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Music in the digital age

Patrik Wikstrom

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The evo­lu­tion of tech­nology has changed the way we listen to our favorite songs and interact with music. Apple, for example, recently announced plans to launch a custom-​​radio ser­vice. Pop star Justin Bieber got dis­cov­ered through YouTube and became one of the top-​​selling artists of all time. And his tweet trum­peting Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” turned a small-​​time Cana­dian artist into an inter­na­tional sen­sa­tion. We asked Patrik Wik­ström, a newly appointed asso­ciate pro­fessor of music in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design, to weigh in on the changing face of music in today’s dig­ital age.

Does the chance to listen to music whenever or wherever we want through new technologies and handheld devices devalue the musical experience or does it align with our needs for instant gratification?

Online ser­vices that allow people access to music every­where, any­time is quickly trans­forming the music industry and the way we relate to music. The fact that recorded music is more acces­sible now than ever before, how­ever, does not nec­es­sarily diminish the value of the music expe­ri­ence. From the record labels’ point of view, the value of the recorded music busi­ness has cer­tainly dimin­ished, but from music lis­teners’ point of view, it is the oppo­site. Legal sub­scrip­tion ser­vices such as Pan­dora and Spo­tify make it pos­sible for music lis­teners to expe­ri­ence sounds and genres they hardly would have encoun­tered in the 20th-​​century music economy. Their music expe­ri­ence is more diverse and more omnipresent than ever. Music per­me­ates every aspect of our daily lives, and even though rev­enues from recorded music may have dimin­ished, the ele­vated role of music in con­tem­po­rary society indi­rectly increases rev­enues from other music industry sec­tors, such as live per­for­mances and music licensing.

Research shows that music con­sumers of today do not spend less money on music com­pared to a decade ago — they simply spend that money dif­fer­ently. All in all, the last decade has cer­tainly trans­formed the basis of the music industry, but the value of music remains strong, both from a busi­ness and from a cul­tural perspective.

The digital age has transformed music into a social experience, convincing music lovers to flock to YouTube, Twitter and Facebook to hear the song of the moment. How have social-media platforms changed the way we listen to music?

Music lis­tening and dis­covery have always been social activ­i­ties, but social media ampli­fies these aspects. Social media strengthens the rela­tion­ship within a group of fans as well as between the artist and their fans. Artists no longer merely com­pose and/​or per­form songs to an audi­ence, they create a plat­form that allows their fans to meet and chat about the issues they con­sider to be rel­e­vant. Artists that are able to cul­ti­vate a tight and loyal fan­base via social media may be able to create a sus­tain­able busi­ness based on their craft without being part of the main­stream music industry and without signing a record label con­tract. It is far more valu­able to have a small but loyal fan­base that is willing to sup­port the artist it appre­ci­ates than a large and anony­mous fan­base that does not care very much about who has cre­ated the music it enjoys. One often-​​mentioned suc­cess story of such an artist-​​fan rela­tion­ship is Boston-​​based Amanda Palmer who was able to raise close to $1.2 mil­lion to her music/​art project from 24,800 fans via the social-​​media fundraising ser­vice Kickstarter.

It should also be noted that social media intro­duces a new level of uncer­tainty into the music busi­ness. It has always been dif­fi­cult to pre­dict and con­trol which songs or artists will be suc­cessful or not, but social media increases that level of uncer­tainty and risk. Music lis­teners increas­ingly rely on their social net­work con­nec­tions to dis­cover new music and pay less atten­tion to advice from radio sta­tion DJs and record store clerks. The suc­cess of a song increas­ingly fol­lows the same logics as other chaotic net­work phe­nomena and becomes more or less impos­sible to govern.

Get creative: The year is 2020. How will you be buying or downloading your music?

In 2020 there will prob­ably still be a range of dif­ferent models and ser­vices for acquiring and storing recorded music, and some music lis­teners will per­haps even con­tinue buying their recorded music on CDs or vinyl. Live music per­for­mances and music licensing will most likely con­sti­tute an even larger share of the global music economy than today, and the recorded music busi­ness will more or less com­pletely have moved online. One of the most promising online models for recorded music right now is the sub­scrip­tion model where you pay a monthly fee and get access to a large music port­folio. These ser­vices have been around for a while, but still many people feel uncom­fort­able having but not “owning” their favorite music.

But in 2020, I believe most Amer­i­cans will have grown accus­tomed to this way of acquiring and lis­tening to music, where access is far more impor­tant than own­er­ship. There are still sev­eral details to figure out about these models, pri­marily related to how the rev­enues should be shared between dif­ferent rights holders. I would nev­er­the­less be very sur­prised if these chal­lenges are not over­come by 2020 and that most of us by then have thrown out the old plastic record col­lec­tion and instead listen to music via some kind of music sub­scrip­tion service.