Our music tech predictions for 2018: SoundCloud’s survival, the Bitcoin boom and more modular madness
What technological trends can listeners and artists expect in 2018? Scott Wilson stares into his crystal ball to discover how tech may change the way we consume and make music in 2017, wondering what changes are coming to Spotify, whether SoundCloud will survive and whether Eurorack gear will continue to inspire musicians.
From the insidious rise of “fake news” to the increasing prevalence of AI in our everyday lives, 2017 was actually a pretty terrifying year in terms of technology’s impact on society. In the music industry, streaming continued to dominate the headlines, as SoundCloud struggled to stay afloat and artists pushed back against the allegedly meagre royalties doled out to smaller artists and labels by companies like Spotify.
Technology’s impact on music in 2017 wasn’t all bad. For music-makers at least, the year brought a slew of innovative new apps and gadgets for production, while blockchain technology started to be taken seriously as a way of making sure musicians and everyone involved in the music production and distribution process get paid properly and fairly.
So what technological developments and trends might 2018 hold for artists and listeners? We’ve made some predictions on what the next 12 months might bring to the music industry – the good things and the bad.
SoundCloud will survive 2018, but its influence and usability will wane
2017 was a disastrous year for SoundCloud. The streaming company was forced to lay off 40% of its workforce and shut down offices in London and San Francisco to stay afloat after haemorrhaging millions of dollars in cash over the past few years. Hopes for a sale to a larger company like Google or Spotify seem to have been dashed as well, leaving the company’s long-term future quite uncertain. And no, Chance the Rapper is not going to be the one to save it.
So where does this leave the service, which is still a vital tool for established and emerging musicians? Well, it seems unlikely that it’ll fold this year: the company secured $169.5 million in private investment in 2017, which should keep it afloat in the short term. But with so much upheaval at the company, it’s likely this money will be going towards keeping the lights on – not developing the platform or innovating in any meaningful way.
It’s not clear what the successor to SoundCloud will be, or even if any platform that allows the same kind of simple audio hosting will take its place. With artists making less money than ever, especially from streaming services, expect artists and labels to create their own spaces not reliant on corporations, as LuckyMe did last year. In the short term though, services like Bandcamp and YouTube are likely to cement themselves as alternative destinations to SoundCloud for unsigned artists to upload and monetize their music.
Big changes at Spotify and beyond will impact its users
Spotify’s year has got off to an uneven start. Yes, news emerged this week that the streaming giant will finally list itself on the New York Stock Exchange in a public offering sometime before the end of March, but it also got hit by a $1.6 billion copyright lawsuit by Wixen Music Publishing Inc, a company that collects royalties for songwriters including Tom Petty, Neil Young and the Doors.
Though going public will generate a lot of money for the company, it will also mean its business practices come under more scrutiny from its investors and regulators. Spotify is growing, but so are its losses, and the platform needs to have a strategy to stop it losing money. One of the easiest ways it can do that would be to drop its free tier to convert its free listeners to paid subscribers – or, at the very least, dramatically restrict what content can be listened on it. It actually offered some labels the opportunity to keep new albums off the free tier for two weeks last year, so it’s reasonable to assume more restrictions are coming.
There’s also the issue of the possible death of net neutrality in the US. Although it’s not yet a done deal with a legal battle being mounted, it’s looking likely that services that use a lot of bandwidth will be subject to higher usage fees from companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon. Giants like Google, Apple and Amazon have deep enough pockets to absorb this cost, but Spotify? Unless it’s willing to take on more debt or can strike a favorable deal, the consumer could end up paying more for a monthly subscription.
Cryptocurrency hype will hit the music industry, and probably not in a good way
If, like us, you were regretting not jumping on Bitcoin early enough to make any money out of it, you might be looking for the next cryptocurrency to invest in. For shady operators, that also means a lot of uninformed people to fleece out of their cash: recent reports suggest cryptocurrency ponzi schemes and scams are rife, and that’s not including those that will sink without a trace. Remember Coinye, the Kanye West-themed cryptocurrency?
Already there are signs that startups are trying to use cryptocurrency to ‘disrupt’ the music industry in questionable ways. Take Viberate for example, a “crowdsourced live music ecosystem and a blockchain-based marketplace” that uses its own cryptocurrency to let promoters book artists, artists sell merchandise and fans buy tickets. The problem is, you can only use the Viberate tokens to buy services in the Viberate ecosystem and not, y’know, food, shelter or any of the things you need to survive in an already struggling industry.
Artists like Björk are using cryptocurrency in more conventional ways, allowing you to buy albums using Bitcoin. There’s also Audiocoin, a token that can be used to buy music directly from artists. In both cases though, this payment is only worth whatever the current real-world value of the currency is at the time. Bitcoin bubbles have burst before, and if you’ve sold all your music for highly volatile cryptocurrency you may well end up with nothing.
The blockchain technology that cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are built on definitely has scope to help musicians get paid. But if you’re looking for new ways to make money from your music it’s important not to confuse blockchains with cryptocurrencies. Is Ghostface Killah’s CREAM token going to be useful for anything once we’re bartering for the last bottle of irradiated water in the days after the impending nuclear apocalypse? Probably not.
The synth clone wars are just getting started
One of 2017’s biggest (and weirdest) stories was budget gear company Behringer’s ongoing mission to clone pretty much every classic synth of the past 50 years. It started with a $299 Eurorack version of Moog’s beloved Model D before wider plans were revealed to make affordable replicas of the ARP2600 and OSC OSCar. In December it ‘accidentally’ leaked a whole range that even covered obscure devices like the EDP Wasp – though Behringer later backtracked to claim these may never see the light of day.
Regardless of the shady ethics of making cut-price clones of synths that are, in some cases, still on the shelves, Behringer is well within the law to recreate the insides of instruments that are long out of copyright. And while a lot of people (including the widow of analog chip designer Doug Curtis) have been vocal in their criticism of Behringer’s plans, there’s many more who seem eager to get their hands on these instruments. However, its promised Behringer D, which went up for pre-order last June, is yet to be released. Its analog DeepMind 12 synth was in development for at least three years, so when the D will arrive is anyone’s guess.
A working version of the Behringer D does exist though, and recent images from Behringer HQ suggests that it’s hard at work on more gear based on vintage instruments, so we’d expect more announcements before 2018 is out. It’s not just Behringer though: last year we had Deckard’s Dream, a clone of the Yamaha CS80 synth used by Vangelis on the Blade Runner soundtrack and an unofficial TR-808 module for Eurorack. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, so expect lots more of this from many boutique companies in 2018.
Music-making will become easier for beginners than ever
Nostalgia for vintage gear and analog hardware has kept Roland, Korg and many other legacy companies nicely afloat over the past few years, but just as much money – if not more – has been spent on the devices that promise to make music-making easier for novices. Experts might turn their noses up at things like Ampify’s Launchpad app or Roland’s GO:KEYS for being oversimplified, but they probably make more money than a TB-303 replica because they have much wider appeal.
This hasn’t been lost on the bigger players in the music tech sphere, who are investing serious money into ways that will get people making music, whatever their ability level. Ableton, for example, is an investor in Melodics, an app that promises to teach you finger drumming in just five minutes of practice a day. The company recently moved into teaching keyboard skills, which could be a game-changer for anyone that still mashes their MIDI keyboard when making tunes.
There’s also Maschine manufacturer Native Instruments, which last year received a €50 million investment from a private equity firm to “democratize music creation,” and help “achieve its vision of breaking down the barriers to music creation for all music lovers.” Whether this money is going towards expanding into new markets, designing more innovative interfaces or even reducing the friction between software and hardware is uncertain, but it’s clear that the Berlin company has grand ambitions to put its products in the hands of as many people as possible, no matter what their ability level.
Apple too appears to be expanding the appeal of its popular GarageBand app. In November 2017, it added a new sound library to the app with packs for future bass and reggaeton styles, confirming that it plans to release more “periodically”. It even has its own iTunes-inspired ‘storefront’ where you can browse them. A lot of musicians hate the idea of sample packs, but you only need to look at the popularity of Ampify’s Launchpad and Blocs apps to see that there’s a market for them. In 2018, there will almost certainly be more of these easy entry points to music-making than ever.
Non-traditional MIDI controllers go mainstream
Keyboards are still the most common way to play a synthesizer, but over the past few years they’ve been joined by a host of unusual interface devices that don’t look much like instruments at all. The most notable example is ROLI’s Blocks system, a music-making platform based around a squishy interfaces that allows you to both play notes and affect parameters such as pitch or timbre using gestures including slide and glide.
Underlying many of these devices is a technology called MPE, or multi-dimensional polyphonic expression. It’s a recent MIDI specification that allows users of devices such as ROLI’s Blocks or Roger Linn’s Linnstrument to play compatible synthesizers with much more nuance than a traditional MIDI keyboard. The technology hasn’t been widely adopted yet but support is growing: GarageBand, Bitwig Studio 2, Sonar and Max are a few of the platforms supporting it.
Ableton and Native Instruments haven’t yet pledged support for it (with the exception of NI’s Reaktor Blocks software) but it definitely seems to be more than a passing fad. Last year, Pharrell Williams invested in ROLI, an endorsement that speaks volumes about how widely he believes the company’s unusual but accessible musical devices can appeal to people who may not have much experience with music-making. ROLI Blocks are also being sold in the Apple Store now, a firm bet that this kind of device has a bright future.
Eurorack gear will continue to boom
When Aphex Twin played at London’s Field Day festival last summer, he brought his modular synth along for the ride. He’s not the first artist to use a Eurorack system on stage, but he is one of the biggest, and the interest in the breakdown of what his rig included was huge, proving that curiosity about the format isn’t limited to hardcore synth nerds.
On YouTube as well, Eurorack went from niche content to mainstream concern. One of the platform’s most popular music tech vloggers, Andrew Huang, revealed his love for the format in a popular video that’s racked up over half a million views so far. It also continues to be popular with live performers due to its versatility, even if it’s not always the most practical thing to carry on a plane. It’s so popular, we even devoted a whole day to the format here at FACT.
While some people have speculated that Eurorack might be a passing fad, it’s not looking that way at the start of 2018. If there are any trends we’d put money on, it’s Eurorack modules inspired by classic gear such as Behringer’s Model D clone and artist collaborations in the vein of Mumdance and ALM Busy Circuits’ MUM M8 and Tiptop Audio’s Throbbing Gristle module, the TG ONE.
Scott Wilson is FACT’s Make Music editor. Find him on Twitter.