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Why Auto-Tune Was A Disruptive Technology

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T-Pain at his NPR Tiny Desk (via NPR)

by Dan Runcie

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Last week on Netflix’s This Is Pop, T-Pain shared that he fell into a four-year depression after Usher told him that he “fucked up music for real singers,” because of auto-tune.

Sadly, Usher wasn’t alone. Remember Jay Z’s “Death of Auto-tune”? Nas’ Hip-Hop Is Dead? There was a grown artist movement against the voice-altering audio device. T-Pain took an unfair amount of blame. (No one came at Cher like this!) It’s a classic example of how our culture responds to disruptive technology.

The next big thing starts looking like a toy

In 2010, venture capitalist Chris Dixon wrote “The next big thing will start looking like a toy.” Disruptive technology first gets ignored because it “undershoots” user needs, but gains more traction due to external forces.

The “toy” for auto-tune was the ringtone rap era. OG hip-hop artists refused to alter their voice, make snap music, or jump on any new trends. Instead, they struggled to sell CDs in the mid-2000s. Meanwhile, T-Pain sold more ringtones than albums by rhyming “mansion” with “Wiscansin.” Gotta love it.

The superstars and DIYs followed the adoption curve

But auto-tune’s expanded beyond ringtones due to two external forces. First, superstar artists jumped in. In 2008, Lil’ Wayne and Kanye West— rap’s two biggest stars that year—dropped “Lollipop” and 808s and Heartbreaks respectively. Both have used auto-tune in most of their albums since. Usher himself made tons of money off auto-tune with 2010’s “OMG,” his last song to top all the charts. This pushed even more stars to join in.

Second, music technology and bandwidth growth made it easier for artists to create their own music and share it with the world. Auto-tune helps solo artists add variety to their projects. If we played Travis Scott’s “Antidote” for someone in the 90s, they would be surprised to hear it’s just one person on all the vocals. The sound is so common that some don’t even know what’s auto-tune and what isn’t.

To say that T-Pain’s auto-tune use fucked up music is as ridiculous as saying Usher’s Ush Bucks fucked up our monetary policy. T-Pain was an early adopter who took heat for a technology that’s now mainstream. It’s happened before, and unfortunately it will happen again.

For more on auto-tune, read Pitchfork’s How Auto-Tune Revolutionized the Sound of Popular Music.

Dan Runcie

Dan Runcie

Founder of Trapital

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