New Mixtape : [Track 2]
PART 2 of a 3-PART series exploring the music industry's love-hate relationship with technology drops today.
In PART 1, we took you on a brief tour through musical history to explore how creativity always seems to find a way —thanks in large part to advances in format. Today, we zoom in on the people on the front lines — the artists themselves, and how they’re using technology to take back the power.
Here’s Prince to set the scene:
For the first time, artists can have complete say over their PRESENTATION (image/ persona), PRODUCTION (access to tools, owning their masters), and DISTRIBUTION (community-building).
Prince had to change his name in order to emancipate himself from Warner Bros., but his very publicly-documented struggles paved the way for every artist that followed —igniting mainstream discourse around ownership and exploitation in the industry.
Meanwhile, Beyonce has been showing everyone how it’s done since the early 2000s. In many ways, she is the living embodiment of how the Internet has empowered artists to advocate for themselves:
THE DESTINY’S CHILD ERA // UNDISPUTED FRONTWOMAN
Although her rise is often looked back on today as an early 2000s Cinderella story, Beyonce and co. had their share of false starts —including a fumbled appearance on Star Search and a constantly revolving roster of members — which led to jokes about the audition process for the group being like the reality show Survivor. Regardless of the rumors of drama behind the scenes, Beyonce’s star was on the rise. She wasn’t about to be contained by a label-made pre-fab Girl Group.
SOLO ACT // RECLAMATION OF HER POWER
The turning point came in 2011, when she dismissed the services of her manager after 21 years. That might not sound that impressive now, but her manager at the time was…her dad. At this point, she was never not working:
“She had two major movie roles: a supporting part in 2006’s Dreamgirls, with mixed reviews (New York magazine brutally dismissed her as “not an actress”), and another in 2008’s Cadillac Records, this time to raves. (“As for Beyoncé—oh my goodness,” said Slate.) She went on multiple world tours, on which the reviews were never mixed but still managed to be a little condescending (“A revue spectacular enough in its colossal divadom to put off proclamations of — it’s all right, we’ve all felt it — Beyoncé fatigue.”) She sang as the Obamas danced their first dance as president and first lady in 2009 (“Beyoncé is fast becoming a saint”). With 2008’s “Single Ladies,” she delivered what Kanye West would memorably declare “one of the best videos of all time! One of the best videos of all time!”
— Constance Grady, Vox, How Beyoncé turned herself into a pop god
You could see her trying things out — establishing herself first as the diva of all divas in the mold of Tina Turner and Mariah — to something that transcends genre (sometimes even music) altogether.
FINAL FORM // POP GODDESS + TRAILBLAZING ICON
Since then, she’s established iron-clad control not only over: when/how she releases her music (see: Lemonade, Renaissance), how her image is shaped/ maintained (see: the “unflattering Beyonce meme” from the 2013 SuperBowl), to the worlds she creates around every tour and every announcement she puts out — whether it’s the Louvre or her face projected thousands of feet high onto a literal monolith.
Renaissance, Rolling Stone contends, is proof that Beyoncé is “the only sovereign of pop to have truly evolved artistically while also expanding an enormous commercial empire.” In other words, no one can match her artistic, commercial, and cultural evolution. In that sense, the woman is a trailblazing icon. An artist who understands that her art and image should always be in dialogue with the speed of cultural shift.
Power to the People
Beyond Beyoncé, there is a long history of artists that embraced the ‘web3’ ethos well before the recent popularization of the term. No dream chaser wants to be owned by a label that curates their brand, artistic output, and community engagement.
Until recently, it took ‘superstar’ leverage to circumvent the system. Signing with a label was one of a very short list of options available to musicians to turn a passion into a sustainable career because of the resources a label could provide. An up & comer couldn’t release an album and ask fans to ‘pay-what-you-wish’ like Radiohead did with In Rainbows. They would starve. Taylor Swift is re-recording her masters because she is unable to buy the rights to the music she created – but she is able to take the time to do so because she has the Swifties to back her every move.
Before the Internet, these avenues were simply not available to artists that hadn’t yet achieved mega-commercial success, but Swift has been vocal that they should be. Her struggle in particular has inspired at least one up & comer in Olivia Rodrigo – who made sure to negotiate full control of her masters in her deal with Interscope.
New technologies to reach fans and build community are gradually turning the tide. Decentralized discovery and distribution has democratized how an artist can break out, blow up, and connect with their audience. The barriers to entry aren’t necessarily lower – it’s just there that are many, many more loopholes now to breaking in. Clout used to lie with the labels, but now if you are savvy with your online presence, you can find the audience (and funding you need) to keep producing and performing on your own terms – thanks to platforms like Soundcloud, Patreon, Discord, and Twitch.
And while an artist may still choose to sign with a label – having achieved virality via social platforms provides significant leverage in those initial conversations. Just ask Lil Nas X, who refers to himself as an “Internet baby:”
His ‘pre-label’ single “Old Town Road” reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 after he:
1/ bought a beat on Beatstars for $30,
2/ recorded the track at an Atlanta studio for a “$20 Tuesday” deal,
3/ personally seeded the finished product with 100 memes pairing the track with short, viral clips of cowboys dancing,
4/ blew up on TikTok via the #YeehawChallenge” — cementing “Old Town Road” as the earworm of 2019.
Soon after, Lil Nas X would have his pick of labels clamoring to work with him in the midst of an “intense bidding war,” and he has made sure to maintain creative control over his work ever since – casting himself as the social commentator, provocateur, and sometimes even role model we all need in these dark times.
Of course, TikTok, having witnessed Lil Nas X’s rise to fame and listened to the changing sentiment around artists’ battle for emancipation from traditional models, has decided to “lean in” to its newfound ability to propel unsigned musicians to fame with the launch of SoundOn: an “all-in-one” platform for music marketing and distribution designed to “empower new and undiscovered artists.” A direct challenge to the traditional label route that promises a whopping 100% in music royalties in the first year, 90% from then on, and artist control of their masters.
Ole Oberman, formerly of Warner Bros. and now head of global music at TikTok, likened user-generated videos to the mixtapes people made back in the day—“the ultimate form of fandom.”
“[TikTok] is as a combination of elements of Top Forty radio, music television, and streaming: ‘There has never been anything that can get a song hooked in your head the way TikTok does it.’”
— “So You Want to Be a TikTok Star,” John Seabrook, New Yorker.
In 2020 alone, more than 70 new artists broke out on TikTok-signed contracts with record labels.
“In a pre-TikTok world, it was hard to draw a crowd, and artists used that process to hone their craft. Now you can start with a crowd in your phone and pray that craft catches up.”
— Billy Mann, a Grammy-nominated producer, songwriter, and record executive.
Increasingly, a new generation of artists are realizing that ‘making it’ without a label is both realistic and preferable. Soundcloud has propelled game-changing artists like Post Malone, Kehlani, and Kygo to comparable levels of fame – allowing them to hit millions of listens before a label ever got involved.
The fact is, “the label” used to be the only game in town. Now, there are new avenues to widespread distribution. Anyone with a smartphone and an Internet connection can post to TikTok, Soundcloud, or Twitter.
Pandora’s Box is open and there’s no shutting it —meaning, labels are now having to adjust their playbooks accordingly. *Cue the recent uproar over “fake viral moments” artists like Halsey are now contractually obligated to produce.
At the same time, some artists would argue that we’ve really traded one puppetmaster for another: the Almighty Algorithm.
Yes, power has shifted to the artist and labels are scrambling to claw some of it back – but should you choose to go it alone without the backing of a corporation, the day-to-day grind of maintaining your persona is also on you. And, make no mistake, self-promotion has become a full-time job. Thanks to the many more middlemen the algorithm introduced into the mix:
Rather than just a label, the station, and the booking agent, you’ve now got all of the below intermediaries sticking their hand out for a cut:
1/ PLATFORMS: for promo/ discovery (TikTok, IG) & for distribution (Spotify, Apple), specialized indie distribution platforms (DistroKid, Stem, TuneCore)
2/ GATEKEEPERS: Talent Scouts, Labels, Agents, Billboard, the Grammys, etc.
3/ TASTEMAKERS/ MEDIA/ CRITICS: Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, WorldStar
4/ VENUES: Festivals, booking agents, Twitch/ Fortnite, etc.
Where We’re At: the Kaleidoscopic Fragmenting of the Industry
There’s plenty of reasons to be optimistic if you look at the state of the industry today:
+ more artists can make a living
+ more music is being made
+ fans can zero in on specifically what they like (leading to more sub-genres/cultures — ie. “country trap”)
BUT it’s also become a numbers game.
In the mainstream, we’ve moved from a single-led economy (4 min was the standard for 7” vinyl) to an album-led economy (LPs/CDs), to a streaming/ playlist-led economy (Spotify) to now a viral 15-sec hook-based economy (TikTok).
Chioke (Stretch) McCoy, a veteran manager of top hip-hop acts, maintains that TikTok may be great for music discovery, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a net positive for musicians. Many labels are now weaponizing TikTok data and viewing artists as if they are as disposable as their songs.
“[Mike Caren, a former president of A. & R. at Warner Music] mentions a TikTok artist who had recently had a viral moment. “If he had signed a deal last week, he would have gotten a couple of million dollars,” he said. “If it takes him a couple weeks to close his deal, and the data keeps going up, it could get more expensive for us.”And if his data goes down? “Some would back off. It’s possible no one might sign him.”
— “So You Want to Be a TikTok Star,” John Seabrook, New Yorker.
Relying on data is nothing new, of course. Industry gatekeepers have always used data to try to gauge how deeply a song or an artist connects with fans. Radio programmers have long relied on “call-out research” — playing a song’s hook for a focus group, to help predict whether it will be a hit. TikTok does something similar — it’s just automated it — delivering more honest, real-time feedback than any focus group. The difference is, the algorithm is now eliminating contenders based on a single track’s performance — a particularly unforgiving form of 👍 or 👎 design-by-comittee.
And on the discovery side of things, human curation is being phased out by AI – which reduces “success” to followers, streams, and plays. Spotify’s RapCaviar started out as one hip-hop head’s expertly-curated playlist but has since become yet another promotional tool in the hands of labels and the Spotify editorial team. WarnerMusic has signed an algorithm to a record deal and is tapping into AI to scout new talent.
In other words, the Factory Line is becoming a Mathematical Formula.
When machines are dictating both what’s being created and how it’s being distributed based on some arbitrary formula produced from a dataset of what’s worked before, what room is left for creativity and experimentation?
It should come as no surprise that one-hit wonders have become the establishment’s golden goose. When every track is reduced to streamable, shareable, sample-able “content” – meaning gets lost in the shuffle. The true cost of convenience is depth – the context of the artist’s original intent. The influences, inspirations, and cultural currents that shaped the sound. The story behind the music and the world the artist is trying to build with each release, tour, or album.
Rather than relying on one path to stardom set out by the established powers-that-be, artists can now produce, experiment, and be “discovered” on their own terms. All it takes is time, dedication, and fluency with the Internet…but we’ll get deeper into what that Internet fluency might look like next time.
Here’s the TLDR for those who’ve stuck with us, we’ll be back — same time, same place tomorrow to wrap things up:
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