Music Industry Decline – Hang On In There, Or Just Let Go?
It’s a weird time to be a musician as we try to come to terms with music industry decline.
Never before has being a musician been so under-valued as an art-form or a career choice, and I think it’s probably going to get a little bit worse before it gets better.
So you have a choice – do you hang in there and keep plugging away, or just give up now and concede defeat to save yourself the imminent struggles of the years ahead?
Music for Elevators
I think one of the reasons for the mass antipathy is that all music now resembles background music.
I don’t mean that it sounds like what you would expect to hear in an elevator, but the actual placement of it is predominantly as a complimentary aid to sell something that people actually want.
Music has always been used in advertising of course, and as the historically reliable tangible sales have fallen so rapidly, advertising is one of the ways that many artists seek to make some money by getting ‘sync’ or endorsement opportunities.
This used to be called ‘selling out’, but now it’s just the only way of selling anything at all! And that won’t last long. Once big business figures out (and most companies probably already have) that they can pay an artist nothing ‘for the exposure’, that avenue for financial compensation for your songs and recordings will dissipate too.
But there is a bigger evil at work here, the biggest advertising scam of them all; reality TV singing competitions. The poor guys who go on there hoping to be noticed for their talent cannot fathom that they are all extras to sell a television show, and that the careers of the ‘lucky’ ones who eventually do make it through are, for the most part, short lived and rarely taken seriously by the public…..or the industry.
Generally, when the show ends, the interest ends.
It’s no secret that the programme is engineered to make good viewing, and edited to show the contestants in whichever light the producers want, but what it all boils down to is that the next generation of ‘music lovers’ are experiencing this phenomenon and being duped into thinking that this is what music is; a bunch of very average vocalists, who do not write nor generally play an instrument, singing karaoke to a backing track. What cuts deeper still is the increasingly popular prime-time show ‘Lip-Sync Battle’ – that’s right, people don’t even sing now!
How these shows survive whilst Top Of The Pops got cancelled is a real testament to how people view music, they just don’t care.
What people actually want
It’s gross, but you can’t argue with statistics.
Just because you feel that this shift isn’t right, and all your peers share your view, we live in a democratic society, and decisions are made based on results. I couldn’t believe that the Conservative party won the last election in the UK, and by an unexpected landslide.
In a similar fashion, Donald Trump is currently dropping jaws around the world with his flabbergasting popularity. But I’m a liberal, and as an artist or creative reading this then you probably are too, and so for those like us, this is what is known as an echo chamber, or ‘living in a bubble’. The Tories got into power last year because the electorate voted them in – end of!
We live in a time of convenience and ‘shoulder-shruggery’, where the number of young voters drops year by year. These young people are the liberals, the voice of a new generation, but in this moment they can’t be bothered to talk.
They don’t care about us
In much the same way the general populus of your potential audience do not care about your band.
Why would they?
People have become programmed to like celebrities not artists. They cannot be bothered to take the gamble of looking for something new when there is a much more convenient, comfortable and affordable option within their grasp.
More and more sports events are being shunned in favour of watching them at home – saving money on travel, extortionate tickets and over-priced drinks. But what about the atmosphere you say? Ah, yes the atmosphere, that’s what you’re paying for when you attend these events.
So what atmosphere is there at a small local live show?
Let’s face it, they generally blow!
Protest all you want, but they do. 90% of the bands are terrible, the sound in venues leaves a lot to be desired (meaning the remaining 10% of decent bands still don’t have much of a chance to impress) and the steady decline of attendees to these shows is resulting in even less of an atmosphere. If a young person today gets dragged along to their first local gig the chances of them having an awe-inspiring time are very slim. It’s a vicious circle.
Music needs a visionary
What the music world needs is a visionary, a rebel, someone pushing the envelope.
These artists are probably out there, but how are you going to hear about them? You won’t find them signed to a major recording deal. The gentrification of our pop-stars is most probably a fallout from the instability of labels in the digital age. It used to be that calculated risks could be taken on talented artists that may have also exhibited personal flaws. In this climate you just can’t have baggage – A&R’s jobs are hanging by a thin thread, and why risk your employment on someone that is going to make your life difficult and get you fired?
If David Bowie or Kurt Cobain – hell, even The Beatles – went in for a meeting with a top label exec today, they wouldn’t get the deal, even on the strength of their demos.
The top selling artists of last year were Adele, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Sam Smith & Justin Bieber. Boring, huh? Boring and safe. But the public love them! They buy all their music and go to their sell-out shows. Why? You may ask, when you’re much more talented than them, and you play instruments and write your own songs! It’s so unfair.
Are you agreeable?
I’ve worked as an in-house producer for a management and development company (one of the more ‘reputable’ ones) with tight relationships to the major labels, and in my years there I really got to go through the looking glass and see the inner workings of the industry.
And it was, let’s say, ‘eye-opening’.
A lot of very talented people came through our door, and I had the pleasure of working with a few of them. As I write this, they are still on the path to a career, ticking off the boxes it requires to get a shot at a label.
You may have noticed when I mentioned last year’s best selling artists that they were all solo artists. That’s a big help if you want a deal. Not just because one person is less expensive to put on tour or in the studio, but also because they are more likely to be ‘agreeable’.
Being ‘agreeable’ is probably the best trait you can possess if you want to succeed with a major, in that you pretty much have to agree on everything they say. I’ve met people with amazing voices, talented multi-instrumentalists and good songwriters who just won’t get a look-in because that isn’t really what the industry is looking for.
If you think that you’ll be signed on the strength of your songs as a solo artist, believe me your compositions will be cast aside or relegated to album tracks in favour of songs by their established writers. They’ll also use better musicians than you for your recordings, and honestly, your voice doesn’t matter that much because with recording technology you really can make anyone sound good (N.B. this is why all modern pop singers sound the same!).
There’s usually less suits and murders but ‘Empire’ paints a pretty accurate picture of behind the scenes at a label
They won’t tell you these things in an initial meeting – quite the opposite – but if you display any kind of attitude that suggests you might not be ‘agreeable’ to these terms they will smell it on you and you won’t be invited back. This is why the music that you hear on the radio is so homogenised, you think it all sounds the same – it does! It’s the same writers and producers with a singer using all the same programs to manipulate their voices.
Of course majors do still have bands to cater to the dwindling fans of ‘real’ music but it’s worth noting that their annual hype bands are getting smaller in number year by year. The space-rock 3-piece Muse were dethroned last year by 2-piece Royal Blood as the major player’s token rock band. So just forget about signing that major label deal for now, it isn’t the 90’s anymore and these companies will not pick you from obscurity and put you on MTV.
Music has lost its Mojo
So what is the problem and how can we fix it?
Basically music has lost it’s mojo. If you’ve ever misplaced your mojo you’ll know very well that others can smell your desperation. You become a big turn-off, and whinging about it just makes it worse!
There’s still a lingering sense of entitlement within parts of the independent music community, and that is at the root of its decline.
Yes, in an ideal world artists should be paid for their work, but there are always others that will do it for free. So many music venues are closing in cities around the world, or converting into restaurants, and we complain about this, but people need food. They don’t need your music right now.
There are often arguments about musicians playing at venues for free, countered with ‘You wouldn’t ask a plumber to work 4 hours on a Saturday for nothing!’ but, people need plumbers, they don’t need your music!
It’s not your fault, it’s just that music has lost it’s mojo, but remember, whinging about it makes it worse. There will be naysayers who tell you it’s your choice to do your ‘hobby’ on a weekend, which is pretty insulting to a talented musician. The outside world views it as a hobby because on the rare occasion your mates from the office come to see your band, you’re playing to an empty room. It sure looks like a hobby. And the bar isn’t taking any money, so they’re wondering why they haven’t converted that band room into a dining room already…..
Time for a change
We’ve established by now that everything sucks and is pointless, but we can take some small comfort in the fact that there will probably be a sea-change.
It’s often cited that music goes in cycles, and what is popular one day will be replaced by something new and innovative in a decade or so. But let’s not rest on our laurels, what can we do to speed up that process so we can start to see the benefit?
The indie music ‘community’ really needs to pull together to build up confidence in independent music again. You can be disheartened all you like by your lack of success but complaining will not achieve anything, quite the opposite.
In spite of all the vitriol I’ve aimed at the industry, and coming across like a bitter 30-something who never quite made it, I believe being an independent musician has never been easier and it’s never been a better time to build it all for yourself.
There are amazing companies you can use to deliver your music to all the online platforms such as Ditto Music, CD Baby & Tunecore. Bandcamp is also a brilliant initiative to set up your own online store, and discover other great local bands. The market is flooded with amazing free or cheap apps for musicians to use for recording, rehearsing and artwork. The majority of people involved in these initiatives are musicians themselves who have been through similar experiences and are using their knowledge to create something to help us.
With all these affordable resources at our disposal an indie musician really doesn’t need a label to push on. But what we need to do as part of the community is stop thinking of ourselves so much and take a look at the bigger picture.
Let’s work together
Start going to gigs, and not just your own!
Don’t leave it to everyone else. That’s what everyone else is doing, so essentially everyone is not doing anything. We’ve become, as a people, victims of the cushy world we live in. No-one wants to go to local gigs at the moment, because there’s no atmosphere.
Why go out when we can stay in and watch Netflix? Seriously, why? I’ve been out and it’s boring and loud and annoying. But what if it was good? What if there was an atmosphere? What if I find my new favourite band that will change my life? What if there were hot guys and girls there to hook up with?
The onus is on us to do our part to make live shows desirable again. We need to create a sense of FOMO , and that will only happen when people outside the community start thinking that something is going on inside the community, and want to become a part of it. We need to vote with our feet and attend shows, put our money where our mouth is and buy stuff from the merch stand. Change comes at a price, and that price is not having a cosy night in on Friday, but rather popping to your local dive bar and checking out what’s on.
Your actions as a music-lover directly affect your success as a music-maker. We can’t say “I’m just one vote it barely counts”. The numbers add up, and there is strength in numbers. If you truly believe that you have what it takes to wow people at your gigs then you need to start getting people there by going to others.
Do you ever watch music films or documentaries and pine for times gone by wishing you were part of that scene? Then make your own scene – it can still happen! We cannot expect random punters and potential fans to go out to shows if we can’t do it ourselves. It’s up to us to help the public appreciate live music again and to do that we all have to get involved in the process.
If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.