[Editors Note: This article was written by Patrick McGuire.]
In 2019, signs of the irreversible tech-driven transformation music is undergoing are all around us; from streamlined music consumption and discovery to the powerful tools used by music-makers working in every genre.
Take the technology that now offers cheap and reliable access to virtually all available music in the world, for example. This chart shows that music streaming increased eightfold from 2013 to 2018, while edging out downloads and CD sales by massive margins in the process. But music’s rapid tech transformation doesn’t stop there, with inexpensive and increasingly powerful home recording gear and digitally driven distribution services giving every musician with a computer the chance to make and share music.
Musicians that are jaded by today’s complicated tech-centered music climate often long to sustain a meaningful career like they used to through CD sales, traditional recording studios, while avoiding making their music available through streaming platforms. And while modern music-making gripes are justifiable, preserving the technological advancements you like in music while tossing out the rest isn’t possible.
Technology has been shaping music for thousands of years
Music is more aligned with technology now than it’s ever been, but if you think about it, it’s been shaping the art form since the very beginning.
The modern day electric guitar is a prime example. Around 4,000 years ago, primitive hollow-bodied string instruments known as bowl harps and tanburs started showing up in ancient civilizations. Over the course of thousands of years, countless innovations and iterations of these instruments eventually evolved into the acoustic and classical guitars we know today.
The 20th century made electronic sound amplification possible and brought cutting edge new sound effect technology, which delivered distortion, delay, and reverb. Guitars were adapted with electric capabilities to produce sounds that had never been heard before in music. You probably don’t look at an electric guitar and see a technological marvel, but that’s exactly what it is.
How tech is shaping music today
Virtually no part of music is immune from tech-driven change in 2019. Algorithms are able to guess what new music a listener is bound to like with startling accuracy, young music students now learn how to read and understand music through apps, and, with the exception of vinyl records, physical music sales are beginning to be thought of as antiquated.
But while these tech-driven changes are significant for everyone, professional music-makers have seen practically everything about their professions transform dramatically in the last decade. A songwriter, composer, or producer making music digitally used to be pigeonholed into a specific electronic genre; but now creators working in virtually every genre rely on some sort of digital audio workstation (DAW) in their work in some way.
One could argue that the album, the main format musicians have been selling their music through for over a century, is currently being dethroned by technology. Streaming technology gave rise to playlists, which overtook albums in terms of popularity a few years ago. This fact enters the minds of countless professional music creators now when they set out to make new music, begging the question if albums are still worth the creative and financial investment in today’s playlist-obsessed music culture.
Live concerts are being shaped by new technology as well. Virtual reality companies are now giving fans something close to the live show experience from their living rooms, and sophisticated projection technology brought 2Pac back from the dead to perform at Coachella in 2012. The complex technological transformation musicians are seeing in their industry is seismic and irreversible.
When technological change is at odds with a musician’s values
Separating technology from music is a futile act, but that doesn’t mean musicians have to accept or engage in every new technological advancement in music that comes along. But the major challenge for musicians leery of accepting new technology in music happens when they stand to hurt themselves by not embracing new ways of making and sharing music. Sure, you could record folk music on acoustic guitars and only offer your work through cassette tapes, but doing so would probably stifle your music career in a big way.
Musicians need to first identify their values in order to decide if adopting or rejecting certain aspects of technological change in their work.
Music’s new, complex landscape might be difficult for some to accept, especially if one has been working in music for a long time. But simply wishing things worked how they used to and refusing to adapt is likely to be a bad bet for most musicians. Today’s music industry is brutally competitive and difficult to succeed in, but that’s always been the case.
A bright side to tech’s profound impact can be seen in the many tools now being offered to help artists whether the modern challenges of the music industry. Free analytic tools, for example, can be used to help a new band find out where they should tour by revealing where their most devoted fans are.
Like an uncategorical piece of music, the myriad impacts technology is having on musicians, audiences, and music are complex, and we won’t be able to grasp the implications of the transformation for some time.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, composer, and experienced touring musician.