Guest Post — “The Evolution of Sound” by Alex Mann

Part I

Discussions surrounding the current relationship between music and emerging technology typically revolve around changes in media distribution, consumption and monetization. Rarely is there a focus on music evolving as a technology itself.

At the current speed of the digital marketplace, music must evolve at an equivalent rate to listeners’ tastes in order to prosper, sell and survive. If a musician and his sound cannot adapt to the current marketplace, he will perish no differently than discs, tapes and other artifacts of economically defunct eras of history

As music evolves, the artist combines elements of different genres and styles to create new sounds that he hopes are pleasing to today’s increasingly restive listeners. Thanks to this constant blending and experimentation, staple sounds from previous generations, or even iconic sounds from as recent as a few years ago, will not be as competitive (distributable, consumable and monitizeable) as newer, emerging sounds.

Consider the average singer-songwriter strumming his guitar in any major American metropolitan club. While this breed of artist is a staple of music and may be occasionally enjoyable to listen to, they are in surplus since their emergence in the mid-20th century. The guitar-playing singer-songwriter is currently uncompetitive for a three reasons:

1. The singer-songwriter sound isn’t unique. While lyrics and melody have infinite variability, on a large enough scale, they all sound, look and feel the same.

2. The singer-songwriter competition is too high. It’s not that guitar-playing singer-songwriters aren’t talented (some are, some aren’t), but more that they are competing with a breed that has been saturated by low barriers to entry.

3. The singer-songwriter formula has already been done. Some of the most influential and iconic musicians have been strumming singer-songwriters (see: Bob Dylan). To repeat the same act, even of previous icons, is to not evolve at the rate of the current marketplace.

Visit any major city in America and you’ll find these musicians ceasing to evolve with uncompetitive sounds, forcefully struggling for people to listen, let alone to purchase their music.

Part II

If you track the sound of music over the past 100 years, genres have not changed; they have only combined and multiplied. What appears to be a change in sound is actually an evolution of sound, with bits and pieces being built and borrowed from surviving aspects of previous recordings.

Take, for example, rock and roll. During its emergence, rock and roll felt like a new sound, but wasn’t. It was an evolving sound that was pulling the strongest characteristics of blues, gospel and country into its palette.

Led Zeppelin is an example of a band that successfully evolved, and continued to evolve, during its prominence. When they first emerged, audiences couldn’t identify or name the sound. At one point, the sound of Led Zeppelin was even referred to as the “blues on crack.” What people were hearing was musical evolution at work. Individually none of the sounds were new, but together adapted and advanced the genre as a whole.

Musicians can compete and sell by owning a competitive sound. From the musician’s standpoint, a competitive sound may feel risky, even uncomfortable. However, it’s riskier to approach a musical career without an evolving sound. The most common way of developing this sound is, as portrayed by Led Zeppelin, merging bits and pieces of previous genres like a painter combines paints on a palette.

Consider, for example, the following three artists with evolving sounds:

1. Chiddy Bang has broken off pieces, via the sample, of indie rock, merged it with electronic beats and successfully evolved the sound of hip-hop music. The individual sounds aren’t new, but together, they are.

2. The Roots first emerged as the group that fused hip-hop and live jazz. While A Tribe Called Quest combined the two genres as well, The Roots played actual instruments. The Roots’ albums and business decisions continue to evolve their art and genre today.

3. LCD Soundsystem has developed a sound that is a combination of acid house, post-disco, dance-rock, post-punk, garage rock and psychedelic pop. The project leader, James Murphy, has mentioned that the latest album will most likely be the last. I assume that this is because James has realized that the band is unlikely to evolve their sound any further than they already have.

Part III

The future of the music industry is really a derivative of the evolution of the musical sound. To that, I’m going to make an attempt at predicting the three key factors for the future of evolving music:

1. Engineers will become increasingly important for artists, similar to every other industry driven by technology. Sound engineers can help provide an archaic artist with an evolving sound through sampling, mixing and producing.

2. Statistics and market research will become increasingly influential on creative decisions. With enough data, it’s possible to identify how the brain reacts (or doesn’t react) to certain sound combinations and hooks. Part of developing an evolved sound will be adapting and predicting these perceived audience brain patterns.

3. Genres will continue to challenged, split and merged into a giant melting pot. While it’ll help advance and evolve musical careers, the innovation in sound will ultimately benefit the listener as well.

Alex Mann is a technology entrepreneur based in New York City. You can read more of his essays here and follow him on Twitter here.



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