Music and TikTok/Twitch et al. --What the hell is going on here?
Updated: Jun 20, 2019
The current explosion of different digital platforms that are entwined with the music industry puts me in mind of “The Cycle” in Tim Wu’s great 2011 book “The Master Switch”. In it Wu traces the evolution of information industries from the telegraph and telephone through to the internet. He frames this in terms of what he calls “The Cycle”: a new technology emerges, there is a fertile period of experimentation and myriad businesses/companies bloom to leverage the new technology, often in ways quite different than those imagined by their creators. This is followed by a period of consolidation, as large entities swallow or crush smaller ones, leading to oligopolies or monopolies which eventually grow ossified, but desperately dedicated to preserving their advantages in the status quo, which they do successfully, until a new technology disrupts them, and The Cycle starts anew.
To apply this in terms of recorded music and its attendant industry: LP’s gave way to CD’s which were disrupted by filesharing then streaming. The incumbents eventually adjust to create a new status quo, dominated by 3 (formerly 5) major Labels and their publishing arms, who collect massive revenues from streaming platforms.
But meanwhile, Social Media explodes to become ubiquitous. Short-form UGC video platforms take off, and gaming develops its own streaming platforms. And the boundaries between all these begin to overlap, then blur.
Except over on Internet 2. (i.e. China, which has essentially created a parallel internet)
On Internet 2, with foreign competition banned, a rising middle class hundreds of millions strong and a robust broadband (mobile) infrastructure, these things all happen simultaneously. The legal and economic moats separating the functionalities and business models from each other in the West aren’t in play, so large tech companies compete to be THE digital mobile platform for users. The big e-commerce company, the big social media platform, the big search platform and a really strong mobile gaming company all build parallel but competing ecosystems, and they all include music as a service. They duke it out, through acquisitions, consolidations, and bitter lawsuits. And just as it starts to congeal into something approaching a stable equilibrium—BAM, out of nowhere the highly social short form video platforms explode. Live streaming takes off. A non-tech company (a venture capital firm Bytedance) launches an AI powered news aggregator called Toutiao in China,that expands into user created short videos (Douyin), rebrands as TikTok for export, acquires a competing lip-sych app in the US called Musical.ly, and continues to expand globally. And music is along for the ride.
Case in point: An relatively obscure Atlanta rapper (Lil Nas X) with a strong following on Soundcloud has his trip-hop Western cowboy fantasy song inspire millions of short videos on TikTok, which drives massive listens online, landing the song at the top of the Billboard charts. In a wonderful illustration of Wu’s theory, the incumbents (Billboard/Nielsen), perhaps alarmed at this dissing of their proprietary metrics and discomfited by the brash attack on the industry’s genre boundaries, pull the song off the charts as ‘insufficiently country’. In turn this sparks a backlash, which results in the re-mixing of the track with a sympathetic mainstream country artist, the two of them thus extending a middle finger salute to the powers that be.
All of which suggests the start of The Cycle for music, with the focus no longer solely (or perhaps even mostly) about the recorded song and its slot in the industry’s existing machinery.
How significant is this shift toward social and creative participation by music’s audience, the dissolution of the boundaries between audio, video, long and short form, artist and creator, fans and other fans? I wonder whether and how these behaviors may change the ‘music industry’ as the (mostly) young audience behind them grow into older age cohorts. Will they regard passively listening to a finished mastered song the way that an EDM audience might regard sitting silently with folded hands in front of an orchestra in black tuxedos? How will the audience taking music into their own hands and sharing amongst themselves change how it is written? Recorded? Promoted? And most importantly, monetized?
I think that the events in China (on Internet 2) are still volatile and evolving. Meanwhile Western services are frantically trying to adapt, scrambling to make social media more musical (FB/Lasso) or music platforms more social (Spotify playlist integration, etc.). Watching Facebook launch Lasso to chase after WeChat or WeSing is painful, like watching a group of professional bowlers attempt a choreographed dance to “Billie Jean”. Because the important differences aren’t about the functionalities. Rather, the music on Chinese services like Tencent’s QQ Music, or karaoke app WeSing are wedded organically to the business structure of these platforms.
And this brings up an even deeper, more significant difference, which is that these companies have monetized fandom, not consumption. The connections, as Cherie Hu has pointed out, are both Vertical (artist to fan) and Horizontal (fan to fan), and this creates a degree of engagement that makes monetization much more successful than either one alone. The sophistication and seamless UX of the apps doesn’t hurt either.
Stay tuned, this is gonna be fun.