In the scramble to create some coherent sense of what’s next amidst all the talk of a “new normal” have we maybe just realised that we’d taken a wrong turn and the fundamentals haven’t changed at all?
Human beings are a matrix of contradictions. We separate ourselves from animals by asserting the unique defining characteristics of self-consciousness and free will and then systematically seek to find ways to escape the consequences of what that entails. Maybe Sartre wasn’t completely off the mark after all.
The other thing we seem incapable of reconciling is the notion of agency with the terrifying fear of uncertainty. Right now everyone is looking for definites, false prophets to reassert the fallacy that the future is something totally malleable to our desires and decisions and a fanfare to support the fantasy that the unwritten can be foreseen. What the global COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to confront and accept, however, is the fundamental impermanence of the conditions of our existence and a visceral experience of temporality. Buddhism. Three Marks of Existence. Worth a read.
Which, in a weird way, brings us on to music. Throughout the past 50+ days we’ve spent in lockdown we’ve seen numerous instances of music catalysing us to tune in to collective experiences, whether that’s a DJ session from Ministry of Sound by Defected Records or Billie Eilish and Finneas sharing a paired back set side by side on the piano with James Cordon. Coachella was cancelled. Album launches have been delayed. And in the midst of all this the lingering question of whether there will ever be a return to attending gigs and concerts looms large. The questions we’re now seeing coalescing around the future of the music industry can be understood as expressions of the twin human needs for certainty and community.
As we try to make sense of what’s around the corner perhaps a quick look back over the recent past might help us focus on key trends that have driven the relationship between technology and music. And so to that end we present a non-exhaustive and completely subjective timeline of the evolution of music consumption...
"Even before the C-word forced us to cancel our summer festival plans there were already signs that we’d started to shift away from the solitary consumption of music"
Let’s be real. Across our community of businesses operating within non-essential creative and production services we’ve been forced to confront the need to evolve in order to survive. In the realm of consumer marketing, the ideology of ‘lifestyle’ has been dethroned by the values of utility, wellbeing and connectivity. When FOMO no longer applies because we’re all missing out on social interaction, superficial signifiers of consumerism cease to function as differentiating hierarchical benchmarks. Maybe we’ll finally open our eyes to the fact that boasting about ‘being there’ while we’re emotionally disconnected and staring at a cellphone recording content for social media to prove our participation is a complete perversion of the aesthetic function of live music.
What we’ve seen from the tentpole musical moments over the past two months is less a case study in how technology can help shape the evolution of the music industry and more a recentering around the fundamental and immutable human need for socialisation manifested through shared experiences. Which is really the Occam's razor of the mass migration to TikTok under the lockdown - we want to feel like we’re participating in passing crazes because it drives a sense of connection to an intangible shared moment.
Even before the C-word forced us to cancel our summer festival plans there were already signs that we’d started to shift away from the solitary consumption of music driven by algorithmically powered streaming services that perpetually serve us more of what we already like in order to boost dwell time. YouTube sent up a signal flare from the frontline of this cultural shift, successfully managing to eventise music video launches with its Premieres feature and create new metrics against concurrent audiences in initial stream and 24-hour view count. Two big wins for female artists by the way, with Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift rewriting redundant industry protocol.
Not that eventised launches are anything new. Anyone who grew up in the 90s will remember the big Michael Jackson videos premiering on Top of the Pops or MTV. Thursday night was a dial-in moment to exclusively experience a time-locked collective cultural experience. Eddie Murphy. Iman. Magic Johnson. Do you Remember the Time?
The impact of the recent Travis Scott Fortnite performance, which wasn’t actually a milestone given Marshmello had already crashed into the game a year or so earlier, is less interesting as a tune-in marketing strategy and more indicative of the enduring fact that music allows us to share moments where we don’t feel isolated. It allows us to participate in a moment of collective identity where our subjective reality is transmuted into a group consciousness.
This is precisely what eventised music moments really reinforce - the idea that as humans we share a fundamental social drive towards shared experiences. In the words of Britney Spears, “my loneliness is killing me”. Technology has a remarkable way of corrupting our perception of essential needs and values, where ‘new’ and ‘first’ supplant genuine and instinctive human drives. Does it really matter in a bigger sense if we do or don’t own the latest iPhone if owning one right now means we’ve sacrificed cashflow that offers a safety net to our baseline existence in the absence of employment security? The ‘success’ of particular tech-driven music activations over the past two months isn’t to be understood in terms of the appeal of the shiny new technology, but rather should be seen from the point of view of technology successfully facilitating the manifestation of timeless fundamental human needs.
We have a tendency as creatives working within emerging technology to overvalue bragging rights of being the first to do X. When we do so we fail to recognise that X is only worth bragging about because it served an overarching and continuous human psychological need. As we all look to the end of 2020 and beyond the real question we need to address is whether the ‘new normal’ will reconfigure the idea that collective experiences require a shared physical presence. Yes, an immersive VR experience with like-minded avatars from around the world serves as an analogue for attending a gig at an IRL venue. What we haven’t litmus tested though is whether this fulfills the same sociological drive as fighting our way to the bar at Brixton Academy after a two-hour wait line outside having blagged a ticket off a scalp.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that as we try to find the answer to the question of how creative technology can help support the next phase of the evolution of the music industry so that our business activity continues to add cultural value we really need to focus on the goal of amplifying and enabling shared experiences.
Music, like poetry, film and the visual arts, exists to sustain and catalogue archetypal human narratives, not to dazzle us with the medium through which we consume it. Perhaps McLuhan wasn’t right after all.
The discussion is ongoing - interested to learn more or share your thoughts?
Stephen Whelan, Head of Immersive Entertainment