A week ago, the organisers of the Paris 2024 Olympics set heads spinning with the proposal that breakdancing should make its full Games debut in the French capital. Advocated by the World DanceSport Federation, it had already been part of the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires in 2018.
That met with the anticipated objections about how much artistically scored breaking, to give it its proper name, really constitutes a sport; about the ever more ad hoc feel to the composition of the Olympic programme; about the extent to which the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is coopting, rather than embracing, those aspects of youth culture it so desperately wants incorporated into the Games’ future.
Those arguments are widely explored elsewhere but one thing that has gone relatively unremarked upon is that perhaps for the first time in a long time, a medal event for the Olympics would be imported more or less directly from a musical culture.
Sport and the music business have always struck the odd chord, while the two industries share some functional similarities. Now, though, they are finding a whole new set of harmonies.
Reacting to the breaking news on his 3WireSports blog, the experienced Olympic journalist Alan Abrahamson placed its inclusion in the context of a new vision for Games venues. In Buenos Aires, he notes, a number of events were arranged across four city parks. ‘Concept: you literally could put a blanket down in one such park, on the gentle grassy slope, and watch 3x3 [basketball],’ he writes. ‘Or, say, sport climbing.’
Or, indeed, breaking. Some version of that urban park concept will return for Paris and then LA in 2028, with music, food and other artistic spectacles filling out that experience for spectators. Concerts have long played a role in sports promotions, from opening ceremonies to the Super Bowl half-time show, but in this kind of setting, they would go from being separate or decorative to something more intrinsic.
This festivalisation of sports events has been a gathering trend for some time now, giving fans more places to spend their money and those without tickets the opportunity to take part. Live performances also contribute a greater share of the music industry’s income than at almost any point since the gramophone was invented. More compelling, effective combinations of the two have an obvious appeal for host cities, not to mention sponsors and suppliers.
Of course, that resurgence in live musical events of every scale has its roots in profound changes to that sector’s economics. Earlier this week on these pages – about halfway through the production of this article, as it happens – Two Circles co-founder Matt Rogan published his thoughts on the lessons sport could learn from the disruption of the record business at the turn of the century. Yet as well as providing a template for other forms of entertainment media to act upon, the arrival of iTunes and, subsequently, subscription-based providers like Spotify have provided new points of interaction between sport and music.
The first thing digital distribution of music did, for better or worse, was break songs loose from albums. This in turn amplified the connection individual songs made through film or TV soundtracks – or a TV sports montage. Streaming services have taken all of that deeper, letting users splash around in musical backwaters according to taste or mood, while further diluting the influence of recognised curators through the introduction of shareable playlists.
As on other social platforms, that can also bring influential people and brands to the fore. Between Deezer’s partnerships with teams like Manchester United, Bayern Munich’s tie-up with Apple Music, or the activities of Nike or Eurosport on Spotify, these platforms are well established as outlets for official expressions of sports lifestyle.
So while these platforms are of still-dubious value to those artists actually providing music for them, they are an intriguing proposition for sports brands. Even at the scale of something like the Fifa World Cup, the official anthem of old has lost cut-through in a big way. Stringing together playlists, and bringing your audience with you, is an altogether more flexible enterprise. And these kinds of collaborations create other straightforward crossover possibilities: last Sunday, Jay-Z’s Tidal service held a post-match event with one of its partners, Arsenal, at a club just a few minutes’ walk from the Premier League side’s north London home.
As the competition between these services intensifies, so too will the impetus to give users a reason to commit. Cheaper reasons, ideally, than signing exclusive deals with the world’s best-selling pop stars. Podcasts, with their offer of low-cost, high-volume and adhesive original content, are increasingly a target for Spotify in particular. It spent US$230 million in January on acquiring podcast network Gimlet and recording startup Anchor, and expects its outlay in the sector to reach US$500 million by the year’s end.
Sport will be a bigger part of this strategy. A new job posting, widely circulated in recent days, confirms the company is in search of a sports lead for Spotify Studios, based in New York or LA. This ‘senior development executive’ will report to the head of creative and will be responsible for the ‘exclusive content strategy for the sports vertical with a specific focus on podcasts’, charged with ‘surfacing a mix of opportunities from the clear to the unexpected’.
The convergence of music streaming and podcasting into a digital audio industry – like radio, you know, but more personalised and on-demand – is evident elsewhere. Here in the UK, the publicly funded BBC released a catch-all service in 2018 for podcasts, original music mixes and live radio from all of its 18 national stations. BBC Sounds users can search for anything by category and get individual recommendations on a platform targeted at younger people in mind and, according to BBC director of radio and education James Purnell, designed to “lean in to the podcast revolution”.
It’s a development that inspires speculation about where else the streaming giants might differentiate: whether Amazon Music, for example, would seek live audio rights to complement the sport on Amazon Prime Video. It also stems from the need for audio services to press home an in-built advantage in the fastest-growing user interface: voice.
Use cases are still developing but there is a clear overlap between the kind of activities where a hands-free voice interface is helpful and natural settings for music or radio, like cooking or driving. It may evolve away from that as behaviours change but in the immediate term, as companies try to gather as much real-world information as they can about voice use, supplying the sounds that keep listeners around could be of huge value to streamers and their partners.
Either way, the powerful associations between the things people love and the things they listen to are only deepening.