Like smart watches and cars that drive themselves, the celestial jukebox is no longer science fiction. Thanks to the supercomputers that 71 percent of Americans now keep in their pockets, whether tablets or phones, everyone’s a mobile-music power user. Streaming has brought fans access to any song, any time, anywhere. As users listen, they can receive a steady stream of free content — photos, tweets, videos — from their favorite stars in real time. They can view tour dates, purchase tickets, buy merch, interact with fellow fans. They can use their phones to watch Beyoncé’s “7/11” video — which itself was shot on a phone.
While none of these things were invented in 2014, this was the year they all coalesced. Call it the mobile singularity: The ubiquity and stability of the above features have forever changed how fans listen to, share and pay for music. From U2 invading iTunes libraries to Jaden Smith releasing his new record as an app, 2014 was highlighted by wild growth and experimentation in mobile promotion and distribution.
“When I started doing this in ’99, we were the kids in the back of the room who didn’t get to say much,” says Dan Kruchkow, chief marketing officer/head of digital strategy at Crush Music, which manages Sia and Train. Today, “Everyone has grasped it. It’s just as important as any other part of the business.”
This year saw multiple developments that portend a mobile-dominated future. Following the release of its free tier to mobile devices last December, Spotify’s numbers swelled to 50 million active users, 12.5 million of which are paying subscribers. And streaming isn’t the industry’s only hope for new revenue. Artists ranging from Lil Wayne to Panic at the Disco have released apps, most stacked with in-app purchase capabilities. In a world where the app Kim Kardashian: Hollywood reportedly rakes in north of $200 million, these apps are about to become an increasingly important revenue stream for music. “[Mobile gaming] is growing explosively while the record business contracts, so it’s doing something right,” says Tim Quirk, the former head of global content programming for Google Play, who left this year to start Freeform, an app-development platform that takes cues from mobile gaming. “It’s not that people are unwilling to part with money — mobile gaming is proving that can happen.”
Meanwhile, mobile ads exploded this year, with spending up 80 percent compared with 2013, according to eMarketer. These ads can be targeted as effectively as Tomahawk missiles. “We’ve thrown out the old playbook,” says Theda Sandiford, vp commerce for Republic and Island Records. “I already know if you’re connected to Facebook through Spotify, so that ad that I serve will be targeted just to those people, and I’m driving their consumption: Listen to the new song, listen to the new playlist from this artist.”
Additionally, the maturation of social tools has helped artists attract and engage fans like never before, whether that’s Shawn Mendes and his 3.4 million Vine followers, Lindsey Stirling’s 5.7 million YouTube subscribers or the queen of all (social) media, Taylor Swift, whose canny use of Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr helped drive the massive demand for 1989. “As much effort as you put into making your album or your video, [social] content is equally important,” says Kruchkow.
“In the past there was an on-cycle/off-cycle mentality,” says Sandiford. “In a mobile, connected world, there is no off-cycle. Now, A&R is not just making a record. It’s how a record can be broken into bite-size pieces that engage audience over time.”
So what does this add up to? Utter chaos, pretty much. For all of the accessibility and targeting and sharing that mobile facilitates, it has created an increasingly fractured landscape, one where business models and best practices are in constant flux. Swift is the year’s biggest success story, but her decision to pull her catalog from Spotify in order to drive downloads and physical sales, while arguably lucrative, was not seen as a progressive one. “If the idea is revenue generation,” Quirk says, “Taylor gets an A. If we’re grading her on lessons that are applicable to the rest of the music industry, it’s a D minus.”
That’s because downloads are dipping, streaming is booming, and there are only a half-dozen artists in the world who can still marshal their fans to Target. The future of music is mobile, and it’s one to which even Swift will eventually have to adapt.
“The world is on mobile,” says Kruchkow. “It’s not an option anymore — you better be on it.”
This article first appeared in the Dec. 20 issue of Billboard.