The Next Disruption of Music

[Steve Faktor’s original version appeared on LinkedIn Influencer & Forbes]

If you thought digital music piracy was disruptive, just wait until humans are outdone by robots in creating original music. In 1958, John von Neumann imagined “the singularity ” to be the moment artificial intelligence becomes self-improving and self-aware – almost instantly transforming people into pets. But long before your Roomba knocks up some no good Cuisinart, a different singularity will occur – The Music Singularity. This is how humanity’s last tune will play out -and what it means for musicians, fans and future dinosaurs like Pandora, Apple, and Spotify.

The Music Singularity

There are at least six major trends conspiring to once again disrupt music. This time, even the recent disruptors aren’t safe.

1. POPULARITY OF ELECTRONIC DANCE MUSIC [EDM] & DJ’S

Want to fill any man over 35 with rage?  Tell him how much the DJ makes. According to Forbes, the top 10 earned $268M in 2014. Want to make that man rip off his clothes like The Incredibly Mental Hulk? Take him to watch the DJ at a club. In the real world, we bust our balls at work to buy a MacBook. In the DJ’s world, the MacBook works while the DJ picks up girls and adjusts controls that aren’t even connected, like Stevie Wonder behind the wheel of a self-driving Google car.

While it’s too soon to know if EDM is here to stay, it’s a natural continuation of the electrification of music. It started with the electric guitar but moved to Moog synthesizers in the 70′s, godawful keytars in the 80′s, and today’s daintiest of bikers, Daft Punk. Some of today’s most popular and profitable artists, don’t play any instruments, sing, or need to date Chris Brown. Stadiums full of kids pay to watch a MacBook attached to a mixer, headphones, and a multimillionaire praying for rock-solid IT support.

2. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

If you thought computers writing music was some sci-fi fantasy, you probably haven’t heard the London Symphony Orchestra perform Transits—Into an Abyss, a composition created entirely by Iamus, a system designed by the University of Malaga. This Bach to the Future moment was well-reviewed but it had way more in common with an automated Tweet than a tortured, hard-drinking, womanizing derelict with a quill.  As The Atlantic explains, robot songwriters are here to stay. [See if you can tell which is robot music here.]

But that’s not all. You probably want lyrics too. Greedy…but OK. The Associated PressLA Times, education companies, and many others are already deep into replacing human writers with robo-writers. Computer-written stories are becoming virtually indistinguishable from human ones, especially for sports and finance, but HuffPo and Buzzfeed better watch their back.  The jump to song lyrics is imminent. Then again, what robot could possibly write:

Go, go, go, go go, go, go, shawty
It’s your birthday
We gon’ party like it’s yo birthday
We gon’ sip Bacardi like it’s your birthday
And you know we don’t give a f*ck
It’s not your birthday!

–  50 Cent’s In Da Club. Sales: 2x Platinum

3. AUTO-TUNE & PRODUCTION OVERLOAD

In many ways, the definition of “artist” is nothing like it was. The Dylan-esque singer-songwriter with a guitar case full of sorrows is still out there, but plays to fewer people than standing in Beyonce’s dressing room right now. With the advent of Auto-Tune software, we can make anyone into a Britney Spears-type product, including Britney Spears – live or in studio.

You could argue that with digital processing, most of the sound called “music” is already inorganic. So would songs made entirely by robots be any less synthetic than ones manufactured by One Direction?

But Auto-Tune is only a fraction of today’s toolkit. Studio wizardry is available to all and has blurred the lines between engineering, production and songwriting. At the same time, we’re seeing a separation between creation and performance. Most popular performers, like Rihanna, don’t have to do both. That opens a massive opportunity to start automating huge chunks of creation. In fact, the popularity of shows like Lip Sync Battle and karaoke-fests like American Idol prove that the songwriter is becoming the appendix, not the heart, of music commerce.

4. SHIFT TO STREAMING SERVICES

Just like mp3′s, Napster, and eventually Apple disrupted the record label gravy train, Apple’s pay-per-song model just became obsolete.  The success of music renting (or streaming) from companies like Spotify caught Apple by surprise. But streaming music is still a commodity business that requires hefty licensing fees, leaving razor-thin margins. That’s why Apple is pushing for higher prices and Spotify is diversifying into other kinds of audio that allow it to pocket higher profits.

But what if Spotify could raise its music margins from 15% to over 90% by slowly replacing organic artists with digital ones? It’s basically the PayPal strategy – attract customers using unprofitable credit card transactions then replace cards with cheap ACH bank transfers. Eureka – margins!   But how to pull this off…?

5. BIG DATA/PREFERENCE ANALYTICS

Spotify knows all. It helps you pick workout playlists. It knows which songs you skip and exactly when you skip them. It has all the artists you like and the mood you’re in when you listen to each. It knows if you’re walking or still while you do it. It could even use the mic to detect if you’re singing along.


Spotify and Pandora have enough data to build a better song that you areguaranteed to like. Sure, it could sell that data to record companies, but why? The value is in the substitution and the publishing rights to license these robo-tunes for others to use or perform. Even Google Play is getting eerily good at matching my playlists to whatever song I am listening to.

But perfect songs are just the beginning. Each one can be customized with lyrics that are specifically relevant to you based on Facebook posts, emails and other interactions. You can even have custom songs you “write” for friends and lovers. There’s a huge business brewing under the surface here. Even ads could be embedded directly into the lyrics. (Yeah, I know…but don’t shoot the futurist.) And the field is wide open, despite early advantages by streaming companies.

6. ACCELERATED CREATION AUTOMATION

It’s not just music undergoing automation. We are undergoing a massive skills transfer from humans to machines.

  • You love sandwiches. Do you know how to bake bread?
  • You’re addicted to anything with a flat screen. Can you make or fix any of them? Know anyone who can?
  • Can you fix your car? Or butcher any of the bacon you Instagram? Or fix anything in your home?
  • Do you even know anyone’s phone number?

Don’t feel bad. Neither do I. Nor does anyone else.

We’re all wards of the state of technology. And we’re about to add driving, surgery, and cooking to the list of skills we’ve outsourced. In 25 years, you’re likelier to be making love in your car than driving it. Do we really believe music is that far behind?

A New Order

It’s clear the first thing that will change in this new robo-song future is the order of things. Musicians have always taken different paths to success. The Beatles, Ike and Tina Turner, The Monkees, Elton John, and Diana Ross. But all were decidedly organic and analog.

In the robot future, we’ll see countless paths into and out of music:

Algorithm authors might become the next great ‘songwriters’, just like IBM’s Watson might be the new Top Chef, generating inventive new recipes.

We might see all-digital artists…with personalities and marketing dollars backing them. Google: ‘Max Headroom’. Or more recently, bands like Gorillaz, which started out as cartoon characters backed by real musicians.

Some artists might license and perform songs after they are already hits on various music platforms. Others might perform entire concerts of audience-selected songs. We might even see crowd-funding of concerts that match artists to songs to venues.

The possibilities are mind-bending. But it won’t happen instantly. Just like self-driving cars. First we got power steering, then cruise control, then automatic parking, auto safety-braking, perimeter detection, co-piloting, etc. One day, we look up at the road and we’re not driving anymore. Same with music.

In both cases, there will be artisanal, “organic” artists guessing what you like, catering to your inner hipster. But like a chemically-perfect Dorito, only your gadget gods will know exactly what you can’t resist.

There is one thing we know for sure- Chris Brown could never beat up an algorithm. That’s the kind of world I want to live in.

– by Steve Faktor

Quick Bio: I’m the author of Econovation, CEO of IdeaFaktory innovation + startup advisory, and jocular host of The McFuture podcast. I’m a recovering former innovation executive at various Fortune 100 firms. Stalk me via email newsletter, Facebook, Twitter & Google+.