The Role of APIs in The Music Industry

The Role of APIs in The Music Industry

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When you think of web APIs, music may not be the first thing that comes to mind. Lately, however, we’ve seen more and more platforms emerge that have prompted us to think about the role that APIs currently play (and may play in the future) in this space.

According to Postman’s 2023 State of the API Report, 3% of folks who work with APIs do so in “gaming/entertainment/media.” Unfortunately, that’s about as specific as the report gets, making it tricky to pinpoint an exact figure for how many API developers work in the music industry.

It’s probably safe to assume that the percentage of API developers working in the music industry is comparable, at least, with the 1% working in real estate or non-profits/charity. In other words, although it may be a small slice of the overall market, it’s still significant.

And there are some fascinating use cases, which we’ll cover in more detail below, that may get you thinking about music and APIs in a completely new way. So, is it an exaggeration to say that APIs are literally changing the face of the music biz? Let’s find out.

Big Players in the Music Industry Are Embracing APIs

Historically, music database APIs have been what most people mean when they say “music API.” That heritage dates back to Richard Jones launching Audioscrobbler in 2002, which opened an API shortly afterward. (Hands up if you remember “scrobbling”!)

More recently, at WWDC22 Apple introduced its Apple Music API, which can be used to retrieve information about albums, songs, artists, playlists, charts, recommendations, and more. It can pull information about record labels and the curators of playlists or radio stations, too.

Spotify also has an API that developers can use to retrieve content metadata, generate recommendations, create or manage playlists, and control playback.

Elsewhere, APIs from the likes of Shazam and Genius allow developers to do some cool stuff like build applications capable of song detection, lyric analysis, or artist facts. Bandcamp, meanwhile, offers APIs that labels and merchandise fulfillment partners can use to measure sales and manage orders.

We’ve previously written about how SoundCloud’s early adoption of APIs helped them to break down monolithic architecture while Spotify uses APIs internally to handle complexities around their subscription payments.

The deep and ongoing support for APIs in the music space demonstrates a refreshing openness and progressiveness while simultaneously demonstrating just how powerful they can be.

What Exactly Do We Mean By “Music APIs”?

The concept of a “music API” is not currently particularly well-defined, partly because its meaning has been in flux for several years. As we’ve seen above, however, they’re not just relegated to data retrieval anymore.

Beyond this, we could be talking about anything from the Java Sound API, which can be used to control audio capture, playback, MIDI synthesis, and basic sequencing, or a music discovery app powered by an API through to APIs capable of procedurally generating music on the fly.

The latter may sound fanciful, but music startup Mubert, for example, claims to have used AI to generate 100 million music tracks as of July 2023. The company has an API for B2B customers, partnering with the likes of Anghami and Sensorium Galaxy, which has doubtlessly contributed to the 56 million tracks created by users.

A Stack Overflow thread, meanwhile, suggests music programming environments like Csound and SuperCollider (both of which offer APIs) to a user looking for just such a service. Maybe the guys in Daft Punk need to watch their backs…

AI and APIs in the Music Space

In Postman’s 2023 State of the API Report, 16% of those surveyed said they were most excited about creating IoT (Internet of Things) apps, second only to generative AI-powered apps (37%). That’s particularly relevant when it comes to the music space.

Many of us have already asked Siri, Alexa, or some other virtual assistant to “play smooth jazz” or “put on some classical music” at one time or another. However, most of us probably don’t give too much thought to what’s going on behind the scenes.

A smarter take on this, such as using AI to play our favorite artist’s new album the second it drops on launch day or creating ad hoc playlists to suit what we’re doing at the moment, are fun possibilities. APIs play a critical role in enabling smart assistants, which routinely rely on them to function, and their impact on music discovery is a great example of how rapidly that space is evolving.

AIMS API, for example, launched Prompt Search in 2023, allowing end users to discover new music based on a scene, location, time period, or musical style using natural language. We should probably expect to see similar features rolled out in streaming services sooner rather than later.

But that’s not the only trick AI has up its sleeve regarding music. We’d be remiss not to mention that Amadeus Code launched an AI-powered API in 2023 that can generate royalty-free music based on non-musical text prompts (like “summer” or “cosmetics”) alone.

Amadeus’ first customer for the product was Roland, which produces musical instruments, equipment, and software. In other words, APIs are already helping budding musicians create background music, synth presets, and ambient sounds in conjunction with AI.

An API for Every Musician…?

In 2023, Building Stans put out an article suggesting that “the time is now for artists to launch their own APIs.” It’s a fascinating article that, in part, inspired this piece. The idea that every musician should have their own API sounds like overkill, but the case is compellingly argued.

“To stay competitive as an artist today,” the piece suggests, “artists should consider creating a framework, an artist API, to license and leverage the most valuable part of their artist IP — their unique likeness.” The article suggests that artists could use an API to systematically capitalize on rapid technology shifts while helping to meet new fan demands more efficiently.

So, what might all of that look like? Let’s say that Taylor Swift uses AI to create a voice generation API that comes close to studio quality. (Granted, given her ongoing struggles to reclaim her masters, she might be the last person to do so). Consumers could license that API to have her “sing” over licensed Lana Del Rey instrumentals, back up Ozzy Osbourne in old Black Sabbath tracks, or just about anything else they can dream up. In other words, unofficial fan creations could become officially sanctioned by the artists themselves.

The issue of whether or not artists actually want to do this is almost immaterial because it’s already happening without them. Many labels are actively resisting AI covers right now, but they may end up pivoting to embrace them, and artist-specific APIs could be one way to do just that.

The Future of Music APIs

Building commercial products using music APIs is a bit of a minefield. It’s navigable with funding and the proper guidance, but it’s difficult to imagine a startup going up against the might of Spotify, Apple Music, or YouTube Music.

One crucial problem with using APIs to build a streaming platform is that doing so requires paying for both bandwidth costs AND mechanical royalties to copyright holders. Without considerable investment, and a team of lawyers to negotiate licenses, this is something that amateurs and side hustlers are unlikely to be able to manage themselves.

However, there’s no particular reason that needs to be the future here. As we’ve seen above, there are already tons of exciting examples of people thinking outside the box and doing cool things with APIs (both internal and external) without the need to go this extra mile.

Clearly, what we mean when we talk about a “music API” is changing. Whether it’s through recommendation engines or music creation, both often bolstered by the power of AI, the status quo of the humble music database API appears to be coming to an end.

Exactly what comes next is still anyone’s game.