Business Unusual

The best way to listen to music is to hire it

Once upon a time if you wanted to listen to music, you had to make it yourself or attend a live performance.

Adding electricity to music transformed it, not only as more could hear the performance, but radio allowed it to reach more people than ever.

Buying your own copy of if have included LP, seven singles, 8 track tapes, cassettes, CDs and now mp3s.

Music piracy became an issue with the arrival of magnetic tape with cassettes setting a new peak in personal copies lovingly called "mix tapes". These were created by making copies of existing cassettes or recording it from the radio.

CDs ended that until computers developed the ability to burn a new CD.

The internet set a new peak in piracy with early services like Napster allowing you copy someone else’s digital mp3 track and send it over the internet to anywhere.

The music industry initially looking forward to the huge reach of the new medium soon became very protective as they vainly tried to stem the losses of sales to illegal copying.

But the sales had an unexpected positive effect. So many more people were listening to music that whenever a band performed live, the concerts were likely to attract sell-out crowds.

Even international tours would see millions of fans all round the world willing to pay. Artists' incomes are now skewed to what is made on tour rather than from sales or royalties.

Royalties came about as radio broadcasters would pay various rates for using the music. Collection agencies would then look to divide up the money to the copyright holders and, where applicable, performers.

This would return as a popular model to counter surging piracy.

The record labels sought tougher laws for those who illegally copied and distributed music while also looking to find a way to make it harder to copy. Data and the internet are made to be replicated and distributed so a new option was sought.

Streaming options grew out of radio stations broadcasting their programs online. It was not a major leap to create a library of music and give fans access to stream as they wished for a subscription or in exchange for having ads included in the stream.

Of the many pioneers, the most established now are Spotify, Apple Music, Google, Amazon and Tidal.

Most offer as monthly subscription for access to huge music libraries of over 20 million tracks. Despite the variety the demand is still for the hitmakers' latest tunes and there is still issues about who have negotiated access to what. The principal issue is the share of the revenue that the artists receive. Tidal was created to specifically benefit artists.

There appears to be some stability at the moment with reliable, high quality and relatively affordable access having managed the rampant piracy of the past and shift by artists to use sales for promotion and tours for profit. Spotify reports that piracy has fallen in most of the regions they operate and it is fair to assume the same is true for other areas.

While these platforms have made legal access easier - and streaming certainly has reduced the need for pirating music - it has not solved the actual problem: how to fairly compensate artists for their work. YouTube’s most watched videos are songs - including the most watched video, Psy’s Gangnam Style which has 2.8-billion plays. There is little need to pirate music when it is freely available, although the criticism of YouTube is that it too pays too little to the artists.

Musicians have reason to complain, although advances in technology have made becoming a musician much easier. Get a PC, watch videos to learn how to mix and edit, you don’t even need to know how to play an instrument to begin creating music. If your voice is not great, there is something that could fix even the most mediocre voice.

This has lead to more musicians publishing music than at anytime in our history, but there is a new competitor - neural networks. Currently AI music is meant to enhance the creativity of artists and to help generate royalty free music to make your home video’s more impressive, but it will not take too long before a robot composition would be as good as 80% of the best musicians.

Using the Beatles as inspiration, Flow machines and Sony used machine learning to create something that sounds like the Beatles but is not the Beatles. An artist added the arrangement and lyrics and created a credible AI generated song part of an album that will be released later this year.

It is not just music that can be generated, the company fed Bob Dylan’s lyrics into the machine and had it generate lyrics too. By having a machine generate hundreds of options using many different styles the skill becomes finding the one that stands out. That much is true for any music, but as the styles blend it may become difficult to notice the difference. Ed Sheeran is super successful but has had two challenges to say his music is copied from earlier work.

A parody band demonstrate how many pop songs are based on similar arrangements and chords and for a final illustration of how we really do have trending music themes, note how many songs you know that use the millennial whoop.

Even sound effects, once needing someone to imagine what a laser blaster would sound like when fired, then find a real world source of a sound that would be credible, can be recreated by a machine with a few suggestions. (The Star Wars laser blaster sound is a tensioned telephone pole cable being struck.)

Humanity has been reusing music though for as long as we have been making it. CBC’s excellent history of the Dies Irae illustrates this.

What does the future hold?

Almost everything that can be traded might benefit from the blockchain. The option to track and trigger payments based on use is something the blockchain does well and may well allow each artist to get exactly the share for every play irrespective of where or on what it was played.

No need for collection agents or music labels managing artists funds, that is the theory though and as the music industry has proven in the past, it is not a fan of change. Blockchain is still proving itself and there is a lot to negotiate before it can be implemented, but it does suggest that for all the disruption technology can introduce, it can also supply the new long term solutions.

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