The industry is really hitting its stride.
Warner Music, one of the big 3 American labels, reported earnings last month, and they were powerful across the board:
Total revenue jumped 10%, and digital revenue jumped 25%.
25 percent! Imagine getting a 25% raise right now. You’d be jumping for joy.
Universal Music reported operating income increases of 20% compared to last year, and Sony saw double digit jumps as well.
Streaming, unsurprisingly, is driving this surge. Global streams increased by 50% in the last year alone, rising to 377 billion streams.
All kinds of record-setting stats can be found in analytics company Buzzangle Music’s annual report. It’s jaw-dropping.
There were twice as many streams on an average day in 2017 as there were total song downloads in the entire year.
And as we know, hip-hop took over the charts in 2017. The relationship with digital platforms and rap’s rise is kind of a chicken-and-egg scenario, but the correlation is vivid and apparent. With T Swift pivoting to rap rhythms and Bodak Yellow topping Pitchfork’s year end list, Kendrick’s “HUMBLE” emerging as the most streamed audio and Drake crowned as the most streamed artist, it feels like the genre is catapulting into pole position with quite a bit of momentum.
But, in the timeless words of Bad Boy, mo’ money, mo’ problems.
Soundcloud’s DIY, scrappy platform and ethos flourished over the past ten years as money got sucked out of music while the barrier to entry dropped to a microphone and a computer. Some of the best projects of the past decade came out independently, for free, from kids with rhymes and FL studio. It felt incorruptible, fresh, raw.
Now that technological advances have allowed for renewed monetization of music, a few troubling shifts seem to be going down.
While averages and gross numbers are skyrocketing, streaming isn’t working for every artist — or even the vast majority of them. Take a deeper look in that Buzzangle report (like Pigeons and Planes did, h/t) and you’ll find that, in fact, it’s wildly unequal.
The top 10% of songs account for 99.2% percent of streams — all of them, basically. Just as wild, just 1000 songs account for 122 billion listens— fully one-third of all streams.
More people, listening to fewer songs.
Money seems to have a noticeable impact on other forms of recorded entertainment. While branded content rarely sticks elsewhere, it seems to have found a strong niche in podcasts. Podcasts created by companies like Tinder, GE, and Prudential are getting renewed and reaching millions. Folks are eating it up.
If it stopped there, whatever. But the trend towards making consumable, monetizable tunes is gaining momentum, and if this continues to creep into music, there’s bad stuff on the horizon. Research has shown that streaming has already caused a fundamental shift in the way music is being created, effectively eliminating instrumental introductions. Both Drew Millard at Noisey and Liz Pelly for The Baffler looked at different angles of the dangers of Playlisting and consolidation.
As algorithmic playlists takes over, they argue, the ease and simplicity of finding new music dramatically increases. Yet clearly the natural corollary would be that the powers that be — labels, streaming services, brands, even artists themselves — are going to try to position themselves to rake in that algorithmic dough, even if means making ~ambient muzak~ that pleases the code. Instead of breeding originality, it encourages sameness, formula-following.
Earlier this year, Pitchfork won the Webby Award for “Best Branded Editorial Experience,” a prize it received for its series “Inside Discovery” — a collaboration with Spotify meant to boost awareness of the “Discover Weekly” feature. The series shows Pitchfork editors (and favored musicians) gushing about their love of streaming — the immediacy! The deep back catalogs! One editor says it helps him keep track of his listening habits, while another rejoices at not having to dig through crates at record shops anymore. Yet another likens Spotify to walking around a music festival, discovering something new at every turn.
What does it mean for “the most trusted voice in music” to celebrate an algorithm as preferable to its own crate digging? What does it mean when the tastemaking humans endorse data-driven machines? What does it mean when the algorithms become cool? 8.4 Best New Algorithm!
Millard fears that this ease will hyper-streamline the creation of music.
If we’re not careful, we might end up in a world where musicians are not artists but instead “creatives,” members of the nebulous class of people who produce music for juice bars and workout classes while retaining a veneer of rebellion by wearing skinny jeans and sporting at least one semi-visible tattoo. Or, we could wake up one day to discover that musicians themselves have become obsolete: Google is currently working to adapt its neural networks to create original music, while Spotify has hired a computer scientist specializing in teaching AI to emulate popular music styles.
Perhaps we do too much fear-stoking, technophobic, purist editorializing — but these trends are troubling.
Luckily, Millard also reminds usof the vital heartbeat of artists and iconoclasts that rejects convention and profit-motivation, makes cool, beautiful, thought-provoking stuff, and, ultimately, drives culture forward.
But before we rail against a future ruled by machines like we’re in a real-life Terminator movie, it’s worth remembering that not every artist is in it to make money in the first place. Those who create from a place of passion and produce work that grapples with an increasingly confusing and alienating world won’t quit doing so out of a fear that a computer program won’t throw their song into someone’s brunch playlist. But if by some stroke of technocratic luck that does happen, maybe those who discover the track will find meaning in it that lasts long after the meal is over.
Hope so, Drew. Hope so.