2018’s hot topics for the music business

I am typing this article on my phone in an airport. Therefore this piece is going to be a bit different than my usual MUSIC x TECH x FUTURE post.

It’s amazing what we can do on our phones now. They are fully fledged computers that are more powerful than the computers on our desks a few years ago.

And that has been a key facet of the change we see in music right now. The streaming giants were enabled by the smartphone. The iPhone (launched in 2007) and Spotify’s rise went hand in hand. I mention the iPhone because it exemplifies the modern smartphone. Now Apple has its own streaming service. And so does Google, which is also behind Android.

These two companies are now betting heavy on AI. Putting chipsets in phones capable of providing the power needed for this generation of computing. Google’s AI team have notably been working on AI that can outwit the best Go players — one of the most complex games (Alpha Go). They also built AI that could train itself to play chess in a few hours and beat the world’s best chess bot (Alpha Zero).

Where’s this AI going? Well, for one, into smart homes, and into smart speakers like Google Home, Amazon Echo, or Apple’s HomePod. We already see the operating systems for smartphones partnering with music brands. Hifi manufacturer Sonos integrated Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant into some of their hardware this year.

Smart speakers are going to change the game for music. Without a visual interface, how are you going to get your music to people? How are you going to stay top of mind? It’s like a new age of radio, but this time it’s personalised.

Then there are the countless AI music startups that are tackling everything from scoring films to mental health to generative pop to smart VSTs to soundtracking your YouTube videos. There’s investor interest too: Techstars Music has 3 AI-related music startups in their last batch, including Pacemaker which helps you turn your Spotify playlists into mixtapes.

And then there’s obviously blockchain. With the price of Bitcoin exploding recently, the whole world is paying attention. We see new models of crowd investment through ‘tokenization’ with multiple music startups already raising millions of funds using the Ethereum blockchain. There are probably dozens of startups looking at solving issues related to the complex rights situation in music through blockchain. One to watch is JAAK.

What about VR? Next year we’ll see startups like The Wave VR and NOYS VR gain further momentum, and further define what music can be in VR. More artists will get involved and build high quality fan experiences to put the 360 video to shame. Still, I’m cautious about VR — I’m not sure if 2018 is going to be THE year, just like 2008 wasn’t the year of streaming, but important foundations were laid by players such as Spotify and Soundcloud.

And that brings me to the last topic. Soundcloud. Creators are frustrated with it and are exploring other means to connect to fans. One successful medium for this is Instagram which will continue to grow in importance. But there are more gaps. Tech is changing and so is the online media culture. In 2008 it was necessary to provide light weight experiences, but now the web is video driven and everyone has a device with 2 cameras in their pocket. Producers are making tracks on Garage Band on their iPhones and then demoing the track via Snapchat and Instagram stories instead of uploading a snippet to audio platforms.

If 2017 was not already it, 2018 is going to be the year of video. It will provide musicians with a handy tool to deal with new challenges since 2018 will also be the year of the smart speaker.

Try new things. Push the new tech to its limits. When you find something you enjoy and that works well: focus on it.

Have a good end of year!

Bas