The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.
In 1876 you could only listen to your favorite music live. That was life until Thomas Edison revolutionized music consumption for the first time in history with the invention of the phonograph, a 10-inch, 78-rpm cylindrical disc that could hold only about three minutes of music per side. Longer songs or collections were often bound into a book containing multiple CDs, leading to the birth of the term “record album”.
Thomas Edison had little to no competition until the 1890s, when the obsolete cylinder was inferior to gramophone records. During this era, vinyl records gained popularity, largely due to the fact that they could be mass-produced much cheaper and could contain around 20 minutes of music on each side, as opposed to three minutes. This ultimately led to higher profit margins for record distributors and a richer user experience for consumption.
The next milestone in the music consumption roadmap occurred in the 1920s, when the broadcasting industry was gaining popularity not too long after the end of World War I. Before the war, Congress and many other prominent figures believed that radio should only be used for two-way communication and not for entertainment. Contrary to this belief, it was reported in 1930 that about 40 percent of Americans were buying radios, but that number more than doubled in the same decade. The first radios available were large and bulky, but technological innovations in the sixties and seventies meant that more portable, compact radios were being produced.
The radio rally was followed by the 8-track and cassette era. The 8-track tape gave consumers the luxury of music on demand while on the go. It was adopted en masse when large numbers of cars were made with 8-track players included during production. Cassettes burst onto the scene not too long after, taking the music industry and the way we consume music by storm. The Sony Walkman first allowed cassettes to outsell vinyl in 1983, and then changed the momentum for consumer user experiences in the 1980s and 1990s.
Music enters the digital age with compact discs. Just a few years ago, magnetic tape data was read mechanically. CDs used a laser that bounced off the disc and transmitted a signal that was eventually converted to sound. This was the beginning of the digital age of audio technology. The portable radio, car stereos, and Walkman prepared us for this digital age, but I don’t think consumers or creators were prepared for its development. Fast forward to today where CDs have been replaced by MP3s and now streaming services. Most consumers play music directly from their mobile devices.
A few patterns have struck me over the past few decades as music technology has evolved:
1. Changes were usually sanctioned by, and largely in favor of, the tycoons.
2. Product innovation served primarily to complement consumers’ lives and increase production (sales) for large corporations.
3. There has been largely no concern or innovation for the people who make music possible – the creators.
I, like many professionals in the industry, believe that blockchain technology is the new frontier for the music industry. Music revolutionized the world, but the music industry has never been about “making sure the artist gets paid.” Up until this point, artists had no way of expressing themselves regarding payment protocols, but blockchain technology is changing that.
Do you remember Napster? In my view, blockchain technology and NFTs are currently doing the equivalent of what Napster did in the CD era. The future is bright for both artists and consumers. Artists are now positioned to benefit from their intellectual property more than ever, and that can benefit everyone involved. For artists, this means being able to easily distribute music across the blockchain, get paid instantly without third parties, earn money from the royalties they set, connect directly with more people, and ultimately grow their fan base. From a consumer perspective, this means having authenticated direct access to all your favorite musicians on the blockchain.
The biggest challenge blockchain technology faces in the music industry, and almost every industry outside of tech, is that many people just don’t understand it yet. Combined with the simultaneous rapid development of this complicated technology, the gap between the masses and mass acceptance is growing by the minute. I have found that there is an urgent need to educate people about the full benefits of blockchain technology in a “non-technical” slang. People’s attention spans are shorter than ever and they want to learn things quickly and easily.
As industry leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators, it is our duty to inform and engage, while entertaining. Record companies need this education more than anyone else. They’re used to doing things “by the book,” but the book has been rewritten with lines of code. By default, if just one of the major labels were to go down the blockchain route, it could potentially have a domino effect once other labels see the potential being realized through the performance.
As a community, developers in this space can work more closely with large companies by offering API integrations as a white-label service as opposed to a branded offering. This allows these companies to be in the driver’s seat on the road built by blockchain technology. Blockchain is very costly to develop and the barriers to entry in this industry are high for many competitors, requiring the key players to form some sort of alliance to drive the narrative.
The future of the music industry is a sector where artists are in control and fairly rewarded for their art. Blockchain could usher in the next evolution of the music industry.