From vinyl to streaming, technology shapes how we listen to music


  • TECH
  • Tuesday, 15 Jan 2019

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While you're streaming the new 1975 album you got for Christmas or revisiting Pink Floyd's The Wall, it should be noted that Thomas Edison was the real music-consumption MVP. 

That's right, the electric light bulb inventor had the brilliant idea in 1877 to build the phonograph, the first method to reproduce recorded sounds, even though he had lost most of his hearing. 

That was more than 140 years ago. 

But what comes next? How will people consume music in the future? 

Fifty years ago when vinyl and radio were the main methods of consuming music, few could have predicted that people would one day be able to simply tap a mobile phone screen and stream songs. At the same time, in the present digital age, the recent surge in vinyl sales has also been a surprise. 

In November, Verizon and AT&T started selling the Red Hydrogen One smartphone, which includes a four-view holographic display that allows users to expand their field of view and add a "look around" quality to images. 

Holograms of artistes such as Michael Jackson and Tupac have performed live throughout recent years, and Vimeo currently has a new 3D camera interface that allows users to stream live 3D video (which requires a subscription to use the service). 

While holograms are slowly starting to break the surface in the world of music consumption, streaming, as popular as it currently is, isn't going away anytime soon. 

Tim Friedman, owner of Culture Clash Records in Toledo, said his shop would remain open if there is a post-streaming world in the future, but he believes streaming music will continue to be another part of the media landscape. 

He said despite this simple, convenient method of consumption, streaming doesn't challenge the experience of listening to music, or looking at the album's artwork, or reading the liner notes on a physical copy. 

"Buying and owning music has always been a little bit of an indicator of coolness, probably more for one's own self-being than what it actually means to anyone else," Friedman said. "Having the right and cool record, the right Zeppelin record in the '70s, having the best Michael Jackson tape in the '80s, having [an] *NSYNC CD in the '90s. These were indicators of being a part of something bigger. These were musical movements as with so many things, just being part of something larger than yourself." 

Rolling Stone recently published an article about 2018's year of streaming, with data obtained from BuzzAngle, which tracks music consumption. The article concluded that 1,000 of the most streamed songs of 2018 were listened to about 121.8 billion times. 

Steve Knopper, contributing editor for Rolling Stone, who also writes for Billboard, New York Times, and Variety, said he only sees streaming getting larger, especially as it spreads more thoroughly to China, India, Latin America, and elsewhere. 

"The record business is starting to boom again and will continue to do so as this happens, but major labels have to be wary of DIY tools that allow artists to get into Spotify without their help," Knopper told The Blade. "Streaming services are not behaving like radio where you need high-priced middlemen to grant access. They will disagree with this, but their influence may diminish as far as breaking new artistes. They will always be important due to catalogues, though." 

As for how people will consume their music in the future, he said that might already be happening with the increased interest and fascination with voice-activated speakers such as Amazon's Alexa, Google Home, and Apple's new Homepod. 

"I also wonder if Alexa and voice-activated speakers will become more and more dominant, especially when it becomes much easier in the car," Knopper said. "If you can get behind the wheel without pushing any buttons and say, 'Play Oops, I Did It Again and it always works, that's a powerful thing for drivers and consumers." 

Still, some might want to continue listening to music in a non-digital format. 

Friedman said with the constant bots tracking personal data online, there are still music fans who will want to consume music apart from a screen. 

"The reality is not being tied to something on the Internet or something that is generating data for ad sales directed at you," Friedman said. "That's not happening when you sit down and put on a piece of wax. You're having an experience close to the artistes and musicians who put that together." 

Matt Donahue, lecturer in the popular culture department at Bowling Green State University, said music fanatics will continue to enjoy physical copies as collectibles. 

"I think the physical product is still going to be hugely popular," Donahue said. "Vinyl sales will continue to go up. Now you've got the novelty of the cassette going on. It clearly won't reach the level of what was going on in the 1980s when cassettes were hugely popular. [Now cassettes exist] more in terms of a gimmick ... a novelty." 

He said the fast pace in technology shifts will play a key part in how music is consumed in as little as a few years from now. 

"This stuff is so technologically driven," Donahue said. "You can buy a brand new car and you can't get a compact disc [player] in your vehicle. Back in the day, there used to be cassette players in your car, and you would want the best player. It's interesting to see how all of these changes are driven from technology." 

Friedman said it's difficult to imagine what might come once music streaming dies out, or even if that will ever happen, but there will remain people who decide to opt out of the digital sphere. 

"The reality is that vinyl is still coming back, and while I have no idea if that's a bubble that is going to burst, I think the reality is we have larger market issues to be concerned about as a country and throughout the globe," Friedman said. "When I think about the world and consumerism and capitalism, I have no idea what's going to happen. 

"I know there will be people like myself who will want to a bury their head in the sand and listen to a record and share that record and talk with people about that and how it made them feel. Being a part of something and sharing something greater, I think everybody is going to be looking smaller than we have [been], shopping smaller, supporting local businesses, and being wary of [places like] Amazon." 

For now, streaming music seems to be the newest, most convenient method of listening to your favourite songs, a medium that promises to be around for a long time. 

"Music is turning into water. It streams into our homes constantly," Knopper said. "You don't have to organise it by albums. My daughter hears songs she likes all over the place and sticks them on playlists and just always streams her playlist every waking second. She doesn't care about albums or catalogues. 

"There will be this type of consumer, and another more casual one who wants somebody else to pick the playlist radio style. 

"We will always be streaming." – The Blade/Tribune News Service

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