✖ What to watch out for in 2021: scarcity models, return to live, and sustainability

Blockchain / NFTs, OnlyFans & Patreon, virtual tour stops, investing into safe live music.

MUSIC x focuses on long-term thinking about music & surrounding industries, so instead of looking back at the year we're taking a look at trends we expect to be influential in the coming months with regards to tech, the pandemic, and sustainability. Here’s what to watch out for in 2021.

Tech: Scarcity

Music was once a scarce good; the only way to experience it was live. Throughout the twentieth century technological developments have driven music from scarce to ubiquitous:

  • The inventions related to recorded sound go back to the late-nineteenth century and the patent for the first gramophone disc stems from 1887. It wasn’t until the 1920s that recording techniques changed to make it easier to record music and this helped the spread of music beyond the live experience. It also spurred on the music industry as we know it today.

  • Moreover, the 1920s saw the advent of radio which brought recorded music into most homes. Not only did this broaden the scope of the audience for music, the medium also influenced the format of music itself and the popularity of it and its performers. Fan culture was born.

  • Of course, radio was thought to kill the phonograph industry. But it didn’t. The equipment used for radio broadcast helped to improve recording standards for music and with it the sale of records which doubled from around 100 million in 1921 to 200 million in 1929. 

  • We jump to the 1950s and the rise of television and film. New opportunities first and foremost for composers and musicians to find new revenue streams. But, of course, this new medium was thought to kill the old radio industry. Again, it didn’t. Fan culture got a massive boost.

  • The trend continued into the broader acceptance of video and the rise of MTV in the 1980s. Video killed the radio star may be a popular song, but it didn’t happen. The age of the CD broke and recorded music industry revenues grew astronomically. More people got access to more and more music. 

  • 1999, Napster. The internet did actually nearly kill the recorded music industry. Suddenly, all music was available for free at everyone’s keyboard-fingertips. The response? All bets on ubiquity: From the failed early experiments of the major labels through YouTube to Spotify. Music is everywhere and we, the listener and fan, expect to have it all, always. 

  • For more than 100 years the music industry has been on a wave towards ubiquity with technological innovations as a catalyst forever thought to do more harm than good. Moving into the third decade of the twenty-first century, in order to maintain growth, we’ll need to jump on the scarcity wave.

Where to find scarcity?

How many people, publications, musicians, labels, etc. do you directly support? How many in 2018? How many right now? It’s likely you support a few and that this number has grown in the past three years. To keep you supporting you’re usually given access to exclusive content. In other words, exclusive content = stickiness. 

This year, the virtual Music Tectonics conference provided a couple of days of being online together with some of the frontrunners in music and tech and you would have been forgiven if you came away thinking direct-to-fan is what everybody does. This isn’t true yet, but it has grown significantly in 2020. Three things to keep an eye on:

Equity investment

From major players such as BTS’ label Big Hit Entertainment going public and the ARMY taking a stake in their own fandom to something like Bumper Collective which allows fans to buy a stake in the future royalties of their favourite artists’ music. This investment idea - and subsequently the idea behind all the major catalogue acquisitions of 2020 - comes from the belief that the music streaming economy will grow. More and more people will become a part of the music industry of ubiquity, but that also provides opportunities around the scarcity of ownership. 

Non-fungible tokens

In our recent update on blockchain in 2020 we dove into so-called ‘NFTs’. One week later, a digital artwork by Beeple sold for $777,777 on Nifty Gateway, a platform that makes it possible to own digital goods, making them scarce again. Days later, rapper Lil Yachty sold a digital collectible for $16,050 through the same platform. While earlier auctioned collectibles relied on being physical, such as the infamous single-copy Wu-Tang Clan album purchased by Martin Shkreli (the story of which is being turned into a movie on Netflix), the phenomenon has now gone digital.

Gated content

When Cardi B signed up to OnlyFans earlier this year, she announced it would be a place for only her and her fans. While doing stuff out in the open may get you fans and makes it easy for people to spread the word, gating content allows fans to feel like they’re accessing or are part of something special and helps the artist feel like they’re talking to their ‘true fans’. Cardi B and OnlyFans are far from the only examples. Membership models are rising in popularity through Patreon, Substack, and good old YouTube, among many others. If 2020 didn’t do so already, 2021 will see membership access models for artists go mainstream.

Corona: live/stream

The pandemic and the enforced lockdowns have accelerated many changes that were already bubbling right underneath the surface of the music industry for years. None of these accelerations went faster than with livestreaming. While the live music industry was decimated, livestreaming took centre stage. At first most everything was free and poorly produced but that thankfully changed and we’re now faced with ticketed events of high production value from major artists like Dua Lipa, Billie Eilish and BTS. Similarly, there are artists who started going live often with good productions and on a subscription basis (exhibit A being Melissa Etheridge) leaning hard into their superfans. Meanwhile, the return to live seems to creep further into 2021 as we flow from lockdown to lockdown. With the vaccines, there will surely be live concerts as we head into the second half of 2021 but how will they be organised? Thus, the double-headed beast of live, streaming events and in-person events, is the trend coming through pandemic 2021

The livestream will develop into an ever more interactive medium, both for fans and artists. There will be more productions that will include elements like BTS’ geotagged lightstick, the ARMY BOMB, during their Bang Bang Con virtual concert. Similarly, the way Billie Eilish provided engagement even the day before the show and pulled up 500 fans during one song as they were watching from behind their screen will be further developed to enhance interactions between artist and audience. Once live music returns these livestream events will remain a staple of the touring artist. Take, as an example, the Genesis Reunion tour, postponed twice due to the pandemic and now scheduled to start in April 2021. Let’s imagine for a moment this tour will go ahead, but the band has no interest in touring beyond the UK and Ireland. One full month of touring and most of the world is left without an option to attend. They can decide to bring a full camera and production crew to one of their gigs and film the whole thing as is. The other option is to take one extra date, create something more interactive and bring that as a live event around the world. Instead of 18 months of touring the globe, the band can perform once and ‘tour’ from one geofenced url to the next. This will be attractive to artists not eager to tour full time and to fans who are traditionally in geographical locations where most touring musicians don’t visit.

Pandemic, or even epidemic, in-person concerts will see new hygiene regimes enter the everyday vocabulary for concert- and festival-goers. We’ve reported before about the scientific trials taking place in Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain, among others. What these show is that a combination of rapid testing, staggered entry, mask-wearing, ventilation, and protocols pertaining to movement will become normal. You won’t have to decide whether you want to watch the support act, instead you’ll arrive at a very specific time to be able to enter a venue. Tickets will become just that little bit more expensive as the cost of the rapid test will be included in the price. It will be a long slog and hard work to put these types of events on and to attend them, perhaps also to perform them.

And, of course, tours could get cancelled. How the risk of cancellation will be attributed will be a spearpoint for 2021: artist, promotor, venue? What role will governments play? One of the reasons everything has been postponed is that this has deferred the losses that would have come from cancelling. At what point, however, will it become impossible to postpone a tour - again? As these risks become real as the year advances more governments will step in to make sure venues, promotors and artists alike will feel safe to plan events (Germany leading the way again). This type of risk deferral will look different for major artists and companies like Live Nation and AEG than for smaller artists and independent venues and promotors. The former rely on more long-term planning and have access to different types of funding (see AEG’s staff cuts and its owner’s loan). They will certainly be able to hold out one way or another until live and in-person events return. Smaller artists and independent venues will depend more heavily on support structures, both from governments and fundraising activities.

Sustainability: think local

Will sustainability be on anyone’s priority list in 2021 as many feel they’re making up for lost time, and revenue? Hard to answer, but it absolutely should be as our environmental crises are of an order of magnitude disproportionate to one pandemic. No music on a dead planet, as they say. Before the pandemic broke out, climate and the environment in general had a lot of momentum as topics in popular culture. This was, in part, due to movements like Extinction Rebellion and Fridays For Future, the latter of which spawned movements of school kids protesting weekly in countless cities all over the world. The latter has largely moved their protests online, while also trying to figure out pandemic-friendly protests offline that can easily be amplified through social media. While this cultural force has become momentarily less visible, it’s ready to mobilize as soon as it’s possible again.

While you can find an overview of initiatives and resources regarding this topic on MUSIC x GREEN, what we think you should be watching out for next year is the following:

Regional collaboration between the music sector, government, and other industries.

In many countries, but more specifically cities, we’ve been seeing various levels of cooperation and coordination between the music sector and (local) governments & institutions. This can be over restrictions and limitations, corona-proofing venues, scientific experiments, layoffs & furloughing, or bureaucratic aspects like insurances and cancellation. This relation should be preserved coming out of the pandemic in order to drive positive change around music & sustainability.

A prime example of this is Massive Attack’s work on decarbonising live music and coming to the conclusion that the primary partner for this are cities, rather than promoters or venues, because it’s about transport infrastructure, power, and waste. For this type of innovation & problem-solving, live events can be useful trials (as we’ve highlighted before). This echoes some of the thoughts put forth by Shain Shapiro, founder of Sound Diplomacy. In a multi-part series, Shapiro points out new trends in localism such as the 15-minute city and the fact that the music sector is as organised as it’s even been. Those are two very important ingredients to actionable change. While change is also anticipated in other areas, such as more artists employing more circular models for their merchandise, 2021 will be a year of disruption with a local focus being an easy way to counter risks, and an important opportunity for bringing about sustainable change.

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MUSIC x top 3s

Since bringing on Maarten as co-editor for MUSIC x CORONA (now MUSIC x) earlier this year, we moved on from daily curated newsletters full of links and perhaps some additional thoughts to something closer to the format MUSIC x TECH x FUTURE (now also MUSIC x) readers were already familiar with.

The result: a few months worth of weekly articles penned by either myself or Maarten. Below we have highlighted some of our favourite pieces by each other, in no particular order, to reflect on the year.

Top 3 pieces by Maarten Walraven

Picked by Bas

Pandemic past, present & future of livestreaming (Oct 22)

Maarten investigates the shift to monetized streams and highlights the long-term potential for livestreaming as a supplemental revenue stream for the music business. My favourite post-pandemic thought in the piece: artists that will emerge as virtual-first.

A playbook for musicians wanting to stay relevant in the age of audio-first (Dec 17)

I tried not to pick any pieces that came out very recently, but this one is a must-read. Maarten looks at the landscape shift from music streaming to audio streaming (music + podcasts, but also audio-only experiences like Clubhouse), what it means for engaging audiences, and how a UGC-strategy is the perfect fit.

Mental health and well-being: the second wave (Oct 15)

While we're keen on highlighting the higher level business implications of things, it's important not to dismiss the personal experience of everyone working in this industry of personalities. Mental health is important and far too often neglected - hence my addition to the top 3.

Top 3 pieces by Bas Grasmayer

Picked by Maarten

Better than real life: 8 generatives (August 3)

I feel this will be one of the reference articles for the future of livestreaming. Bas lays out how virtual concert events can stay relevant beyond a world in lockdown. First step: leverage the context of music. Of the 8 generatives the magical powers one sticks most for me as it really forces you to think of the potential of a virtual event beyond a live and in-person concert.

Music streaming as a protocol: why I was wrong about Audius (December 1)

First off, this article shows how much one can learn in the space of one week. Second, with this article Bas draws out how the online landscape doesn’t reflect the multiplicity of music. We need to start looking at various layers, peeling out a way to change the singular focus of the streaming economy: maximization of streams.

What BITKRAFT’s recent investments suggest about music’s future and the metaverse (August 11)

The metaverse is such an enticing concept, but also one that’s at risk of becoming meaningless as it’s hard to grasp specifically. What Bas does in this article is to explain how gaming and metaverses can impact how music will develop through practical examples. For example, BITKRAFT’s investment in Voicemod affects not just real-life artists who want to tune their voice, but also offers pre-programmed voices for virtual stars. The jump from virtual gaming environment to No. 1 hit record is suddenly much smaller.


✖ MUSIC x, founded by Bas Grasmayer and co-edited by Maarten Walraven.

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