10 music-tech trends that will shape the next decade

By 2020, we'll be streaming songs from the cloud instead of buying albums and storing them on our hard drives, and suggestion services like Pandora will become essential.

Matt Rosoff
Matt Rosoff is an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, where he covers Microsoft's consumer products and corporate news. He's written about the technology industry since 1995, and reviewed the first Rio MP3 player for CNET.com in 1998. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network. Disclosure. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mattrosoff.
Matt Rosoff
6 min read

Bill Gates has said that prognosticators often overestimate the amount of technological change that will happen in a year, but underestimate the changes that will take place over a decade. With the Zeroes coming to an end this week, and Steve Guttenberg's recent column questioning the viability of recorded music in 2020 as inspiration, here's my pick of 10 trends in music and technology that will shape the next decade.

Will the original iPod become an object of fetishization in 2020, like vinyl records are today? Apple Computer, via Wikimedia Commons

Songs instead of albums
Musicians will always find ways to record their music--it's a fundamental drive, like painting for a painter or writing for a writer. But I agree with Guttenberg that fewer musicians will release suites of songs organized around a common theme or sound. As much as I love my long-playing records, they arose out of economics rather than art--they were a convenient way for companies to bundle multiple songs (particularly songs that might not have sold as singles) in an affordable package. With digital files already taking the place of physical recordings, there's almost no economic reason for the album to persist. By 2020, the concept of the album will be an anachronism with a few vocal adherents--like vinyl records are today--but most music will be released and consumed as songs.

Streams instead of downloads
Where did we get the idea that digital music has to be downloaded? It started with the CD and file-trading networks--content owners wouldn't sell us music in a form that could be consumed on our computers, so we ripped our own and swapped the files through Napster and its brethren. But now, every time a new song or album comes out, or we rediscover an old act, we have to rip or download the recordings, then transfer them to whichever device(s) we want to play them on. There's got to be an easier way!

If you had access to every song ever recorded, on any device, from any location with an Internet connection, wouldn't you rather pay for that service than buy a new CD or two every month? People say they want to own music, but when it's just a digital file, what do they want to own--a collection of ones and zeroes sitting on a segment of their hard drive? Why bother?

I think the real problem is that today's streaming services don't give you every song ever recorded and don't work on every device, and broadband data access--particularly wireless--is not ubiquitous. Those flaws stem from business problems (licensing, DRM, format incompatibility, and insufficient broadband infrastructure) rather than technology problems. And the business problems are gradually being resolved--look at the introduction of Rhapsody and Spotify for iPhone, and Apple's acquisition of streaming music service (and music locker) Lala. By 2020, most professionally recorded music will be consumed as on-demand streams and people won't pay by the track.

In the cloud rather than on hard drives
Some songs will never be available on demand--think of tracks from friends or obscure independent acts, or live covers (where licensing can be incredibly complicated, involving multiple performers and songwriters). But as users become accustomed to listening to more professionally recorded music on demand, they'll expect their personal collections to be available in the cloud as well. After all, who wants to spend time backing up a 120GB music collection on an external drive, or choosing particular recordings to eliminate in order to clear space on a cell phone?

This is where Apple's Lala acquisition really makes sense--imagine if iTunes served not only as an on-demand music service but also as a locker for songs you'd previously downloaded, ripped, or obtained elsewhere. Suddenly, the 16GB of storage on an entry-level iPhone would seem generous instead of paltry.

Fidelity rather than file size
Once our music lives in the cloud, we'll no longer have to worry about running out of space on our local drives or devices. Microsoft's SkyDrive already offers 25GB of online storage for free, and I could easily see that increasing one-hundred-fold by 2020. That's right: free terabytes of storage. It'll take a little bit longer, but eventually bandwidth--even wireless bandwidth--will increase to the point where streaming lossless digital files makes sense. Listeners will rediscover what they've been missing--detail in the midrange, and tons of information at the low and high ends of the spectrum--and the era of the MP3 will be looked back (and down) upon as the dark ages of audio quality.

Extras become standard
Again, with concerns over storage gradually disappearing, what's to prevent artists from packaging their music with artwork, lyric sheets, video outtakes, and even interactive applications? Today's artist-specific iPhone apps will become standard. Casual fans will stream a couple songs for free. Hardcore fans will pay to download the entire app and pore over it obsessively.

Production rather than consumption
Digital technology has already democratized the recording process--what used to take tens of thousands of dollars and a professional studio can now be accomplished with a laptop and a free program like Garage Band or Audacity. The results usually don't sound as good, but the experimentation process is fun, and sometimes a gem emerges. Digital technology and the Internet have also made promotion and distribution far easier than they were a decade ago. By 2020, music fans will spend almost as much time creating and sharing recordings with their friends as they do listening to professionally recorded music. Don't believe me? Think of this: 10 years ago, writers were a comparatively rare breed. Now, everybody's got a blog, or at least a Facebook page. In another 10 years, everybody will be a musician--or at least a recording artist.

Suggestions rather than searches
In a world of on-demand music in the cloud, search will become vitally important. Users will want to be able to find songs not only by title, album, or artist, but also by a few snippets of lyrics, or even by humming or playing part of a melody. (Imagine a combination of the voice search function available on Google Mobile with an advanced version of technology like Shazam, which can identify recorded music from a few snippets.) But search is only part of the question--once everything's available, how will users decide what to listen to? By 2020, personalized recommendation services, like those provided by Pandora, Slacker, and MOG, will become even more important than search, and will have to be integrated into any on-demand music service that hopes to survive.

Festivals rather than big concerts
Live music is already a long-tail world--with the exception of old, established acts and the very occasional pop sensation, very few bands can fill large arenas or football stadiums. This trend will accelerate as the last bands from the golden age of radio retire, labels take even fewer big promotional risks, and the market continues to fragment under the explosion in recording releases. In 2020, no single act will be able to sell 50,000 tickets at Qwest Field like U2 hopes to do this summer. Instead, the only shows that will pack large arenas will be festivals, where listeners can pick and choose among dozens of acts and classes of entertainment--just like they'll be doing online.

Spectacle rather than personality
With recording revenue plunging, bands must draw fans to their live shows in order to make a living. The common wisdom today dictates that musicians need a personal connection with their fans. They must blog, tweet, maintain their MySpace and Facebook profiles, and generally act like your next door neighbor who's always pestering you to see his band. There's a word for receiving "personal" messages from your favorite 100 bands--it's called "spam." Eventually, this cloud of self-promotional noise will dissipate, and will be replaced by old-fashioned word of mouth. Only acts that put on a great show--not just singing and playing songs, but entertaining in the old-fashioned sense of the word, with video and stagecraft and humor and spectacle--will cut through the noise. Bonus points for the first act that somehow integrates an audience-accessible game console into their act.

Retro takes on a new meaning
In 2020, the original iPod will be almost 20 years old. As the music world is overtaken by a nearly infinite selection of high-fidelity music, streamed over super-fast wireless connections to increasingly inexpensive portable devices, hardcore nostalgists will drag out their first-generation iPods and fill them with treble-heavy 120kbps MP3s. Meanwhile, grandpa will still be down in the basement with his collection of LP records and his lava lamp.