The Future Of Music: Cell Phone As iPod, Virtual Concerts And A Great Jukebox In The Sky

A brave new world is right around the corner, and one thing is certain: You're in charge.

You're sitting at Starbucks and a friend who just swiped his credit card into the store's music kiosk to download a brand-new mixtape onto his MP3 player tells you about a rare My Chemical Romance track he heard last night, which you proceed to download with a few clicks on your cell phone.

Or maybe you discover a hot new underground MC and pay $20 to join his fan club, which allows you to rhyme alongside his "Second Life" avatar whenever you want, suggest songs for him to play at an upcoming show in your town, or maybe even contribute some ideas to the lyrics he can add to a song he's writing with a group of fellow fan-club members.

Such scenarios are right around the corner. In this rapidly evolving technological world, the music industry is seemingly willing to try anything to find new ways to stop the fiscal hemorrhage caused by downloading.

And we mean anything. We talked with label executives, managers, booking agents, artists and future forecasters about what the next big revolutions in music might be (not all of them are quoted in this story). And the one thing almost everyone agreed upon is that you will be able to consume music just about anywhere and any way you want.

They talked about everything from "personal subscriptions" to your favorite artists that will give you unprecedented access to them, to custom MP3 player mixes you'll be able to buy with a quick credit card swipe at the local coffee shop. Some envision virtual concerts in "Second Life," complete with virtual merch, as well as a long-hyped celestial jukebox that could beam virtually any song ever recorded directly to your MP3 player.

A few of the changes they predicted are already on the way, like Apple's recent deal with EMI Music to sell digital-rights-management-free songs at a premium (see "iTunes, Unrestricted: Apple, EMI Agree To Drop Digital Rights Management"), which some think could lead to other major labels jumping aboard that wagon. Add that to the buzz that's been building since Apple's legal settlement earlier this year with the Beatles' Apple Corps that could pave the way for cheap, pre-loaded iPods containing an artist's entire catalog or song selections, to be sold at airports, bus depots or even at a concert.

Whether our experts think that cell phones are the new iPods or concerts can be attended without leaving your home, music will only become more portable, customizable and bite-sized in the next few years.

Takeout Playlists

"There are real discussions going on about subscription models at places like Starbucks, where you could bring in your portable device and buy a chunk of music for that week or that month," said a label executive who requested anonymity. "They'd change like the coffee flavors change, so it might be a 'Memorial Day driving mix' or a Bonnaroo [Festival] mix, and if you want to keep it, the next time you come in, you charge it to your credit card or extend the subscription for another month for a fee."

The exec said the subscription could work anywhere, from an airline's self-service checkout counter — imagine a Lollapalooza mix for that trip to Chicago — to "any place where you can swipe a credit card."

Fan Clubs With A Personal Touch

If you're going to give away free downloads, make sure you get something equally valuable in return. That's the message from Dave Kusek, author of "The Future of Music Book: Manifesto for the Digital Music Revolution." "You don't want to give your music away," he said. "You want to trade it for an e-mail address or a referral to a friend: something that has value to you but low perceived value to the customer."

In Kusek's near future, artists will trade songs for e-mails, entering fans into contests for backstage passes and creating an e-mail database that could rival any potential fanbase built by constant touring. He also foresees a not-distant time in which artists — most likely emerging ones or less established acts — charge fans $5-$20 a month to gain access to an exclusive area where they can ask the artist questions or suggest songs for them to play at their upcoming concerts.

In this private world, you will be able to "attend" exclusive living room shows, participate in songwriting contests or gain access to a monthlong suite of music created just for the club that tells a coherent musical story, perhaps with input from club members. "It can be personalized and individualized to the fan level, so that the music can have a much longer lifespan than an hour or one song," said Kusek.

Take My Album — Please!

Plenty of artists (Wilco, U2, Bright Eyes) have streamed their albums before release, but Rancid singer/guitarist Tim Armstrong has been periodically posting free, downloadable songs from his upcoming debut solo album, A Poet's Life, since late 2006 in a new promotion that already seems to have paid off, according to Chris LaSalle, label manager for Armstrong's Hellcat Records. Brooklyn, New York, singer/songwriter Tim Fite (signed to fellow Epitaph Records imprint, Anti-) gave out his Over the Counter Culture album for free earlier this year, but Armstrong's experiment is the first by a marquee artist that has created this amount of buzz.

The radical idea here (for a musician, anyway) is that the artistic creation — the album — pays for itself by functioning as a conduit for other business.

"There have been moments of silence in what would normally be marketing meetings, because everyone is learning a new thing here," LaSalle said of the unconventional plan, which will also be tried by British band the Crimea later this year in the hope that fans will reward them by buying tickets to shows and merchandise.

"Because there's been such a positive reaction [to the free downloads], it proves this can be done," said LaSalle, who explained that the experiment was not premeditated, but came about because Armstrong had a stash of songs that weren't right for Rancid, but which he wanted to give to fans as a thank you. Armstrong's plan was to film a low-budget video for each virally circulated track, and then offer the entire CD/DVD package for traditional sale on May 22. Buzz quickly built on the retro ska song "Into Action," with radio programmers calling Hellcat asking why they hadn't gotten copies, creating a domino effect that LaSalle said might be hard to replicate. "We don't worry about it devaluing Tim or Rancid's music," LaSalle said. "It's so unconventional for us — we were just trying to see what would happen and if it would even show up on anyone's radar."

LaSalle copped to the reality that this plan won't work for most other artists on the Epitaph/Hellcat roster, or many other label rosters, but he suspects completists will buy the CD because it's part of the Armstrong discography. "We've had sports franchises calling, movie people ... which takes the pressure off of us, in a way," he said. "For me, as a music fan who helps Tim run his label, the best thing is to have people this excited before something comes out."

The Infinite Jukebox In The Sky

"The coolest thing going on now is Rhapsody, Napster and other people's experiments with trying to deliver a jukebox in the sky," said David Card, an analyst at technology-research firm JupiterResearch, of the race to provide the "celestial jukebox," a long-hyped dream system that would allow users to access virtually every song ever released, anywhere, at any time.

Card said Microsoft's experiment with the Zune player's ability to share songs for preview is a glimpse of a future where downloading digital music is finally untethered from the PC. "It's hard to figure out how to make money off this without charging fees consumers wouldn't find attractive or loading it with ads," he said of the challenge of delivering songs over a still unbuilt coast-to-coast WiFi network. But if someone can figure out how to instantly capitalize on recommendations from friends and from services like Yahoo! Music and Last.FM.com, "delivering the jukebox in the sky could be the coolest thing in the world."

Hello? It's Your Playlist Calling ...

One thing nearly all of our experts agreed upon is that the cell phone will become one of the (if not the) primary music listening and purchasing device. Verizon Wireless already allows users to stream and download songs, music videos and ringtones, assign ringback tones to certain callers and, via a recently announced deal with Fergie, send barcodes to your phone that act as your ticket to her concert.

With cell phones becoming music fans' portable music "identity," Ryan Hughes, vice president of digital media programming for Verizon, talked about a soon-to-launch free service called Song ID that will allow users to hold their handset up to a speaker to identify a song and then instantly buy it (if available) as a ringback, ringtone or full song download.

"The good news is that there's an opportunity to integrate the whole thing — streaming music, downloads, ringtones, direct connections with artists — but the bad news is that you're dealing with a tiny device, so we have to spend time thinking of how to make the customer experience tie together nicely," he said. Another personalization option Verizon is exploring is offering themed ringback tone "playlists," so you can, for instance, download the Billboard top 20 and have your ringback cycle hourly, daily, weekly or monthly depending on your mood.

Consider these facts: 32 mobile phones are sold every second, and experts predict that by 2009 mobile phone sales will outpace PC sales by three to one. Nokia estimates that 500 million cell phones will be sold this year alone, compared to the 200 million iPods sold to date.

Join The Crowd — Without Leaving Your Bedroom

Adam Broitman, founder of VirtualLive TV, thinks the future of live music won't necessarily take place in a venue. His vision is to help independent artists get their music out by having them play live shows in concert halls, while simultaneously beaming those shows into virtual worlds like "Second Life" and getting advertisers to sponsor the feeds.

"I'm trying to empower indie musicians to have a much wider reach than they ever could before," said Broitman, who had his first experiment with the concept on May 10, when the band Buddhahead played a live show at New York's Canal Room that was streamed into "Second Life." Fans "attending" the concert in "Second Life" were able to watch both live webcast footage of the show and the band's avatars while chatting with fellow attendees online, while those at the venue could manipulate the avatars on a pair of plasma screens set up in the club using a Wii controller.

But Broitman said he foresees a time when audiences will not only control the cameras in a virtual world, but buy virtual-only remixes, merchandise (like exclusive virtual T-shirts for their avatars), virtual albums and other online-only gear. "I think the idea of cross-media stores, where you can get an album in real life and another extension of it in the virtual world, is great because it's just more for people to consume."

So what does all this mean for you? That a world of music — and even a world of live music — will soon be coming to you, no matter where you are. You won't even have to leave your seat. That white umbilical cord tying your music library to a PC will be cut by your music-enabled phones and pre-loaded iPods (until they're replaced by music-enabled phones). Swipe-and-go playlists might become checkout impulse purchases as ubiquitous as gum and tabloid magazines.

As Lollapalooza founder Marc Geiger told us, things are changing so fast these days that only one thing is certain: From now on, you're in charge.

For complete digital music coverage, check out the Digital Music Reports.