The age of music streaming and how African creatives and artists can embrace it.
So, where does one start? Nothing excites me more than speaking, writing or engaging in discussions about music and technology and how the two can marry sometimes. The marriage of advanced, high-technology and music is what I will be discussing in this article. It is without doubt that we are possibly in an age where technology has unashamedly taken over our lives and this is seen by how dependent we are on our phones. It is mind boggling how technology has changed simple things like cooking, cleaning, traveling and most importantly how we consume and create music. Music is probably one of the most important tools that humanity has at its disposal. The word “tool” is just one of the terms that could be used to describe music but for the most part, music is energy, music is sound energy. Music can be described as organized noise, an experience or we can even stretch it as far as calling it medicine.
I don’t need to need detail every happening in mankind’s fascination with music throughout history, but what I will do is tackle how in the 21st century we are consuming music and how technology is making things a lot simpler for us. Nowadays we have music streaming platforms such as Soundcloud, Pandora, Deezer, Google Play, Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music who are without a doubt revolutionizing how we search, find and consume music. The great shift away from the analogous methods of consuming music are slowly dying out and this is evident in the decreasing sales of physical copies of albums. The music landscape has completely changed and the metrics of success of an artist is no longer measured by how many physical album copies the artist sold, but rather how many times the album was streamed or how many listens a particular song has. The digital age is here and has completely changed the way we do things and new metrics of success and standards have been created.
What is music streaming and how exactly does it work?
In the simplest terms, streaming means that music is listened to or a video is watched in real time instead of having to download the file to any device that allows you to run the file,therefore playing the song, or physically inserting a CD into a CD player or a vinyl record on a record player. Streaming allows for cross-device functionalities because one can stream audio or video from a smartphone, desktop, tablets and any other digital device that has streaming capabilities. Streaming music actually solves a few problems, but it comes at a cost. The days of having to worry about running out of space for keeping your CD’s and vinyl records are pretty much over. Music streaming also saves record labels a lot money for distribution purposes and publishing, the only noticeable hurdle that record labels might be coming across nowadays is striking the right licensing deal with music streaming companies so that the intellectual property they own is not compromised in any way.
The music business has seen a significant decrease in profits due to the rise of digital and this has proven to be an opportunity for technology companies to offer solutions to the problems that arise due to the changes that have occurred. From a distribution point of view, it would make sense for record labels to start assuming a lean thinking stance where they will easily be able to conduct proper feasibility studies and tweak their business models to make it easier to eliminate any form of waste. For companies in the music business, survival is the most important thing right now and they have no other choice but to be lean.
Music streaming has completely disrupted the game and in the time that we are living in the most valuable thing is data. Data is gold. Technology companies know and understand the value of data and the music industry is slowing realizing the importance of data. Big data has managed to find its way into the music industry, but the burning question is how is it used in music streaming. The answer is simple, ALGORITHMS. Streaming services are set up in such a way that they get to get valuable listener data which can give record labels insights which will make them understand the listener and the listener’s habits. Soundcloud has about 175 million monthly listeners and you can imagine the amount of data that can pulled from each individual listener to gain insights into listener behaviour. The streaming companies are tasked with coming up with innovative means to assist millions of people find music that is within their preferences, the algorithms created have to suggest music to the listeners and curate playlists that should fall within a listener’s interests. As you can imagine, this is a huge task considering that for the algorithm to correctly predict what you like you have to, as a listener, spend a signficant amount of time on the music streaming platform so that the algorithm can monitor your behaviour, keep record of what you like, find people that have a similar taste to you and find songs that other listeners that have a similar taste to you have played which you haven’t listened to. This is quite a lot of work and in Soundcloud’s case, that process has to be done for 175 million people. Music streaming services use powerful data-crunching programs and machines to mine the immense amounts of data so that a more personalized experience is created for the listener. What matters most is not just having a digital audio bank, but having a digital audio platform that will speak directly to the user is the most crucial aspect of it all. This is where design-thinking comes in.
The importance of mining data efficiently has pushed music streaming companies like Spotify to acquire smaller tech companies that specialize in providing artificial intelligence, machine learning and analytics solutions that will enable them to make better sense of the data and create better algorithms. I remember walking on Rivionia road in Sandton, Johannesburg in August and saw an Ernst & Young billboard which had the words “How human is your algorithm” and those words alone made it clear to me that tech is undoubtedly moving closer to creating artificial intelligence bots and algorithms that mimic how man thinks and behaves. The solutions created to problems in all the human interactions one can think of are soon going to be solved exclusively by bots, with less human input. Many argue that with the rise of the use of algorithms to curate play lists and recommend songs to listeners takes away from the essence and culture of discovering music organically and by taking away the human from the process, you actually take away the excitement of discovery, the thrill and the adventure of finding music yourself. Bots and algorithms now do this for you and you don’t need to spend time going through thousands of songs and only tofind a few songs that you like. The use of bots and algorithms for discovery is a huge time-saver and we can’t argue that anything that allows us to save time and simultaneously make our lives easier is a win, especially considering how we can use the saved time on doing something more productive while you enjoy the great music that you love.
Music streaming platforms have completely altered how we think, enjoy and play music. But how does the rise of music streaming affect the African music business? With such a great shift into digital, it would be interesting to investigate how Africans are using these platforms to promote their musical work, podcasts and other audio creations that can be streamed. One thing that I can point out which could be hindrance to the streaming revolution, particularly in South Africa, is the expensive data prices and streaming consumes a lot of data. This one of the reasons why downloads are still relatively a big deal in South Africa and Africa as whole and this is also why it is always easier for artists and other creatives to release their music on platforms like Datafilehost. For marketing purposes, Datafilehost does not have enough functionalities to give artists and creatives proper metrics for analysis, reach and ROI. Datafilehost is simply a site which hosts your audio files and makes them available for download and the only metric you get is the amount of downloads for your audio. It unfortunately does not give you more detailed analytics that I think would be of value to an artist such as information about where some of your fans/listeners are coming from, how they find your music, which cities, regions, countries respond more to your music. The popularity of download platforms like Datafilehost makes sense because of how the typical South African uses the internet. It is known that most South African access the internet using their smartphones and feature phones and they use data which they buy from cellular network companies like Cell C, Vodacom, MTN and Telkom. Most of the South Africans that an artist or record label would like to target, if they were to use a digital marketing strategy which includes a music streaming element, don’t have regular access of the internet and therefore it would be cheaper to download the audio file and play it whenever they want. This brings us to a point where we state that due to the current data prices in South Africa and the infrequent access to the internet to people may hinder South Africans from enjoying the benefits of music streaming.
One thing that I would like to point out in this article is the importance of artists, creatives and record labels to think Big Data and how it can help you in your work. You honestly do not have to be mathematician, a statistician or even a university or college graduate to benefit from big data. If more South African record labels, small or big, started embracing the digital age fully, they would witness great and valuable returns in insights and eventually financial benefits as one would know when, where, what, why and how their products and/or services should be shared and sold. It is important to have a data-driven approach and at least one analytic mind in your teams as this will help you know and understand your listeners and potential listeners. Despite some of the hindrances that we may face as Africans, we can still find innovative ways to embrace the digital age and do the things we love. We need to rethink the way we go about doing things in music, we live in a time where one does not need to wait for a radio host or a music TV show to suggest music and art to us, we now possess the power to do it ourselves. But the big question is, where will the power lie, in the hands of the African music lover or algorithms? Are we going to be able to catch up with the rest of the world when streaming becomes the global standard and method for playing and sharing music?
We should learn from the brilliant minds behind events like Boiler room, which harnessed the power of audio and video streaming to create an event series which is one of its kind in the world and therefore revolutionized how we go about creating, sharing and enjoying music. Some of the global leaders, movements and major artists started out on platforms like Soundcloud and Youtube, which means that there is still a lot of ground we need to cover when it comes to streaming. By understanding how these platforms work, we can create better and more targeted digital music marketing campaigns and we can even stretch it as far as saying that we can even build our own platforms for African creatives and artists. The digital age is as exciting as ever and we should take advantage of it in its early stages in Africa and we should also study and master the music streaming tools that we have available to us. If you are an aspirant musician, start with Soundcloud and build your online following. The beautiful thing about Soundcloud is that it is not a paid streaming service yet like Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and Deezer, so you can take full advantage of that and start connecting with fellow musicians. The way Soundcloud is set up is brilliant for networking and initiating opportunities for collaboration and breaks border boundaries, so you can be a kid from Soweto making music and you can collaborate with another kid from Sweden. You make sure that you update your Soundcloud profile is uodated regularly and if you’re not going to be releasing music regularly, make sure that you repost all the music that inspires you.
It is our time to disrupt the digital world and our art and music should take center stage.