The future just won’t leave us alone.
Automobiles are driving themselves, robots are vacuuming our floors and as of last month, drones have begun delivering Amazon packages around rural England in 30 minutes or less. It’s enough to inspire a Luddite to seek out a quiet, pastoral life under a biodome on Mars.
But it isn’t only the menial jobs that are being stripped from laborers in the name of convenience. Those who fancy themselves working musicians have also suffered through decades of technological advancements, including synthesized instruments, home-recording suites and humankind’s darkest achievement since the atom bomb: Auto-Tune. Even still, if our democratized musical gadgetry seemed to offer one promise, it was that us humans would always be the authors of our music and machines would always be the instruments through which we achieved it. That promise was broken in 2016 with AI-generated pop.
This year will continue what has become the slow death of popular, handmade music. And since the arbitrary “death rule of threes” is always in play, 2017 will also kill the way we experience concerts: by anchoring us to the comforts of our own homes and commodifying dead celebrities in record time.
The Rise of Robo-Pop
If the great-great-granddaughter of Taylor Swift and her faithful cyborg, Madonna, are ever going to save Top-40 pop stars from their eventual extinction, they might want to fly a time machine — presumably public transportation in their dystopian, MTV-less world — back to 2016 and infiltrate Sony’s Computer Science Laboratory in Paris. Their target: Flow Machines.
Last fall, the artificial intelligence software wrote its first pop song, a Beatles knockoff called “Daddy’s Car.” The program’s songwriting method, like most pop, relies on emulating artists of a particular genre and “exploiting unique combinations of style transfer, optimization and interaction techniques,” according to the Sony CSL website. It’s Muzak to the ears of those corporate execs looking to cut out the middle-musician and the beginning of a horrible dream for singularity-phobes and big market songwriters, producers and sound engineers.
And while Flow Machines hasn’t reached Deep Blue status yet (the likes of Beyoncé and Justin Bieber should win the proverbial pop chess match for years to come), the budding musician seemingly has enough material — an infinite amount, to be exact — to drop its first LP this year. Aesthetically, the album won’t be any less painful than the fender bender that is “Daddy’s Car,” but the novelty of the whole ordeal should propel a viral single up the charts. To wit, 2017 will be a banner year for robo-pop.
Virtual reality will take root with 2017 concert series.
Citi, Live Nation and NextVR recently partnered to produce a 10-part virtual reality concert series that will extend into the better part of 2017. The timing feels important, especially with a late surge in sales of virtual reality devices over the holiday season.
Being that the reality beyond is still a wilderness of untapped potential, there’s going to be a lot of consumers with headsets who’ll have very little to experience this winter. Expect NextVR to post positive “attendance” numbers, which it’ll parlay into a record-setting, signature event by year’s end (probably Beyoncé, who else?)
VR concerts, depending on the equipment involved, promise immersive experiences that allow viewers to survey a venue-scape with full autonomy. For example, if watching the crowd is your thing, all you have to do is turn your head. It’s virtually reality.
Side bet: The VR headset will eventually rival the Bluetooth earpiece as the douchiest wearable piece of tech.
The dead won’t miss a beat.
When Prince tragically passed away in his Paisley Park elevator last April, many looked to the innovators at Hologram USA for a miracle. Their prayer: to resurrect the freshly buried star with the use of light magic.
The company, if you’ll recall, brought 2Pac back to life at Coachella in 2012 and is primed to take the late great Whitney Houston on the road in 2017. As for Prince, Hologram USA CEO Alki David told The Wrap last April that his company would “be honored to celebrate the Sexy Motherfucker in every way.”
The question remains: How soon is too soon to hologramize the recently deceased? This isn’t a moral question, as hologram technology is essentially 3D TV. Rather, it’s a question of taste. I anticipate the Prince estate will find a year to be ample time to mourn. I also can’t help imagining a scenario where a musician of Prince’s caliber passes away this year and inks a deal with Hologram USA by December.
And perhaps in five years, hologram likenesses will perform at their own funerals. But I’ll save that one for 2022.
(Music Visions of 2017)
by Tim McMahan
Now that we have 2016 out of the way, here comes my giant pet rat wearing a wizard’s hat, rolling a crystal ball into my office for my 2017 predictions. But before we get to that, let’s take a look at how I did with last year’s forecast:
2016 Prediction: With music streaming replacing radio as the new music promotional model, the goal is getting songs added to streaming playlists that have the most followers. It’s all about getting the attention of DJs, curators and social media “influencers” with large followings. Labels are now hiring reps that do just that.
Reality: “Influencer” has become an accepted job qualification on LinkedIn. It’s a sad world we live in.
2016 Prediction: Streaming live performances will become a thing. Apps like Periscope give anyone with a smartphone an opportunity to share a live performance.
Reality: Who hasn’t been annoyed by notifications that so-and-so is live on Facebook, only to click the link and see someone’s poorly shot smartphone video of their favorite band on stage?
2016 Prediction: This is the year that vinyl crosses the line from interesting novelty to serious revenue stream, as it becomes second nature for labels and musicians to consistently produce vinyl versions for their latest albums.
Reality: Fortune said in April that vinyl record sales were at a 28-year high, but there are cracks on the surface…
2016 Prediction: Watch as more online services (including Facebook) get into the streaming music business, forcing Spotify and Apple to figure out ways to gain bigger market share, ultimately cutting the price of premium streaming services in half (or lower).
Reality: The price of streaming hasn’t dropped, but keep an eye on this one…
2016 Prediction: It’s not unusual that Tom Jones will take his final bow this year.
Reality: Everyone’s favorite 76-year-old crooner opened the Dubai Jazz Festival last month.
2016 Prediction: As costs continue to rise and income continues to shrink for record labels, watch as small and mid-sized indie labels consolidate in an effort to share resources and broaden their reach.
Reality: Not yet.
2016 Prediction: A long-time music reporter and Nebraska music scene fixture will either retire or get a new assignment.
Reality: Nope (and I wasn’t talking about myself).
2016 Prediction: Small and mid-sized indie shows will detour to small venues like Milk Run, Lookout Lounge and O’Leaver’s, who will become de facto outlets for all things indie.
Reality: Knitting Factory took over Slowdown’s booking, and 1% reduced its indie bookings, making these small clubs even more important to indie music fans.
2016 Prediction: Bands we’ll be talking about this time next year: My Bloody Valentine, Beck, PJ Harvey, Matthew Sweet, Green Day, The Arcade Fire, Stephen Malkmus/Pavement, The Faint, Warpaint and Spoon. Bands we won’t be talking about: Kendrick Lamar, Kanye, Taylor Swift, Drake, Kurt Vile, Adele, Beach House, Lana Del Rey and U2.
Reality: We’re still waiting for those Matthew Sweet, Beck and Arcade Fire albums, but The Faint put out a new collection and PJ Harvey just announced a national tour.
2016 Prediction: The next network appearance by a Nebraska performer will again involve Conor Oberst, as we welcome the return of Bright Eyes. Will Conor finally make it on SNL? Wait and see…
Reality: Conor played Kimmel in October, but not as Bright Eyes. SNL remains elusive.
So: 6 for 10 by my math, a barely passing grade. Now onto 2017:
Prediction: This is an obvious one: With the inauguration of Donald Trump and the rise of the political right, a country that’s enjoyed social and cultural growth under eight years of Barack Obama will turn back the clock on years of social progress. But as the saying goes, bad politics makes great art. And while hip-hop has held the banner for protest music for the past 30 or 40 years, indie rock and folk will finally get into the action. Most indie artists will write at least one controversial song this year, but don’t look for these protest songs on the pop charts.
Prediction: The constant erosion of the music industry and the rise in streaming are finally taking their toll on artists who can no longer afford to record and tour. The only solution is what works so well in Europe and Canada — a system where artists receive some sort of subsidy that will allow them to perform their craft. Maybe it’s in the form of grants from non-profit organizations; maybe it’s a change in tax laws that allow musicians to become ad hock non-profit orgs themselves; or maybe it’s a system of patronage similar to what supports starving artists. Whatever the answer, it has to come soon or the only independent musicians we’ll have left will be weekend hobbyists.
Prediction: Hear Nebraska will emerge in 2017 bigger and stronger than ever, with programs that are even more artist-focused than in the past. It’ll be part of an overall maturation — fiscally and culturally — for an organization that’s been around since 2010. And just to be clear: this will not be the result of myself — one of Hear Nebraska’s original board members — stepping down from the board at the end of 2016 (though it couldn’t hurt).
Prediction: As One Percent Productions continues to diversify its bookings with a broader selection of artists but fewer indie shows, and with Slowdown being booked by Knitting Factory, more quasi-independent booking agents will emerge to help finance the booking of touring indie shows at local clubs. Some of these new promoters will be organizers with connections. Others will be people with money who want to get involved, understanding that it’s cheaper to help finance the shows than traveling out of state to see bands they love.
Prediction: You’ve seen the commercials for cheap virtual reality devices from tech manufactures like Samsung, right? As this technology becomes more available (especially on smart phones), there will be a revolution in how VR is used in the music industry. And it’ll be more than just VR music videos (Icky Blossoms released one last year). Watch as VR integrates into live performances, allowing people to feel like they’re at live rock shows while standing in their underwear in their bedrooms.
Prediction: This could be the year we see a sort of “singularity” with streaming, where so many people will be listening to streaming services that record labels and artists will finally begin to see real incomes from having their music hosted online (not unlike how film studios make money from HBO and Netflix). That’s always been the vision; however, the revenue generated from streaming, especially for indie labels, will continue to be a fraction of what labels made from physical sales 20 years ago.
Prediction: After reaching a 28-year high, vinyl sales will finally hit the ceiling this year, either leveling off or falling compared to the last couple of years’ numbers. Driving this will be a combination of things, including a lack of new customers, high prices and a slowing economy. As a result, labels will finally be forced to reduce prices, but those reductions won’t matter.
Prediction: You’ve heard of mix tapes, mix CDs and, of course, Spotify playlists? This year someone will offer the ability to create your own mix vinyl album. Users will be able to select from a catalog of songs, place them in any order they choose, and then receive a vinyl version of that playlist, along with a personalized album sleeve. Pricey? You bet.
Prediction: Too many legends died in 2016. It’s time for me to take a year off from my dead pool prediction. This year no one leaves this earthly plane.
Predictions: Bands we’ll be talking about this time next year: Black Keys, Algiers, LCD Sound System, Arcade Fire, Beck, Father John Misty, Monsters of Folk, Jenny Lewis, St. Vincent, Matt Whipkey, Spoon, Courtney Barnett, High Up, Nine Inch Nails, Little Brazil, and friggin’ U2. Bands we won’t be talking about: Kanye, Bright Eyes, Lady Ga Ga, The Rolling Stones, Phil Collins, Metallica, Morrissey, Beyoncé and R.E.M.
Prediction: While no local act will make his or her way onto a national television broadcast for a live performance, one local band will hit pay dirt in 2017 with a licensing deal that results in hearing their song in heavy rotation — via a TV commercial. Talk about striking it rich…