Where Will Music Head in 2021?

What’s next for the music industry?  With so many artists recording and releasing music from home, the entire landscape of music has changed.  In this article, we take some educated guesses on where music may be headed next.

The digital era brought a sea change in the way we release and receive music.  Many of our favorite releases of the past few years have never existed in physical form.  Turns out the timing was just right; as the pandemic hit, most major distributors were shut down, along with vinyl, CD and tape manufacturing plants.  But this didn’t put the entire industry on pause; instead, music boomed.  While labels can still be an incredible asset, a motivated artist can do much of the work of a label alone, from recording at home to publicizing and distributing online.  We’re always amazed whenever we receive a submission from an artist who writes, “I just finished my album an hour ago; here it is!”

The only downside of this shift is that it has led to a huge amount of music being released, which on this site amounted to a staggering 10,000 submissions in 2020 ~ and we’re only a small part of the music industry, focusing on instrumental and experimental music.  In these categories alone, it would be easy to at least quintuple the aforementioned amount by checking the releases on Boomkat and Bandcamp.  Let that sink in for a moment: we estimate that approximately 1000 instrumental and experimental albums are released every week.

Now you can see why an artist has to be either incredibly motivated or with a label just to get noticed, and of course the music will have to make an impact as well.

This being said, physical formats still draw the attention, even if the profit margins are small.  And a creative package is even better.  See for example our Best Packaging feature from last month for a sample of eye-catching releases: objets d’art that one will want to own and display.  Digital may be convenient, but physical is endearing.  We have faith that physical formats will survive, although we predict a rise in releases pairing physical components (for example, books, dolls, or scannable shirts) with downloads.

Genre by Genre Breakdown

The pandemic affected everything, and will continue to do so in 2021.  Ambient music seemed to be perfectly poised to address the isolation of quarantine, and did so in a number of ways.  Some artists recorded what they felt personally  in the form of isolation diaries; others recorded for others in order to spread calm.  But we’re still processing everything that happened in 2020, so there’s room for a definitive isolation album to be recorded.  (For now, the title goes to William Basinski’s Lamentations.)  Expect the genre to continue to head in both directions, while much more ambient music will be inspired by and/or directed to our current condition.

In like manner, drone music has evolved in recent years to take on more political stances.  This facet is especially apparent in noise music, but the anger that drone is able to convey has been cathartic.  Whether railing against xenophobia, racism, or injustice, we expect artists to continue composing loud music as social protest.  In like fashion, we’ve recently seen (or simply embraced) a large amount of experimental music including elements of spoken word.  Whether isolation makes us miss words, or we’re eager for truth-telling, the result is a new love of narrative:  sound art, radio play, collage.  This is the category that is most likely to surprise us in 2021, as there’s so much to say that hasn’t been heard.

Field recordings and soundscapes turned out to be one of our most important genres in 2020.  The amount of raw data on hand was overwhelming, and many artists with foresight captured everything they could: the sounds of deserted cities, of food bank lines, of suddenly-recovered ecosystems.  This year, they will take inventory and create new stories from sonic architecture.  We look forward to hearing what comes out of this field.

Now to three areas that have been greatly affected by lockdown:  electronic music, rock and jazz, and modern composition (associated with clubs, bars, festivals and concert halls).

The boom in electronic music has been the biggest surprise of the past year.  While clubs have been closed, nostalgia has revived struggling genres from trip-hop to breakbeat to jungle.  We expect this to continue as long as we remain in lockdown.  We’re also hoping for a matching resurgence of post-rock (which was relatively quiet in 2020), and while we’re not holding our breath, now is the time ~ if only the bands are allowed to rehearse.  Size restriction has also affected modern composition.  We expect to hear fewer orchestral works, save for those built through file sharing apps.  Soloists and small ensemble may represent the bulk of early year releases.

But the second half of the year should be an entirely different story.  We’re looking forward to an explosion of joy.  These latter genres in particular are well-suited to make this emotional shift.  We can’t imagine the sort of music that will accompany our return to the clubs, festivals and concert halls; we only know it will be joyous and communal.  In the second half of 2021, we may hear the happiest music of our lives.

We can’t wait to see if these predictions come true.  The creative arts continue to surprise us, and we wouldn’t want it any other way!  A Happy New Year to all of our readers, and we’ll return on Monday with our 5-part Winter Music Preview! (Richard Allen)


  1. Re physical releases: it seems to me that this year there’s been a decisive increase in the production of cassettes. Maybe it cost less making them, and maybe you can sell them better. Fact is, they’re nice, weird but warm. They actually could be the physical format of the near future. Last year I happened to have bought a lot of them.

  2. Pingback: Where Will Music Head in 2021? – Avant Music News

  3. thanks a lot for including the “Anthology Of Experimental Music From Mexico” in your excellent article!

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