Top Music Industry Trends in 2021
The new roles of record labels, how to use streaming to grow your music brand, and what to look out for in new plug-ins to make your sound feel contemporary and polished
Streaming vs. album purchases
Spotify, Tidal, and Apple Music aren’t novel anymore — streaming platforms have been with us for a while now, but their role in musicians’ income is continuing to change. Initially, it seemed like a new way for musicians to diversify their income and steer listeners away from piracy … but they’re often disappointed by its direct impact on their income.
Streaming by itself is a risky way to build a career — but it’s a fantastic way to generate awareness. Spotify playlists still remain a great way to get discovered; if you can get on multiple, they’ll start directing more listeners your way. Many successful musicians still upload full albums on YouTube. Ad revenue and streaming royalties may seem like very little on their own, but it would be incorrect to assume that people don’t buy albums anymore — even digital albums!
The key thing that’s changed is why people buy music.
Albums still sell: CDs, vinyl, even digital, but now it’s because listeners want to feel like they own a piece of the musician’s brand. It’s more intimate, and they feel like they’re contributing to the musician’s career. Streaming acts as a gateway into this. Study how people consume music, and find out what your fans want from you next — and build that relationship to where they want to buy your albums, merch, and any other experience you offer. You can make good money from streaming, but its greatest value lies in its ability to build awareness for your brand.
The closure of concert venues led to a huge jump in livestreaming — production sessions, DJ sets, and house concerts have all contributed to this. During the pandemic, people want more human connections — even if that means it’s from behind a computer screen. Twitch used to own the livestreaming market, but Instagram and Facebook continue to provide more resources to streamers — and Tidal is even offering a virtual concert system.
One major benefit of livestreaming over concert tours is that they’re much less likely to be canceled on short notice — there are no potential issues with venues, hotels, trailer rentals, or anything else in the long list of logistics normally needed. Even more significant is that impromptu performances are easier than ever to launch (which is virtually impossible with large venues). We go much deeper into livestreaming in our article here.
There’s been a trend for quite some time for musicians to build their careers completely on their own in the beginning, due to everyone’s ability to own their distribution through social media and online stores … and musicians continue to get more power and control through big tech platforms. Record labels primarily served as distributors — but that aspect of their service is becoming increasingly less valuable. Now it predominantly comes down to a couple of other elements: 1) do they have enough of a loyal following to help their musicians grow, and 2) does the label have resources that will significantly help the musician’s career, such as access to recording studios and the funds to pay mixing and mastering engineers? In the case of #2, this doesn’t even help a lot of producers because they do everything on a laptop and maybe call in a singer.
Mid-size record labels will need to drastically change their business model over the coming years, especially since now they can’t bring in revenue through live concerts — musicians now have far more leverage with which to approach labels, and the path of staying solo is completely viable. There’s been a huge trend in the past few years for musicians to stay solo and make their musical income from digital sales, streaming and merch, and if anything the pandemic has directed more power to artists vs. the industry giants. This is still an incredibly difficult time for artists, but if the current trends continue, their power to control their careers will continue to grow.
In the CD age, there was a push for engineers to make songs as loud as they could possibly be, at the great expense of dynamics. Severe limiting was applied, killing transients to artificially increase the volume of the master. At the time, there was some validity to this thinking — CDs only encode at 16 bits (24 is the standard now), which essentially means that their memory isn’t deep enough and adds digital noise when audio is too quiet. In part, the “loudness war” existed to reduce the impact of this quantization noise and preserve the original audio as best as possible — but that trend outlived the peak of CD purchases, and many producers are unwilling to back off the compression and limiting because their tracks will sound quieter than ones from other artists.
But producers are increasingly disinterested in loudness — it’s taking time, but they’re waking up to the fact that their tracks sound clearer (and will age better) than if they apply heavy limiting and destroy their dynamic range and transients. But this isn’t just a matter of quality; it’s aided by major streaming platforms automatically volume matching songs as people listen. So if you produce a very loud song and another producer creates a moderately loud song, YouTube or Spotify will likely play them at the same volume, negating any benefit to heavy limiting. Streaming platforms match volumes because they want their users’ experience to be as seamless as possible, and an excellent side effect of this is that it actively encourages producers to make better decisions. If you want to learn more about the loudness war, Dynamic Range Day has a great article on it here.
Producers are continually making their sound design more sophisticated, partly due to the increasing variety of stock plugins available in the most common DAWs. Many DAWs even offer very capable granular effect modules, which until quite recently was unthinkable — and producers rarely took the time to learn granular processing since few understood or knew how to use it.
There’s a general trend toward offering insanely complex operations in simple interfaces and offering the most common uses with little effort — for granular synthesis, this is often atmospheric effects. UJAM’s FLUXX audio plugin has great presets for creating dreamy effects like this, including Dark Matter and F=luxx2.
Analog modelled plugins also continue to rise in popularity as their sound gets closer and closer to real hardware gear. This trend is likely to continue as producers continue to add a more sophisticated sound to their music, since plugins over convenience and a price point that simply isn’t available when you’re buying a hardware console.
Conventional sampler and loops are as viable as ever, but there’s a newer hybrid approach between static samples and virtual instruments — UJAM’s Beatmaker 2.0 series, offering producers the ability to edit MIDI loops, create their own and drag them directly into a session, all using factory samples that are perfectly processed already. Traditional samplers don’t have anywhere near this level of flexibility, and pre-recorded loops can only be edited so many times.
In particular, the MIDI Drag & Drop feature is particularly useful, as it allows you to pull loops directly from any Beatmaker and drop them into your session and change them however you like. No other technology allows you so much flexibility in ripping up loops and changing them on the fly, and this bridges the gap between static loops and fully customizing your own rhythms.
New technologies are emerging in the music industry constantly, and they’re poised to give producers and musicians more power than ever before. Many of the areas we’ve looked at in this article are coming to a head. People are becoming fed up with old practices and are looking to try something new — whether it’s production techniques, selling music, or even creating new audio plugins. Every year, producers have more resources to take advantage of — and far more opportunities to get their music heard by people who will absolutely love it.