this is the future of the music industry
We spoke to a handful of industry insiders – including Beats 1 presenters Julie Adenuga, Matt Wilkinson, and Zane Lowe – to get their hot take on the genres, trends and technology due to blow up in 2018.
Last year music kept us sane. Reactionary records like Kendrick Lamar’s Damn kept us all fired up in the face of our mad world, while the likes of Lorde’s Melodrama kept us happily distracted. We witnessed a string of brilliant female rappers take centre stage -- including Cardi B, who made money moves as she hit the top of the Billboard Hot 100 with Bodak Yellow, making her the first to do so since Lauryn Hill 14 years ago. Meanwhile, attention shifted from grime to Afrobeats, Latin American music started to go global, queer pop ruled supreme, and streaming services further altered the shape of the industry. And then there was Ed fucking Sheeran. Somehow. Again. And as we crawl out of the enduring battle that was 2017, what’s on the cards, we wonder, for music in 2018?
Will Afrobeats continue its ascent or will new-look R&B/soul slide on over and take the wheel? How will the cross-generational popularity of smart speakers influence the business of streaming? Is there really any need to sign a record deal in this day and age? And when direct relationships between artists and fans are so easily built up, is press time for artists becoming redundant? We hope not.
“My heart wants to say that Afrobeats will be the sound of this year, but my head says that R&B will take over.” – Julie Adenuga
“I don’t think Afrobeats has reached its peak yet,” Beats 1 presenter Julie Adenuga tells us in the green room of Apple’s new Kings Cross studio. “Yes, J Hus, Kojo Funds, Drake (which is funny, right?), Mr Eazi and Wizkid all had big Afrobeats tunes, but you know how grime really took over and suddenly everything, everywhere was grime? We’re not there yet, and it would be a shame for Afrobeats to not go further in 2018, just because R&B is coming back and everyone’s suddenly in love.” With newcomers like Not3s and Hardy Caprio still in their early stages, Julie’s right to be confident that there’s more to come from the scene. “There’s still no Afrobeats rave that you can go to. When you can feel the legs of it in different places, that’s when you can say that it really had its year. My heart wants to say that Afrobeats will be the sound of this year, but my head says that R&B will take over.”
Talking of which, SZA swept through 2017 with the totally beautiful and vulnerable Ctrl. “She’s making brilliantly creative songs that are so hard to bracket,” fellow Beats 1 anchor Zane Lowe says. “The album is such a freewheeling creative exercise from a listener's point of view. Some people are calling it R&B and some are calling it hip-hop, but I think she’s pop. It’s kind of like pop has gone from being such a defined category to being one of the broadest categories around. And I think in 2018 you’re going to see artists change the shape of pop all over again.”
16-year-old LA artist Billie Eilish is another good example of that, defying genres with her golden folk-tinged voice and popstar attitude. “It’s a really interesting hybrid,” Zane continues, “and I think you’ll only see more of that happening this year because pop music, in my mind at least, is the only truly malleable genre. Others evolve from themselves or make hard changes, but pop absorbs house, absorbs hip-hop, absorbs rock. What you’ve got now is this whole new shape of pop where Khalid can exist brilliantly on both R&B and future soul playlists… but still, he’s the break-out popstar, isn’t he? If you’re an artist moving in what is considered the pop landscape, you don’t just have to work with the same producers, the same structure and the same audience anymore. Pop knows that to survive it must adapt.”
“Although each year new artists come along, there are certain waves where it feels like there’s an entirely new batch of people on a similar wavelength.” – Matt Wilkinson
Boybands are going to keep on harmonising their way back into our hearts in a way that’ll leave us wondering what we ever did without them there to step-click along to. LA five-piece PRETTYMUCH hot-footed their way into the industry last summer after being pieced together and trained up by pop papa Simon Cowell, and are slowly but very surely racking up a global fanbase. Despite forming in 2013, tip of the South Korean boyband iceberg BTS have finally blown up stateside, while Texas collective Brockhampton are a bringing an entirely different meaning to the concept. The group formed after meeting each other on a Kanye West fan forum and, fronted by 20-year-old Kevin Abstract, they’re proving that you can stay independent and still make it big, having released mixtapes, toured extensively and bagged their own TV show American Boyband on VICELAND. With a new album in the works, they’re showing no signs of slowing down in 2018.
The aforementioned are all part of a new installment of often Internet-famous teens joining forces to capitalise on their followings and talents to make it big. “Although each year new artists come along, there are certain waves where it feels like there’s an entirely new batch of people on a similar wavelength,” Ex- NME staffer and current Beats 1 presenter Matt Wilkinson told us. “I think that’s happening now with people like Steve Lacy, Yaeji, Clairo, Billie Eilish, Sassy009, Smerz, HMLTD and Rex Orange County. The common denominator with all of them is age; they’re all in their teens or early twenties, so they’re all late 90s kids. They’ll all have grown up with broadband in their house, post-Napster, pre-iPhone. They knew tumblr and downloading and streaming. Musically, Steve Lacy and Billie Eilish don’t have much in common, but I bet if you looked at their reference points, it’d be similar. I’m excited to see what they all achieve in 2018. I’ve spoken to Clairo and Steve and Rex recently and they’re all so confident. Over the past few years, new artists haven’t really had that same confidence.”
Language barriers in music are set to break down further this year, following in the wake of Latin American worldwide hit Despacito and the Beyoncé of Fifth Harmony, Camila Cabello’s championing of her Cuban heritage with Havana. “Bad Bunny doesn’t speak any English but the Latin-trap scene is really picking up so we had him do a show,” Zane said. “I think that’s going to happen more and more; people are just going to let the music speak for itself and let streaming present it.” NYC-based record label 88rising are playing a key role here too, changing preconceptions of Asian musicians with killer music by half-Japanese New Yorker Joji, South Korean Keith Ape, China’s Higher Brothers and Indonesian Brian fka Rich Chigga, as well as co-signing Korean-American house-pop producer Yaeji. Almost all of the above perform in both English and their mother tongue in a perfect representation of our world in 2018.
“It’s like a new age of radio, but this time it’s personalised.” – Bas Grasmayer
As Bas Grasmayer of Berlin-based MUSIC X TECH X FUTURE wrote from an airport lounge in his latest blog post, “Smart speakers are going to change the game for music. Without a visual interface, how are you going to get your music to people? How are you going to stay top of mind? It’s like a new age of radio, but this time it’s personalised.” And it’s true. Alexa: play one of the few songs that I can remember when I’m trying to think of a song name. Lacking visual inspiration, we might be able to play music via voice control and Amazon Echo/Google Home/Sonos/Apple’s forthcoming HomePod -- Amazon has reported that tens of millions of Alexa-enabled devices sold worldwide over the holidays -- but we’re likely to resort to the same old albums as we stop discovering new music through browsing. “Imagine if you’re a baby born now, and you have Siri or Alexa in the house…” Matt mused over at Beats 1. “By the age of two, you’re talking to this thing. What’s that going to mean for music in 15 years?”
Doing away with the need for international distribution plans, streaming is connecting continents in a much simpler way. “I think we’re gonna see a development in rock and roll and country music and in areas that are not really streamed today,” Zane told i-D. “Country artists are starting to make the transition into streaming way faster than they ever made the transition from physical into download. It’s gonna be a really healthy and diverse landscape.” But as other territories get on board, we’re likely to see the impact of new music markets like China and India too, creating a greater challenge for UK artists when vying for attention. Predicting the outcome of an increasingly multi-generational streaming audience as it goes ever more mainstream, he notes that, “as more and more people start to stream, you’ll start to see a focus on existing catalogue and there’ll be life breathed into older artists. It won’t just be about new artists and releases, it’ll be about records that came out ten years ago.”
In other news. with Spotify's new artist app providing stats, demographics and real-time streaming data, it's becoming easier than ever for independent musicians to fully understand and capitalise on their market. And in terms of wider tech, as AI and VR continue to evolve, here’s hoping that tech will take us beyond underwhelming 360 music videos and into alternative live music and other fan experiences.
“I don’t think promo is a word that really matters anymore.” – Zane Lowe
We’ll be the first to admit that that we’re living in a world intensely populated with content, with publication after publication heading down the clickbait route in a bid for traffic. “How do we cut through the noise?” Zane asks. “For anyone working in labels, management, streaming, or media -- we need to work much harder to be a part of the music experience as opposed to trying to control it. It’s more like, how can we add value to the overall experience? I know that’s what we think at Beats.” With the songs already streaming, media outlets must figure out what listeners aren’t getting from the music alone, and not just how they can provide that, but how they can stand out in doing so. This is especially relevant at this point in the evolution of social media, where traditional media is verging on becoming an unnecessary middleman between artists and fanbase.
“I don’t think promo is a word that really matters anymore. The idea of it really has to be wrapped up in something that is of value, not just of promotional value. We keep ourselves straight at Beats 1 by calling it meaningful promo.” So, does it have meaning to it? Does it promote something beyond just commerce or music? Does it promote an inspiring ideology? Does it promote wider thinking? “That’s the key development in 2018,” he continues. “People want something beyond entertainment and beyond content; they want inspiration. They want the gold. They want something they can add to a list of quotes or a handbook, a playbook. And they want to keep adding to it.”