Letting Musicians Be People: A theory on the music industry

It’s just too perfect that Lauren posted this on my wall a year ago not to acknowledge it.


So it’s 3 AM and I’m sitting around the kitchen table with my roommate, who also happens to be a recent Berklee College of Music grad and musician-in-the-making.  We had a long night, in which society really tested our faith in humanity, and with some wine were ranting out our concern and frustration.  In between tackling racism and our futures, we dove into the topic of the music industry.  Much like the publishing industry, it’s a perpetually worrisome one.  Artists are struggling to make a living.  Consumers are confused about where best, for themselves and the industry, to buy music.  Shows seem to just keep getting more expensive.

Now, I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert.  I’m not particularly well-versed in the workings of the music industry and my research may not be the most thorough (did you pay attention in research writing freshman year of college, ‘cause I sure as hell didn’t).  But I have a theory.  I’ve been mulling it over, fleshed it out with my friend who’s very much first hand dealing with exactly these issues, and I think it has some validity.  So I thought I’d throw it out there and see how it lands.


We live in a Primark society.  We want the newest things and we want them now.  Products have become painfully disposable, as nothing is made with longevity in mind and replacing is the modern version of fixing something.  In our commodity-driven world, we push for the endless creation of new materials—style obsolescence has lead to an obsessive desire for the most “in” thing. (I paid attention in at least one class).  And this is just as true in the music industry as in any other.

Meanwhile, there’s the competition among/debate about/search for the best consumption platform for this day and age.  With the accessibility that came along with YouTube and music pirating, came a downfall and period of confusion within the music industry.  Sharing is a wonderful thing; free is not.  Now the question is: how can artists make a living from music when listeners can access it without paying for it?  Of course, this doubles back to what-is-free debate.  A user without premium may listen to Spotify without paying themselves, but that doesn’t mean someone isn’t paying (remember those pesky, mood-killing ads?).  The same is true of many videos on YouTube.  But are artists making enough to support themselves off of and can the industry be sustained from such platforms?  Mumford and Sons—a band that, let’s be real, is doing alright for themselves—spoke up against Tidal, noting that neither big nor little bands can make enough off the elitist streaming service.  Tidal is an artist owned services, but it’s own by the biggest names in the industry, pulling in the largest sums of money.  And of course, you have the infamous Taylor Swift vengeance against Spotify.  So in this case we see one of the biggest artists protestings what’s probably the biggest streaming services, one that actually does a decent job of promoting lesser-known bands, in hopes to save the music industry.  Swift’s argument strikes me as a bit backwards, but we see here artists struggling to navigate their own world.

So now we have a problematic industry and are coupling it with problematic expectations of artists.  We’ve come to anticipate artists to produce new music on a regular and rapid basis, simultaneously hoping that by doing so the music industry will be saved.  It would seem to make sense; artists put out new music and consumers buy and the world goes round, right?  Well, artists are struggling and each year we read similar stories about the industry frantically trying to find its footing. This pressure on artists to continuously produce new material is indicative of a faulty system.

But what if we let musicians actually be people?  What if we gave them time to live?  Might they return to the industry with experience that inspires them to create quality new work?  And might this suspense actually invigorate the market?  I think yes.  I believe artists who take time off could be more successful and actually fuel the industry, saving year sales.

And yes, this is a theory that sounds nice and ideal, like a lovely little dream (read: not realistic), but I come with real evidence!  Let’s look at some of the top albums in the last few years and do a little projecting into the future.  (Billboard apparently determines its list based off of the monthly chart performances, which can differ a little from year-end gross, so I will admit to some possible discrepancy in my research, however, I think this still works to get my point across.)  In 2013, the number one album was Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience.  The most recent album he’d released previous to that? 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds.  That’s a seven year gap.  And it’s not like he wasn’t busy in that time.  He was building up a solid acting career and falling in love with and marrying Jessica Biel.  Dude did well.  But he took time off his music career and when he came back, he was a superstar!  It led to three hit singles and set the best sales week of the year, setting iTunes history for an opening week and selling 3.6 million copies worldwide by the end of the year.  I’d bet the music industry was pretty happy.

Then we have Beyoncé’s self-titled smash hit.  It had only been a couple years since she dropped 4 and she fell second to the Frozen soundtrack (moment of silence for all of us who just died inside) on the 2014 year-end chart, but Beyoncé took the music world by storm.  This story in nothing new to anybody, however, by pulling off a surprise release, Beyoncé had everyone pulling out their cards to purchase her album.  Everyone had to hear it.  You couldn’t have a conversation without someone bringing it up.  Remember that class I didn’t pay attention in?  Well, I do recall the professor having us go around the room and naming our favorite Beyoncé album.  It was kind of a big deal.  The album moved 80,000 copies in three hours and broke all sorts of records.  By November 2014, just under a year after its release, it had sold 5 million copies worldwide and in March 2015 it hit 1 billion streams.  Not too shabby.

And of course, there’s our other queen.  Adele’s 21, released 3 years after her debut album, not only topped the charts in 2013, but did the same in 2014.  I’ll save you from the numbers on this one—they’re starting to make me nauseous—, but we all know they’re insane.  The curious thing about Adele is that after her major commercial success, she disappeared.  Adele took a good four-year hiatus, giving no interviews and raising her child.  Then just a couple weeks ago, she dropped her single, “Hello”, and everyone has been freaking the fuck out since.  In its first week, it sold more downloads than any single in its release week ever.  Now, with her album coming out on the 20th of this month, people are already predicting her saving sales for this year.  And they’re probably not wrong.


So maybe I actually have a valid point?  As I said, I’m no expert on the music industry.  I’m sure there are all sorts of things I’ve overlooked.  But clearly something needs to change and perhaps that something is more related to our rapid-consumption society than anything else.  The fact of the matter is that it’s unrealistic to expect artists to consistently produce high-quality work year to year.  If JT, Beyoncé, and Adele can’t do it, who on earth could?  I think it’s time we started to treat musicians as human beings and gave them the time they need.  Of course I’d love to wake up everyday to new music by my favorite bands.  But if I can’t even read and write for enjoyment everyday—the things that make me happy and which I’m supposedly studying—how could I expect someone else to write, produce, record, market, and release music at an even relatively similar pace?  We need to recognize this.  Maybe it wouldn’t fix the industry.  It could produce a scary musician monopoly.  But it’s a theory I had, one my musician roommate strongly agreed with and encouraged me to write about, so I thought I’d share.  The music industry won’t go down.  It simply won’t.  However, it could stand to be improved and that starts with discussion.  So, please, have at me; I’d love to hear what others have to say and see how the industry continues to shape up.  The issues of media—how musicians put out their work and how audiences consume it—won’t be solved overnight.  Realistically it’s going to take experimenting.  Traditional forms and formulas can’t be relied on anymore and that’s exactly why we need to encourage an opening up of the expectations on the music industry.  Who knows?  Maybe one day it’ll be fully functional, we can continue bowing down to JT, Beyoncé, and Adele, and we can stop hating Taylor Swift.  Anything’s possible, right?


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