. Hailed as a fully wireless location recorder that will help "songwriters and musicians of all genres to capture, edit, and collaborate seamlessly," the device includes multitrack recording and mixing capabilities, a suite of digital effect plug-ins, and integration with a smartphone apps that enables collaborators to instantly share demos and tracks whether they're in the room or across the country. While a device like the Spire won't replace a fully equipped studio setup anytime soon, it does present an intriguing step forward for artists who spend much of their time on the road.
Austin: Tech Capital
Austin, Texas, has long been known as the "live music capital" of the U.S., but in recent years it has also taken its place among the U.S. cities creating the most tech jobs, after topping Forbes' list of the same name in 2015. Whereas once the idea of a music-tech startup may have seemed like an outside shot for Silicon Valley insiders, the success of mobile app start-ups paired with the success of major streaming service giants have shown investors that music technology is a horse they'd be fools not to bet on.
Artist Amplification Alternatives
The late 2000s and early 2010s made it clear that streaming platforms built on user-generated content like YouTube and SoundCloud could be as instrumental in building grassroots fan bases for unknown artists as they could be in supporting the careers of top-tier talent. Furthermore, SoundCloud's recent stumbles elicited an unprecedented outpouring of support from artists who'd built their careers on the platform, with even Chance The Rapper stepping up to try to help save the service. That's an impressive vote of confidence, not just in SoundCloud itself, but in the necessity of artist amplification platforms —expect investors eyeing similar companies to take note.
Digital/Influencer Marketing Tools
The DIY ethos of independent music is not a sentiment that's lost on emerging artists today. The idea that a music creator must not only craft works of art but also understand the importance of being business savvy is tantamount to a successful career in 2017. However, today's artists must be more than creators and more than businesspeople — they must be savvy digital marketers. Whether it's self-promoting shows and capturing fans' emails and behavior data using scalable platforms like Splash, connecting with local influencers to help amplify their social media presence, or simply staying on top of new platforms like Musical.ly and leveraging their presence as an early-adopter, the artist's toolset for building their audience and brands is now effectively limitless.
Data-Mining: The New A&R
Tech experts predicted as far back as 2015 the big data analysis was the coming wave that would upend the traditional model of A&R. In the years since, a handful of start-ups have built their business around becoming the aggregator that labels may someday look to as they cast their nets in search of their next signing. Musx, one such company, builds its algorithmic recommendations around a holistic look at fans' listens, comments, and saved tracks, applying a proprietary weighting system that balances the value of each metric with a focus on shares and re-shares. In short, it seeks to track and predict virality.
A similar methodology is employed by The Next Big Sound, a nearly 10-year-old company recently acquired by Pandora. Using analysis of streaming plays, social shares, and other data points, The Next Big Sound's end goal is to predict what songs, artists, and albums are most likely to hit the Billboard charts next. Their predictions have been leveraged by global brands such as Pepsi that are in the market for new talent to tap into for major advertising pushes and culture marketing initiatives.
Buying Into The Blockchain
All of the technological developments achieved in recent years will add up to very little if the central concern of the modern music industry cannot be addressed eventually: creatives need to be paid, and they need to be paid fairly. The blockchain, Silicon Valley's latest and hottest buzzword, may provide part of the solution to this issue. It all comes back to metadata. Countless creative professionals working in the music industry go under- or even completely unpaid each year due to incomplete or absent metadata. Bands may change representation, small labels become acquired by larger conglomerates, license holders may transfer or sell the rights to a given piece of music, tracks get re-recorded or re-mix/mastered for compilation releases, or any one of thousands of other reasons end up obfuscating the paper trail of who worked on what, when and under what contract.
As GRAMMY winner Imogen Heap, writing for Harvard Business Review, pointed out, "one of the biggest problems in the industry right now is that there's no verified global registry of music creatives and their works." The decentralized and competitive nature of the music industry presents an extremely difficult knot to untangle. What's exciting about blockchain technology is that untangling difficult knots is precisely the type of problem it was designed to solve. Utilizing blockchains, a central repository of creative licensing information could be collected and continually reconciled and self-verified for accuracy — potentially enabling a system of fair attribution, accounting and compensation for all parties involved.