05 Jan 2021
by mike.lee | News
Music and technology have been inextricably linked since forever. We’re not just talking about
the microphone (1910), cassette tape (1928), the LP (1931), the stereo (1937). Early tools allowed neanderthals to develop the world’s first flute 50,000 years ago. Tutankham utilised bronze and iron technology to create the world’s first trumpets. The correlation is clear - technology breeds music and always has.
Electronic music and technology are similarly intertwined, although the existence of electronic music is a mere speck in the grand history of this relationship, the amount of change this romance has affected is, like all 21st century developments, exponential.
Acts like Kraftwerk, Jean-Michel Jarre and Suzanne Ciani are credited with both the invention of electronic music (all of whom would embark on their journey before there was even a concrete name for the music they were making - for much of the late 60s and the following decade the favoured term was ‘New Age Music’) and also the delivery of it to commercial audiences for the very first time.
In the early ‘70s, Ciani would use the Buchla Analog Modular Synthesizer (indeed Don Buchla and Robert Moog whose inventions still bear their names deserve a lot of credit too) to record sound effects and scores for television. Meanwhile Jean-Michel Jarre, upon stumbling upon the possibilities of electronic music, did what any of us would do in the same situation - organised a concert and invited a million people (he still holds the record for the largest outdoor concert in history, for a 1997 concert at Moscow State University).
The scientific element of electronic music has always fascinated, and electronic music technology trends remain some of the most hotly debated topics on the music scene. It’s not particularly surprising, you only need to look as far as Spotify, or before that the iPod, or before to realise that with each leap in technology, the fundamental dynamic of music is changed forever. The question on everyone’s lips now is - what’s next? Those lucky few that can identify the electronic music technology trends of the future and effectively capitalise on them, well, that’s world domination money.
The first of these electronic music technology trends is… a concerning one. The very youngest generation, “digital natives” as they are sometimes, pretentiously termed, are perhaps less triggered by the term AI than those only slightly older. In essence, anyone who has seen Terminator treats the term Artificial Intelligence, and anything that bears its name, like nitroglycerin. Probably irrational, but…
Anyway, one of the trends that will no doubt define the next few years in music streaming, production, and music copyright is AI. There are, at present, at least 5 companies on the first page of Google who are extremely capable at generating music from artificial intelligence. If you’ve never listened to music generated by AI - here’s a playlist from AIVA.
The bottom line is, you can’t tell the difference, and that immediately raises a near infinite amount of concerns about plagiarism, ownership, and ethics. However, AI generated music like this doesn’t stand on its own. The way that any AI / machine learning software works is that it needs to be fed stimuli. Perhaps you’ve seen the memes along the lines of “I fed a screenwriting AI ten thousand christmas films and this is what it wrote”.
So human-made music still has a place, no matter what. The issue, however, is that there is already more human-made music than it would ever be possible to listen to. Let’s wind it back.
There are a couple of ways human musicians and AI can work in tandem. First, is for AI companies to license catalogue from artists in order to feed the greedy machines. This would essentially open up a completely novel revenue stream for all of their music that is already earning money. That’s money that didn’t exist before, and now does (great).
The second way is that artists are commissioned and paid to provide music (likely in the form of project files or “stems”, these are the individual parts of a track) to, once again, feed the hungry AI machines.
Both methods will enable and allow the AI software to create new music from the materials provided - initial suggestions are that these programmes could create 30+ hours of music from just 5 tracks worth of stems. This is particularly the case with electronic music as it is by definition a combination of identical loops and phrases.
So… once we’ve sold our soul to the AI machine and they don’t need musicians anymore. What then? It might sound like the ramblings of a music industry zealot, but by our reverse napkin math, there is already enough music in the world for AI software to generate 582 million hours of music, without a human artist writing another note.
Direct to Consumer Platforms
2020 was a deplorable year on many fronts. The music industry in particular has been hit extremely hard, with live music venues and artist touring schedules taking the brunt of the economic impact. Despite this, perhaps in part because of it, 2020 has been an excellent year for recorded music and one of the electronic music technology trends that shaped the past 12 months is one that’s been bubbling over quietly for over half a decade.
Direct to consumer music platforms, like Bandcamp, allow artists to sell their music directly to fans. No label, no distributor, less middlemen taking a cut, more money directly in artist pockets. Bandcamp Fridays - a day where bandcamp waive their own fee - meaning 100% of proceeds go directly to artists, have been a lifesaver for musicians across the globe this year. As electronic producer Om Unit said on Twitter: “Spotify is cool… but Bandcamp put double glazing on my house this year.”
The reason Bandcamp and other D2C solutions have become popular is because now, in the age of the internet where a 14 year old can get a million hits on TikTok overnight, artists don’t need labels, don’t need distributors, don’t need high-level execs pushing their music to their important friends in the industry, and certainly not for a 80-20 split which is what the majors would traditionally offer.
What all of those entities traditionally provided is a network, access to an audience, and connections with record stores, promoters, and the rest of what may end up being a 20+ person team, all taking a cut.
Now? Create Page > Upload > Publish is the route to market.
Chance The Rapper, although not a Bandcamp alumni, was one of the most famous independent musician stories (largely down to the fantastic work of his manager Pat Corcoran, who is now suing Chance for essentially throwing his own career in the bin). Never tied to a label despite numerous offers, Chance and Corcoran navigated the industry by identifying the services that others traditionally provided and folding them into their own activities - the culmination of which was an eight-figure deal directly with Apple Music around the release of Chance’s third mixtape Colouring Book.
The moral of the story, times are changing, major labels are sweating, and artists have more power over their own careers than ever before. If you like the sound of this, consider supporting your favourite on the next Bandcamp Friday, as the initiative has been extended until at least May 2021.
The global pandemic has certainly fast-tracked the use of VR technology a dozen or so places
up the ladder, like the international-crisis-equivalent of Mario Kart’s Bullet Bill, to the point where
execs at virtual reality companies are no doubt weeping into their newly gilded stock options.
However, this is an electronic music technology trend that was always coming, regardless of
surroundings. Virtual reality technology has come on leaps and bounds in the last 5-10 years,
demonstrated by the eventual purchase of Oculus (one of the industry’s pioneering companies)
by... Facebook. Yep, when the Zuck is on board, you can guarantee two things 1) there’s money involved 2) this technology will be used in ways that make you feel deeply uncomfortable. In the UK, goliath-level promoter LiveNation and head-of-the-pack VR music firm MelodyVR,
partnered over summer to deliver a full programme of virtual reality concerts at the O2 Academy
Brixton. Travis Scott, Charli XCX, Billie Eilish, Freddie Mercury (?!), A$AP Ferg, Khalid,
N.E.R.D., Young Thug, have all jumped on the VR concert train in recent months. Of course, the
jury is still out on whether these concerts are actually... good? But right now fans will take
anything they can get.
Coincidentally, Jean Michel-Jarre has been one of the loudest advocates of virtual reality
concerts, even going as far as to add virtual drugs to his 100,000+ person concert - to give it
that extra layer of verisimilitude - you can’t fault his attention to detail.