The music business has changed dramatically and no one will admit it.
I was stretching last night, one of the world’s most boring activities, so while I was doing so I was reading the Apple News on my phone and came across this article:
“Why hit songs suddenly matter more than the stars that sing them – The pop star versus the playlist – Streaming services’ playlists make it easier for listeners to find music worth playing. But experts say they’re also breaking fans’ relationships with artists.”
Unfortunately, this article is part of Vox’s “The Highlight,” an entry in the magazine’s new “Gate Keepers” issue on Apple News+, and unless you’re on a Mac paying $9.99 for the service, you can’t read it, which means it might as well not exist. That’s the power of paywalls, they stop you before you get started.
Anyway, the article clearly states that TikTok hits…can almost never be repeated. You can have a track hiding in plain sight, that’s a relative stiff, and then it can be picked up by TikTok creators and you make bank and think you’re a star but the truth is you’re a one hit wonder. Bottom line, people are fans of the track, not its creator. Extended bottom line…it’s nearly impossible to build a career these days.
Now one phenomenon of the MTV era was that if the video service shot you to the moon, you fell back to earth almost as fast. Or maybe you had a few hits and then you fell back to earth. This was the opposite of the seventies ethos, where it was all about the slow build. Today’s paradigm, where someone comes out of the gate and triumphs, even plays arenas on their first tour, that did not exist back in the seventies. Of course there were exceptions, but the exceptions were of such quality that they were undeniable. Like Elton John, who’d paid umpteen dues before his breakthrough, and Tom Scholz’s Boston. The debut Boston LP was so good, people started to hate it in principle, called it corporate rock, but the album is as fresh today as it was back then, and just as playable and still played.
Today, if you have a hit at all, it’s probably luck. And you won’t have one again.
Today’s “Washington Post” has this article:
“The TV hit isn’t just dying — it may already be dead – Astute observers of television say that the idea of a unifying show on even a modest scale is gone. In its wake are a hundred Twitter niches — and a dangerous lack of common culture”: https://wapo.st/3xNCeM5
Bottom line…the vaunted “Mare of Easttown,” which felt like it was talked about everywhere? Only four million people watched the finale.
And there’s been an evolution, or a devolution, in viewers in just the past few years. Five years ago an episode of the “Walking Dead” had 17 million viewers. Two years ago the “Game of Thrones” finale had 20 million viewers. But that was before streaming truly took hold, before the launch of Disney+ and AppleTV+, never mind the continued inroads of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime.
So there are no water cooler moments. NONE! Not enough people are watching! If you read the press, these shows are phenomena, but in truth they are not!
Just like today’s so-called hit acts.
Why tune into the Grammys if you’re unaware of the music? Sure, we live in an on demand world, no one wants to watch commercials, but who in hell would want to watch a show where they don’t know most of the music?
But the music industry trots out concert grosses to demonstrate stardom. Well, let’s say you go on a nationwide tour and sell out forty arenas. Assuming there are 20,000 seats, and very few arenas are this big, that means 800,000 people saw you, IN A COUNTRY OF 332 MILLION!
Now it used to be that radio brought us together, you may not have owned the record, you may not have gone to the show, but you knew the music. But today’s youngsters don’t listen to radio, despite the hogwash pushed down our throats by the terrestrial radio industry. And oldsters? They don’t want to listen to music, certainly not new music.
Music breaks and lives online today. But there are many more records than TV shows, what makes you think people are focused on any one act?
I hate to bring up Taylor Swift, whose record label is constantly telling us she’s breaking sales records, despite manipulating said figures through vinyl sales, et al, but she went on a stadium tour a few years back AND DIDN’T GO CLEAN! Back in the days of the Stones stadium tours, in the world of today’s Stones stadium tours, every ticket is sold, at exorbitant prices. But not Taylor Swift. Because this is heresy, I point you to the BBC, a more trusted outlet than music websites:
“Does it matter if tours don’t sell out?”: https://bbc.in/3gP0LuE
I don’t necessarily agree with all the reasoning postulated, but the fact is there, not only Taylor Swift, but Beyonce couldn’t sell out her stadium dates. If you click through to the article, you’ll see these tweets:
“I was walking down the street earlier and I literally tripped as I waded through free Taylor Swift tickets” Darren Geraghty
“I am now the last person in the greater Dublin area that has not been offered a free Taylor Swift ticket” Fiona Hyde
This information was hiding in plain sight, but conventional wisdom is Swift’s stadium tour was a raging success. And she’s supposedly the biggest act out there and she can’t go clean?
There’s a fascinating diatribe waiting to be written about disinformation, about how the truth does not out, and we can start with politics, but that’s not my point here. Turns out most people don’t want to see Taylor Swift, EVEN IF IT’S FREE!
So those songs in the Spotify Top 50, today’s number one consumption chart, forget the manipulated “Billboard,” they have a fraction of the reach of the hits of the past, of even a few years back. It’s the same damn people listening to the same damn songs over and over and over again.
As for playlists… The platform is more powerful than the music. It’s about what Spotify chooses to playlist more than the quality and lasting power of any of the tracks. People want music, but not necessarily your music. And if it feels like no one is listening to you, THAT’S PROBABLY TRUE! As for being unable to make a living making music… Well, it turns out there’s too much choice and you’re not that big, not everyone can make a living. Furthermore, there’s only a hundred cents in the dollar, Spotify literally can’t pay you more. It FEELS like you’re getting ripped-off, but you’re not!
So, the music industry is throwing songs against the wall to see what sticks. But the tastemakers are not traditional gatekeepers, but regular folk on social media platforms. You can playlist a song all day long on Spotify but it won’t turn it into a hit, you need external forces to do that.
So, we are not minting new superstars, and those stars we are creating are smaller than ever, and if the whole scene doesn’t make sense to you, if you think people are creating lowest common denominator stuff to try to go viral on social media platforms, YOU’RE RIGHT!
What we’ve got is utter chaos. There are charts, all kinds of traditional metrics that fit the old but are completely out of date and don’t fit the new. It’d be like reading Tesla sold 1,000 cars. Then again, Tesla gets more ink than sales.
And it’s not only adults, kids don’t know most of these acts either. They might know more than the adults, but no one can know them all.
And this is all working against the music industry, music has sacrificed its power in pursuit of an old paradigm, world domination, that is no longer possible. You can make it appear possible, it can FEEL possible, but it’s impossible.
So you might as well create and promote more lasting, more valuable music, to build careers, but that does not square with the short term mentality of the record labels, never mind the other players in the food chain. Those who work at the labels don’t own them, they’re contracted employees, they want those hits now, so they can get paid NOW!
So maybe you’ve never heard Phoebe Bridgers. But then you keep reading about her and check her out and you say to yourself…THIS IS IT?
Or maybe Olivia Rodrigo, whose lyrics are speaking truth but whose tracks are far from cutting edge.
And then you tune out completely.
But the young and brain dead keep playing a track over and over and a number is totaled and held up as representative of a worldwide smash WHEN IT’S NOT!
As for Phoebe Bridgers, she does not have a single track in nine digits on Spotify…and twenty or forty million might seem like a lot to you, but Clairo, an act I’d never heard of until I read the paid-for hype in HitsDailyDouble, has six tracks in nine figures. One with 277 million streams, another with 237 million. Jody Gerson said listening to Clairo was like listening to Carly Simon and Joni Mitchell, check Clairo out, if you agree, you must be on UMPG’s payroll.
And it’s not like I need to pick on any of the acts above, BUT THEY’RE THE BIGGEST ONES OUT THERE, AND THEY’RE NOT THAT BIG!
But you won’t read about this in rah-rah ignorant “Billboard.” Generally speaking you won’t read about this at all. But it’s true, a hit just ain’t what it used to be.