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10 predictions for 2008

10 predictions for music and technology in 2008.

I've always preferred prognostication to nostalgia, so rather than replay the best of 2007, I'll use these late December doldrums to make 10 predictions for the coming year. Some editors will warn you that this kind of list is suicide--it's too easy for everybody to look back a year later and see where you were wrong--but it hasn't hurt Cringely, so here goes. In no particular order.

DRM will die. The trendline is clear--Apple's been selling DRM-free tuneson iTunes since May, Amazon's DRM-free MP3 store has three of the four majors signed up, and eMusic has become the second-most-popular music download service (after iTunes) thanks in part to its longstanding insistence on selling DRM-free MP3s. A year from now, DRM will be irrelevant and hardly used in digital music. All four labels will agree sell their songs without DRM on Amazon. Nearly every iTunes audio (but not video) file will be DRM-free, and Apple will get rid of the "Plus" designation. Some music subscription services like Rhapsody and Microsoft's Zune Pass might retain DRM so that users can't cancel their subscriptions and keep the songs they've downloaded, but they'll be the last holdouts--and some of them might try eMusic's approach of limiting monthly downloads rather than limiting compatibility and usage with DRM.

3G iPhone and iTunes. A 3G iPhone is a fairly safe prediction, given that AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson already let it slip, but I think there'll still be a small surprise embedded in the announcement: iTunes 3G, a service that will come with the phone and give users anytime-anywhere downloads of any audio content in the iTunes Music Store. Impulse buying will go through the roof.

No Zune phone. Microsoft won't release an iPhone competitor this year--at least not one with hardware designed by Microsoft. The company might release some sort of software update or client application that allows Windows Mobile users to play songs from the Zune Marketplace and transfer them from the Zune PC client software to their phones, but even that probably won't happen until 2009. And it'll sink like a lead balloon against v3 of the iPhone, at which point Microsoft will bend to the inevitable and start building its own phone from scratch.

GarageBand will win a Grammy. Not the program itself, but somebody will make a record using Apple's Garage Band--which comes included with every Macintosh sold--as their primary recording and mixing tool, and that record will win a Grammy award. There's already been a critically acclaimed movie, Tarnation, made exclusively with iMovie, so now it's time for all those bedroom musicians to get into the do-it-yourself spotlight.

Mashups will go mainstream. Have mashups already jumped the shark? The controversy about The Grey Album, in which DJ Danger Mouse combined lyrics from Jay-Z's Black Album and The Beatles' untitled white album, is almost four years old. There was a burst of experimentation from big-time artists like David Bowie and Beck around the same time, but not much since 2005. Nonetheless, I predict that artists and even some labels will begin re-releasing their back catalogs as standalone instrumental and vocal tracks, and fans will recombine like crazy using programs like Garage Band and Splice. At least one mashup will get significant radio play, with the complete approval of the original artists. (Although you might say that Puff Daddy accomplished this 10 years ago.) They might even be incorporated into video games like Rock Band--imagine the challenge of having to sing Abba while the rest of the band plays Judas Priest. By the end of 2008, putting a mere song on your social-networking profile will seem hopelessly old-fashioned.

Year Zero album cover
The campaign--don't call it "marketing"--that preceded Nine Inch Nails' Year Zero release will become the gold standard for building audience engagement for tours, albums, or new artists.

Year Zero will become the precedent. On the plane trip home from visiting family over Christmas, I read Eric Davis's analysis of Led Zeppelin's fourth album, part of the 33 1/3 book series. While a lot of it seemed like a stretch--as is the case with any highly intellectualized deconstruction of rock music--it did remind me of a certain sensation created by certain artists and albums, a sense that the listener is more than a mere consumer, but is in fact an active member in a secret club that only other members fully understand, a sort of musical Masonic society. Think of that Zeppelin album, the Grateful Dead, the Residents, or Secret Chiefs 3. In 2007, Trent Reznor, working with 42 Entertainment, took this kind of mystical clubbishness and updated it for the digital era. USB drives with leaked tracks from the upcoming Year Zero record were surreptitiously placed in bathroom stalls at concert venues. Phone numbers with frightening secret messages were encoded in bursts of static or out-of-phase audio signals. Cell phones were distributed to fans who figured out some of the clues; a phone call placed to those phones summoned them to a secret concert. In 2008, we'll see more of these kinds of musical events that use digital technology to break down the wall between audience and artist.

The world's best offline record store will go online. There's nothing else like Amoeba Records. Its three locations in Berkeley, San Francisco, and Los Angeles offer unsurpassed selection--including cellophane-packaged vinyl I've never seen anywhere else--and seem to be curated by music fans with amazing depth and breadth of knowledge. In 2007, Amoeba took its first tentative steps into digital distribution, releasing exclusive recordings from Gram Parsons and Brandi Shearer in both MP3 and CD formats. In 2008, I predict Amoeba will finally go online in a huge way, offering an unsurpassed quantity of MP3 downloads from every imaginable source: major labels (like Amazon MP3 and the other high-profile stores), independent labels (like eMusic), and do-it-yourselfers (like CDBaby). Look for the nascent Amoeba label to offer distribution on terms never before seen in the recording industry--more of a non-exclusive commission model like CD Baby than a typical all-inclusive marketing-recording-publishing-distribution deal like most labels have favored--and for several high-profile artists who've recently quit their labels to sign on.

The loudness wars will end. It's been repeated so many times, it's become a cliche: today's recordings are mastered too loud, eliminating dynamic range and making it hard to listen to a complete album. In 2008, artists and producers will finally begin to demand a return to proper mastering, and radio stations and record execs will be in no position to contradict them.

The concert business will follow the recorded music business down. It's a bad time to be a big rock concert promoter like Live Nation. According to a recent story in Pollstar, the concert business actually declined in 2007, despite high-profile reunion tours by The Police and Van Halen and David Lee Roth--two acts with so much internal strife that nobody expected to see them on stage again. I say the 15 percent drop in ticket revenues from 2006 to 2007 will be followed by the same or greater drop next year. Music fans are fed up with exorbitant ticket prices, false scarcity, and quasi-legal scalpers, and there are only so many more nostalgia acts to trot out. Where are the young bands that can sell out 20,000-seat arenas for the next 5, 10, 20 years? (And before you call me out on the Arctic Monkeys, let me just counter with Oasis. Huge in the U.K., briefly popular in the U.S., and irrelevant to all but the die-hardest of fans 10 years later.) In other words, the concert business is about to suffer from the main problem that's hurting the recording industry--not MP3s, not piracy, but lack of interest and investment in artists with long-term (as opposed to instant) commercial potential.

Led Zeppelin will play again, but not tour. Speaking of nostalgia, it won't be 1973, but the reunited Led Zeppelin will play a handful of shows in the U.S., focusing on a multi-night stand at New York's Madison Square Garden timed around Robert Plant's 60th birthday on August 20.