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The future of in-car music: ‘Cars are becoming gadgets…’


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The conversation around AI and music has calmed somewhat from the fearful (‘but what if AI takes musician’s jobs?’) and become something more thoughtful (‘perhaps there are types of music that AI is better suited for making’) and positive (‘AI tools might improve the human experience’).

Technological change is rarely across the board: deep-niche use-cases are where technology often finds success – and one place that music and AI is starting to find a place of use and value is in-car musical experiences, which was the topic of the final panel of NY:LON Connect 2022.

This session, moderated by Lyndsey Havens, senior editor of Billboard, brought together three experts who are looking closely at in-car musical implementation.

They were Darryl Ballantyne, CEO of lyric & data licensing company LyricFind; Oleg Stavitsky, CEO of AI music startup Endel, which in 2021 struck a partnership with Mercedes; and Christine Thomas, head of music partnerships, at audio company Dolby, which has integrated spatial audio into various streaming services in the last year or so.

What excites them about in-car music as they look ahead into 2022?

“For us, automotive is a huge priority,” said Ballantyne, “it’s such a big deal because there are 100 million new cars that hit the road every year, and 1.5 billion cars on the road globally. There’s so much more opportunity to incorporate music streaming and tailoring services for a family friendly environment in the car.”

Thomas agreed, and was excited by the use of contextual tech that can understand a car’s occupants and there they are, in order “to leverage that known environment and create more powerful and creative experiences.”

Stavitsky also found the personalised element to be an interesting opportunity: “a car, for us, is very interesting because it has a whole set of inputs that we can plug into our algorithm [to create music on the fly].” He explained how the music could change if the driver is stuck in traffic, driving at night, on the way to work, or about to do a lot of work calls. “Who cares what engine you have any more? Cars are becoming gadgets and it’s all about the experience.” 

The car industry is keen to change that in-car experience, he said: “We see a lot of inbound requests from pretty much major automotive companies, mainly from in-car experience team leads looking to implement this kind of technology into the car.”

The operating systems in most cars are ancient…’

The car is a strange space: we sit in a metal box and stare in the distance and either chat to a companion or consume audio, the only form of entertainment that can be safe in that situation.

But the car is changing: electric vehicles are quieter and the silence is more pronounced. Self-driving vehicles, seemingly a perpetual five years away, may actually be just around the corner, possibly freeing up the driver to do other stuff. And usage habits are changing too: by-the-minute car sharing is ubiquitous in many big cities.

The stumbling block is often that cars have hitherto only required rudimentary operating systems – and now they need something akin to that of a high-end smartphone. 

Stavitsky spoke about the challenges of working to create technology for cars: “The operating systems in most cars are ancient, let’s put it that way!” Some of them are working quickly to upgrade their platforms, he said. Thomas and Ballantyne said they’d also seen an acceleration of planning to add new music features from manufacturers in the last year.

The panel agreed that the big opportunities were coming from the changing perception around what a car is: from a transport machine to a big gadget that provides entertainment. In this transition from simple OS to smart OS, opportunities await. 

Ballantyne saw the dead time that being in a car creates – sitting in the back seat, waiting outside the school gates – as a moment built for technology to fill with music and music-related content, like lyrics: “the entertainment system becomes more and more a filler for people killing time – more features like this are being added into in-car entertainment.”

In the future we may see another function alongside a toggle for “city” and “motorway” driving mode: where the car determines if the music should be family-friendly or not, Ballantyne explained.

The whole concept is that you can now make choices’

Stavitsky looked at the changing role of the occupants of the car: for instance, people taking a nap in the car, and music being supplied to aid sleep. He’s also interested in the power of music to soothe: “the damaging effect of being in a very noisy environment: there’s a lot of science about what it does to your mental state, and that’s what we’re trying to solve with our technology.”

Thomas agreed. “The whole concept is that you can now make choices,” in the car, she said. Those choices extend to how the car is laid out, said Ballantyne: “the layout of the car doesn’t have to look like ‘a car’ any more,” explaining how it could be customised to become a “car theatre”, a living room, or a nap space.

Thomas leaned on data from Dolby’s research to explain that the early adopters of potential in-car technology like spatial audio are “from teens to the next generation […] the nature of how we’re consuming is changing. The nature of our experiences is changing, and we care about the quality of an experience.”

The future looks bright, the panelists all agreed.

Ballantyne said that the global nature of the car user audience means there are many standards and local needs or laws that Lyricfind is working to get to grips with. That global view means that cost and value needs to be considered, he said. The pricing of music versus that of cars is approached very differently.

“There’s very little territorial variation between buying an Audi in the USA or in India. But music streaming is 10 bucks a month in the USA and $1.50 in India. The automotive market changes the value equation for what we do in certain territories, which is different to the rest of the music industry in general.”

Stavitsky explained how Endel is working with artists to create audio building blocks so its AI can create new music: “we asked some artists which space they’d like to build a soundscape for – and some of them said ‘cars’. We have recently made, with Miguel, a walking and hiking soundscape. And we’re working with major labels on turning the stems from their back catalogue into adaptive soundscapes which would work in-car.”

Thomas said that music industry partners are “exceptionally engaged. They are keen to engage with users on a deeper level.” Cars are integral in fans’ music consumption, she said: “It gives labels and the industry  a chance to interact with fans in an intimate way […] but also cars are where we spend a lot of our lives, and it’s part of their engagement process.”

 “The momentum is there,” she summarised, “and we have the opportunity to create true immersive experiences in our cars.”

“The Future of In-Car Music” session was part of the ‘Technology – AI & In-Car Music’ track at NY:LON Connect, which was co-sponsored by LyricFind. You can read our full NY:LON Connect 2022 coverage here.


Written by: Joe Sparrow