Cherie Hu is arguably one of the foremost authorities on music technology and music industry trends in the world. In other words, she's pretty good at predicting the future of the music business, which is exactly what we did on this episode of How Music Charts.
Over the past few years, Cherie has been a regular contributor to multiple major music business publications, including Forbes, Billboard, NPR Music, Rolling Stone, and many more. While she still has a regular music technology column for Music Business Worldwide, in early 2019, Cherie started Water & Music, her own membership community where she uses Patreon, Discord, and a weekly newsletter to deliver insightful analysis on music technology and music industry trends.
Throughout the course of our conversation with Cherie, she delivered that and much more. In Part 1 of Predicting the Future of the Music Business With Cherie Hu, we go down two futuristic rabbit holes, including what streaming technology will look like in 2040 and what role "fake" artists have in the future of the music business. Finally, discussing the possibility of Marvel characters signing recording contracts leads us to our conclusion: the future impact of gaming and film on music.
Futuristic Rabbit Hole No. 1: 2040 Streaming Technology
In 2019, Cherie wrote an article for NPR in which she imagined her 2040 self writing to her 2019 self about the extent to which music technology has evolved. Cherie's future self describes YouNite devices, a type of futuristic brain-computer interface for music consumption.
Unlike smart speakers, which operate on the resolution of individual sentences and conversations, YouNite operates on the level of individual heartbeats, breaths, and even neurons. I can maybe explain in a later note, but the primary use case of a YouNite bead comes down to self-regulation — listening to music to improve one's physical and mental health and control one's negative emotions. In this vein, music has become both more unnoticeable in its omnipresence, like wallpaper, and more functional — generally, consumed to fulfill a certain mental or physiological task.
That might seem farfetched now, but context-awareness — our technology taking more than just preference history and rating data into account — will be here before we know it. According to Cherie, the proliferation of smart speakers and the growing popularity of Weav-like startups are the first steps toward making something like YouNite a reality.
But music recommendations adapting to your mood and biological signals is just one half of the equation. Warner Music Group already signed an algorithm to a record deal, after all....
Futuristic Rabbit Hole No. 2: The Rise of 'Fake' Artists
On the other side of the bitcoin, as music consumption becomes more automated, adaptive, and personalized, popular artists may become less and less human. Here are four possibilities we cover, all of which have already materialized to varying degrees.
- Algorithms: According to Cherie, even though Warner Music Group signed Endel to a deal, she doesn't think it's a very high priority for them ... yet. Algorithmic tracks are likely to grow in popularity as context-aware recommender systems become more advanced — especially with contextual playlists becoming more and more influential.
- Playlisting Aliases: In 2017, Spotify was accused of creating fake artists to financially game the playlisting ecosystem. According to Cherie, "There were two or three artists on a given playlist that controlled for 50 different artist names. So those were just aliases that all pointed back to the same composer or producer.... I don't think 'fake artist' is the right way to think about that specific issue. I see it more as vertical integration and shutting artists out that are not included in this very closed investor ecosystem."
- Vocaloids: Hatsune Miku is perhaps the most famous example of a vocaloid. She isn't so much a fake artist as she is a software-synthesized voice, which anyone can use to compose their own music — or songs for "her." In this sense, she's potentially the first "artist" to ever be generated and developed through a combination of coding and crowdsourced creativity.
- Holograms: Lil Miquela is a "virtual influencer" — i.e., a social media-popular CGI character created by Los Angeles-based startup Brud — who has released some music featuring "real" artists. As Brud explains it, she is, "As real as Rihanna." According to Cherie, Lil Miquela's celebrity is similar in kind to Rihanna's, but she's not connected to a real person like Rihanna's brand is, and that matters: "I think it does matter in terms of inspiration.... In terms of setting a real world example for people and to inspire them, it does matter."
The question is whether major music companies will see more financial incentive in signing and developing "fake" artists — whether they're algorithms, aliases, vocaloids, or holograms — than "real" recording and performing artists. Enter: Iron Man and Captain America.
The Future of Gaming, Film, and Music
It's no secret that both the gaming and film industries dwarf the music industry in terms of revenue. Bernie Cho reminded us of that on our last episode. What the music industry has to figure out is how to make sure we're not left in the dust, and that means understanding — and imagining — the many opportunities for music in gaming and film.
The opportunities for what you can do creatively and commercially are much wider in gaming, just by nature of what you can do with a game versus with a movie. With music in film, you can sync music ... whereas in gaming ... Fortnite and certain other games or game platforms ... are increasingly being seen and also being used just as social platforms.... Now that a lot more of these bigger games are becoming social spaces, are becoming event spaces, that does dramatically increase the amount of events you can do.... You can do these immersive, interactive films, you can do festivals ... you can do meet-and-greets, you can do sell merch in the form of branded skins ... and then you can license or even sell music in the game as well. I think the range of opportunity is so much wider.... People who spend their time playing games do it for much longer on a much more regular basis than watching movies.... In terms of having people's attention, that's definitely a draw from the music side as well.