What's next after streaming music? Look to the tech industry for clues: Alan Cross

When the compact disc was unveiled in late 1982, many thought we’d finally reached perfection with music storage and playback technology. With their clear sound, the absence of hiss, crackles, and pops, and excellent portability, there was no more room for improvement.

Not that the tech industry didn’t try, of course. Over the next 20 years, we saw formats like DAT and DCC (both using digital signals on magnetic tape), Sony’s MiniDisc (essentially music on a special floppy disc), HDCDs and DVD-Audio (evolutions of the CD), and the stillborn DataPlay disc.

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The game-changer was the MP3, the digital format introduced in the early ’90s that set us on the road to iTunes and eventually today’s streaming music services. Now platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, and the rest of them have libraries in excess of 50 million songs, all available instantly to anyone with an internet connection.

Just a few years ago, this kind of access to this much music was the stuff of science fiction. Now we take it for granted.

So that’s it, right? After 120 years of developing music storage products that started with Edison’s wax cylinders, we’re reached the end. There’s nothing that could possibly improve on streaming, right?

Not so fast. For a taste of the future, we once again need to look at the tech industry. While it may not be obvious at the moment, certain trends in tech could have massive implications for how we consume music in the future. In fact, we already had a taste of things more than a decade ago with the alternate reality game Second Life.

On Aug. 3, 2006, American singer Suzanne Vega assumed the role of a Second Life avatar to become the first major artist to perform in a virtual realm. Later that month, Duran Duran became the first major group to stage a live concert in-world for Second Life using custom-designed avatars. They were followed by an all-female Scottish punk band called The Hedrons who staged something in Second Life on Oct. 9, 2006, using tech that cost them a total of $2,500. The following September, The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic was recreated in Second Life as they performed in front of 1,200 people in the real world.

At the time, these performances were regarded largely in the real world as technological proofs-of-concept and little more — if the real world noticed at all. But the tech industry has been vamping on these ideas ever since. How could a virtual world or new advances in virtual reality be adapted to the music fans of the future?

Rapper Chamillionaire and the band Hinder were among the first to hold live-yet-virtual meet-and-greets with fans inside Second Life. A group of U2 fans fastidiously reenacted a show from the Vertigo tour. Other artists have held listening parties this way. Duran Duran even created their very own virtual universe which, sadly, seemed to be a little ambitious for its time.

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A number of companies have been working on technologies that allow people to be virtually transported to an actual concert in the real world. In August 2017, I lay in my bed with a giant Samsung VR headset weighing me down as I watched Coldplay perform a sold-out show at Soldier Field in Chicago. I had a “seat” right down front, and swiveling my head allowed me a complete look at the stadium as if I was actually there. The sound was bad and there was some latency with the visual display which caused dizziness and disorientation, not to mention that the headset was awkward and scared the dogs. But I did get the sense that I was there — almost.

The latest advances have come via Fortnite, the game that everyone seems to be playing. Its technology is far better than what we saw with Second Life in 2006. On Feb. 2, DJ Marshmello appeared in the game’s Pleasant Park and staged a virtual set for everyone who has in the game at the time. They were all able to witness the show and dance in front of Marshmello’s avatar.

How big was the audience? Perhaps as high as 10 million.

His set was short — it was all over in about 10 minutes — but the impact was huge. Streams of some Marshmello tracks increased by as much as — wait for it — 24,000 per cent. That is NOT a typo.

Whoa.

And not only that: Marshmello sold merch inside the game. Fans could buy things like a hoodie for just US$55. No merch figures have been released, but you gotta think with 10 million concurrent users in the game at the time of his set, more than a few might have shelled out for one.

To be fair, it’s easier for a DJ to present a virtual show because you’re dealing with just one avatar and some programmed tracks. In fact, if other DJs (Steve Aoki, Tiesto, Deadmau5) don’t jump on this bandwagon, they’re missing out. The virtual world is perfect for EDM types.

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Still, you wonder how a singer-songwriter might do under similar circumstances. Say portions of Lady Gaga’s jazz routine she’s currently doing in Las Vegas. Ed Sheeran seems like a natural because much of what he does requires just a guitar. How about a resurrection of MTV’s Unplugged series?

The video game industry is far, far larger than the music industry. Sony, for example, the owner of Fortnite, grossed US$2.4 billion on this one game last year. Meanwhile, its PlayStation division is killing it, too, grossing US$4.9 billion in just one quarter last year. Meanwhile, Sony Music grossed $3.9 billion in all of 2018. Someone is going to figure out how to follow this money.

Could this be the future of music consumption? Don’t bet against it.

Watch: Global News Fortnite coverage

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and Q107, and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music Podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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