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  • Writer's pictureDmitri Vietze

Music is Like Water: A Seismic Shift

Music Tectonics has identified several seismic shifts that have created the music landscape of today and tomorrow. These are climate changes, tectonic shifts beneath the surface, unexpected flash floods, or meteor collisions. Today we tackle “Music is Like Water,” which we did not invent as a concept, but feel we must address as predictions hold true and implications abound.

In a 2002 profile in the New York Times, David Bowie said, “'The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music will take place within 10 years, and nothing is going to be able to stop it. I see absolutely no point in pretending that it's not going to happen.” Later he continued, “Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity,” he added. “So it's like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again. You'd better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that's really the only unique situation that's going to be left. It's terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn't matter if you think it's exciting or not; it's what's going to happen.”

A few years later, authors David Kusek and Gerd Leonhard envisioned “a future in which music will be like water: ubiquitous and free-flowing” in their book The Future of Music: Manifesto for the Digital Music Revolution. “These fees would result in a huge river of money,” wrote Kusek in a 2005 Forbes article. They were right.

But the fact that a monthly all-you-can-eat subscription service saved the day for music industry revenue is only part of the metaphor’s story.

Having a utility-like, always-on, celestial jukebox model for music has changed a lot of things about music:

  • The demise of the album, the rise of the single track. No need to listen to a whole album when you can sample just the singles people are talking about or that you like. Sorry, Artists, nobody but a very limited crew of superfans cares about your concept album five years in the making.

  • The rise of the playlist, in which someone other than the artist, label, or DJ gets to curate the sequence, segues, and connections between tracks.

  • The rise of music by mood, rather than by artist. Mood music has long been a notable and profitable side hustle for the music business, but now it’s a main gig. Listeners are picking music playlists based on what they are doing, so the mood of the playlist usurps the connection to the artist.

  • The demise of singular listening. Since we do everything via our smartphones and computers, music takes its place as a soundtrack experience. Listen while you drive, while you work, while you do housework. Keep the music going and you don’t even know the names of the tracks or artists you are listening to. If you thought elevator music was a curse, what if all music is in the background? But wait, is music just “background” if it fuels your workout or your road trip?

  • The rise of the distraction. If you are texting, podcasting, gaming, Netflixing, and social media-ing with your phone, it’s pretty easy to get distracted from musicing. Music like water did not invent the distractions of video games and TV streaming. But the fact that they are all becoming more like water means they flow into one river of entertainment and no longer have separate devices and interfaces that silo out your time from one activity to another.

  • The rise of the penny fraction. Even if you were a tiny independent artist, each unit of sale used to be in dollars. Now the unit of “consumption” is in fractions of pennies. It takes a lot more interactions to get those fractions of pennies to add up. It’s pretty tough to sell a stream to a fan. It’s even tougher to track if you are getting paid what you deserve. Though that will change: transparency is coming and is irreversible. This has been a tough pill for artists who are living through the transition from the physical world to the digital one.

  • You feel how cumulative music is when you can access all of it. It’s no news that there is more music than ever. But when music came in physical form, you could forget about the weight of the past and hope for attention in a store where only so many records were for sale. Having so much music at your fingertips makes music feel more like a commodity. You didn’t spend your hard-earned dollars on that album. You spent it on the ability to listen to anything that strikes your fancy.

  • You don’t own anything. Once you stop paying the monthly fee, you have nothing to show for it. So you have no relationship with the artist or label. You have a relationship with the streaming provider.

  • Music is a loss leader in an ecosystem. Your music is being sold to sell more phones, ads, or household supplies.

But not everything about music like water is bad. Try these on for size:

  • Because the industry is meeting people where they are, revenue is recovering from the slow demise of physical sales. The alternative would be moving closer and closer to no revenue.

  • People are listening to more music than ever.

  • People are listening to more diverse music than ever. There is no risk to try music you have never heard before.

  • Some categories of music have found new footing in the streaming world: instrumental music, meditation and sleeping music, etc.

  • People are having sex to more music than ever. Actually, I just made that up.

  • But I bet that people’s listening habits feel more integrated into the rest of their lives. Putting music in the foreground of everywhere creates more opportunities or music “uses;” from Pelotons to healthcare.

  • You can take your music everywhere: to the beach, on road trips, to worksites.

  • The music industry is making money even when subscribers listen to less music.

  • There is useful data about listeners and listening that was near impossible to track in the physical landscape.

  • Building a global fan base has less friction when you don’t need to ship physical product.

  • Listeners get informed instantly when a new recording of interest comes out.

  • Streaming unlocks new technology (like smartspeakers and hearables) without having to switch mediums again.

We could go on and on. The idea that music could be paid for and accessed like a utility was groundbreaking. But many of the implications and unintended consequences are still unfolding. If you think Music Like Water was cool. Wait until you hear about Music Like Air. Coming soon.

Which seismic shifts have you noticed in the music industry? What rumblings do you hear on the horizon? Keep the conversation going at the Music Tectonics Conference, October 28-29 in Los Angeles, CA. Music Tectonics is about the big picture: how the minor tremors that ripple through the daily news add up to seismic shifts that shape the business of music now and in the future. See you at the epicenter!

Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

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