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Sunday, November 8, 2009

5 Predictions For The Future Of Music

An article on The Atlantic Wire called 5 Predictions For The Future Of Music has it all wrong. Granted, this is just a compilation of recent blog posts from around the web, but I think that some of these miss the mark. My comments in italics.

  • The End of the MP3 - Web sites that allow users to play (or stream) music files for free have been around for years, but one called Lala has been making noticeably larger waves. Lala has developed an application that will allow users to stream their entire music libraries on mobile phones (beginning first with an iPhone app). The company's co-founder says it will replace MP3s as the preferred format for digital music. Ironically, this puts Lala into direct competition with Apple's own iTunes music store. As Wired's Eliot Van Buskirk notes: "LaLa claims it already earns an average of $67 per user. That's 300 percent more than what the iTunes music store brings in, according to a 2008 Forrester study. If that figure is accurate, Lala is already proving that drastically lower pricing for music could spell higher profits for the record industry and more tunes for the people at the same time."  
I agree with the basic premise of this post - the importance of MP3's will diminish greatly in the next year or so, especially as subscription services become accepted by consumers.
    • Refined Music Search - Search companies are listening to users' complaints that finding music online is a chore. Last Wednesday, Google debuted a much-hyped new search function that allows users to play and purchase audio files directly from a search results page, thanks to partnerships with several burgeoning music services (Lala and Myspace's iLike, to name a few). The move comes a year after Yahoo partnered with Rhapsody to create a similar playable musical search function. Still, as PC World's Ian Paul finds, music search is far from perfect: "When I searched using song lyrics, Google often came up short...Yahoo's search results were less robust than Google's in my tests. I could only find music samples when I searched for artist names, not song or album titles. But if you're looking for a simple way to sample a particular song, either service will work just fine." The L.A. TimesJon Healey is similarly unimpressed with Google, and doubted the contention of some bloggers that the service would help grow legal music downloads: "It can help expose millions of people to legitimate Internet music outlets, which will help those companies compete with free (and, in many cases, unauthorized) sources of music online. Whether consumers will actually spend more on music than they've been doing, however, is a whole 'nother question." Meanwhile, Microsoft has begun its own talks with MySpace to host a comparable service.  
    Once people get used to music search (especially with Google Music) it will change the way that people consume music. Although the journalists mentioned above don't seem too impressed, try it for yourself. Type in any partial lyric, song title, or artist into Google Music and see what you get. You'll be pleasantly surprised.
      • Audio Algorithms  - The creation and production of music is also undergoing a revolution. At Discovery NewsRobert Lamb inspects uPlaya, a Web site launched earlier this summer that uses an algorithm to determine the "hit potential" of any audio file a user uploads. By mathematically comparing a song's features to past hits across multiple genres, the company claims to be able to predict its viability, allowing artists to adjust their new music to appeal to the widest possible audience. As Lamb explains: "Think of the technology as the artificial intelligence counterpart of Simon Cowell, except with more stats and less sarcasm." He also says that it has achieved an 80% success rate. Meanwhile, over at EurekAlert, Luke Barrington reports on a new project at UC San Diego that also relies on an algorithm to generate automated music playlists. Test users preferred the UC playlist to Apple's Genius recommendation system. Barrington suggests the technology will help bring new artists to the forefront: "Genius currently ignores relatively unknown songs because it lacks adequate wisdom from iTunes customers about how these songs connect to other songs. Systems like the auto-tagging music algorithms developed at UC San Diego could be useful in filling in the 'blind spots' in Genius and other collaborative filtering systems that rely on the wisdom of the masses to generate playlists." And yes, the Malcom Gladwell devotees are correct in thinking that the popular journalist caught wind of this trend years ago. 
      Music "discovery"is the holy grail of online apps according to every expert I've spoken with. While it seems that having an app that will predict a hit might be desirable, it's actually counterproductive in creating new music. A prediction app is just another step in the homogenizing of music (and we have enough of that now already). Most of the best new music and music trends go against consumer tastes, which can't be predicted.
        • The Music Gene - Over at the Huffington Post, self-proclaimed "provocateur" Gail Zappa offers her eccentric take on the state of the music industry and an outlandish prophecy of the future. Recalling an incident in which her husband, musician Frank Zappa, was blacklisted in San Francisco, she argues that modern music corporations have enough power to tell an artist "you'll never work on this planet again," and actually enforce it. She bemoans the increasing availability of recording technology and the sorry state of copyright enforcement as a result of Internet file-sharing. Finally, she predicts that "Scientists (?) [sic] will prove that there is a 'music' gene," which will bring about a cure for deafness and vindicate the notion that listening to music "is exactly like sex." 
        I read Gail's post and couldn't figure out her point exactly. It's true that most copyright owners are petrified about the state of copyright protection these days, but it sounds like Gail is still fighting the last war. She's a very smart and passionate lady, but all over the place on this one.
          • Radio Revival? - Over at the GuardianNicholas Lezard celebrates new figures suggesting that nearly 90 percent of people in the UK listen to radio at least once a week: "For those of us bewildered and appalled by the march of modernity - in other words, those of us over 40 - this return to bygone days is so welcome it almost induces tears. We may be being badgered to buy HDTVs, iPhones, nanowotsits and any amount of technocrap, but against all this babble we can erect a solid wall of good sense and bullshit-free information..." The only trouble is that the British station leading the charge is BBC Radio 4, which specializes in just about everything but music. However, the number of listeners for classic music station Radio 3 is also up 12.6 percent to 2.19 million listeners, suggesting that for at least a certain genre of music, radio still holds sway. 
          There will always be an audience for radio, but the only scenario that I can conjure is a return to something like early FM radio, which was totally about music discovery that was provided by the freedom the DJ's had. Unfortunately, corporate radio controlled by Madison Avenue ad dollars makes that an unlikely possibility. As far as music is concerned, radio is quickly becoming a non-factor in an artist's success.

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