This story appears in Rolling Stone‘s 2021 Future of Music issue, a special project delving into the next era of the multibillion-dollar hitmaking business. Alongside our reporting, we invited four star artists to share their own predictions on the music industry’s wild next era. Read the other stories here.
Mike Shinoda is the rare musician who has had one foot in the music business the whole time. The other has been on the guitar pedal: Since 1996, Shinoda has recorded and performed as the lead vocalist and instrumentalist of rock band Linkin Park, which he co-founded. But he’s also, in that time, put out a hip-hop project, painted artwork that was hung in the Japanese American National Museum, designed shoe collaborations, launched a record label, and worked with tech companies to engineer ahead-of-their-time, user-personalized features for Linkin Park album releases.
Shinoda, 44, was most recently announced as an investor in Authentic Artists, a seed-stage, AI-powered virtual-artist platform — yes, that is a platform for fictional, digitally-created artists — that just unveiled 12 prototypes ranging from a “lo-fi loving cyborg” to a “high-octane, half-iguana DJ.” The startup’s other backers include James Murdoch and execs from Roblox and Microsoft, and Shinoda lights up when talking about it: “The songs it’s outputting, generated in seconds, already sound like something it took a human weeks or months to do,” he says. He spoke with Rolling Stone about the next breed of social-media celebrity, the feedback loop of chasing virality, the buzziness of cryptocurrency and NFTs, and where the whole global industry around him might be hurtling to, next.
Tell me about how, and why, you made the leap from music to the business of music.
Every album — each time we [Linkin Park] went in to record — there was new technology that allowed us to do new things. Every time we launched a record, there were new tools. New software we could use to have fun with our fans. On one album, A Thousand Suns, we put out stems of music before the fans had even heard the song, allowed fans to remix the song they’d never heard, and put the winner on our album. We did a sandbox video-game video for “Guilty All the Same” off of our Hunting Party album.
For “Lost in the Echo,” we made a video which scraped your Facebook information — people didn’t even know how much personal data had been obtained by Facebook — and when you watched it, your personal photos and stuff from your life and history would show up in the video. People were like, “what the hell’s going on here?”
It always felt natural for me to go deeper into technologies and get closer to founders of companies that I thought were doing cool things. I started talking to a lot of companies that make the software we use. I was able to do everything from being a part of Spotify’s entry into the U.S. to investing to being involved in Y Combinator and Techstars. It’s something I”m passionate about, and I feel I learn a lot just being in the mix.
So what are some technological shifts you see happening in music’s future?
I think there’s a shift happening from large groups to smaller scale. We’re already prioritizing a more direct and focused relationship in a fanbase, where it’s more about closer connection over quantity. People are overloaded with the pressures and annoyances of the current version of social media. We’re tired of it. I think we’re headed deeper into tribalism.
For a long time we’ve been taught that more followers and likes is better. But maybe we’ll start to move away from that. Friends of mine are congregating on messaging apps like DM, WhatsApp, Telegram, instead of Twitter. I have friends who put together weekly Zooms where anyone that is a friend of friend can join. And that’s one reason Clubhouse is becoming popular, because the pressure of sitting in front of your entire follower base and saying something, all of those people chattering… it’s a very annoying way to live.
Even our best efforts to just say “Hey I care about this thing I saw on the news!” gets mired in bullshit very quickly. And I think we’re all so sick of it.
If you move toward tribalism, as an artist, don’t you jeopardize a core mission of growing your fanbase bigger and bigger?
At one point, our band was bringing people to Facebook because it was growing and people followed us over from Myspace. Then, Facebook said, “you’re the biggest band on Facebook, so it’s going to be the cost of a Super Bowl ad every time you want to post and reach 100% of your fans.” And we were in shock and said, “how many fans will we reach if we don’t pay?” They said less than 20 percent or 10 percent.
I think artists will decide that a company or algorithm shouldn’t decide for you what you should or shouldn’t see. I think we have a problem not being allowed to communicate with others who’ve asked to see us.
If a third party contributes value, then they’ll be welcome into the equation. But 2030, 2070, way off into the future… part of the promise of Web 3.0, the next version of the internet, is that via decentralization, we’ll be able to move out of the system where we are the product getting monetized, and into a version where we have more control over our information and the ways in which we interact with people.
“I expect NFTs are chapter one in a very long story of blockchain-related product; we’re not going to be selling JPEGs in 24 months, right? I imagine that’s a tool that gets used to create a more direct-to-fan relationship”
What other ways do you see the artist-fan relationship changing?
To use one example: I expect NFTs are chapter one in a very long story of blockchain-related product; we’re not going to be selling JPEGs in 24 months, right? I imagine that’s a tool that gets used to create a more direct-to-fan relationship.
If I’m a fan and I give a dollar to an artist, I don’t want somebody else to take parts of that dollar — I want them to have that dollar. I think we’ll work our way more towards that.
Is a small, passionate fanbase enough to make a living, though? A major criticism of streaming services right now, for example, is that their business models are a bad deal for anyone but the biggest artists.
I think you pointed at more than one issue. The first thing is about impatience, and the time and effort and focus it takes to hone your craft and get really good at it. I realize everybody wants everything to work the first time and to be famous right away, but that’s not realistic. My daughter said “I love acting and I want to be an actor,” and I said, “Well that’s great,” because the focus isn’t “I want to be in a movie” or “I want people to be watching me.” The focus is “How do I get really good at my craft.”
The second thing: building momentum in an ecosystem. If you’re talented and you’ve put the time in, you’ll be prepared when something starts to happen. You’ll also have the information you need — marketing, visual art, finding the right partners, friendships with folks who work together in a communal style. That points back to the tribalism. It’s a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats mentality. And by keeping it insulated, and you’re a team now, a collective rather than a person off in the seas of music by yourself.
Also, I think one thing I expect to continue is that software is gonna do even more jobs that people used to do. I’m not saying all our songs are going to be created entirely by AI, but I do think jobs like engineering and mixing and mastering will be fewer and far between. Today, you can pop a plug-in in your vocal track and it will analyze it and choose settings, reverb, compression, to make it sound great. That will just continue to get better. You can pop plugins in something and it will get your album ready without the help of a human to do it.
AI for example is already writing compelling music. I’m working with a company called Authentic Artists making spectacular virtual artists where the music gets made from scratch in real-time. The songs it’s outputting, generated in seconds, already sound like something it took a human weeks or months to do.
To be clear, I don’t think humans are gonna be driven out of music by the robots. I just think the human artists will make decisions about what sounds best to them by using software. And just like the reliance on a professional recording studio has become less important to make a great selling song, the reliance on people associated with those environments is going to become less important.
Can algorithms replace A&R?
Well, that’s already happening. I think the current trends in music are actually, right now, being more driven by algorithms than they are by people. And if fans and the labels like that approach, then it will continue to be that way.
By and large, humans right now are not taking chances on other humans and putting in the money and time to develop them and make them a star. Will it continue to occur? Yes, unless people decide to bring back the development of talent and only sign stuff that feels good to them regardless of trend.
In music you see this largely unspoken rule, in English-speaking countries, that you’re out of music by your 20s. Generally nobody wants to sign people who are not in their teens. In Japan, you can’t find a respected young sushi chef, because it just goes without saying that the longer you practice at a craft, the more of a master you become — but, it’s too bad, that seems at odds with the current approach in music.
I feel AI A&R wouldn’t have picked Billie, Kanye, Lady Gaga. Of course once it’s trending, algorithms can track the numbers and identify trends, but they will never see a trend before it starts to happen because there’s no data to be had and no numbers to look at.
What do you think of the rise of DIY artists? Are more people going to try to make it on their own?
So, DIY means different things to different people. The Billie Eilish DIY is very different from the Brockhampton DIY, or the RAC DIY. As an artist, it’s important to really reflect on what your goals are — today, next week, in 10 years. And if an opportunity shows up that feels like it is in line with those things, then great. That’s a thing an algorithm won’t replicate: instinct and emotion.
If you can do everything completely on your own and that’s the highest quality of your art, then why wouldn’t you do that? If you require collaboration to do the highest quality thing, then get over your ego and go talk to those people, right? But do not let somebody jump in between you and capitalize on your laziness or procrastination and then have somebody else say, you know, you’ll be bigger, more popular, you’ll get to more audiences if you just let me handle all your stuff, or just submit to this program we’ve created.
Every artist I know has been in a position of not knowing what they were doing. I was in that position. And somebody believed in them and said, Hey, why don’t we get you in a studio or get you a computer? Why don’t you pick up a guitar, write some of those ideas down?
You don’t even have to know how to play an instrument at first, these days.
That’s true. But I think musicality and music training still do matter. Like, you won’t have an artist that has nobody around them who understands what they’re doing. Somebody in the chain knows what they’re doing.
And who would you rather be, the person who sat in their room at 18 and made a song but has never played live in their life? Or would you rather be the exact same person but have spent a year grinding it out at parties, on stage, whatever, and when you get up on stage you know what you’re doing, you’re comfortable with it? That’s the part of craftsmanship that matters.