Exploring the Problem of More Bands Than Fans|
by Alex Cosper (11/10/14)
The problem of "more bands than fans" started to emerge sometime in the late 1990s once it became possible for any independent artist to present his or her music to the public without permission from music industry gatekeepers. At one time quality control experts once filtered and controlled the floodgates of the music industry. But perhaps it's not really that big of a problem, except for millionaire rock stars who can no longer make the money they once made. The real problem is that the market is now flooded with tons of mediocre music, not just from independent artists, but from major labels as well.
After 1999 when Napster allowed fans to download music for free, the music industry went into panic mode and started focusing on marketing whatever music could sell the fastest, which historically since the 1950s has been teen music. Television suddenly became part of the equation as the show American Idol was launched in 2002 and other reality shows followed that helped lower the quality of music. The spotlight on good looking vocalists further pushed quality songwriting out of the mix of factors that once shaped pop music.
The term "mediocre" seems so subjective after hearing it kicked around a lot by experts and novices alike to mean whatever you want it to mean. But for the sake of examining this issue of too much uneventful music everywhere we turn, let's define "mediocre" as anything that anyone could produce if they had the tools and resources without using much imagination. Anyone, for example, can now take photos on a smartphone, but does that make everyone a professional photographer? Obviously not. Usually the types of photos that still sell have something to do with capturing an amazing moment and using plenty of knowledge and imagination to get the best results.
The Root of the Problem
For some reason the music industry hates to admit it has lost touch with imagination. Label CEOs have stayed away from the press lately since they never seem to have any good news to report about the music industry. When they did try to justify musical mediocrity and falling sales it was usually with the following incredibly short-sighted comments:
"We're not here to sell art, this is just a business"
"We reflect the trends, we don't create them"
"The public decides what's popular, not the industry"
"Tastes change and our job is to keep up with public taste"
"Music piracy is to blame for declining sales"
Each of these comments has become generic to the point you can say with accuracy that these words have all been repeated by the top execs in the music industry. Yet each mantra reflects a myth that to some degree is even held by the public. No one, for example, likes to admit that their choices are shaped by three corporations. Most people are not savvy enough about how the music industry works to understand all the hype that goes into creating the illusions of popularity. The fact is, the labels became lazy on innovation and more conservative the more corporate they got. By ignoring the quality of art itself, the labels have floundered.
When three labels control most of the music heard across the nation on radio then labels and stations are the ones that shape the musical universe, at least for the mainstream public. By only signing cookie-cutter artists that sound like other big selling artists, the labels have created an environment of musical stagnation. The result is that 2014 has been a terrible year for music sales with only a few million selling albums all year. Since the mid-1990s no new musical styles have emerged. Most of the music has been redundant duplications of the music from the previous six decades.
Marketing a Copy of a Copy
So now you see why the new century hasn't produced any major label rock band that comes close to the quality of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin or The Police. Last century there were six adventurous major labels and hundreds of independent labels that fed the national music scene. This century the pop scene is controlled by three conservative labels all deep in debt that are afraid to release innovative music for fear it might not sell. Meanwhile, the cookie-cutter music they are releasing isn't selling well either. So instead of blaming the problem on lack of imagination, they point fingers at the public for stealing music or not showing enough loyalty for artists.
If all the popular choices are just assembly line copies of previous copies and the music has no imagination, it's hard to see why anyone would want to keep buying the same disposable music over and over. It's easy to understand how a fast food chain gets away with selling the same trashy cheap food continously because people want and expect convenience when it comes to nonrenewable products like food. But music isn't supposed to be like cheeseburgers. It's supposed to be more visionary than a cheeseburger and it's supposed to have a lot longer lifespan. So marketing music like cheeseburgers is absolutely foolish and is causing the music industry to cheese out and destroy itself.
Not only is popular music full of mediocre choices, it becomes a major influence on the independent music scene, which the indie crowd often doesn't like to admit. When the same styles of music dominate the pop scene through forced consumption for over 20 years it can influence indie musicians to assume that's what the public wants, so that's the music they should create as well. That's where the fiasco becomes exponential. Add to this set of conditions internet platforms that make it easy for anyone to share their music with the public and you end up with more bands than fans, with a huge majority of the bands being mediocre at best.
What Needs to Change
In order for the music industry to stop killing itself and for indie music to grow at the same time, several things need to happen. Perhaps the easiest solution is for each label to find an innovator to put at the top, which worked for Apple and other tech companies. Why wouldn't that idea work for music as well? After all, Steve Jobs wasn't so much a scientist as he was an artistic visionary. He understood the power of music - specifically the Beatles and Bob Dylan - perhaps better than the music industry. Neither artist crafted music like assembly line cheeseburgers. They were creative storytellers who tore down walls and facades created by industry, which is what Steve Jobs did.
The next step is to do something about music streaming, which is another factor that's killing artist income and expanding the problem of more bands than fans. Music streaming is not really the answer to musical mediocrity and is more likely a subtle symptom of it. The radio industry has become too predictably boring and doesn't offer much in terms of exciting new development in music. So that makes people wander and explore what else is out there like Pandora, Spotify and the rest of the growing list of streaming services that presume people would rather "rent" than "own" music these days. For just ten bucks a month you can have access to millions of songs instead of the free radio model that gives you a much tighter menu of mediocre choices.
Neither a tight list nor a broad list of mediocre choices is the answer for music fans or artists. What really needs to happen is that broad lists of exciting choices, whether from big or indie labels, need to present themselves in pop culture. The concept of curation plays into it, assuming the curators aren't mediocre reflectors of whatever sells the fastest. Obviously teen music sells the fastest in the short run, but in the long run most teen music proves to burn out even with its own army of followers that eventually grows up and develops wider tastes. The idea that the music industry clings to - that teens control pop music - becomes more and more ridiculous with each new study that says less and less teens spend money on music.
If music streaming services, which are mostly unprofitable but pay their CEOs nice salaries while artists get pennies, are allowed to keep entering the market, the music industry will continue to wither. The iTunes model of digital downloads still stands up as the better model for artists, labels and even fans. Integrating digital downloads with cloud music services is clearly more helpful than keeping the two concepts separate. If artists would rather make a few dollars for millions of spins on a streaming network then maybe the future of the music industry won't be an industry at all. Instead of pursuing artists, fans will pursue wide libraries as artists become drowned out by technology platforms.
As long as there are millions of artists to choose from, without much uniqueness within the art, music is going to be a declining industry. That doesn't mean most indie artists should give up music. But it's a clear indication how supply and demand affect music. What really needs to happen is that there needs to be a wave of innovative music that inspires the world to experience music as fresh again.
The concept of supply and demand seems simple on the surface but becomes complex the more you explore it. Reducing the supply of music will not necessarily increase the demand. Last century radio stations got away with tight playlists because they weren't competing directly with wide libraries. However, increasing the supply of innovative music could make a big difference. The merging of music with multi-media will likely play a big role in sparking demand for the more innovative artists of the future. Artists should make music to share visionary ideas, instead of trying to gain attention for imitating rock stars.
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