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Is Music Tech Neglecting DIY Artists? (Guest Column)

The next generation of music tech innovations already looks promising, but most developers are catering to producer needs -- often at the expense of artists.

If there’s been one constant in the modern commercial music industry, it’s that producers have always had more than their fair share of power. Even as the proverbial walls come down and more routes open up for independent labels and other groups, artists struggle with direct access to critical tools for success. Yes, it’s tempting to buy into the idea that anyone can have a meteoric rise to fame if they find the right resources floating around on the internet; after all, Lil Nas X wrote diamond-certified “Old Town Road” over a $30 instrumental. The fact remains, though, that most artists won’t strike gold sifting through a virtually endless online wilderness of inconsistent audio quality, license terms, and prices without resources on par with those producers control.

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That doesn’t mean all hope is lost. On the contrary, a close look at some of today’s most useful production mechanisms reveals untapped potential in the music technology sphere for reaching out directly to artists. Affordable, subscription-based models take center stage in working toward a more accessible industry. In fact, the continued surge of low-barrier tools means there’s never been a better time to build an independent career in the music business.

Production Tools

Some of today’s most successful tools for producers are familiar ones long in use. Digital audio workstations like Ableton Live, Logic Pro, Pro Tools, and FL Studio continue to set industry standards decades after their first versions. It’s easy to see what gives them staying power. Though in many ways using different models (Ableton offers multiple pricing tiers, while Logic charges a flat fee), these DAWs are similarly trustworthy. Their features are carefully programmed for ease and quality, while their relatively high profiles mean each lends itself well to a wide range of plugins and downloadables, compatible with the program at hand. Bolstering such products, in many cases, is a substantial amount of capital. Logic’s parent company Apple and Pro Tools’ Avid can afford to pour vast resources into engineering. The fact that they do makes it clear just how eager they are to maintain relationships with producers of all levels.

Tasos Frantzolas
Tasos Frantzolas

Relatively standardized software gives producers access to not only directly vetted tools, but a wider marketplace that makes it easy for third parties to buy and sell sounds and other services. Sounds.com uses a credits-based system to broker royalty-free loop sales. In 2021, the parent company (plugin maker Native Instruments) was valuable enough to attract leading equity firm Francisco Partners, now Sounds.com’s majority shareholder. Other platforms have ridden the rise of the subscription model over the last several years, like sound library and plugin distributor Splice, sample clearance site TrackLib, “inspiration machine” Arcade as developed by Output, and AI-based audio mastering and distribution service LANDR. As with other major producer-focused products, these four companies have attracted major attention translating into significant investments. With $20.9M to date, TrackLib counts Sony among its investors. Output and LANDR put together boast over $80M in funding. Splice, meanwhile, has raised around $159.7M in capital, from investors that include Goldman Sachs.

Accessible and streamlined models are critical in a continuing era of relatively successful independent musicians. Beat leasing sites like Beatstars, Soundclick, Airbit, and Traktrain make especially good use of monthly subscriptions. There, producers can set their own rates and license terms: they have full control and a space to set up shop. Customers browsing these beats bazaars thus often have plenty to sort through. While it sounds like a good problem to have, it can be overwhelming for anyone who isn’t fully trained in audio engineering and intellectual property law to try and find high-quality beats at the right price and with the right licenses. In a sense, the producers are the primary customers of these beat platforms, as they are the ones that pay a monthly fee to lease their beats. It’s no surprise that they tend to be tailored for producers instead of optimized with vocalists in mind.

Artist Tools

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette notes that, in the U.S. alone, 1 in 6 people sing in a choir. A study by Chorus America puts that total number at around 42.6 million, with most coming together in open community spaces. That’s far from being the full story. Top vocal recording and effects app Voloco has had 57 million downloads since its launch, indicating an even larger market of singers and rappers. It’s hard to say, though, how many would like to take music more seriously but are dissuaded by the high cost of marketing themselves, the low percentage of royalties and industry gatekeeping.

Thanks to tech innovation, this situation already shows signs of changing. Easy distribution through Soundcloud has produced genuine stars in recent years, and it’s simpler than ever for independent artists to upload to Spotify and Apple Music. Platforms like Bandcamp and Patreon have made especially thoughtful efforts to pass more revenue directly to artists. DistroKid, TuneCore and UnitedMasters let artists and producers keep all the royalties they earn, making them especially helpful for independent creators. Distribution platforms, though, don’t address most of the problems artists face. There are quite a few steps between casual chorus member and published recording artist, and it’s not an easy path to navigate. You might strike gold in those producer-driven marketplaces, but there’s no guarantee. Mixed quality beats and confusing licensing often make for a bewildering experience. Many of the more straightforward artist tools require additional hardware, whether for the recording process itself or to sync up with other collaborators.

We are, though, seeing signs of steady activity in the underserved space of sorely-needed artist tools, opening it up to a new wave of apps looking for room to grow. In fact, the next generation of music tech innovations already looks promising. Recording apps specifically tailored to vocalists, like Voloco and Rapchat, bring top-of-the-line vocal processing to mobile users. Rhymer’s Block combines the ease of a virtual notebook with a smart rhyming dictionary to not only give writers a place to keep thoughts, but help with fleshing them out. All of these apps make it clear that there’s success to be had in serving artists. They also, though, operate on a different scale than producer tools. These are products driven by small teams, with minimal funding. While these are choices that such companies often make deliberately, they have limitations. When compared with the major producer tools funded by venture capitalist investment and sometimes owned by public companies, small artist tools tend to be single-purpose. Even Auto-Tune makers Antares have kept their business relatively pared down rather than expanding their product line. For investors, the message is clear: artists are ready for some serious technological expansion.

Big tech is starting to pay attention, albeit slowly. In the past few years, Facebook has launched the mobile app BARS and Snapchat has acquired U.K. startup Voisey. Both are mobile voice studios with a TikTok feel. It’s unclear how aggressively Meta or Snap are promoting and investing in these apps (BARS’s user growth seems anemic) or if they have the right DNA to create engaging music applications. These companies didn’t suddenly fall in love with songwriters. More likely, the two acquisitions demonstrate the U.S. tech industry’s anxiety about missing out on the next big thing, like they did with TikTok.

The Future

Looking at the options producers have in terms of their own tools makes it easy to see the gaps for singers and musicians. How do artists take advantage of production opportunities to shift a notoriously fickle industry in their collective favor? The brightest future is one in which music tech leaps toward quality and accessibility. Key interventions like streamlined sound licensing, algorithmically-informed lyrics, and multipurpose collaborative tools stand out as having particular potential.

Beat It: Producers shouldn’t be the only ones who benefit from a prolific beats marketplace. What artists need are user friendly digital spaces where beats are carefully quality controlled and organized in meaningful ways. Even more important are standardized licensing agreements put in place before sounds have a chance to reach artist ears. Single-license models tend to dominate almost every content category, as sectors like stock photography have shown. Subscriptions make this even easier, and have come to dominate stock music (e.g. Epidemic Sound, Artlist), the music loops space (e.g. Splice) and many other facets of music making. A good platform makes sure experienced industry professionals are holding beats to high quality standards (in clothing terms, think The RealReal or StockX versus eBay). That way, all that’s left for artists is the process of picking their favorites–without having to worry about unwanted audio artifacts or puzzling fine print.

A.I. Lyrics: You shouldn’t have to have Max Martin on speed dial to lay down a decent set of lyrics. A future tailored toward singers means devising ways to point them in fruitful textual directions. Apps that put A.I. to work on chorus and verse may sound like a meme in the making, but they aren’t all that far off in the future. Already, the tech world is taking steps toward generating song lyrics that are genre- and mood-appropriate. Take LyricJam, which uses a neural network to “write” lines that match the audio it hears in the hopes of inspiring instrumentalists. Is your iPhone ready to face off against Kendrick Lamar? Maybe not yet, but promising new smart innovations offer hope that vocalists will soon have much more original content at their fingertips worth building into full songs or even taking straight to the home studio.

All Together Now: In the era of remote musical collaboration, building a holistic system for a sustainable career can be tricky. Even as the rise of independent labels continues, it’s not easy for most singers and instrumentalists to piece together everything they need. Distance can make this even harder, but it also makes it more vital to have every moving part in its right place. What up-and-coming artists need from tech is an all-in-one super-app that lets them subscribe to every tool they need to move their creative processes from the private sphere to a more professional platform.

Right now, the gaps are major. For vocalists in particular, it’s hard to capture good quality audio and edit recordings on personal devices without buying extra equipment. And, while long-distance recording and collaborating between singers and producers is starting to take place more frequently for artists like Drake, it’s not easy for most consumers to find means of real-time production through accessible apps and browser tools that counter issues like latency and bandwidth variance. Recent booms in communication technology have shown the world that distance doesn’t have to be an obstacle to working together. It’s time for music tech to catch up and enable real time remote artist-producer collaboration for the masses.

A true path forward for artists is one that looks to empower not just producers but the creative communities they work with. The music world is ready for developers to step in and shake up the industry, and there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Subscription models and widespread, accessible tools have long been part of the music producer’s toolkit. It’s time to give rappers and singers the chance to seize those means of audio production, leveling the playing field and sounding out self-determination.

Tasos Frantzolas is the founder of Beatopia.com, which offers a beats subscription for rappers and singers. Their producers’ credits include: Kehlani, NBA Youngboy, Gunna, Katy Perry, Jonas Brothers, Wizkid, Ty Dolla $ign and Lil Pump.