These 20 Startups Want to Control the Future of Music
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There’s a widespread perception that music technology has stopped evolving.
We somehow arrived at an amazing utopia of around-the-clock digital music, with every possible song available anytime at almost no cost. Now we live happily ever after—with a beautiful playlist in the background.
But the reality is much different. I hear every day from smart people who want to change the music world. And they aren’t joking around.
They almost always come from outside the traditional music industry. They have no patience with how things are done at Sony or Universal Music. They usually have STEM degrees and advanced analytical skills. They are highly ambitious with a will to dominate.
I take these people seriously. Maybe not all of them, but at least a few of them will shake things up.
Here’s how it has impacted my own life: In the past, musicians contacted me, asking me to listen to their music, and of course that still happens. But increasingly I’m asked to look at business plans or take phone calls from CEOs.
What a strange world!
It seems like people who care about music should pay attention to these things. And if you make a living in the music business, your livelihood will depend on dealing with these emerging technologies.
But it don’t come easy, as a groovy drummer once said. These startups are scattered all over the world, and some of them are rather secretive about their long-range plans.
Adding to the problem, nobody in mainstream journalism seems to be on top of this subject. You can find a million record reviews online, but who is evaluating next-generation music technologies with any degree of savvy?
The short answer: Nobody. At least, nobody I’ve met.
I have a hunch that a few smart people working in venture capital are totally on top of the emerging music tech. They have to be— because billions of dollars are at stake here. But these insiders aren’t about to share their knowledge for free.
So you’re stuck with me.
I’m like that old blues musician playing at the club who announced to the audience: “I may not be the best, but I’ll keep on singing until the best come around.”
With that goal in mind, let me share a survey of 20 tech startups that are creating the future landscape for music. At least a few of these will shake up our world, for better or worse.
Before looking at the companies, let me share some key takeaways.
Traditional music businesses (e.g., record labels) are rarely involved in these startups. There are a few exceptions, as you will see, and they are revealing.
Although there is a lot of buzz about blockchain and NFTs, a huge amount of innovation is happening in other areas.
Many of the startups are tiny, but in some instances they have raised $25-$50 million or more. This may seem like a lot of money, but I note that traditional music companies will spend ten times that amount on acquiring the publishing catalog of an 80-year-old rock musician. So you really get a sense of priorities when you study these matters.
A meaningful number of these startups aim to make musicians irrelevant or obsolete, usually with some kind of artificial intelligence. Record labels seem more interested in these initiatives, while ignoring many of the rest—I’ll let you decide why that might be the case.
The bottom line: Music tech is evolving faster than the music itself, perhaps for the first time in history. So the next revolution might not be televised, but it sure as hell will be funded by venture capital.
Okay, let’s now look at 20 ambitious music startups.