Let me peer into my crystal ball, and predict the next decade in music. I’m brave (or foolhardy) enough to tell you what I see—but you may want to sit down first. If you earn your living from music, some of these changes might come as a shock.
But don’t blame me, I’m merely the messenger. It’s the bloody crystal ball that’s cranky.
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12 Predictions for the Future of Music
Record labels will gradually lose both the ability and desire to develop new artists—there simply won’t be enough profit in young talent to justify the large required investments. But the labels won’t disappear. Instead they will focus increasingly on their old catalog and archival materials.
More new artists will get their big break from web platforms (TikTok, YouTube, Peloton, Bandcamp, etc.) than from record labels. That said, even these platforms are less-than-ideal ways to introduce new artists to curious listeners. So I wouldn’t be a surprised if a whole new platform emerges during the next decade—an interface that makes it fun and exciting for music fans to hear new music. The online process should be almost as enjoyable as going out to clubs, but currently it’s not even close. Strange to say, video games like Fortnite might end up doing a better job of this than music platforms.
A peculiar phenomenon will emerge—listeners will have favorite new songs, but not know (or care) about the name of the artist. “You’ve gotta hear this great song on my workout playlist. . . .” In an odd way, our song discovery process will return to the medieval model (circa 1000 AD), when compositions could achieve enormous popularity even as the people who created this music remained largely anonymous.
Musician incomes will continue to shrink, but some young musicians will still earn large sums of money—however, their big paydays will come more from branding, licensing, and ancillary deals than recordings. Side deals will increasingly be seen as more desirable than record contracts. In other words, you become a musician in order to make money as an influencer. (That’s a term I abhor, but, let me repeat: I’m just the messenger—it’s my crystal ball that’s shallow and narrow-minded.)
Dead musicians will start showing up everywhere—via holograms, biopics, deepfake vocals, and other technology-driven interfaces. These resurrected performers will capture an increasing share of industry revenues, and put a squeeze on living artists. (This will eventually happen with dead movie stars and other celebrities too, but deceased musicians will lead this trend because it’s simpler and cheaper to fake an audio than, for example, a commercial film.)
Dead musicians will start by giving tours in concert halls, but as the cost of the technology goes down, they will begin performing everywhere. Holograms of Elvis may make their debut at a pricey Las Vegas casino, but will soon show up at your neighborhood bar. James Brown will sing at the Apollo once more, but eventually take wedding reception and bar mitzvah gigs.
Exciting new music trends will continue to emerge, but increasingly they will arrive from outside the major Anglo-American urban centers that previously determined what songs people heard. We have already seen the first signs of this with the global spread of K-Pop and the vitality of the Eurovision competition, but these are merely a start in the power shift away from Los Angeles, New York, and London. So get ready for A-Pop from Africa, I-Pop from India or Indonesia, and a whole host of competing sounds and styles from Latin America, China, Eastern Europe, etc. (And, finally, I can commend my crystal ball for showing some taste and open-mindedness—this promises to be a positive trend, expanding the creative scope of our musical lives.)
Meanwhile in the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world, the biggest deals in music will be acquisitions of old songs, especially publishing rights. The legacy cash flows enjoyed by publishers will make this the last safe haven in the music business.
The “official industry figures” will show that the music business is growing, but these numbers will be highly misleading. A huge portion of “music profits” will actually go to tech companies (Apple, Google, etc.), who have no interest in reinvesting this cash into the music ecosystem. For example, Spotify will take the cash flow generated by music and use it to acquire rights to podcasts, etc.—and, in general, the music culture will be starved of funds because it now must pay the bills for other businesses. (The crystal ball tells me that Spotify’s biggest dream is getting into video and competing with Netflix and YouTube, using songs to pay the costs of achieving this—but that can’t be true, can it? They would have to burn through billions of dollars to play in those big leagues, and there’s not enough cash left in music to cover those expenses. Only ego, not logic, would push them in that direction, no?) In any event, the same numbers that will be publicized as signs of the music industry’s health will actually indicate the growing scope of the cash and talent drains on the creative/artistic side of the business.
All the innovations in music tech will come from outside of the legacy music industry. So major decisions about distribution, publicity, curation, presentation, etc. will be determined by Silicon Valley and its offshoots. These huge global corporations—literally the largest businesses in the history of the world—are unlikely to be motivated by artistic or philanthropic aspirations in their initiatives. However, they could have a major positive impact on the culture if they wanted to, given the enormous resources at their disposal. Hence the musical tastes of the CEOs of Apple, Google, etc. may end up having a surprisingly large impact on how things play out.
Record labels will increasingly pursue a bare-bones, low investment approach. A few execs will be able to maintain lavish lifestyles even in a declining industry, but there won’t be much cash for those at lower levels in the organization. Most people working in the music business will be poorly paid, with few opportunities for advancement. New openings at the top will typically go to family members and close friends of the old school bosses—making nepotism the one record business tradition that will survive no matter what.
But the greatest dream of the music execs will be. . . to get out the music business. They will try to sell NFTs or promote audiobooks or finance biopics or sell music-themed apparel or open music-themed casinos, etc., etc.. And who can blame them? After collapsing the economics of the record business, they clearly need a new field to destroy.
Ouch! That was painful. I want to smash this crystal ball, and buy a new one. Or maybe I need to consult my horoscope instead, or study the entrails of birds. There has to be a better way of predicting the future. Because, even though we all like to be right, this is one case where I’d much prefer to be wrong.
I think the future holds two parallel realities. One is the pessimistic one you described in your 12 predictions. Another is a more beautiful one where musicians reimagine their role in society, go beyond the music-as-entertainment paradigm, and reclaim a modern version of the ancient role musicians played. I'm trying to do this, and I'm learning a lot from your book "Music: A Subversive History."
I think both futures will co-exist for a while, but slowly the more beautiful one will win.
I love number 6! When will that take effect?