Back in 1876, the only way you could listen to your favorite music was if it was being played live. That was life up until Thomas Edison revolutionized music consumption for the first time in history with the invention of the phonograph, a 10-inch, 78 RPM cylinder disc that could only contain about three minutes of music per side. Longer songs or collections often would be bound to a book that contained multiple discs leading to the birth of the term “record album.”
Thomas Edison had little to no competition up until the 1890s when the outdated cylinder became inferior to vinyl records. During this era, vinyl records gained popularity primarily due to the fact that they could be massed produced for much cheaper and they could contain around 20 minutes of music on each side as opposed to three minutes. This ultimately created higher profit margins for record distributors and a richer user experience for consumption.
The next milestone in the music consumption road map took place in the Twenties when the radio broadcasting industry began to gain popularity not too long after WWI ended. Prior to the war, Congress and many other prominent figures believed that radio should only be used for two-way communication as opposed to entertainment. Contrary to these beliefs, by 1930, it was reported that roughly 40 percent of Americans purchased radios but that number more than doubled that same decade. The first radios available were big and bulky but innovation in technology by the Sixties and Seventies led to more portable, compact radios being produced.
Following the radio rally was the 8-track and cassette tape era. The 8-track tape gave consumers the luxury of music on demand while being mobile. It was mass-adopted when a large number of cars were manufactured with 8-track players included during production. Cassette tapes emerged on the scene not too long after and took the music industry and the way we consume music by storm. The Sony Walkman allowed cassettes to outsell vinyl for the first time in 1983 and subsequently changed the dynamics for consumers’ user experience throughout the Eighties and Nineties.
Music takes a dive into the digital age with compact discs. Just a few years prior, magnetic tape data was read mechanically. CDs used a laser that bounced off the disc and transmitted a signal that was ultimately turned to sound. This was the beginning of the digital age of audio technology. The portable radio, car sound systems and the walkman prepped us for this digital era, but I don’t think consumers or creators were prepared for its trajectory. Fast forward to the present day where CDs were replaced by MP3s and now streaming services. Most consumers are playing music directly from their mobile devices.
Over the past few decades of music tech evolution, I’ve noticed a few patterns:
1. Change has usually been sanctioned by and largely for the benefit of industry tycoons.
2. Innovations in products have mainly been to complement consumers’ lives and increase production (sales) for big corporations.
3. There has largely not been any concern or innovations for the people who make music possible — the creators.
I, like many professionals in the space, believe blockchain technology is the new frontier for the music industry. Music has revolutionized the world, but the music industry has never been about “making sure the artist gets paid.” Up until this point, artists have not had the opportunity to have a voice in regard to payment protocols, but blockchain technology is changing that.
Remember Napster? From my perspective, blockchain technology and NFTs are currently doing the equivalent of what Napster did to the CD era. The future is bright for both artists and for consumers. Artists are set up to benefit off of their IP more than ever right now and that can benefit all parties involved. For artists, this means being able to easily distribute music to the blockchain, getting paid instantly without a third party, making money on royalties they set, directly connecting with more people and ultimately growing their fanbase. Consumer-wise, it means having authenticated direct access to all of your favorite musicians on the blockchain.
The main challenge blockchain technology is encountering in the music industry and almost every industry outside of tech is that many people just don’t understand it yet. Combined with the simultaneous rapid evolution of this intricate technology, the gap between the masses and mass adoption grows by the minute. Educating people on the full utility of blockchain technology in a “non-techie” vernacular is what I’ve noticed is needed dearly. People’s attention spans are shorter than ever and they want to learn things quickly and easily.
As industry leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators, our duty is to educate and engage while making it entertaining. The record labels need this education more than anyone. They are used to doing things “by the book,” but the book has been rewritten with lines of code. If just one of the major labels took the blockchain avenue, it could potentially trigger a domino effect by default once other labels see the potential actualized through performance.
As a community, developers in this space can make more collaborative efforts with big corporations by offering API integrations as a white label service as opposed to a branded offering. This allows these companies to be in the driver’s seat on the road built by blockchain technology. Blockchain is very costly to develop and barriers to entry in this industry are high for many competitors, so the key players need to form some sort of alliance to push the narrative.
The future of the music industry is a sector where artists are in control and fairly compensated for their art. Blockchain could usher in the music industry’s next evolution.