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The future of music: VR, blockchain… and Radiohead making Minecraft videos?


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What does the future hold for the music industry and its artists? A panel at AIM’s Music Connected conference in London this afternoon discussed exactly that.

The panel comprised Bas Grasmayer of Music X Tech X Future; Mark Mulligan of Midia Research; Benji Rogers of PledgeMusic; Steven Hancock of Melody VR; and Phil Hutcheon of Dice. The moderator was Music Ally’s own Paul Brindley.

The introduction saw Hutcheon talking about his ticketing app, saying that 35% of all Londoners with a smartphone are using Dice, which is currently mainly focusing on London but “are three or four weeks away from launching everywhere in the UK”.

Hancock talked about MelodyVR as “the iTunes of VR” with its plans to launch a platform later this year distributing virtual-reality films of concerts. “It allows you to search for your favourite artist, search a genre, and we also start live broadcasting in VR at a later point in this year: it takes you to The Who at Wembley, and you are standing on-stage with Roger Daltrey…”

The conversation turned to blockchain technology, which Rogers has been a key evangelist for within the music industry. He said that it could be the answer to dodgy, unfixable music metadata. “If we ran one central system, we could fix it in one place once, and we could amend it forward as rights change and move,” he said. “A blockchain is not owned by people: it is a public thing, essentially.”

Mulligan was sceptical about blockchain’s impact in the immediate future, but more positive about its long-term potential to influence the traditional music industry.

“Music rights is an absolute mess… Realistically, what could happen in a best-case scenario – or a reasonably optimistic scenario – is that you end up with a parallel alternative music industry emerging that maybe in five years time accounts for a few percentage points of the global music industry,” he said.

“And that will be artists who started out on a YouTube and never wanted a label, or artists working with platforms like PledgeMusic… and if you align that with the independent community, you’ve almost got a voting bloc there with which you can influence the major labels.”

Rogers said that there are “multiple untapped revenue sources in the music industry today” that artists and labels should be going after. Inefficiency in payments is one of them, but there are others – the advertising income on “engagement economy” services like YouTube for one.

Grasmayer: “I see streaming as a base layer… as a business we’re really obsessed with giving people access to the content for a certain fee and how much royalties we get from that,” he said, suggesting that the industry wastes too much time complaining about royalties.

“I think we could also be spending that time talking to our fans, understanding what type of people they are, and then designing experiences, products, features that make those people so excited that they will thank you for the opportunity to spend money on our artists.”

He suggested that the future lies outside the music industry: the games industry for example, which has retooled itself around free, from YouTubers and livestreamers making money from donations and sponsorships; and gaming itself which has “figured out what to do with time-rich money-poor users” who spend a lot of time playing games, and thus bring in “time-poor money-rich users” who will spend money in order to accelerate their progress.

 

Do these ideas work for emerging artists on independent labels? Rogers talked about a paradigm shift with YouTube stars, and artists on PledgeMusic. “They ask the fans what they want. They ask them how much they’d be willing to pay for it… And when you ask the fans, 87% ignore them. It’s the remaining percent who say ‘well we’d like this, and here’s what we’d be willing to pay…’”

“This idea that we know what the audience wants is, I think, misguided. I think we should ask them what they want. And what they tell us may not be what we want to hear, but if you listen, you can monetise that,” said Rogers.

Mulligan agreed, and suggested that the music industry needs to adapt its production and promotion strategies to new platforms and new fan behaviour. “We’re still playing by these old rules of ‘here’s a three-minute promo video: go watch it’,” he said.

We’re still struggling with the straitjacket of the album format… It’s really difficult to build a business model around a couple of singles or a couple of YouTube videos… but ultimately who are you doing it for? If you want to make a living out of it, you’ve got to do what your audience want.”

“Why should musical art be constrained by the way it had to be packaged when it was on the shelf, and when it had to be owned,” continued Mulligan, citing Kanye West’s ongoing tinkering with his ‘The Life of Pablo’ album as an example of a move away from this state of affairs.

Rogers said that the industry should look to Ryan Leslie with his SuperPhone platform and Lindsey Stirling with her YouTube-born fanbase as examples. Hancock cited Kygo as someone who is “absolutely reinventing the wheel with everything he’s doing at the moment” – including an (as-yet unannounced) project with MelodyVR.

Mulligan talked about reaching a moment of “pop will eat itself… we’ve got hooks into the intro, into the pre-chorus, it’s all designed to be accessible, which means you can slice it into tiny little bits… we’re in an age of transience. If you don’t own things as much any more, and there’s an absolute torrent of stuff to watch and listen to and trying to grab your attention… if you look at how a 12 year-old listens to music, it’s 30 seconds here and there, showing it to people on FaceTime.”

Suffice to say, this is a different world.. “We need to rethink what long-form music experiences are. At the moment our long-form music experience is the album… you can completely rethink what a music-led long-form experience is.” Beyoncé’s new visual album? Mulligan suggested that the fact that it aired as an HBO documentary showed that it’s still using old-media models.

Grasmayer said that the thing that’s really scarce on the internet is people’s attention, which has led to the surge in “clickbait” news sites. “But we also go to conferences. These things can exist besides each other. You can have different experiences at different times for different people.”

The conversation ended with a discussion of the current anti-YouTube sentiment within the music industry, at a time when the youngest generation of fans are growing up discovering and listening to music on YouTube.

Mulligan cited stats showing that only in 2015 did US radio listening begin to dip under competition from digital platforms. “For under-25s YouTube is the number one place they discover music, and now they are listening to less radio,” said Mulligan, who suggested that similar trends are being seen across the world.

If radio is the main way that music is being discovered in the past and that’s declining you’ve got to look for the other mass medium, and YouTube is that. Facebook gives you big audience, Spotify and iTunes give you some money. YouTube is the only one that gives you some money and big audience simultaneously.”

Mulligan said that the music industry should study what some non-music YouTube stars are doing with their businesses, citing one Minecraft gamer in particular.

“Dan The Diamond Minecart is going to clear about $8m in revenue he’s earning from his YouTube channel this year,” said Mulligan. “So much of that they do doesn’t translate to music, and you can’t expect Radiohead to suddenly start making Minecraft videos, but there is so much you can learn from YouTube.”

Stuart Dredge

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