On Music: The End (?) of Major Label Rule

The 1970s; a time where people had lasting attachments to the music they listened to. Where conscious decisions were made to buy an album out of the thousands available. Where your record collection actually reflected your taste in music. Albums were investments, if you bought something that wasn’t immediately enjoyable, you listened to it enough times so it became enjoyable. Albums were with you for years, and the ones you loved the most were the most beat up, the most scratched. You know the exact lyric that scratch on your favorite LP obscures. If it wasn’t your copy, it just wasn’t the same.

I’d hazard a guess and say that those born post 1990 form much weaker relationships to the music they consume. The music industry has become over-saturated, devaluated as a commodity. Streaming services, torrents and other methods of acquisition provide millions and millions of songs and albums instantly – and often for free. The age of the collector has come to a close. With so much at our disposal, so much to listen to, how can someone devote nearly enough time to any one album in order to form any semblance of a meaningful relationship?

Nowadays, people seem to have serious relationships with playlists and playcounts as opposed to albums and songs. This is reflected in the tendency of many pop musicians and labels to use albums as single-promoting machines as opposed to cohesive units. The individual song and the album have become devaluated commodities in the eyes of the public.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the trajectory of the music industry. I recently read an interesting essay by Simon Frith detailing the industry’s evolution from its inception in the 1890s until around 1970. It left me feeling a little uneasy to be honest. It’s unfortunate to realize that even though music as a commodity is a relatively new concept, spanning barely 100 years, the focus has been entirely on monetary gain. Frith spoke on the incredible ability of many corporations to shape the desires of their target audience, highlighting how the concept of a pop star was invented by corporations in order to sell more records. Up until the rise of rock in the early 1960s, society’s taste in music was entirely dictated by corporate goons.

Of course rock musicians were exploited by the industry as well. Contracts were shaped by the artist’s projected ability to sell records – big artists had to at least go platinum once. Those that sold well were promoted like crazy, shoved down the throats of consumers at every turn. But what happened to all of those artists who didn’t receive a large record deal, didn’t sell well, or weren’t promoted? What happened to the musicians pushing the boundaries of convention? Those who made music for the sake of making music rather than pandering to corporate whims?

In came the independent label, thoroughly pissing off the corporations by signing musicians they saw as financial liabilities. Of course, musicians became dissatisfied with the state of the industry, and rightly so. This dissatisfaction spawned a genre all its own, championed by independent labels – punk. Punk musicians, with their antiestablishment message, vulgar lyrics, intentionally difficult aesthetic and unkempt image caught the attention of the large labels who saw its popularity and began to sign similar artists. Soon, punk was no longer the child of indie labels – corporations had seen its financial potential, and capitalized on it. Punk had become commercialized.

It seems that every musical development, every sonic trend is eventually appropriated and thoroughly twisted by the major labels. Yet recent developments in musical consumption could very well change this trend. Consumers no longer associate themselves as strongly with the music they listen, to as was the case in decades past. With millions of songs and albums instantly available through various digital, and more often than not free services, major labels might find themselves hard pressed to shape the taste of their customers as they used to. While corporations may still retain control over tried and true outlets of consumption; radio, television, physical albums, these mediums are decreasing in market value each year. It is reassuring to think that with every passing year, the digital market reduces the corporate influence. I’m sure the digital industry carries its fair share of possible implications and issues, but for the time being I’ll hold onto my optimistic image of a music industry where the music takes priority over its monetary potential.

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2 Comments

  1. Very interesting point. I also think that the ever-increasing possibilities through which one can have access to music (generally for free) may be at the origin of innovative aesthetics and properly musical innovations. I’m thinking of the term “indie music” as a genre in itself. Does it make sense to talk about jazz music and indie music on similar scales ? What seems to emerge is a global movement of musical cohabitation between an increasing number of bands, trends, rhythms and approaches to musical composition. Music-making may have stopped being a massive profit source (for artists as well as for record companies) but it seems to me that we can hope for more and more dynamism, musical surprises and new melodious associations in the near future…

  2. Some recent articles about the economics of royalties as they are evolving in the digital era:

    http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/8993-the-cloud/

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/29/business/media/streaming-shakes-up-music-industrys-model-for-royalties.html?hp&pagewanted=all&_r=0

    It seems the ease with which music is now created has led to a glut of supply, while digital distribution has made the bolus of product available at little or no cost. If artists continue to produce in such quantities, that trend can be explained for a few reasons:

    1. they have alternative income streams (a day job?) and don’t rely on music sales to live
    2. they are scraping by in hopes of hitting it big, though the odds against are immense

    There seem to be a few ways of making it big (with luck):

    1. create sound that is genuinely unique and pleasant (very hard)
    2. have an insane amount of natural singing/instrumental talent (a matter of genetic luck)
    3. create music largely similar to other popular contemporary hits (studies indicate most people enjoy music that sounds mostly familiar) and employing all the latest well known production gimmicks in producing catchy, throw-away tunes (top 40 dreck)

    If this is an accurate model, we should expect a ridiculous amount of musical variety (due to #1) along side increasing popular homogenization (due to #3). Because of high volumes, it will be increasingly difficult to find the unique and/or high-talent diamonds in the rough represented by #1-2, who will struggle against revenues of $0.004/play or else outright piracy.

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