By JOHN ELLIS
I have regular conversations with musicians and people currently involved in the business of making music. The people I talk to who are my age are mostly bewildered, while younger musicians or those even younger, like my teenaged son, who just enjoy music for the sake of it, are just adapting and getting on with it. Whatever ‘it’ is.
Musicians who started making music in the 80s and 90s are largely lost. The music industry that existed at that time (which was a fairly unchanged, naturally-evolved version of the commercial music system that emerged with the inventions like the phonograph and early vinyl) has now almost completely disappeared.
And to some extent, good riddance.
It was exploitative, greedy and profit-driven. And then, as Hunter S Thompson reminds us, there was a down side.
The old music industry consisted very basically of selling recorded music for profit. Pieces of vinyl, then tape, then plastic contained pre-recorded representations of famous artists, and a corporate entity marketed those recordings to the general consumer. Simple. It was like selling washing machines or pencils. If the marketing went well, people bought the product. That would then create a demand for that artist to appear in person and perform those recordings live. Which would generate further profit. Rinse and repeat.
That was the system. If you were a good enough musician (and ‘good enough’ will have to be the subject of another blog*), a record company paid for you to be recorded in a professional studio by dedicated audio engineers, then it would market you to consumers (the only mass communication worthy of the name being radio, and, later, commercial TV), you’d sell your recordings to as many people as the marketing convinced, then you’d travel around the country or even the world performing that music for a fee. If you were lucky, you could do that all your life and have what was once so quaintly referred to as a ‘career’.
That’s what I came of age in: a tried-and-tested workable money machine. You plugged your talent in one end, it spits out money at the other. And you can keep doing that activity with your talent for as long as Keith Richards stays alive.
I was lucky enough to experience a little of that system’s workability. It was a typically evil, profit-driven, capitalist exercise, but it had a solid basis in reality: record companies had buildings and executives with cash, music was recorded by professionals in dedicated studios, you had to work hard at the crafts of learning an instrument and writing ‘good’ (see * above) songs, you absolutely had to be able to perform your music live in front of an audience. And audiences bought in, once you’d convinced them you were worthy of their attention. People paid to go and watch musicians perform well-known songs. Everybody, sometimes even the artist, won.
This system did not always produce the best quality music, it must be said. Anytime art is mass-produced for profit, the art will suffer. That’s a commonly-accepted fact of history. All I am pointing to here is that there was a (relatively) long time in human history where the business of making and selling music was a quantifiable thing in and of itself.
The arrival of the internet brought an end to all that.
The whole system of making and consuming music changed with the mid-1990s invention of the MP3. Remember those? For the first time in technological history, music no longer had to exist on a physical piece of matter. The reality of the MP3, and of course its shareability over this new-fangled ‘interweb’, suddenly endangered the very existence of compact discs, brick-and-mortar music stores and even conventional commercial radio. It wasn’t the meteor itself, but it was definitely the strange light in the sky, and all us dinosaurs merely looked up in half-interested disinterest and then went back to business as usual.
The rest? Napster. File sharing. Gnutella. Music on hard drives. The bankruptcy and closing of record stores. Whole CD collections in junk shops. Apple. iPods. iTunes. Then, music streaming. Spotify. YouTube. SoundCloud. The closing of age-old recording studios. The demise of radio. Lap-top studios. Focus-group songwriting.
The way we moderns consume music in 2019 is a result of the huge revolution that the advent of the internet gave rise to. In most respects, it is just the natural result of technological evolution, innovation and progress. These forces are unstoppable and irresistible, as we have all experienced, and in the blink of an eye even the events detailed in this blog will be quaint history. “Spotify?” we’ll one day laugh.
That’s not the point of this piece though. I’m thinking of the musicians and music-related people who, in the middle of their lives or, as is this case with many, just as their careers began, suddenly found the floor ripped out from underneath them.
To make music your career now, you have to hustle. If you are not a self-marketing self-promoting entrepreneurial profit-driven hustler in 2019, you are not going to ‘make it’, whatever that means. Before the internet, talent and drive and hunger and skill and above all, musicianship were the keys to the kingdom. They still are, to some extent, but the doors they open only turn out to be the security gates of the outer courts. There are bigger doors, and you need bigger keys.
All this to say, the process of making music has changed unutterably. People my age remember an easier time, where studios were exciting challenging places, music production was collaborative, and you had a willing audience waiting to hear what you did next. You could usually also write your own songs and get them out without too much corporate interference. Then, you couldn’t wait to get out and perform those songs live and see audiences react to them. These things still happen, but to a greatly-reduced extent.
So, musicians from my era are bewildered in this new landscape. It’s far more difficult to make a living in music now, as even younger musicians are experiencing. For starters, if you write your own songs, you are immediately competing with every person in the world with access to GarageBand, SoundCloud and a reliable connection to the internet. Everyone is a songwriter, artist, producer and promoter now. Talent is no longer nearly enough. The standards are lower than they’ve ever been in terms of what constitutes ‘art’.
I sound like a grumpy old guy. I admit, I have felt that way here and there, but I’m in the final stage of acceptance now. The internet has democratised the way music is made, sold and consumed. It has changed how artists perform it. Viva democracy. It has almost extinguished an entire food-chain of the music industry: my studio engineer friends have largely sold all their gear, given up their recording spaces and become real estate salesmen.
As for me, I had to stop thinking of myself as an ‘artist’ years ago. I had to let go of a once-viable career. Mostly because I am decidedly not a hustler. I am no entrepreneur, at anything, let alone music. I had to live through the heartbreak of watching the old world die and the new one take its place, and singer-songwriters like me don’t belong in the new one.
Taylor Swift’s new song Me! was released on April 26 2019. It’s a perfect archetype of the modern music industry. Multiple songwriters, huge social media presence, glossy music ‘video’ on YouTube…it’s an internet event. The song itself sounds like all modern pop music started sounding like over the last 10 years: an advertising jingle for the Taylor Swift Corporation™. It’s classic, pitch-perfect focus-grouped ‘songwriting’. It will do whatever job it is intended to do brilliantly. Namely, extend the product’s shelf-life and increase the corporation’s competitive edge.
They don’t write ‘em like they used to.
This article first appeared on JohnEllisWords.