MOBILE MUSIC’S EVOLUTION FROM MIXTAPES TO PLAYLISTS
When you think about music what do you picture? An orchestra or maybe a string quartet? Baby grand pianos in a spotlight on a stage or a rock star with his favorite guitar? Or maybe you think of a synthesizer and a DJ at their turntable. Ask someone from Gen Z this same question and they may immediately think about a streaming app on their smartphone.
Music and technology have been inextricably linked since humans invented the first instrument —
which experts say was most likely a flute in the Upper Paleolithic age. In fact, musical artists are often early-adopters of sorts. From Peter Gabriel’s pioneering automation in video to JAY-Z, who boosted independent distribution with his own streaming venture, TIDAL, artists have always been using tech to push the envelope and engage their audiences. No one knows this better than Phil Saxe. From his early days DJing at Twisted Wheel in Manchester, England — one of the first clubs to play the music that became known as Northern Soul — to managing Happy Mondays and becoming Head of A&R for the legendary Factory Records — which brought us groundbreakings bands like Joy Division and New Order — Phil has watched as cultural shifts have changed the landscape of the music industry.
Now, as a Senior Lecturer at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA), he’s perfectly positioned to comment on how the rise of mobile technology has impacted the music industry. Phil notes that mobile is just the latest iteration in the relationship between the industry and consumers.
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“MOBILE MUSIC IS NOT A NEW THING; IT’S THE TECHNOLOGY THAT CHANGES AND HAS AN IMPACT ON THE INDUSTRY,”
“When I was young I had a portable 7-inch player. Cassettes allowed people to make their own mixtapes, and to record tracks from the radio. Then personal CD players brought the power back to the industry. Then MP3 players allowed people to download individual tracks, which was divorced from the industry again. Now we have streaming and the industry is in a state of flux.”
As mixtapes have morphed into Spotify playlists, the impact mobile has had on the music industry is undeniable. From the introduction of the first iPod, the way we consume music has been changing. It’s no longer just about having hundreds (or thousands) of songs on a tiny hard drive in your pocket. Now, streaming is the norm. Who needs to buy music when you can simply subscribe to an app and call up any song with a few quick swipes? Phil observes, “All the digital service providers are distributors, which is where the money is. That change was a shock to people. Distribution is now king, and it’s changed music’s functionality.”
But the changes aren’t all about how we consume and distribute music, it’s also about how stars are made. Discovery has been transformed forever. Instead of going to your local record store to learn about the latest band, you can hop on your phone and see who other people are putting on their playlists. Or, as Phil points out, just wait to see what the algorithm suggests based on the music you already like.
MUSIC HAS ALWAYS BROUGHT PEOPLE TOGETHER, AND SMULE RECOGNIZES THE POWER THE MOBILE PLATFORM HAS TO ENHANCE AN ALREADY COLELCTIVE EXPERIENCE.
The power of the playlist is so widespread that in its SEC paperwork, Spotify stressed how important the app has been in launching unknown artists, like the now internationally-known pop star Lorde. Spotify claims that after Napster-founder Sean Parker put Lorde on his “Hipster International” playlist she “jumped past prominent artists such as Katy Perry, Drake, and Lady Gaga to land at the top of Spotify’s Viral Chart, and after eight months, she had reached over 100 million streams on Spotify and was #1 on the Billboard Hot 100."
“Mobiles have changed the way people interact. Everyone has headphones and you can’t tell what they’re listening to,” says Phil. But in other ways, mobile allows people to connect through music in entirely new ways. Take Smule for instance. “At its core, Smule connects people through music,” according to Eugenia Kovalenko, VP of Growth at Smule. “Our community is built on a collaborative foundation that’s rooted in first-person musical expression and co-creation. In the way that Instagram delivered a first-person format for photos, or Snap for video, Smule offers that for music, giving users the ability to join a global community of music lovers and sing with them directly on their phone.”
Music has always brought people together, and Smule recognizes the power the mobile platform has to enhance an already collective experience. Perhaps ironically, Smule is facilitating real-life connections among its users. Eugenia says, “Smule users self-organize a number of live meetups around the globe, from the United States to India and Brazil. We support and facilitate such meetups — sometimes even flying out to the destinations to meet members of the community.”
And the formula is working. With an estimated 50 million global users, Smule shows no signs of slowing down. “We also work with local partners to engage with the community on a larger scale,” says Eugenia . “For example, we’ve partnered with Times Group, India’s largest media conglomerate, to grow our brand footprint and user base in India. To date, we have run a number of large-scale campaigns, from student engagement in the universities to Bollywood movies, talent shows, music awards, and releasing original content on top music and video streaming services.”
Eugenia says, “Each step of the way, we are showcasing Smule users’ talent and unique personal stories.” And that content drives much of Smule’s marketing. “We partner with Product and Machine Learning teams and use that content to power our User Acquisition, Lifecycle and Monetization initiatives at scale,” Eugenia says. “For example, we leverage content sharing to drive organic traffic, create user-generated ads, and run contests to drive user engagement and revenue. We are fortunate to have our community work with us, hand in hand, to grow Smule and connect more people through music.”
Platforms and distributions channels may change, but this collaborative spirit is what music is, and always has been, about. Mobile technology is simply allowing fans and creators to come together on a whole new level — letting you share recommendations with someone half a world away as easily as you do with your closest friend.