How the pandemic shaped a music tech renaissance
During the pandemic, music tech thrived as the wider music industry fell to its knees. Declan McGlynn explores the possibilities and implications that stemmed the growth of self-sustained music makers and the potential for a creative boom
2020’s unprecedented upheaval brought with it fundamental changes to the creative industries. Theatres, clubs, studios, venues and festivals all closed their doors and with it, creative momentum for millions of artists, producers, musicians and songwriters came to an abrupt halt. For the vast majority of the music industry, and those that work in it, it’s been devastating. A report in June 2021 by IMS showed that the electronic music industry shrank by 54% in 2020. Worse still for artists, their incomes took a 68% hit, dropping from $1.3bn in 2019 to $300m in 2020. None of this will come as a surprise for even the most casual observer of 2020’s impact on electronic music.
One aspect of the industry though, not only managed to weather the storm, it actually thrived. As artists turned to creativity for comfort, so too did hobbyists who found themselves with unprecedented time on their hands. Those who’d always dreamed of picking up an instrument but hadn’t found the time handed Fender their biggest year of guitar sales ever. For DJs and producers, it was the same story: sales of entry-level Pioneer DJ controllers rocketed, online courses at one of the world’s biggest electronic music schools Point Blank doubled, then tripled, Native Instruments saw a 30% growth across their portfolio, downloads of Ableton’s free trial tripled and online DAW and creative community Bandlab surpassed 35 million active users.
It’s clear music-making and the tech industry it props up benefited massively from an explosion in newfound free time, extra disposable income, those seeking solace in creativity, DJ streamers in their kitchen and those wanting to learn a new skill. According to Google Trends, searches for ‘How to DJ’ more than quadrupled from the start of March to the start of April 2020, while ‘how to make music’ doubled in the same timeframe. As you might expect, other terms like ‘FL Studio’, ‘Ableton Live’ and ‘VirtualDJ’ all saw huge spikes, with a 55% increase in ‘Garageband’ searches. Rolling Stone reported Splice, Apogee and Roland all saw huge increases in sales and US music retailer Sweetwater was shipping 15-20,000 orders a day in April 2020.
With a huge increase in casual learners on Google and YouTube, more serious students with Point Blank, a massive uptake in instrument learning (pianos saw a 34% surge in sales in the first few months of the pandemic), music software downloads increased by two- or three-fold and DJ hardware and software up 23% across the board, there’s no doubt the pandemic has been good for music tech. But what happens when these new hobbyists emerge into a decimated industry? What are the implications of tens or hundreds of thousands of new music-makers and DJs – some who’ve never (legally) experienced clubbing, and whose experiences of electronic music production and DJing have only been realised through screens? We asked some key tech brands their experiences of the pandemic and wondered what effect tech’s boom could have on the industry as a whole.
“The increased demand and growth for our entry-level equipment has been one of the biggest surprises.” Kei Aikawa is the MD of AlphaTheta, Pioneer DJ’s parent company. “This is really positive for the industry as a whole. Hopefully, this means we will see more new talent coming through as a result – helping the industry to thrive and continue to diversify when we return to some sense of normality.” Entry-level equipment was, unsurprisingly, a theme of the pandemic. “The DDJ-400 was well received by consumers,” said Aikawa. “It’s a great affordable piece of kit, especially for anyone who is interested in learning to DJ.”
For Native Instruments it was a similar story, according to CEO Constantin Köhncke: “We saw a large influx of new users coming in – people that had never tried an NI product before. There is an ongoing trend of younger and more diverse users who usually enter our ecosystem through a keyboard or through Komplete Start, our free software bundle. That trend didn’t change last year, but it did majorly accelerate.” Ableton saw the same trends and reacted by both extending the trial period of Live from 30 to 90 days and cutting the price of the full version by 30%: “Overall, downloads of Live also increased during the early stages of the global lockdown, but there is another factor at play: As music makers started to find themselves confined to their homes, we were inundated with requests to drop the price of Ableton Live. So, we took the unusual step – for us – to temporarily discount the software by 30% which saw more people unlocking Live than normally would at that time of year.”
A spike in interest from beginners isn’t a huge shock, but the impact of a shift in demographic to younger, more entry-level users brings with it a new approach, with Könchke notes: “Those [younger] creators are eager to connect with others to learn and grow, and are definitely more united in their goals to get their music – and themselves – out there.”
More recent figures from Reverb also backup the story, with a 34% increase in synths and keyboards from January to Sept 2021, with the long-standing and unique Teenage Engineering OP-1, still being one of the most popular, ten years after its first release. Reverb also says Pro Audio gear generally had a huge upswing in interest, with over nine million searches for everything from DJ equipment to acoustic panels in 2021, while the Akai MPC One – another standalone and ‘studio-in-a-box’ unit – was another big seller.
So what are the consequences of this boom in sales and subsequent growth of creativity for the music tech as a whole?
While it’s not a new term, the ‘creator economy’ has been fired to the top of various pedestals throughout the pandemic as the solution to revenue woes for artists online. As a side note, many reading this will find the idea of calling their favourite artists, producers and DJs 'creators’ hard to stomach, but we’ll use it as a catch-all term for the sake of this discussion.
As connecting with others became impossible IRL, music makers and DJs turned to livestreaming. Twitch became one of the go-to platforms for both DJs in their kitchens, studios and exotic locations and producers turning their screens on their audience and showing their studio process. “Artists are taking their fans behind the scenes of their music creation, riffing with audiences, and getting feedback on tracks and beats in real-time,” says Twitch’s Senior Director, Head of Music Content Will Farrell-Green. “Production also extends beyond personal projects and some musicians have started live-producing tracks from fans and other artists during their streams. We really believe that this type of collaborative creation has the opportunity to transform the music industry, and we expect it to continue to grow even after live shows and touring resumes."
Selena Faider is a DJ from Paris, whose mix series That’s Why You’re Dancing started pre-2020 but accelerated during the pandemic when clubs and bars shut their doors.
“Streaming was a tool that helped me to build up my community through live streams with radios and labels and also to present more of my show ‘That’s Why You’re Dancing’”, said Faider. “In a year, it generated millions worldwide views on socials.” The show caught the attention of Defected Records and their booking agency Colluded, who signed Selena despite having never seen her play in a club.
Another example is grime producer Ghosty who's worked with Dave, Headie One, Central Cee, Digga D and more. He started a Discord server during lockdown to compliment his Twitch streaming, where he breaks down tracks and production processes in FL Studio. "Throughout my career, I have always and will always, make sure I showed support to those who support me," he told us over email. "Becoming a streamer alongside opening up my Discord server has helped me stand by this – it has allowed me direct and easy access to engage with like-minded producers, artists, A&Rs etc."
Many producers may see streaming as yet another piece of content they're forced to create to stay relevant when lack of time is already a factor in their day-to-day, especially as Twitch streams tend to be one, two, even three hours long. "The biggest challenge is, unfortunately, an ongoing one; finding the time to stream and keeping a schedule," he continues. "Being a music producer means being available 24/7 and this often coincides with streaming." It's helped by Twitch's subscription feature, which allows streamers to set a monthly fee for certain content. Ghosty's streams are free to watch live, but on-demand is subscriber-only, which costs $4.99 a month.
His advice for anyone who's interested in streaming? "Be yourself and engage with your viewers – it's key! Having that natural personality and conversations with the audience are what makes people enjoy watching and overall helps strengthen your community."
That community-first approach that was forced on artists led to a huge growth in other subscriber models like Patreon, which Cherie Hu reported for DJ Mag back in February, who said: “While membership is not necessarily the answer for every artist’s problems, it is one powerful approach to shaping a music career around the four-fold combination of financial stability, price flexibility, creative freedom and direct-to-fan communication — all of which are more desirable than ever, especially in a near 100% remote world”.
“The fact that a lot of us are relying on these individual people to support the arts when the government won’t do it shows the power of community and how important that is,” said producer and musician Zola Jesus at the time. Megacorps like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter quickly changed tack and introduced tipping, subs models and other creator-friendly features to try and keep power users on side.
The ‘creator economy’ and the shift in mindset for how artists generate revenue online is a wider topic than the scope of this article – opinions vary on whether it’s truly a new paradigm or “music’s biggest lie”, both reported by Rolling Stone US – but the growth in those entering the fray is undeniable. Payment company Stripe reported in October this year that “while 2020 saw a jump in new creators, it wasn’t a one-time spike. [In 2021], creators are still coming online at a record clip: the number of creators is up a whopping 48% year-over-year. In total, these platforms have onboarded 668,000 creators.”
As Cherie Hu also points out in another recent article, Stripe has their own reasons for releasing these numbers and they don’t tell the whole story – especially when it comes to music. Historically, going back to the invention of the term by YouTube as early as 2011, music’s role in this new economy – and the revenue generated – has always been a footnote compared to other industries. A recent Twitch leak showed that music producers earn a tenth of their gamer peers. However, the landscape is changing and as Hu points out, “In terms of revenue, certain subsectors of the creator economy are growing as much as eight times faster than music streaming.” As alluded to by NI CEO Constantin Köhncke, with a growth of new music makers who are more aware than ever of the need for community and to “get themselves out there”, it’s not a huge leap to conclude that one of the consequences of the pandemic’s growth in creatives is more self-reliant and entrepreneurial musicians and producers that embrace new revenue streams and direct-to-fan communication more than their predecessors. Or to put it another way, as music research company MiDIA’s Mark Mulligan said in April: “The rise of these fan-micro-communities built around exclusive and early access to their favourite creators will become a defining characteristic of the future of the music business.”
As these new music makers emerge into an industry decimated by COVID, it’s an opportunity to rewrite the rulebook on how artists, songwriters, DJs, producers and engineers exist online. Though it’s worth noting it hasn’t all been rosey – tech companies were not immune to supply chain problems, regardless of sales, as we noted back in September – the contrast between the wider industry’s losses and the tech industry’s growth will be an interesting paradox as the industry recovers. With two huge mergers already occurring since the pandemic began – Native Instruments and iZotope ‘joined forces’ while Loopmasters was acquired by Beatport – Output raising $45m last October and Splice raising a further $55m in February 2021, the scene is set for an explosion of creativity and musical output. In fact, as Midem put it in November 2020, a report titled ‘The Time Is Ripe For Music Tech Investors Despite COVID-19’: “Investors are not just looking for ‘the next Spotify’ in scale, but are also putting their money into practical, grassroots-focused startups that can benefit different levels of the music community.”
Music tech, specifically music-making tech companies, may have weathered the storm more than any other aspect of the industry in one of the most challenging times the music world has ever seen – how that affects the future of creative tools, innovation and musical output over the next five to ten years will be fascinating.
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