The gamification of the global music business

Electronic artist Marshmello and rock band Weezer hosting DJ sets and meet-and-greets in the game Fortnite. Sony Music launching Lost Rings, a new esports-oriented record label focused on women of color. Monstercat premiering new artists’ tracks exclusively on Rocket League. Hip-hop duo EarthGang and synth-pop group Glass Animals releasing bespoke video games that bring the character-driven narratives in their albums to life. Riot Games’ League of Legends creating a K-pop group and a hip-hop group within the span of a year, each performing live at the game’s world finals.

These are just a handful of examples of how the music and gaming industries are forging unforeseen kinds of collaborations and immersive experiences for fans. Importantly, these collaborations transcend audience demographics, musical genres and geographic boundaries, rewriting conventional wisdom in real time around what it means to be a gamer, an artist and especially a fan.

As these multidimensional, hybrid music/gaming experiences continue to surge in frequency and popularity, it’s worth critiquing them as part of wider trends in business and entertainment that are seeking not just a greater sense of play in everyday life, but also more money and control of their target audiences.

All of the case studies in the first paragraph are exemplary of “gamification,” or the application of game mechanics to non-game scenarios. Interestingly, the vast majority of online articles about gamification revolve around fields like childhood education and employee/workforce management, rather than around music or other forms of entertainment. This is understandable: school and work are often perceived by their target audiences as “not fun,” compelling companies in those sectors to turn to gaming for inspiration on how to imbue otherwise unenjoyable processes with a sense of delight. In the wider world of consumer tech, gamification has also infiltrated productivity apps like Todoist, local search-and-discovery apps like Foursquare and mass-market social platforms like Facebook.

One can break down gamification into a set of concrete features on the one hand, and more abstract, emotional outcomes on the other. Many games share common features that you may already be familiar with — a scoring or points system; a reward system that gives out coins, badges or other perks for fulfilling specific objectives; a ranking and leaderboard system that encourages competition among multiple players; customized role-playing and immersion in imagined, alternative realities; and social features like voice- and text-based chat forums.

Merely offering those features, however, isn’t enough to keep gamers coming back to their favorite titles; retention is arguably more a matter of psychology, and of how players feel. Games have been shown to trigger a dopamine release in the reward circuit of the human brain, encouraging players to revisit this sense of pleasure and fun on a continual basis. The sense of achievement and progress, the buildup of determination in the face of a challenge and the social status and approval that comes with rewards-based credentials are also significant draws for playing games over a longer period of time.

One takeaway from this potpourri of characteristics is that there’s no one-size-fits-all definition of “gamification.” Whether you’re an artist, an educator or a corporate executive, you can mix and match any of the above features or outcomes to fit your specific needs. For instance, if your music app doesn’t have a clear sense of ranking or competition among users, but still offers rewards and a sense of immersive role-playing, it’s sufficiently “gamified.”

Gamification has also yielded significant increases in “performance” among “players,” at least in a business context. For instance, call-center services firm Liveops reported in 2011 that incorporating game elements to reward its employees reduced call times by 15%, increased sales and customer satisfaction by 8% and 9% respectively and reduced training time from four weeks to just 14 hours.

Researchers have been especially excited about the immersive, world-building potential of games, which they claim could be a powerful vehicle for simulating new innovations and imagining different futures and pathways to success. “Games are like the apple falling in front of Newton’s eyes,” Barry Chudakov, visiting research fellow at the University of Toronto’s McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology, said in a 2012 survey of gamification by the Pew Research Center. “Seeing the apple fall, Newton understood something else, namely gravity … By 2020 we will realize that gaming’s ready-made (albeit carefully crafted) metalife is one of the best ways ever devised to see, understand, and improve upon reality.”

For most people, music is already emotionally fulfilling and pleasurable as an art form, so it doesn’t necessarily need to rely on gamification to become more “fun.” Instead, the main motivations for the music industry to embrace game mechanics are more financial, and more about enhancing what already works rather than curing something that doesn’t.

Financially speaking, music fans usually spend less on music than gamers spend on games. Third-party research estimates peg average spending on games for U.S. millennial and Gen-Z consumers at over $100 a month, but average spending on music for U.S. consumers at $156 a year. In the aggregate, analysts project the global recorded- and live-music industries combined to surpass US$60 billion by 2022; the U.S. gaming industry alone is projected to make nearly four times that amount, i.e. $230 billion, by that same year.

This spending gap may simply be a matter of the consumer choice that’s available. Gaming companies have mastered what are known as “multimodal business models,” whereby they enable the opportunity for players to buy skins and other features in-game, as well as tip their favorite live-streamers on platforms like Twitch and Mixer — a level of diversity far beyond the mere, all-you-can-eat subscriptions and ads that dominate the modern music-streaming world.

For better or for worse, nearly every aspect of the music business can be “gamified.” Many major-label artists and industry bigwigs are already familiar with the concept of “gaming the charts,” or manipulating the somewhat arbitrary formula behind the Billboard charts to come out as close to No. 1 as possible — an achievement that serves both as a signal of dominant market share and as a nice bullet point in a press kit. Artists ranging from Post Malone to The Black Keys have either been accused of wringing this “game” for profits, or have actively participated in the game just because they could (e.g. through album-merch bundles).

But there are numerous other examples of gamification in music beyond this more industry-facing tactic of manipulating the charts. The creative process itself has been “gamified” for decades, if not centuries. Since the mid-20th century, classical composers like John Cage, Charles Ives and Pierre Boulez have experimented with leaving elements of their compositions to chance, leading to what is known as “aleatoric music.”  Unsurprisingly, electronic music at large is now at the forefront of gamified music creation; the genre’s tools and sounds are almost completely computerized by definition, lending artists more naturally to experimenting openly with dynamic, adaptive music formats (e.g. Jean-Michel Jarre’s new “infinite musical” app, EōN).

Beyond music creation, one of the fastest-growing realms of musical gamification is concerned with fan loyalty. This often takes the form of fans racking up “points” for supporting and consuming music by their favorite artists, which can be redeemed for exclusive rewards and experiences. For example, startups like FanLabel and Artistory are building a platform for “fantasy record labels,” whereby fans can assemble their own “brackets” of artists that they think will perform best against some predefined metric (e.g. most streaming, social and/or live activity), then compete with other “players” in exchange for prizes. Other apps like Sweet and Laylo similarly tie redeemable points to repeated consumption and engagement with artists, without the stricter format of needing to build one’s own label.

The intention with these experiences is not only to operationalize the self-organizing ambassadorship that fans already perform on behalf of their favorite artists, but also to put them in the aspirational, glamorized position of an A&R executive. FanLabel’s homepage reads: “Prove you’ve got what it takes to be the next music mogul!” Similar rhetoric abounds in other role-playing games (RPGs) centered around artists, such as the K-pop-centric game BTS World, whose app description reads: “As BTS’s manager, their debut is up to you! Is this the beginning of your success story? … It’s time to live your wildest dreams — jump right in!”

Importantly, gamifying fan loyalty doesn’t necessarily require building separate apps that don’t yet exist. Some already-popular streaming and digital-download music services, particularly in East Asia, now have leaderboards that rank top fans by how many “copies” of an album they purchased. One instance found a fan purchasing over 400 copies of Jay Chou’s 2016 album Jay Chou’s Bedtime Stories — a total cost equivalent of US$1,200 — via QQ Music, a service owned by Tencent Music.

Tencent Music has also successfully adapted the “multimodal business models” prevalent in the gaming world for a musical context, which is unusual for a mass-market music-streaming company. For instance, paid subscriptions and advertising account for nearly 100% of Spotify’s revenue, but only 30% of Tencent Music’s revenue; the remaining 70% comes from direct tips, donations and paid virtual gifts that fans send to their favorite artists as well as to each other, an income source deemed “social entertainment services.” This model feels particularly disruptive in Western music markets because it’s monetizing fandom, rather than just consumption (the latter of which is prioritized on the Billboard charts).

Beyond recorded music, there is also quite a lot of gamification happening in the live-concerts sector — and Marshmello’s renowned Fortnite shows only scratch the surface of what’s possible. Beyond Fortnite, other companies have built and envisioned a future in which virtual performers live on a cloud-based game server and could then be streamed onto a projector in a concert venue or on a festival stage (Auxuman), or in which artists and fans could construct their own narrative “scenes” alongside their favorite songs in virtual reality, using 3D design tools (Wave).

Importantly, the gamification in these virtual-concert experiences revolve less around individualistic competition, and more around collective, coordinated action towards shared rewards — i.e. deeper interactions with artists and novel, more visually-driven ways of thinking about music. This reinforces how there’s no uniform approach to implementing a “gamified” environment: it can be highly social, interactive and collaborative, or anti-social, individualistic and competitive, depending on what the objective demands.

With all of this in mind, it’s now worth considering which parts of artists’ careers should be gamified, and which ones might be better left alone.

From the blatant profit-farming behind loot boxes to ongoing accusations of promoting violence and sexism, gaming companies and their surrounding communities regularly face criticism for multiple financial, technological and social reasons. But there are also several, higher-level criticisms whose implications can be generalized to any industry looking to be “gamified,” including but not limited to music.

An overemphasis on gamification for retaining audiences has the potential danger of making people too attached to the surface-level game, rather than to the core idea or goal being “gamified” in the first place. For instance, in the context of the workplace, employees could be too attached to a game that simulates strategic, high-risk decision-making, and continually opt for playing the game instead of actually making the decisions on the job. In the context of music fandom, this dilemma could take the form of fans feeling more attached to playing a given game than to the artist behind it.

Gamified metrics at large also introduce an extrinsic motivating factor that could potentially tarnish the “organic,” “pure” nature of much music fandom. In the words of Harvard Law School professor Susan Crawford: “Any metric corrupts, as people shape their behavior to ensure that they come out on top.” At its most extreme, this dynamic could incentivize fans to cheat their way to “ultimate” fandom by outpacing their “competition.”

The concept of the fantasy record label is a pertinent example of how these two drawbacks — over-attachment to the game, and corrupted, metrics-driven incentives — could combine into a singular experience that truly distorts both artistry and fandom as we know it.

Hypothetically, a fan’s ideal label, constructed independently of metrics, would consist of artists to whom that fan has cultivated a deeper connection rooted in a combination of emotion and culture. A metrics-driven user experience, however, inherently prioritizes quantification and commodification over something like cultural impact that is much more difficult to pinpoint in a single statistic. This could potentially create a dangerous mindset for artists — particularly in the context of independent music scenes, whose incentives would shift from driving culture to simply maximizing commodification on a select number of media platforms.

What’s more, with “traditional” video games and sports, the rules, playing field, player stats and other necessary information to build a bracket or participate effectively in a competition are fully transparent. In contrast, the music industry is notorious for its sprawling yet opaque ecosystem of gatekeepers, marketing and promotional budgets and spur-of-the-moment emotional impulses that could make or break artists behind closed doors  — none of which fans can observe as openly to inform their own label decisions.

Importantly, there’s a catch-22 situation here: making the metrics of music-driven gameplay more transparent could be more inclusive for a wider range of fans — but then the variables at play become more observable, which then makes the game more “game-able.” In fact, in the specific context of fantasy record labels, there is the potential danger that incorporating streaming and social-media metrics into a label’s performance turns the experience into a popularity contest — which might only further amplify the top 1% of artists, rather than democratizing exposure and benefits for lesser-known acts.

In the most unlikely but not impossible case, gamification could provide the groundwork for what is potentially being classified as an official mental disorder, impacting the mental health of both artists and fans. “Internet gaming disorder” was included as a “potential new diagnosis” in the fifth revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), issued in 2015. Whether video gaming addiction indeed satisfies the conditions of a diagnosable addiction — i.e. compulsive engagement in a seemingly rewarding experience despite much more serious repercussions — remains a public debate. Regardless of which side is more “correct,” its potential diagnosis in the context of music harks back to the issue of mistaking the game of reality, and of players and artists preferring a musical game over its underlying cultural impact.

Researchers in the gaming world at large have spoken out about how games may not be an effective stand-in or complete substitute for effective social relationships among players. As Hilarie Cash, founder of reStart, a rehab center specializing in internet and video-game addiction, recently told The New York Times, gamers addicted to the activity have “an intimacy disorder. They don’t really know how to build and maintain intimate relationships. The solution to addiction is connection … It’s all about building friendship and community that is face to face, in person, rather than online.” Extending this to music, one could argue that Marshmello’s virtual concert in Fortnite is most successful if it only further compels fans to see the artist perform face-to-face, at a more “traditional,” brick-and-mortar live show.

Hence, while there is enormous opportunity for creative and strategic cross-pollination between the music and gaming industries, professionals in the former world would do well to examine future opportunities for musical “gamification” with a careful eye. How can the music industry be gamified in a way that keeps artists and fans happy and healthy? How can gamification benefit a wider range of artists, instead of lifting up heavily-financed celebrities even further above everyone else? And which parts of music would be better off left alone by gaming mechanics, and why?

Like any other technology, gamified systems can be tools for control and manipulation as much as they can be enriching sandboxes for imagination and social connection. And while most people would likely welcome a sense of play into all aspects of their lives, very few actually enjoy being played. In fact, the best-case scenario would be to create an entirely new paradigm that we haven’t seen before — in which our music industry is more playful, more immersive, more direct and more culturally impactful, without feeling the pressure to attach itself to a predefined industry.

Perhaps Alex Halavais, associate professor at Arizona State University, was right from a terminological standpoint. As he suggested in the aforementioned Pew Research Center survey: “By 2020, anyone who ever used the term ‘gamification’ will be embarrassed to admit it.”