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Starting a Band in 2040

Forget jamming in a garage–when the next generation starts to make music, it'll enter an upside-down industry

8 min read

A band on stage in silhouette, jamming together.
Image credit: Marcisio
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In the first week of September 2015, U.S. pop singer Halsey scored a top 10 album in the U.K. charts–but her music had never been played on British radio. Like most artists who emerge as if out of nowhere, her “overnight success” actually took years. The difference this time, though, was that her entrance into the music industry didn’t follow the traditional route.

Her rise began with parody songs recorded under her real name, Ashley Frangipane, and uploaded to YouTube as a 16-year-old. One in particular–taking aim at Taylor Swift’s relationship with One Direction’s Harry Styles–scored her a viral hit. Although she may now distance herself somewhat from that period in her career, it brought her an early fanbase (largely of sympathetic 1D fans), which she slowly grew by also blogging and talking with her followers on social media.

She did this while developing her music behind the scenes, all the while pushing a reconfigured persona. As a result, when she put her debut single, “Ghost,” on SoundCloud, she already had a following in the thousands. Her carefully cultivated popularity was just what record labels were looking for–she signed with the Universal-owned Astralwerks and put out her debut album, Badlands, in August 2015, which both sold well and gave off the air of an out-of-nowhere newcomer. But, of course, she wasn’t.

This is just one example of the acceleration of a very recent trend. As record label budgets have shrunk considerably over the last 15 years, bosses are less willing to invest in lots of acts simultaneously in the hope that one sticks and pays for the duds. Now, when a label signs an act, it expects that the performer arrives with a fanbase already in tow.

Though it sounds like more work for musicians, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. If the new performers of today are sharp enough to spot what’s happening, there’s a chance that the music industry of 2040 will see artists, not the middlemen, in charge. And that’s not the only change that’s coming.

A person playing an electric guitar.

So, it’s 2040 and you want to start making music. You vaguely remember your grandparents saying that back in their day you didn’t even need to be able to play an instrument. Just grab a guitar, a few like-minded friends, commandeer a garage, and start bashing out some noise.

Seems like a lot of hard work, you think, as you output the music in your head to your biometric computer and immediately make it available to the rest of the globe’s networked brains.

I’ve kind of upset myself imagining that future, so we’re off to a rocky start. Though it is true that technology has made the creation of music easier over the last 10, 20, even 100 years, the real joy of music is the way it connects people. So I’m going to hope and assume that 25 years from now people will still be actively making music together.

The allure of standing in a room and making noise is a strong one–but teenagers looking to let off some steam are increasingly likely to create music on smartphones, bouncing it across the internet to collaborators who could be down the street or across the sea. While bashing away at six strings might seem like a rite of passage, the myriad options for how to generate music offer a world of new ways to be creative.

For those in search of something a bit more hands on, various musicians and designers are busy developing instruments of the future, like the GePS data glove, which tracks the movements of your hands; the buildacode music programming blocks that teach music programming; and Jonathan Sparks’s Nomis for constructing loop-based music.

Many of these are still in the prototype stage, but as time progresses more will become commercially available and quite affordable.

A tambourine.

Once you’ve made it out of the garage, live performances are where the connection between artist and fan is at its strongest. And over the next 25 years, developments in technology will further boost this relationship.

In many ways, touring is the most “analogue” part of a musician’s job to survive. A major band can be on the road for two years or more, often removing the group from the creative process (unless you want a load of songs about how tough life is on a tour bus).

Coldplay chose not to tour its last album, Ghost Stories–”one of the best decisions we ever made,” said Chris Martin recently–and Halsey told the NME earlier this year: “I’m not Led Zeppelin, I don’t need to tour a country to get support there. The internet is a global narrative.”

She might not be enamored with the idea of endless travel to reach her audience, but Halsey does perform live (and recently sold out Madison Square Garden), opting for one-off shows in countries where she’s gained support. That’s great, but the internet’s “global narrative” is going to make it an expensive pastime, as acts around the world find more and more fans farther afield.

The Japanese music industry has long been a very insular one. Domestic success and high revenues meant artists–particularly mainstream artists–didn’t need to look abroad to build a fanbase and income. But that is changing, as Japan’s revenues begin to fall and artists now want to make it at least as far as Europe.

“The biggest barrier is the huge cost involved,” said Tom Smith, who runs JPU Records, a London-based label that works with Japanese artists. “Flying a band and its entourage (and Japanese bands love to bring everyone, even down to makeup and hair stylists) halfway around the world isn’t cheap. Plus accommodation for everyone. I’ve known some bands to sell out venues here and still experience a loss.”

The first time J-pop group Perfume performed in London, the members offset the cost by streaming their performance in the 2000-capacity Shepherds Bush Empire back to cinemas in Japan, where around 45,000 people watched the show. That’s not really an option open to many acts, though the idea of taking the show to people who can’t physically get to it is one worth sticking with.

While you really can’t beat the full, live experience of getting pummeled in the chest by a massive sound system while smelling the sweat dripping off the walls, concerts are typically limited by a venue’s location and the number of people physically able to squeeze inside it. The band of 2040 will be able to perform in places it can’t get to, or even in multiple rooms simultaneously.

Watching a show at home today probably means a YouTube livestream on a laptop display, which isn’t exactly the most immersive experience. But that will all change with virtual reality. This technology could be revolutionary for live music. Watching through a headset could provide something far closer to actually being there. (Maybe without the smell of sweat, though the jury’s still out on whether that’s really a positive asset.)

Alternatively, technology is developing ways for performers to appear in venues where there’s an audience even when the artists can’t get get there, due either to distance or mortality.

Another Japanese pop star, Hatsune Miku, takes this to the extreme by never having existed in the first place. Originally designed as a mascot for vocal generation software Vocaloid, she appears on stage as a hologram (really just an image projected onto angled glass, making it appear three-dimensional). This brings with it its own constraints for touring, but she did support Lady Gaga on the singer’s 2014 U.S. tour.

Another “virtual” act, Gorillaz, used this technology in the past; we’ve even seen it bring artists from Tupac Shakur to Freddie Mercury back from the dead. However, perhaps its most interesting application is for real and still living artists.

Earlier this year, rapper Chief Keef performed at a show in Indiana, while actually standing on a sound stage in Beverly Hills, outstanding arrest warrants stopping him from being there in person. Sadly, his lack of a physical presence didn’t stop the police from turning up and “switching him off” after just one song.

As virtual reality technology like this becomes standard in music venues, it’ll become something that more and more artists use. Live music might become more of a tiered system, where listeners pay a premium to be in the same room as an artist, but no one will be locked out of watching the show in some form or another.

A microphone.

The question still remains, though: How will musicians fund the development and promotion of their careers? Since the mid-1900s (and arguably before then, too), record labels have had most of the control over the music we hear. That’s been changing over the last 15 years or so, but they still wield a lot of power–because they’re still the main investors in new artists. It takes a considerable amount of cash to push a mainstream pop star onto an unsuspecting public. The downside for the artist is that the label’s support draws the performer into a bureaucratic, controlling web.

“It has started changing and will continue to despite many wanting to maintain the status quo,” said Jon Webster, president of the Music Managers Forum, the industry body that represents music managers. “Recordings will always be an artist’s calling card, but as a share of the income of an artist’s business, the percentage is falling and will probably continue to do so.”

The structure of the old industry has caused big problems for the transition to something new. Whenever artists complain that Spotify is not paying them enough, the streaming service has countered that the problem lies within their record contract, as well as the number of middlemen their royalties flow through to get to them.

Many in both the artist and industry communities are calling for change on this point–an increasing number pointing to the blockchain, the technology that underpins Bitcoin, as the key to a fairer system. The theory is that the blockchain will allow for a more efficient royalty payment system, without the losses and blockages that currently occur in a system of middlemen lodged between the listener and the artist.

Various companies are working to harness this, as are some individual musicians like Imogen Heap, who recently spoke to How We Get To Next about releasing music to help develop a new system for automatically making sure artists get paid when other musicians cover their work live.

Being properly paid for your recordings is one thing, but that doesn’t overcome the need for investment in your development as an artist. There needs to be “financial investment from outside of the normal sources, which is also beginning to happen through things like SEED/EIS schemes,” said Webster.

As well as private investment, financing through partnerships with brands is another alternative–and one that’s becoming an important source of support. There’s plenty of money to be had for specific, new music-related projects for artists at all levels. Even at the top end of the industry, external money often helps to cover costs–from the heavy product placement in Lady Gaga and Beyonce’s “Telephone” video in 2010 to Samsung sponsoring Rihanna’s upcoming album release and tour.

Alternative ways of funding and maintaining a career in music mean artists will have more choice when it comes to deciding what they want to give up in return for a share of what they create.

A close-up of the read/write head on a cassette tape.

What is clear is that there is an increasing number of opportunities ahead, both creatively and financially, for artists. It’s unlikely that groups of friends will ever stop bashing out songs in garages around the world, but the ones who build a successful business and brand around themselves will be those who promote to a wider audience.

There will, of course, continue to be bands that allow record companies to come to them, to create and shape them artistically. That is to say, the “manufactured band” will still be alive and well in 2040. But for the most part, the more engaged musicians are in the industry, the more likely it is to become a fairer and more creative place for them.

It may be true that the days of the rock star are dying, which many lament. But for musicians who traditionally played the role of rebels, only in it to play their songs and stick it to The Man, the current opportunity to become The Man could be revolutionary. The musician has always been at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to the business. Even a music industry campaign aiming to educate the public on why piracy is a bad thing confirmed this in a short film telling the story of how Robert Johnson was screwed over and died penniless.

It will not be an easy or quick process–there is plenty of old music industry to be undone, as well as new systems to be built–but the musician of 2040 will be one who controls his or her whole business, performs live to fans around the world without ever having to get on a plane, and has to find someone other than the music industry to complain about in the lyrics of their third album. I guess critics will still be around.

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How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Fast Forward section, which examines the relationship between music and innovation. Click the logo to read more.