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Back to the Future of Music: Taking a Second Look at Some Old Predictions

Could Jim Morrison, David Bowie, or 'The Onion' hear what was coming?

For the next week, SPIN will be venturing into the great unknown to attempt to answer some questions (or at least hazard some guesses) about the future of music. Join us as we look at what the world of music — the sound, the technology, the business models — may look like ten, 20, even 30 years down the road. But first, since we are currently living in the future of the not-too-distant past, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the predictions other notable figures have made about music in the years to come, and judge how they fared.

FoM Back to the Future

Prediction: In the year 2015, retro 1980s music will be in vogue, and electronic remixes of John Phillips Sousa marches will get a lot of play.
Who Called It: Okay, so maybe this isn’t a straightforward prediction, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t consult Back to the Future 2 on this, the actual date that Marty McFly travels to in the 1989 film. Marty feels right at home at Café 80’s, listening to “Beat It” and drinking Pepsi Perfect. He also overhears remixes of “Washington Post March” and “Stars and Stripes Forever,” the latter celebrating a Chicago Cubs World Series victory.
Did It Come True? Well, it’d be hard to deny that the ‘80s are having a comeback in 2015. Carly Rae Jepsen and Brandon Flowers are using all the decade’s best music tropes, Taylor Swift released a little album late last year called 1989, cassettes are in again, and Song-of-the-Summer contender “Can’t Feel My Face” sounds like it could have been a classic MJ song. In fact, the ’80s have been so seamlessly integrated into the musical landscape in 2015 that it almost seems redundant to theme a retro café around the decade’s hallmarks. And while Sousa remixes aren’t lighting up the dance charts (and I don’t have a goddamn hoverboard), the film’s vision of the future is surprisingly on-point: The long-suffering Chicago Cubs — though currently down 3-0 the New York Mets in the NLCS — technically still even have a chance at winning the World Series this year.

FoM Seashells

Prediction: People will constantly be listening to music (or some form of audio entertainment) via little seashell-shaped devices that fit snuggly in their ears.
Who Called It: Iconic science-fiction author Ray Bradbury, in his classic dystopian future novel Fahrenheit 451. While portable audio did exist in 1953 when he wrote the book, headphones were huge, unwieldy, and used sparingly by the general populace. Bradbury’s “little Seashells,” meanwhile, were described as “thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of [the listener’s] unsleeping mind.”
Did it Come True? Yes. Not only is the slick design of modern earbuds tiny and convex, but he also nailed how people would almost always be sticking them in their ears to listen to something. The next time you walk down the street, check out how many people have little seashells in their ear — or maybe it’s easier to notice who isn’t listening to “music and talk.”

FoM Jim Morrison

Prediction: Instead of bands and analogue instruments, music in the future will be electronic — created by “one person with a bunch of machines” and involving a lot of tapes.
Who Called It: Jim Morrison of the Doors, in a 1969 interview with the PBS show Critique. “I can kind of envision one person with a lot of machines tapes and electronics set up singing or speaking and using machines,” he said.
Did It Come True? Here’s a video of the Doors’ drummer John Densmore talking about Morrison’s totally on-the-money prediction with dubstep kingpin Skrillex. So, yeah, EDM is a thing.

FoM RIAA

Prediction: The Recording Industry Association of America is going to sue radio stations for giving away music for free.
Who Called It: The Onion, in a satirical article in October of 2002. “It’s criminal,” RIAA president Hilary Rosen says in a made-up quote. “Anyone at any time can simply turn on a radio and hear a copyrighted song. Making matters worse, these radio stations often play the best, catchiest song off the album over and over until people get sick of it. Where is the incentive for people to go out and buy the album?”
Did It Come True? Pretty much. In 2007, the Los Angeles Times reported that the RIAA was attempting to collect royalties from broadcast radio stations after decades of letting them play music for free. The original article has disappeared from the web, but plenty of people noted the hilarious similarity at the time. “The creation of music is suffering because of declining sales,” said RIAA Chief Executive Mitch Bainwol. “We clearly have a more difficult time tolerating gaps in revenues that should be there.”

FoM Kurt

Prediction: Music will become irrelevant to the next generation, instead becoming more of a tool. Technology will allow people to get high off of sound.
Who Called It: Kurt Cobain, in interviews recorded for the book Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana and later used in the documentary About a Son, It’s already turned into nothing but a fashion statement and an identity for kids to use,” he said. “It’s a tool for them to f**k and have a social life. And at that point I can’t really see music being of any importance to a teenager. I think they’ll use sounds and tones and use it in their virtual reality machines, and just listen to it that way and get the same emotion from it.”
Did It Come True? Tough to say. You could argue music is less important to teens in an age with infinite varieties of media to consume, but you could counter that by saying that teens also have more music at their fingertips than ever through which to find their own identity. But as far as we know, nobody is getting high off sound yet, so let’s call this a miss.

FoM Bowie

Prediction: Copyright will no longer exist, and music will become a commodity. Touring will remain as one of the only profitable venues for an artist.
Who Called It: David Bowie, in a 2002 interview with the New York Times. Saying he couldn’t imagine wanting to be on a label in ten years, Bowie predicted that “music itself is going to become like running water or electricity. So it’s like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again.” He went on to advise future artists to “be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that’s really the only unique situation that’s going to be left. It’s terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn’t matter if you think it’s exciting or not; it’s what’s going to happen.”
Did It Come True? Well, copyright law is still going strong, and Bowie is still signed to a label, but the second part of his call is spot on. The average consumer expects their music to always be available and almost always free, so it’s good practice to heed Bowie’s advice and hit the road.

FoM Light show

Prediction: Light organs — devices that create a dazzling display of light and color to accompany music, will be everywhere.
Who Called It: Popular Mechanics, perhaps the gold standard of fanciful retro-future predictions, made this claim in 1915, 1924, and 1938. The device’s inventor, Thomas Wilfred, told the magazine that he “confidently” predicted “a few years will place ‘light concerts’ beside symphony concerts, the opera, and the movies. And every home will have a color organ, as every home now has a piano or a phonograph.”
Did It Come True? Nobody has a light organ — sorry, Thomas. But, if you consider the elaborate and meticulously planned light displays that are half of the appeal of a live EDM show, his general thought process in heralding the “light concert” might not have been too far off.

FoM Guitar Groups

Prediction: Guitar groups will soon go out of fashion, and the Beatles have “no future in show business.”
Who Called It: Decca Records in early 1962, when they declined to sign four then-unknown blokes from Liverpool in what’s widely considered one of the biggest mistakes in music history. Whoops.
Did It Come True? Well, the Beatles ended up being “bigger than Jesus,” so that was a huge whiff. Though to give Decca a bit of credit — the morbid prediction about guitar groups might’ve been premature (and one that’s been echoed pretty much continuously by various doomsday portenders throughout the genre’s history), but concerns about the future of big rock acts in an increasingly pop, hip-hop, and EDM-dominated mainstream seem more legitimate than ever.

FoM Trent

Prediction: You’ll be able to download your music almost instantly from a huge database, and it will totally disrupt distribution and put Tower Records out of business.
Who Called It: Trent Reznor, in a 1994 interview with Oregon-based design magazine Plazm, predicted the following would happen in the ensuing ten years: “Did you hear about this device that they have made, but you won’t see anywhere? Imagine walking through a record store, and there’s a database of everything that’s ever been put out, from obscure imports to Bon Jovi. You tell them which one you want, you pay with a credit card, and with high speed it downloads onto a digital cassette. You put your order in and ten minutes later, here’s your CD-quality cassette. Your artwork gets mailed to you and shows up the next day. What does that do? It eliminates retail altogether. No more Tower Records (though you can see how they could stick around). But the main thing record companies have been holding over people’s heads is distribution.”
Did It Come True? Not every detail is accurate, but given that the Internet was barely a thing way back in 1994, Reznor did an amazing job essentially describing the iTunes Store business model. And, yes, as extensively covered in Colin Hanks’ upcoming documentary, Tower Records is no more.

Brian Eno

Prediction: Music will be mostly released as an unfinished product, allowing fans to build on and customize the raw components themselves.
Who Called It: Brian Eno, in a 1995 interview with Wired Magazine. “What people are going to be selling more of in the future is not pieces of music, but systems by which people can customize listening experiences for themselves,” the sonic innovator prophesized. “Change some of the parameters and see what you get. So, in that sense, musicians would be offering unfinished pieces of music — pieces of raw material, but highly evolved raw material, that has a strong flavor to it already.”
Did It Come True? Getting closer, certainly. Music is still largely issued fait accompli, but artists are making it more malleable than ever — like when Radiohead releases the stems of one of their songs to be remixed by fans for a band-sanctioned contest, or when Run the Jewels allows the Internet to turn their entire sophomore album into a kitty frenzy. And Daniel Ek, CEO of Spotify, echoed Eno’s sentiments in 2013, predicting that artists would soon offer as many as 30 different versions of an album, or songs with multiple endings.

FoM Zappa

Prediction: The increasing power of corporations will make it possible for them to blacklist rising artists. Also, scientists will discover a “music gene.”
Who Called It: Gail Zappa, the late wife of the great Frank Zappa, in a somewhat rambling op-ed for the Huffington Post in 2010. Corporations, she said, ruled to the extent where they could make it so artists “never work this planet again.” Technological advances, she surmised, will make it easier for more people to experiment even as there are fewer actual jobs to go around, thanks to corporate overlords. As for the music gene, once the part of the brain that reacts to music is discovered, “the deaf and others will hear real music and hearing will be redefined.”
Did It Come True? While corporations are a massive part of the music industry, Gail might’ve over-estimated their boogeyman-like power, and underestimated the independent venues for sharing music and discovery. Maybe call this one a little hyperbolic, but too close to call. There is, however, evidence of a “music gene,” though scientists are still exploring the implications of this discovery.

FoM MJ

Prediction: The death of Michael Jackson.
Who Called It: Well, if you believe insane Internet message boards, Nostradamus, the infamous 16th Century French seer and conspiracy lightning rod predicted the death of the King of Pop. But the evidence is shaky, because the quatrain most commonly cited as evidence (“The boy king who walked backwards is silenced / And the children gather no more around the throne / Tears fall across the territories / And fires will rage thereafter”) has been debunked as an actual prediction, by Nostradamus or anyone else. A different (and legit) prediction from the legendary prognosticator (“The great man will be struck down in the day by a thunderbolt…”), which is also sometimes connected to MJ’s death, is much more commonly believed to be about the deaths of JFK and RFK.
Did It Come True? Well, I mean, Michael Jackson did die. But there’s no way that Nostradamus actually predicted it, or anything for that matter, because Nostradamus is bulls**t.

Hopefully SPIN can do a little better than Nostradamus as we explore the future of music.