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Computers, algorithms and self-destruction: What does the future hold for music?

I don’t claim to be a musical Nostradamus with psychic powers of prophecy. I am merely a music geek trying to imagine what the future might hold for popular music and the industry. In the 1960s, pop music was mostly rock and roll in the very familiar form of The Beatles et al. and synthesisers were very only just in existence and were of very crude form. It was during this era that my predecessor in the position of predicting the future of music, Jim Morrison of The Doors, made a startlingly accurate prophecy in a 1969 interview: “A lot of people like Mozart were prodigies; they were writing brilliant works at very young ages,” he said, pondering the future of music.

Morrison continued: “That’s probably what’s going to happen: some brilliant kid will come along and be popular. I can see a lone artist with a lot of tapes and electrical … like an extension of the Moog synthesiser — a keyboard with the complexity and richness of a whole orchestra, y’know? There’s somebody out there, working in a basement, just inventing a whole new musical form,” he added. “We’ll hear about it in a couple years. Whoever it is, though, I’d like him to be really popular, to play at large concerts, not just be on records — at Carnegie Hall, to play at dances”.

Jim Morrison, terminology aside, hit the nail on the head. Some 15 years before Calvin Harris was even born, and 19 years before Skrillex was born, Morrison could see where music was heading. He could foresee electronic elements of music playing and production taking over and technological advancement allowing an individual to have a whole “orchestra” at their fingertips. So with this in mind, what might we expect from music over the coming decades?

Dismissively, one could say we now have everything musically that we ever will have, but that would, of course, be foolish; Charles H. Duell, the Commissioner of the US Patent Office, once famously said that “everything that can be invented has been invented”. This was in 1899, how incredibly incorrect he was, and I’m not about to be tarred with the same brush. One could conceivably say that we have all the genres we’ll ever have. Personally, I disagree with this on a granular level, but perhaps the future will only hold further innovations and sub-genres, maybe we really have exhausted the styles of key genres and are now just cross-breeding them into all manner of interesting and oft ugly offspring. I remember when I was in my youth and a new genre called ‘Dubstep’ emerged from the depths of music creativity. It was indeed a relatively novel sound, but it had very traceable roots within the realms of electronic dance music and so couldn’t really be seen as a groundbreaking development. 

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Popular music could be argued to have lost a great deal of its true artistry over the past 20 years. Ostensibly, music has lost its rough edges, where once we had the character of raw vocals over unbalanced chords and one strum of the guitar on one verse will sound a little different from the corresponding one on the next (yes I’m talking about you Mr Dylan), we now have predictably autotuned voices and perfectly matched and balanced instrumentals, which on the surface may seem like a positive, after all, who wants mistakes? However, it seems that a lot of popular music is losing its unique candour and originality. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but such artists won’t commonly be found in the mainstream. Popular songs are increasingly appearing to follow unwritten rules for mass exposure and capital gain both musically and lyrically. The lyrics of so many modern pop songs are almost predictably formulaic as the malevolent market gradually ousts true creativity and leans towards covers, remixes and samples.

As time moves on, it is my thinking that, increasingly, we are going to have our music written for us. Where computer power currently makes music production much easier to access for everyone, I can see music trickling down the same avenue as robotics. In the future, there will be computers across the globe set to create highly textured and complex arrangements of electronic music eventually even including aforementioned generic and formulaic lyrics. This strange future already appears to be breathing down our necks with projects like the Google AI (artificial intelligence) Project Magenta which commenced in 2016 with the intent to create music and art without human involvement. Just a few months ago, I was in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and one of the exhibits there was an audio installation named the ‘Longplayer’. The exhibit is a 1000-year-long musical composition that is set on an algorithm for an exact millennium, at the end, it will have completed its cycle and will repeat for the next millennium – and I thought Pink Floyd had some lengthy compositions!

In the future, I believe pop music will continue down its current path of self-destruction – and by self-destruction, I mean pop music killing true art in the mainstream. Modern pop music is, with very few exceptions, strangling the industry from the perspective of smaller artists who are trying to make a name for themselves. Firstly, record labels have begun to present a major problem in recent years. In the golden era of music between the ‘60s and ‘90s, labels would generally be much more nurturing and forgiving than they are now. These days it’s all about speed, long term record deals are no longer commonplace – do you have a three-minute song that has its first hook in the first ten seconds? If not, then there’s the door. If you’re lucky enough to get a deal, the label will, more often than not, dump the artist if the first single or album isn’t an immediate hit with the audience. 

The music venue crisis is seeing the death of grassroots venues around our cities that once housed the famous formative gigs of our most cherished artists of yesteryear. Young aspiring artists used to get a fair wage for their sets at well supported small venues, but now, artists are more commonly resulting to play cheap or even free gigs in hopes that they can make a big enough name for themselves and scrape enough money together to get into a cripplingly costly studio. The Music Venue Trust has been campaigning for eight years now, in hopes that we can take action to save our music venues, and with the recently added pressure of the Covid-19 pandemic, the organisation has been encouraging people to get back out there and support their local talent at grassroots venues. As Paul McCartney said in support of the organisation: “If we don’t support live music at this level then the future of music, in general, is in danger”. Small music venues are gradually being closed and falling to the might of sell-out arena concerts. I can’t predict which way this aspect of music’s future will go, but it’s in our hands to make the necessary changes. 

As small venues and smaller artists fall at the feet of the arenas and minority stratospheric pop stars, namely the likes of Adele and Ed Sheeran, we have begun to see unprecedented inequality within the industry. The music industry reflects an almost comically exaggerated form of the unequal distribution of wealth in society. In 2017, it was reported that musicians themselves took just 12% of the $43 billion generated in the industry over the course of the year. This conveys just how much of the capital is currently being swallowed up by the streaming platforms and administrative bodies.

If music continues down its current path, the future could well see fewer creatives, especially from poorer backgrounds, bothering to follow their musical ambitions as they get forced into conforming to a more achievable, yet less desirable, role in society. As the style of mainstream music becomes increasingly computer-generated, we could well see “robots” algorithmically, cheaply and effortlessly producing much of our music for us. Albert Einstein once said: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones”.

Perhaps in musical terms, if we look out to the more distant future, we will have pots and pans, or maybe even a ribcage xylophone to bless our ears. This sensationalised negativity to one side, we really might just have a mammoth job to do if we’re going to protect the integrity of music going forward. We will have to fight for our small music venues and the smaller, independent artists, fight against the dominating forces of major labels and streaming platforms, all the while avoiding an apocalypse. With that in mind, I leave you to wander off into the future where you can find out for yourself – good luck!

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