7 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.
This shift isn’t unique to the music industry. 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.
- 1. The Vast Majority of Artists Make No Money
- 2. Long Term Record Deals are Becoming a Thing of the Past
- 3. Live Shows
- 4. Music has Become All About the Visuals (#Instagram)
- 5. Attention Spans are Shorter Than Ever
- 6. A Modern Musician has to be a Jack Of All Trades
- 7. Industry Monopolies and Paid Promotions
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 most.
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 $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 the starving artists.
This fact is reiterated by the statistics of how much money musicians make on the biggest music platform of our time – Spotify. The Swedish giant pays rights holders a paltry amount per play, something between $0.006 and $0.0084. To earn a decent income, say $1000 in a month, 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 make 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. Full stop.
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.
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
Fans no longer pay to purchase music, and 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 live music 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 big popstars, 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 are great for discovering new artists 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 the need for 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 their 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 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 each perform their assigned task. 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 end 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 at reaching the masses.
In the past, major record labels like Sony BMG and Universal 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 in order 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.
For years, the music industry has tried to resist the technological changes that our society has endured. As a result, it is left teetering on this wave of change – unsure, hesitant, and in a state of confusion.
Upcoming musicians are burdened with the task of imagining new ways to fit into this paradigm to build a sustainable career independently, often turning their backs to the mainstream world and accepting to be less famous but more profitable.
Some carve their niche by being businesses-savvy artists, and others come across as music-savvy businessmen. Only time will tell which of these two will be the ones to anchor the ship of an adrift music industry.