8 of the Biggest Problems with the Music Industry

The music industry has radically changed in the last couple of decades. The Internet revolution has transformed the way we create and consume music. It has built new hierarchies and power balances, stealing the control once owned by major record labels and giving it to the consumer.

Music is a tough business that necessitates an unusual combination of talents and traits. Musicians often have to take on a lot of business-related work and must balance many other responsibilities. Independent musicians carry the full burden of it, while signed artists often have a host of other challenges that come with being part of a label.

The industry shift isn’t unique to music. It has engulfed any field where a commercial transaction between a buyer and a seller occurs. Think about a newly-opened restaurant where tools such as TripAdvisor or Yelp! give consumers newfangled power to dictate the success or failure of the venture.

Biggest Problems with the Music Industry at a Glance

  • The music industry is difficult and requires many talents, and the reward may not be as high as expected.
  • Long-term record deals are rare, and musicians often have to produce a “finished product” quickly.
  • Live shows are often a musician’s biggest revenue stream but lack fair working conditions.
  • Many musicians feel they need to heavily engage with social media platforms which is time-consuming and can be poor for mental health.
  • Music has become a lot more about the visuals than it should.
  • Attention spans are short, and most original musicians must produce music and promotional content quickly to stay relevant.
  • Modern musicians must do multiple jobs to sustain their careers.
  • Major labels have entry barriers and use unethical tactics to promote their artists.
  • Piracy and copyright infringement are still big problems for modern-day artists.

With this new consumer-centric power emerges a need for the music industry to recalibrate its composure.

Many promotional practices in the music industry that were useful in the past are no longer effective or relevant.

Who needs radio airplay when landing on the right Spotify playlist can get you the visibility and exposure needed to succeed?

These changes are pivotal to the rise and fall of icons and enterprises. Musicians have suddenly realized that the freedom from record labels comes with a gargantuan task of self-driven revamps and overhauls to survive.

Consumers have discovered new ways to listen to music without a media-curated filter or big-label-supported advertising. In turn, musicians need to learn how to become entrepreneurs to contest for these “spots” themselves through entrepreneurial chores foisted upon them.

Did all these changes occur effortlessly and organically?

Of course not. Here is a list of seven of the major problems that we’re facing in the music industry:

1. The Vast Majority of Artists Make No Money

Most musicians are in it for the long game, hoping that it will eventually pay off. Unfortunately, for those seeking a career releasing original music, it doesn’t pay off financially for the vast majority.

Music is everywhere. Today, we consume it voraciously and more efficiently than ever before. There are tons of new opportunities for musicians arising day after day. Everything grows quickly and unstoppably in the music industry.

So how come artists aren’t making much money from it?

It’s common sense: if the Internet is the great revolution we all believe it is, and if it brings many businesses to the next level, why aren’t musicians benefiting as much from it?

A recent Citigroup report indicates that musicians only gained 12% of the $43 billion generated in the industry in 2017. This alarming statistic proves that while the industry is still a profitable enterprise, its protagonists, the musicians who actively produce that richness, are left as starving artists.

This fact is reiterated by the statistics of how much money musicians make on the biggest music streaming platform of our time – Spotify. To earn a decent income, an artist needs roughly 120.000 streams consistently per month, and that is considering he/she is the only rights holder of the track, which is seldom the case.

Now, is this doable? Absolutely. As mentioned earlier, you can achieve this by landing on the right playlist to get tons of streams. However, this involves a lot of hard work—so much work with no guarantee of success that it could feel like a waste of time.

To get on playlists, musicians need to do a lot of research and build a relationship with the curators. Otherwise, they can try to please the algorithm or direct their existing fans to their Spotify profile, but…is it worth it?

2. Long-Term Record Deals are Becoming a Thing of the Past

Some may see this as a positive thing, but I’d like to explain a big drawback to it.

In the past, high-potential artists had far more time to grow, experiment, and even fail before coming up with something great. A record label would sign an act for three or four releases (sometimes less, sometimes more), and during the amount of time needed to produce and publish those records, an artist had the opportunity to mature.

Today the industry demands a finished product up front.

New young stars, sometimes even teenagers, rise almost daily, offering some perfectly polished tracks that cost them (or their parents) thousands of dollars. They have no time to work on themselves and their music, to hit the road and make some life experiences to feed their art: they need to start making money quickly to return on the investment initially made and compensate for the expenses.

Of course, the music industry never liked “losers.” It has always been a business: money was and still is the main focus of the whole supply chain.

However, probably because money wasn’t a big problem back then, record labels would sometimes bet on quirky acts, outsiders, and innovators. Noncommercial stuff. That’s how we managed to listen to (and love) Frank Zappa, for example.

Erasing failure from the equation of the creative process is very dangerous for talent.

3. Live Shows

Music fans very rarely purchase music nowadays, and music artists need to get massive numbers of streaming hits online to earn any decent money. As a result…

Live shows constitute the biggest revenue stream for most artists.

However, the world of concerts is more intricate than ever before.

Emerging artists, who are yet unknown, often have a hard time finding the right spots to showcase their talent. They hardly ever get paid a fair amount of money for their efforts, and their working conditions are often unacceptable. Artists often get offered gigs with no payment, while venue owners rationalize that they are giving the artist exposure (sometimes this is true, other times it’s not).

On the other side of the coin, even big stars are sometimes struggling to sell out their monumental shows, often because of high ticket prices that have steadily increased in the last few years.

Left in the middle, between poor struggling artists and major label artists, lies the concert-goer, often disappointed by the high prices and confused about where to go, in a sea of offers, to enjoy a night of good live music.

4. Music has Become All About the Visuals (#Instagram)

The Buggles said it first – “Video killed the radio star.” To update it for the modern music ecosystem, though, I propose “Instagram killed the music!”

While music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music are great for new artist discovery and making playlists, a musician’s actual following is increasingly going to social media. For a while, Facebook used to be the primary dwelling of a fan base, but it has been swiftly dethroned by Instagram as the platform of choice.

Instagram is inherently a visually dominant platform. All its design choices are made for instant gratification, which in turn means they need flashy/captivating content. This means that for your music to get any notice at all, it has to be accompanied by instantly attention-grabbing visual content.

Not even a well-directed full-length music video with a developing storyline, like on YouTube, will do the trick. In a few seconds, your visuals must come up with the perfect high point, preferably accompanied by a catchy hook line or chorus, if it hopes to get a like and not be swiped away to oblivion.

What this bodes is that musicians, whose forte lies within tailoring an aural experience, must now scramble to first ensure that the camera, lighting, and “aesthetic” of their profile look good enough.

The sound takes a backseat. 

Some artists thrive under this framework and serve media like photography especially well, but for those without the skill and eye for visuals, this proves to be yet another hurdle.

5. Attention Spans are Shorter Than Ever

This ties in with the previous point about social media being driven by instant gratification. There are multiple studies like this one, which points to an overall decrease in the global attention span correlated to an increase in the available material for consumption around us. This can be experienced empirically, too.

Taking the music industry as an example, we can see a definite trend leaning away from releasing full-length LP records to shorter but more frequent EPs or single releases. In July 2020, Spotify’s CEO controversially stated that it is simply not enough for artists to release an album every 3-4 years anymore.

Though criticized for his statements, they’re unfortunately quite true. Whether Spotify is a cause or a symptom of this trend remains up for debate. It cannot be denied that modern technology and the Internet have made it incredibly simple for even a bedroom musician to release their music to a global audience, but this comes with the flipside that the audience is now inundated with a flood of music and choices.

The result of this is that an average listener simply will not spend time listening to an entire album or even a six-minute song to make their decision about an artist.

Platforms like TikTok, Instagram Stories, and Reels, with their 10-15 second limits, have further popularized the need for cramming as much attention-grabbing content as possible within the first minute of a song. Musicians have been relegated to content creators, who must churn out catchy material continuously to stay relevant.

6. A Modern Musician has to be a Jack Of All Trades

In a conventional record label situation, the artist is responsible only for their art. Making it and performing it. The label hires and pays for producers, mix engineers, managers, advertisers, promoters, event bookers, etc., to perform their assigned tasks. Even their social media have dedicated managers to tune their brand to perfection.

For a modern independent artist, however, getting heard is an uphill task. Album sales barely exist, live shows are hard to break even, and streaming just doesn’t pay enough. So being able to afford a whole promotion team is ruled out.

The musician must take it upon themselves to juggle all these tasks while somehow also managing to write, produce, and record music.

Not only is a single person or band unlikely to be sufficiently skilled at all these tasks, but they also distract from the actual process of honing their craft and making good music. The result of having a finger in too many jars might be not being able to reach into any of them properly.

The line between being a musician, a businessperson, and a salesperson have become largely blurred, which might suit some with the inclination for it, but proves to be a shortcoming for many musicians.

7. Industry Monopolies and Paid Promotions

Similar to what happens in any market dominated by a handful of key giants, the music industry remains very hard to break into for an “outsider.” Though we see occasional inspiring examples of artists being accidentally “discovered” by someone in the industry and then skyrocketing to fame, these are the infinitesimally few exceptions.

The internet has somewhat democratized the process of entry into the mainstream to a limited extent, as shown by the rise in popularity of Soundcloud rappers and runaway streaming hits, but success via that avenue remains very much a function of luck, chance, and fierce marketing.

Connections within the industry and contacts amidst labels are still the best bet for reaching the masses.

In the past, major record labels like Sony Music BMG, Warner Music Group, and Universal Music Group have been known to have purchased billions of fake YouTube views, and major artists have been revealed to have bought fake Twitter followers to the point where it’s almost standard industry practice now.

Labels push millions to artificially boost their products’ visibility, something that independent artists simply cannot afford. This creates an unfair entry barrier for legitimate artists to reach a bigger audience.

These stranglehold monopolies and unethical means undermine a free and fair market and make the already near-insurmountable task of being a musician sustainably even more difficult.

8. Piracy And Copyright Infringement

While piracy and copyright infringement decreased with the digital age and streaming platforms, it is still a problem for modern-day musicians. Many artists have their songs shared and pirated without permission. So, artists do not earn enough from streaming or music, or cd sales.

For songwriters, it is important to protect the royalties of their songs to direct the fans to streaming platforms or buy CDs or albums, which can really help the artists. 

Here, music fans also come into play as they can help their beloved artists by paying for the publishing, reporting when they see illegal use of the tracks, and helping the artists grow by supporting their official web pages and stores.


The music industry is a difficult field that requires a rare combination of qualities and skills. Industry monopolies and unethical paid promotions make it hard for independent musicians to sustain their careers.

It’s a vicious game of chance, and some musicians practice unethical promotion tactics to get ahead.

These industry monopolies undermine a free market and make it even more difficult for independent artists.

The music industry is very hard to break into because of the entry barrier that major labels create with their unethical marketing practices. Modern musician needs to juggle being a producer, a manager, and a salesperson while still managing to hone their craft.

The result is that many cannot do any of the tasks well.

Brian Clark

Brian Clark

I’ve been a writer with Musician Wave for six years, turning my 17-year journey as a multi-instrumentalist and music producer into insightful news, tutorials, reviews, and features.

1 Comment
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