Much has been written about the changing face of the music industry, from how fans consume, to how artists connect, and what they means to the finances. Caragh Medlicott argues there is more to be optimistic about than the common narrative suggests.
At the end of the 70s, The Buggles topped music charts with their debut single ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’. Of course, radio (far from being dead) has actually persisted in the face of a whole host of technological advancements – much like The Buggles’ hit. Yet, in 2020, it is the top 40, ‘big star power’ and artist royalties which have changed beyond recognition. With the rise of streaming services, global music artists have been forced to lean ever more heavily on stadium-sized gigs and lorry-loads of merchandise to pad out sales which previously came from physical media. With a flattened hierarchy and a multitude of platforms for sharing music, the streaming age has made the entry-level platform more accessible to artists, while monetary compensation becomes more fragmented than ever before.
It was once common for subcultures to be aligned with particular musical sounds. Think mods and rockers, punks and goths. Today, being a hipster is still considered a subculture. Yet, unlike the aforementioned identities, it’s a label people seldom attach to themselves. Regardless, hipsterdom maintains its own connection to music – in this instance a really great band you’ve, like, probably never heard of. Though ‘hipster’ as a term has its roots in a genuine movement in the 1940s, its modern revival coincides with major musical shifts, not in sound, but within the entertainment industry itself. Changes in music consumption have put cracks in the dichotomies of mainstream and underground sound.
Streaming services have irrevocably changed the way listeners get their music. But this hasn’t been an overnight shift; before big players like Spotify or Apple Music were on the scene, music access was already changing thanks to platforms like YouTube. Now, artists can garner supposedly ‘niche’ fan bases which also happen to be big fan bases. When the world’s your stage, you can quite easily be unknown on a pop cultural level, whilst still bringing in huge numbers of monthly listeners. This shift is not just in the music industry, after all, YouTube is the most watched platform for 16- to 24-year olds; many of the biggest YouTubers rack up millions of views, yet they remain relatively unknown outside of their fanbases.
Once upon a time, most people in the UK knew what was in the charts. Top of the Pops was a major TV event, the kind we’re unlikely to see again. A mix of nostalgia and selective memory mean that national recall (and late-night ‘the best songs of the 80s’ countdown shows) insist that music was better pre-millennium. Of course, in reality, there’s a whole world of vibrant and wonderful music continuing to be created, as (hopefully) there always will be. Yet, it’s true that now-legendary music artists – even ones matched with apparently alternative subcultures – received more commercial success than would be likely to occur now.
Of course, as with any art, there is no quantifiably ‘good’ or ‘bad’ music. All we have is consensus, and the hierarchy from whence the consensus has come. Still, if you look at artists who made it onto the charts in the record-and-radio glory days, most would agree there’s a high calibre of music which is striking, brave and even experimental. Just look at a few of the acts to have received features and even number one slots on the UK charts, it accounts a variety of singers and bands – from David Bowie and New Order to The Clash and The Cranberries. Bowie exempt, these weren’t necessarily the most successful mainstreams artists of the day, but the point is they had a presence in the charts, period.
Alternative music is found, consumed, and shared by listeners very differently in 2020. Smart streaming algorithms prompt users to try new music artists predicted by their listening history. The diminishment of music subcultures, in addition to unlimited access to an ever-growing music library, mean that people are often inclined to be eclectic in their genre choices. The outcome of this is a big change in how music success operates. Take Courtney Barnett, a relatively recent musical triumph; she achieved fame after her single ‘Avant Gardener’ spread across the internet in 2013. She receives 1,174,801 monthly listeners on Spotify and one of her songs featured on Barack Obama’s 2018 end of the year favourites list. Yet, not one of her singles have made a meaningful entrance into the charts worldwide, not even in her native Australia. It’s hard to say how her success might have translated in a pre-streaming era, especially with the internet playing such a vital role in her initial breakout.
This phenomenon is bound to change future cases of music nostalgia. On one hand, individuals are empowered to listen to what they want, when they want (without any dictation from Radio 1 or the current top 40). Yet, generational stories of music hits associated with particular world events are likely to fade. We can retrospectively identify certain decades by their specific musical vibes (disco, new wave, hip-hop) – but with greater listener independence and subsequent variety, that’s set to crumble. Blade Runner was made in 1982, and set in 2019, yet its synth-heavy soundtrack is one of the signature features to mark it out as an 80s classic. How will future films timestamp era-specific movies from the 2020s, for example? In this way a certain universality – perhaps even a type of entertainment community – is lost. It’s not an obviously good or bad thing, but a nuanced progression. Much in the same way the consequences for artists themselves have been mixed.
Big stars now make up funds with huge tours and hefty ticket prices. People will pay well over £100 to hear Ed Sheeran play acoustic songs in a sold-out stadium. Seriously. Of course, grassroots bands have always gigged, and they continue to do so in pubs and music venues all across the country, yet the fact that such mass-scale global tours are necessary for hugely famous artists is symptomatic of the way streaming has changed artist-generated revenue. Unlikely vanilla vigilantes, such as Taylor Swift, have come out in recent years to make a stand against the miniscule compensation to come from streaming royalties. A 2018 Warner Music Group announcement on Spotify equity put the average streaming royalty rate about 25%. Yet, this is something many breakout acts have to square with the fame they’ve found via communal platforms in the social media age.
In terms of artist paraphernalia and merchandise, it would seem record players are back in style. One could see the recent resurgence of vinyl records as a nostalgia-driven craving for something material in the immaterial, digital world. Undoubtedly that plays a part. Of course, a sceptic would be hard pressed to miss an obvious correlation between this market trend and the record labels who can claw back losses washed away in a cloud-based shower. With the relatively low cost of record production, it provides aspiring bands with a means with which to spin money and sustain their continued work. It’s also responsible for a re-ignition of album listening in the playlist age – something many an artist is surely grateful for.
Just as the hipster spirit of ‘liked-it-before-it-was-cool’ has always existed in some form or other, the ‘not-like-the-music-in-my-day’ warcry will never be truly silenced, regardless of streaming. Why? Because no matter how great a current band, artist or song – music from ‘back in the day’ is imbued with the heavy nostalgia of a youth lived. Songs facilitate a sort of time travel; the feelings that resurface and memories that are tugged by music are often poignant. That’s regardless of whether they inspire a societal recall, or a personal history. The streaming age means maximised choice and availability, but may also forfeit a definable sound for modern generations.
Caragh Medlicott is an Associate Editor of Wales Arts Review