A DJ turning knobs on a soundboard, with blurred white headphones in the foreground

The future of the music industry – how technology is changing the way we listen to music

  • How the music industry has changed over the years
  • The Internet – friend or foe?
  • It’s not about ownership, it’s about being able to access music, anytime and anywhere
  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms could change the way we discover new music
  • What other innovations will we see in the future of the music industry?

Music is the world’s only universal language, spoken and understood by everyone. There are many different types and genres of music, for any kind of activity or any mood you may find yourself in. The right music at the right time can bring back good memories or help you forget bad ones.

But music is not only about how we feel. It is also huge business, generating massive profits for the people creating it and for those distributing it through the various channels.

How the music industry has changed over the years

A lot has changed in the music industry over the last couple of decades. Radio used to be the most common way for people to listen to music and discover new artists. Today, with the incredible rise of digital distribution services and streaming technology, radio has been made almost obsolete and the biggest stations are now struggling to attract audience and generate profit. People do still listen to radio, just not as much or in the same way they did before. CDs, also formerly a very popular way to experience music, are slowly starting to lose ground as they are increasingly being replaced by downloads and digital streaming.

Because of the piracy fears and the fact that many people download music illegally, people in the music industry were very sceptical at first about the potential of the digital platform and used to look at the Internet as the enemy. The fact that their first attempts to offer music to consumers this way weren’t very successful and pricy didn’t help the matter much.

There was also the issue of complicated digital rights management, as well as device compatibility, as there wasn’t a single universally accepted audio file format, which presented users with a whole new set of problems. As a result, it was much easier for them to simply download the music illegally, without having to worry about any of those things.

With time, some technological improvements and a little bit of ingenuity, the industry has changed its stance and now see Internet as an ally in their endeavour to bring music to the masses. The Internet also became a very useful tool for the music industry to better understand their customers and collect information about their listening habits, which was not possible in the past, with cassettes or CDs. It also allowed less well-known artists to reach audiences they couldn’t have dreamed of reaching before. Some of them even used crowdfunding websites to fund the production of new albums.

Listening to live music is still incredibly popular, with over 26 million people attending concerts in the UK in 2014. Live performances account for a large share of the industry’s total revenue. The music industry in general has experienced a 5% growth in 2014, bringing the British economy a little over £4 billion, according to the ‘Measuring Music’ report published every year by UK Music.

White headphones placed on a soundboard
Music is the world’s only universal language, spoken and understood by everyone.

It’s not about ownership, it’s about being able to access the music, anytime and anywhere

Most people today don’t actually care whether they own the music or not, they just want to be able to take it with them everywhere they go and listen to it on all of their devices. In the past, that meant having to download the music from the Internet for example and then transfer it to the device you wanted to play it on. You also had to make sure that the file format was actually supported by the device. If not, you had to convert it first. There were storage issues as well. Like any type of data, audio takes up space and depending on the quality, or its bitrate, music could really fill up all the available space on your device very quickly. It was all very time consuming and inefficient. With the introduction of the streaming technology and services like Rhapsody, Pandora, Spotify or Apple Music, the whole process became much easier and simpler. Streaming services immediately solved the compatibility problem and the best thing about them was that they were often free, or at the very least, you had the option to try before you buy.

Some people still prefer CDs because of the superior audio quality but it’s only a matter of time before streaming becomes the most common way of listening to music. The services weren’t without their own challenges at the beginning, from horrible DRM to constant syncing issues, and it took the providers a long time and a lot of effort to get where they are today. The main advantage is that you can listen to your music just about anywhere and on any device. Furthermore, the music is stored online rather than on your device, which leaves more space for other purposes.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms could change the way we discover new music

Big Data, machine learning and artificial intelligence are also some of the technologies that are being increasingly employed by the music industry today in an attempt to improve overall user experience. Consumers are incredibly picky and demanding and they will naturally pick the music service that best accommodates their needs and tastes. But that is not all; they also want their music service to be capable of recommending new music in an intelligent manner, based on their previous musical choices. This is precisely where big data comes in. Combined with artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms that analyse the user’s purchasing history, social media behaviour and listening habits across various devices, this technology could eventually become so powerful and sophisticated that it takes the place of today’s DJs and music selectors.

Having unlimited access to a ridiculous amount of music means that it can sometimes be difficult to choose what to listen to next and that is why it is absolutely essential for these services to have good recommendation systems. One way of doing this is with playlists and they are becoming increasingly popular lately. For example, Spotify has the New Music Friday playlist which brings 50 new tracks for its million followers to listen to every week and Apple Music has something similar in its Beats 1 radio station, only with the addition of a DJ. Pandora’s Music Genome Project is probably the most complex application of big data in the music industry so far, analysing each and every one of the 30 million songs in its database using automated algorithms as well as manual input from specially trained musical experts. The songs are classified according to 450 different factors, including the instruments used, how fast the rhythm is, the vocalist’s gender etc., all in an effort to find the best way to correctly predict what a user might like.

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What other innovations will we see in the future of the music industry?

Social networks and virtual reality will become new music distribution channels, offering people even more ways to access music. The Internet of Things could soon make its way into the music industry and add another layer to overall user experience. Current copyright laws will also have to change to keep up with constantly evolving user trends and we will probably come up with new revenue streams for artists to earn from their music.

People today are spoiled for choice in terms of how they want to listen to music. In addition to radio, CDs and of course live events, they can choose to obtain music through digital distribution or streaming services. Technologies come and go, and it will be very interesting to see what else the future of the music industry will bring us.

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