The Long and Winding Road

Twists and turns of the music industry

The music industry is certainly one of the most volatile. Artists come and go on practically a daily basis, and the majority don’t even manage to become one-hit wonders. Labels keep shaping and shuffling their artists, all on an endless search for that which will sell or that which sounds extraordinary (or both, in the case of the best labels). But the music industry today is a far cry from what it was up until the 2000s, when technological advances dramatically, and perhaps irrevocably changed the business.

The Long and Winding Road
The Long and Winding Road

When music was first sold as a commodity in the form of vinyl records, the industry worked rather simply. Labels would handle all aspects of any given recording, right from production and mastering to pressing and distribution. Marketing was not done through social or viral media, but on the basis of talent and sound. Artists were discovered at dive bars and local venues by producers looking to push out the next big record. Once contracted, their only work was to record the music and stick around for the promotions; the label handled everything else.
As time went by, the landscape shifted. Artists like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and The Beatles took the musician’s life to another level. They made amazing money by selling millions of records and playing hundreds of concerts and shows. Their lives were glamorous, filled with beautiful women and a host of other indulgences. Adoring fans awaited them at airports, and even more dedicated ones packed stadiums and arenas to see them perform live. It was the foundation for the modern lifestyle of the professional musician - especially that of the rock star.
Throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, rock music and rock stars dominated the industry. These were the undisputed kings of glamour and the high life, bedding the most gorgeous women and getting into all sorts of trouble with their infamous antics. From throwing mattresses out windows to drug-fuelled orgies, the outlandish stories of rock stars and their groupies only reinforced their iconic status. Names like Steven Tyler, Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey and Gene Simmons resonate across generations even today. They established the archetype of the rock star, and they did so with unabashed style and no regrets. Axl Rose and Brett Michaels kept people entertained, diving into crowds and smashing guitars like nobody’s business. They gave you quality music when you visited the music store, and followed it up with high-octane performances when you bought tickets to their concerts.
Then came the modern era, when technology ushered in two major changes right around the turn-of-the-millennium. The first was in terms of production. Up until the early 2000s, most musical genres used live instrument recordings supported by electronic sampling, the notable exception being electronic music, which has always used sampling as the dominant production method. By 2004, however, most pop songs were electronically produced. And while rock and jazz - and related genres like metal and blues - continue to make primary use of live instruments, the shift from analogue technology to digital variants have resulted in cleaner sounds and more balanced mastering.
The second key role that technology played in the development of the music industry was in integration. Earlier, sending a vinyl press master out for mass production would take weeks. Now things like e-mail enabled digital WAV and MP3 files to be sent from Los Angeles to London in minutes, requiring no time or money for duplication and return shipping. However, there was a downside to Internet-based file sharing. Unlike a physical record or CD, which required each listener to have a purchased unit, an MP3 file could be shared and downloaded for free.
You could download an Aerosmith album or Metallica’s entire discography in hours, depending on your bandwidth, and it would cost you nothing more than the power units needed to run your computer and modem. The music industry caught on to the game and went after several peer-to-peer (P2P) services like Napster and Limewire. Despite a series of lawsuits and anti-piracy measures, file sharing remains the primary method by which people get their music. The industry started to feel the financial pinch, so change was to be expected once more.
Around 2005 or 2006, electronic music shifted out of its underground status and began permeating the mainstream. Elements of these genres could be heard in pop and hip-hop, especially in the newer progressive bands that used electronic production to recreate older styles like rock and metal. As a result, the age of the DJ began. But as DJs grew in popularity, their music was also distributed online for free. A producer who could earn €60,000 by producing or remixing 12 to 15 tracks a year was suddenly making a fraction of that money. Consequently, producers had to learn how to DJ and profit from the rising popularity of the live gig, which started taking over the rock concert as the “place to be”. Professionals who excelled at both production and mixing - Tiësto and David Guetta, among others - began carving out their niches.
Labels, sensing a payday that would compensate for the losses incurred due to file sharing, decided to take the electronic music model and apply it to mainstream pop and hip-hop. While an album by Justin Bieber or Nicki Minaj will undoubtedly sell far more than an ambient chillout compilation by Chicane, the bank-happy bonanza that is the live show is not ignored. Many mainstream artists put more energy into performing their music than they do into creating it, which has resulted in a ton of songs – many of questionable quality.
They say that the music industry operates in cycles, and that the popularity of a genre waxes and wanes with time. If so, it will only be a matter of time before people realise that they aren’t getting the quality of music they want. Perhaps even newer technology will arrive about and play a role in the industry - even in getting record sales back up. Perhaps things will continue as they are until people migrate to a new mainstream, allowing that to flourish while current pop undergoes an underground revival. As it has been in the past, only time will tell.