Predicting is a slippery business. We can spot trends and have a general idea where things are going, but how can we accurately predict? Is it worth the effort? Alvin Toffler said that “No serious futurist deals in prediction,” while Warren Ellis stays out of the game as “it’s a quick way to look like an idiot.”
For example, in the ’90s, there were plenty of yearly predictions, but few that foresaw the approaching tsunami of the internet, soon to wipe away the music industry. Some accurate predictions, or at least ones that the powers-that-be would listen to, would have been helpful. Instead, there were a lot of ‘idiots.’1I didn’t see the tsunami coming, either.
David Bowie was known for his prescience, and he wasn’t afraid to casually lay down a prediction or two. After all, it’s the seasoned player — but one open to changing possibilities rather than in resistance or denial — who has great insight on the future. The young are often seduced by the new, while nostalgia binds the oldsters. But some are like Bowie, using tradition and history as lenses for viewing technological disruption.
Here’s what David Bowie told the New York Times in 2002:
“Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity … So it’s like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again. You’d better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that’s really the only unique situation that’s going to be left. It’s terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn’t matter if you think it’s exciting or not; it’s what’s going to happen.”
The idea seems quaint now but, in 2002 — the age of Friendster! — Bowie’s words were a shot across the bow. The most radical part is his acceptance, a confidence that the genie is loose, and the bottle is rolling down a hill. Only a few in the industry felt this way. Instead, there was the grasping, the hanging on, the desire to extend the status quo of inflated compact disc profits.
Some more from Bowie:
“ I don’t even know why I would want to be on a label in a few years, because I don’t think it’s going to work by labels and by distribution systems in the same way,” he said. ”The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music will take place within 10 years, and nothing is going to be able to stop it. I see absolutely no point in pretending that it’s not going to happen. I’m fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years, and authorship and intellectual property is in for such a bashing.”
Again, crazy talk for 2002. Of course, copyright does still exist, but Bowie wasn’t too far off. The magnitude of user-generated content and YouTube’s use of ‘safe harbor’ under the DMCA was unforeseeable, from a copyright perspective, in 2002. It turns out Napster was the pre-show.
But this disruption isn’t total. That’s why it’s wise to listen to voices that can look back and understand how technological developments fit within longstanding traditions. We can change how we listen to music, but we’re still listening to music in the same way. We can change how we make music, but we’re still essentially making music in the same way. Our incentives remain untouched by the march of progress.
Looking forward is important for reasons of preparation and, as my friend Craig says, “going where the puck’s headed instead of simply chasing the puck.” But we should always remember why we’re here. Despite all the talk of AI and VR and which tech company is acquiring a different tech company, we want to love music. We want to get excited and tell our friends and exist in this music universe as social beings. David Bowie is right that changes are happening whether we like it or not. But the exciting part is working out how these changes bring us together as music fans. To lose sight of why we’re here is as misguided as chasing the genie’s bottle down that hill.
With that in mind, I participated in SynchTank’s Trends to Watch in 2020 (‘trends,’ not ‘predictions’), joined by three industry pundits of serious smartness. Bucking Ellis and his quote above, their predictions are wise and thought-out, and their proximity to my opinion certainly helps my case.
I’ve been thinking a lot about social media and an artist’s fealty to corporate platforms. My contribution to the Trends piece reflects this and combines prediction with a dose of wishful thinking:
Over the past decade, artists and labels — using technological tools — have become increasingly independent, capturing control and ownership of publishing, masters, and avenues of distribution. But independent marketing fell into the trojan horse of social media, with many artists exclusively relying on the likes of Facebook to get the message out. The keys to discoverability were firmly in the hands of a new crop of corporate gatekeepers.
Undesirable actions by these platforms — such as algorithmically cutting access to fans and unrepentant involvement in political and privacy scandals — started opening eyes to the pitfalls of this reliance. Displeasure continues to grow as these companies fight back by further segmenting audiences and requiring even larger ‘boosts’ to reach one’s fans. The 2020 election — a looming social media shit-show — will move this dissatisfaction even more into the mainstream.
Thus, independent artists are increasingly introducing homegrown strategies that are entirely within their control. We see this in the rising talk of reclaiming fandom, direct support of artists, and the importance of individual ‘stories.’ And we see new twists on old concepts. Email lists, creative artist sites, blogs, localized grassroots outreach — tactics that predated social media, now coming together with the latest technological innovations to form a new breed of DIY.
In the aftermath, social media will remain a tool, but merely a tool — downgraded but still handy. It’s a hammer, not a house. Independent artists will understand that, along with increased interest in owning masters and administering rights, control over how artists reach and interact with their audiences is just as vital.
The point stands: technological breakthroughs, especially those that promise too-easy solutions or purport to disrupt, should face the lens of tradition. We relied on these technologies — these shortcuts — to deliver our messages to fans. We believed online connections were authentic when, in fact, our fanbase was closer to commodity, inaccessible and exploited in our names. Instead, we should use technological tools to claim our rights, creative works, and fanbases, not to transfer these to others. That transfer is the easy route, and unfortunately, it’s what the technology was built to offer.
That’s why I’m looking back as I go forward. The future is filled with possibilities that are promising and, yes, others that are terrifying. But considering the roots of why we act like humans — how our intentions are evergreen — can keep us sober and grounded as technology continues to seduce and overwhelm. Our decisions and actions as artists and listeners should rely on our deepest fundamentals and a core understanding of what brought us here. So, TL;DR: In 2020, let your love of music be your guide.