Every technological revolution changes the music.
The invention of the 33 1/3 vinyl album allowed the creation of “Rubber Soul” and then “Sgt. Pepper.” Suddenly the album was a statement instead of a single and a bunch of filler. Then when you could no longer simulcast your AM stream on FM, we got free-form radio. Then MTV came along and made it about how you looked. And without a hit single, you were toast. And then streaming came along and killed the gatekeepers.
The barrier to the creation of music is essentially nonexistent. You can make it on your laptop and for a small fee get it on all streaming services, not that anyone will listen to it. As a result there’s a plethora of product. Those prognosticators of yore said Napster and the internet would kill the production of music, just the opposite has happened.
And now you can break a record without radio. Radio comes last, not first. As for MTV, it’s a non-factor. The labels angry they didn’t get a piece of it should just be glad Murdoch bought MySpace. In other words, music is forever, the platform is not, stay in your lane.
But now the major labels’ lane is signing what is commercial and only commercial. The system needs hits. Furthermore, the labels rarely develop the acts, rather the acts develop themselves and the labels poach them. But if you’re not making hip-hop or pop, or country, no one wants you, does that mean no one wants your genre of music? No.
You see on Spotify, et al, there’s no massaging of the data. A stream is a stream. Such that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. In other words, the Spotify Top 50 counts, after that?
The labels and the media are oriented towards this. Hell, seemingly every newspaper prints the “Billboard” Top Ten every week. There’s this focus on the most popular, when the most popular is less popular than ever before.
So no one can force a hit. It’s not about your relationship with radio or TV, that’s not where the active listeners are. Ask any publicity person, other than “CBS Sunday Morning” and SNL, no television appearance moves the needle. When people can see video for free, on YouTube, why should they make an appointment? As for appointments, this is what is killing the old time players, both the networks and the cable channels, they don’t realize the consumer makes the appointment now, they’re in control, and if they can’t watch it when they want to, oftentimes they don’t watch it at all.
And you put out your album and nothing happens.
But why should there be an album?
Albums used to be half an hour, but then when CDs replaced vinyl and cassettes, an album could be seventy minutes, who had the time? But it was financially lucrative. Now the economics are completely different. Oftentimes only the hit is streamed, listeners are not interested in the rest of the dreck. So why make it? This is the tradition musicians can’t understand. Sure, if you have an album you can get reviews, you can concentrate your publicity around it, but it doesn’t matter! Only your fans are gonna listen anyway.
So you can do whatever you want. Which is one of the reasons hip-hop and pop dominate. They don’t wait years between releases, they put out multiple albums a year, singles whenever they want to, they’re in touch with the audience, those in the other genres are not.
And since hip-hop lives online, it dominates the streaming chart. We knew hip-hop was popular, we didn’t know it was THIS popular until streaming, just like we didn’t know country was that popular until Soundscan.
Now some might say playlists are the new gatekeepers. But the truth is, list makers don’t want to piss off the labels, who they depend upon. There was one playlist that mattered, Rap Caviar, and then Tuma Basa bolted to YouTube for more money and was never heard from again. And if Alphabet were smart, it would buy Spotify today, because none of their streaming services have gotten traction, and YouTube and Spotify would meld together well.
Now in the old days, the hits were all that mattered. Then FM gave non-single acts spins and whole new genres of music flared. But this is not happening in streaming because everybody’s still hampered by the old model, where only the big hits matter.
But then Lee Abrams came along and codified FM playlists and AOR radio was king and the music business was never healthier.
Will someone come along and codify Spotify and the rest of the streaming services? That’s what we’re waiting for, someone to make sense of the tsunami of tracks. But the streaming services are run by techies, and if they promote one track they leave another out and the industry gets pissed, whereas with radio music was just fuel for advertising, where the real dollars were. But music is the heartbeat of the streaming services.
So now what?
This limited genre streaming will come to an end eventually. Something will break the hegemony. Because there’s too much unoccupied land waiting to be inhabited. This is how Warner/Reprise became the dominant label in the seventies, they signed multiple genres of acts, no one does that anymore.
And the labels are downsizing and investing in anything but music as they continue to try and make their nut. So they’re leaving a giant opportunity.
The internet has proven there’s an audience for everything, however small in some cases. But in music, we’re narrowing the offerings, that makes no sense.
All we hear about is Beyonce, is she truly the only thing happening in music? This myopic focus on limited product is the antithesis of the internet ethos. It’s why AT&T canned the old regime at HBO. Sure, it was the true Tiffany network, but it didn’t make enough product! In other words, AT&T was smarter than the Hollywooders.
And there are a lot of people smarter than those in music.
But there’s just not enough money in it.
But there will be. And then we’ll see change.