New Mixtape : [Track 1]
PART 1 of a 3-PART series exploring the music industry's love-hate relationship with technology drops today.
We’ve all heard the saying, “Where words fail, music speaks” – well, now, there’s a study to prove it. In 2020, a team at Harvard gathered over a century’s worth of music from across 315 different cultures and played them for test subjects without translation. Irresistible club anthem, torch song, or lullaby – everyone could guess a song’s purpose without understanding the lyrics.
You could say music is the source code for human emotion – carrying with it a set of rulesets and patterns in cadence, tempo, and tone which are universally understood. More than any other art form, music strikes a nerve that transcends language, race, politics, class. Nothing else hits quite like it. Simply moving a chord a half-step below a perfect fifth can take you from Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah to Black Sabbath’s “devil’s interval” – a sound so dissonant it was forbidden in churches in the Middle Ages because it was believed to induce sinful thoughts. 🤘 }:)
Since the dawn of time, music has been the easiest way to forge a connection. Between strangers. Between congregation, choir, and higher power. Between us and that buried part of ourselves we can’t otherwise articulate. (If you’ve ever caught yourself singing along to End of the Road after a breakup or found yourself busting a move to Dancing on My Own with a crowd of strangers on a subway platform, you know what I’m talking about.) Whether it’s heartbreak or pure joy, music allows us to tap into emotions we don’t otherwise quite know how to voice.
It’s why the relationship between artists and fans has always been so sacred, and why TECHNOLOGY has always served as a catalyst for change within the tangled web of ARTIST, FAN, and PATRON relationships that make up the music industry.
To say that technology has always had a love-hate relationship with the music industry is like saying Jimi Hendrix was a “pretty good” guitarist. Pre-wax-cylinder (ie. before we cracked the code on how to record and distribute music), there were basically 3 ways for a musician to put food on the table. You could:
1/ Find a venue to play and take a cut of the box office,
2/ Find yourself a wealthy patron and act as the in-house band for any local baroness, bishop, or banking family willing to pay your bills. (The trade-off being, of course, that you have to cater to their tastes and #moods.)
3/ Compose sheet music and sell that.
Regardless of which path you take, there’s always some broker on the other end of the deal helping you make a connect. Artists have always been at the mercy of middlemen. Whether it’s the booking agent at Woodstock, the Spotify editorial team, or King Ludwig of Bavaria. (That’s right, you have this guy👇 to thank for that scene in Apocalypse Now:)
Technology has always been an equalizing force to the exploitation. A tool — or at times — a literal instrument for emancipation. But as we’ve moved from recording and distributing to promoting and self-promoting, platforms that were originally created to bring artists and fans together have attracted ever more middlemen trying to elbow in on the action.
Format has always dictated innovation and experimentation – leading to some huge cultural breakthroughs in the process. If we take a good hard look at how we got to where we are, one thing becomes abundantly clear: ART, BUSINESS, and TECHNOLOGY are hopelessly intertwined.
For the sake of simplifying centuries of musical history into a single timeline, we’ll use advances in FORMAT as milestones for the ebbs and flows in power that followed:
PREHISTORIC ERA // INSTRUMENTS = ONE THE 1ST TECHNOLOGIES
Music is in our evolutionary DNA. If we’re going to be real pedantic nerds about it: technically, the first instrument was the human voice, but the emergence of bone flutes and stone instruments in the Paleolithic era really signified the discovery of rhythm among our ancient ancestors. And, the first early flickers of human creativity. (The written word wouldn’t be invented for another 52K years.)
1900s // LIMITATIONS THAT SHAPED TODAY’S FORMAT
Until the turn of the 20th century, live music was the only way. If you wanted to catch Beethoven’s latest banger, you had better have a ticket. The development of the phonograph (1877), eventually referred to as the record player, changed everything. Music lovers could now enjoy their tunes at home! But records could only play a couple minutes at a time before you had to flip from the ‘A side’ to the ‘B side’.
The standard length for the average song was set at 3-5 minutes for over a hundred years, and collections of songs that guide listeners through an arrangement of ideas, emotions, or narrative (AKA albums) were also roughly the same length established by the first record players — even though physical file size had stopped being an issue.
That is only now beginning to change — with Spotify and TikTok setting a new industry standard for shorter, more ear-wormy hooks. Spotify counts a mere 30 seconds of listening as a full play that triggers a royalty check. A song has a bigger chance of going viral on TikTok if it’s got that irresistible beat-drop. (Cue: the White Lotus club-banger remix that recently became a meme unto itself.)
Producer DJ Kuya Magik (11M followers) sums it up best:
“If you go to a club and you watch people dance, they only dance to the 15 seconds of a song that’s famous on TikTok. For the rest of it, they just sit there.”
1920s // RADIO’S FAUSTIAN BARGAIN
For the first time, an artist could be discovered by millions with just the turn of a dial. Radio offered more reach than ever before, democratized the “experience” of live music, and led to the first generation of idols — but of course all of that came at a cost — in the form of a business model with new (sneaky, hidden) incentives. Radio stations sought to attract and grow specific audiences for their advertisers and “curated” (sanitized) content accordingly. More often than not, musicians looking to “make it” were forced to compromise creativity for coin.
1930s // LABELS SEIZE CONTROL
As media monopolies began to form (CBS, Warner Bros, etc), the only other path into the industry was independent labels. The labels had the capital and the equipment to record, make duplicates, and promote new talent. In fact, labels began to invest in new talent much like modern-day VCs do now — dictating the terms & conditions of royalties and licensing agreements. The artist received an advance (often deducted from the initial investment the label made). And royalty checks only came in after you, the artist, worked off that “investment.” The net result was a shift in how artists worked the system: albums became a way to get your music (and your name) out there, but tours and shows were where artists could really capitalize on the love of their fans.
1960s-1980s // I WANT MY MTV
Album art might help make a sale at retail, but until television came around, many fans only ever heard their favorite artists. In 1964, the Beatles performed live on the Ed Sullivan Show — marking the beginning of the British Invasion — but TV’s real impact didn’t really hit until 1981, with the introduction of MTV. Artists could now build their brands well beyond the stage. For the first time, they could exist within whatever fantastical worlds they could imagine. Ironically, sound was now only part of the total package — the right image or persona could propel a musician to superstardom.
1990s // DEMOCRATIZATION OF ACCESS: THE INTERNET
The Internet blew the doors off the floodgates of accessibility in much the same way radio had. Laying the track for direct pathways between musicians + fans for the first time. The progenitors of Bandcamp, Kickstarter, and Patreon allowed musicians to share music directly with fans. Production software like GarageBand meant you were no longer required to seek out those with access to recording equipment.
For a while, it was the Wild West. Napster, Limewire, and torrenting platforms allowed fans to easily pirate thousands of songs with the click of a button (and without paying a cent). While these platforms were quickly stomped out, they highlighted a desire for access that could not be denied. The genie was out of the bottle, and there was no getting it back in.
2000s // THE GREAT FLATTENING: PORTABILITY > FIDELITY
The steady march of technological progress defined the 20th century well beyond music. It’s how we got from radio to records, Walkman to the iPod, and then ultimately, the iTunes store. Suddenly, rather than replace a single disc in your massive home-stereo, you could shuffle between thousands of songs on your way to work…on a device 1/1000th the size.
"It allowed independent musicians access to legions of listeners without having to rely on record labels, distributors and retail stores. Music production has now truly been democratized, and this little compression algorithm was largely responsible."
— Scot Solida, The 21 most important products and innovations in music technology history, Musicradar
Personal music libraries grew exponentially and became easier to manage. Individual songs could easily be purchased from a digital storefront like iTunes, and a fan could listen to music whenever they wanted and have more ‘favorites’ than ever before.
2010s // REALITY TV + SOCIAL MEDIA: CHASING THAT 15 MIN OF FAME
American Idol and the early aughts obsession with reality programming planted the seed for the decades of clout-chasing to come. We’ve moved from contestants competing for a record deal (and the accompanying 15 min of fame that offered) to 15 sec TikTok clips and being the “Internet’s main character” for a day.
ALSO 2010s // STREAMING RADIO
Nothing can ever be too cheap or too convenient — the consumer still wanted more —and capitalism delivered. Pandora and Soundcloud was followed by Spotify, Tidal, and a multitude of streaming services now offering access to vast libraries for a reasonable monthly fee.
Just like that, another business model was born: one which promised access to everything and ownership of…nothing. Subscriber growth became the only metric that mattered to these platforms. The “album” kind of became an outdated concept. On iTunes, you at least received a deal for “buying in bulk” rather than cherry-picking one-off tracks.
2020s // TIKTOK RE-STACKS THE DECK
Until very recently, the deck was stacked against artists when it came to negotiating for themselves. The traditional model involved an advance in exchange for full ownership of your masters (+ about 85% of royalties thereafter). The musician only received their 15% if the label recouped their investment. In essence, the “advance” functions as a predatory loan —one that may take a very long time for you to work off.
TikTok has created a loophole in the system. Having access to the backend analytics has obliterated the “black box” strategy of keeping the cost of promo/ marketing/ distribution deliberately opaque. Now, artists willing to hustle can create a viral hit, make it onto the Spotify playlist, and build their own dedicated following – so when labels do come calling (and they will) – they can enter into negotiations with the leverage to ask for what they deserve.
These days, deals for artists breaking out through the TikTok → Spotify pipeline are shifting in the artists’ favor. More and more, labels are offering 50-50 and the rights to license a record for the next 12-15 years. It’s up to the artists to decide whether or not to sign.
Tune in for PART 2 of the INVESTIGATION — where we’ll dive into the artist’s perspective on the current state of the industry: same place, same time tomorrow.
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