What the Music Industry Used to Be, Before It Became Whatever It Is Now

Whenever my thoughts drift toward how much better things were in the way-back-when, I give myself a mental slap to snap out of it. I don’t want to spend the rest of my days drowning in the past, any more than I want to spend them stressing over the future.


The music industry is the worst it has ever been in 2022, and that will only last until 2023, when it will be even worse than it is now. It lacks something – several somethings. Originality. Creativity. Innovation. An appreciation of talent; a business model that rewards artists and fans; an appreciation of actual music.

It was much better in the olden days (even days that are not that olden). The music was better. The way music was presented and distributed was better. The way musical artists were developed was better. They were better paid, and better trained. The means of consuming music were better. The record companies were better, and the live venues were better, and there were more of them.

Everything was better.

Everything was better.


Try this little test: Name 10 contemporary artists who really inspire you. Hell, name five. I can’t name five, and I’m a music fan who still dips into modern music just in case something interesting pops up from under a toadstool. For example: I really dig Tokyo Groove, an all-female Japanese funk band. And I really like Emmet Cohen, an American jazz pianist. And….um…… Australian singer Lenka is interesting. And….ummmmm…………

Think about the last time you shopped for music – really, really shopped for it, in a record store, scanning the different titles, poring over the hundreds of choices, agonizing over what to buy with your cash on hand. I live in London, a huge city with a rich and renowned musical history, and I honestly can’t think of any more than two or three dedicated record stores here. When I went to college XX years ago, you could find three record stores on the same block.

Music consumption used to be a communal experience. You had to physically walk into a record/CD store to buy it, rub elbows with others. Maybe you’d see someone looking at a particular album and say, “Hey, greeeeaaat album, man! You need to buy that!” Then you’d strike up a conversation, and they would recommend this record, and you would recommend that one, and you both left happy and broke.

The store would probably have music playing, adding to the vibe. Sales clerks were there to answer questions – and they knew of what they spoke, because most were music fans and/or musicians themselves.

This wasn’t so long ago, either. It was still the main means of consumption as recently as the late 1990s/early 2000s. Musical artists still depended on record sales and live performances to pay most of the bills. Record companies still signed unknown acts, and promoted and developed them, allowed them to grow.

Today, the vast majority of music is consumed digitally, right there on your phone, tablet or laptop. You hop on iTunes or some similar platform, search for an artist you might like, then buy a song or two.

Or, you simply go to Spotify and find a playlist to your liking, curated by somebody else – often with very little rhyme or reason. Then you listen to it in the background while scrolling through TikTok.

Artists themselves probably care more about TikTok views than creating music that will last beyond the next couple of months. It’s all about the quick hit, the instant gratification, the YouTube likes and social media followers, the Spotify placement.

If you think I’m just another OK Boomer griping about the goldurned modern world, think again. A growing number of younger folks feel the same way I do. I recently read an article in the Guardian about how young music fans are moving away from streaming services – specifically Spotify – because they find it an unsatisfactory way to enjoy music.

Spotify, in case you didn’t know, is the uber-popular music streaming platform that has revolutionized the way we consume music by giving us free and instant access to more than 50 million tracks from around the world. The service is available in about 80 countries and boasts more than 180 million paying subscribers and 430 million total users.

Those are big numbers, even in an age of digital connectivity that spreads to every nook and cranny of the globe. You can listen to Spotify for free if you don’t mind hearing ads every couple of songs, or you can buy a subscription and skip the ads. It’s a great idea – in theory.

I’ve dabbled in Spotify. I even created a couple of playlists, including a Spotify list to promote my novel “Voodoo Hideaway,” picking songs that have either a direct or indirect connection to the novel.

But I hardly ever listen to Spotify, because there’s just no personal connection to the music – and I, like many others, need some kind of personal connection to really enjoy it.

Back in the States, before we moved to London, I still had a full stereo system set up in my office: turntable, CD player, cassette player/tuner, amplifier, and a pair of speakers. I would play just the right music to fit my current mood, all selected by me.

Even now, listening to CDs I’ve downloaded onto my laptop, I still feel a personal connection to the music. With Spotify, it’s not like that. I don’t feel like I’m invested in it – because I’m not. I don’t have to pay any money. I don’t have to spend time searching through different records, deciding which to buy. The artists don’t even get my hard-earned money for their hard work.

Jared Samuel Elioseff, a musician and studio engineer from upstate New York who admits to being “Spotify free” for the last two years, put it this way in an interview with The Guardian:

“Streaming makes the listening experience much more passive. The word ‘streaming’ is one of those things that’s gradually assimilated into everyone’s vocabulary. Before there was streaming music, what else was streaming? This idea that you can just turn on a faucet, and out comes music. It’s something that leaves everyone to take it for granted.”

Musician and teacher Wendy Eisenberg, who also has left streaming behind, had a similar take:

“The one thing I’ve noticed since [leaving Spotify] is that music sounds better to me because I’ve put in the work to either locate it on a hard drive or download it from a friend’s Bandcamp or something. And every time I listen to it, even if it’s just on the way to work, I can hear the spiritual irreverence of that choice. And so it doesn’t feel like I am just receiving music from some distant tastemaker. It seems like I have some relationship to the music, of ritual, which is where I come to it as a practicing musician.”

Similar testimonials were given by others who decided to take a step away from Spotify. It’s no coincidence that many are musicians who are trying to grind out a living in an industry that no longer seems interested in supporting them.

It’s been said by others smarter and more knowledgeable than me that a band like the Beatles wouldn’t get off the ground today, and neither would the Clash or Prince or even groups from 15 years ago that started out playing club dates and writing songs intended for album release.

The modern music biz doesn’t give a shit about albums anymore. It cares about trendy, formulaic, and disposable pop songs that trend on TikTok and sound almost exactly alike the last song to trend on TikTok. Artists no longer have an incentive to build a body of work that will please the ears of future generations.

I don’t know much about successful contemporary artists like Rihanna or Beyonce, other than they don’t release a lot of albums. Rihanna hasn’t released a new album since 2016. Beyonce has released exactly seven albums in 20 years, and only two since 2013. That’s a pretty thin body of work for two of the biggest music stars on the planet – and a thin selection for fans who want to connect with their work in a longer format.

(One artist who does still release successful albums consistently is Kanye West, aka Ye, but, you know, fuck him. He’s a narcissistic, ill-informed, anti-Semitic asswipe who mistakes bombast for insight. Anyway….).

It’s not that albums are dead. They still exist in a very tiny corner of the market. The problem is, that corner is so tiny you can barely see it anymore, forcing many young musicians to adopt a DIY model where they make their own records and try to sell them at shows or on the street or whatnot. A steady living, this is not.

Maybe this all reminds me too much of the modern book industry, which has become similarly orphaned. You have a couple big publishers publishing a few dozen authors who make decent money, while the thousands of other writers out there are trying to sell e-books to family, friends, and other writers.

I feel for musicians these days, just as I feel for writers (including yours truly). The creators have been marginalized to the point where many just decide to bag it altogether.

That’s the real tragedy here – all the great music that will never be made, and all the fans who will never hear it.

Note: The photo is of some Greenwich Village folkie scene from the early 1960s. I took it when I was 3 years old. Okay, I didn’t. I nicked it from the web.


  1. I so agree with your thoughts on this. As much as I like cueing up the playlist with songs from the 70’s-80’s, I also like hunting down and hearing new music to add on. I usually see the New York Times’ mentions of new singles and albums and whenever I do, I go to iTunes to sample their suggestions. I always know when artists I follow are coming out with new work, but this helps keep me at least a little bit connected to new music from artists I am less or not familiar with. I have found some very cool new music that way. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, as always, for your feedback! Like you, I do try to find interesting new music, and usually hunt it down on YouTube, which is not the most efficient method. It usually involves searching for cover versions of songs I like, at which point I’ll discover some new group or artist I’ve never heard of doing a killer cover I didn’t know existed, which leads me to more of their music and, eventually, to trying to find an album of theirs. Thanks for the NYT tip — I have a subscription but never had journeyed much to their music section. I will now start doing that.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not really into music anymore, so I’ve missed the changes to how things work over the last 15 years or so. And I’m glad I did, because I would probably feel frustrated like you. I appreciate the crafting of a collection of material – whether it’s audio, visual, or text. I love how things flow from each other to form a cohesive whole, and albums were certainly the containers for music in that way. At the same time, though, we have to accept that industries change – sometimes in more negative ways than positive. But there are still positives. In the publishing industry, it was near impossible for most people to publish back then, but now look at the opportunities we have. It doesn’t mean that all self-published works are of good enough quality to actually be published (in the traditional sense), but everyone still has the opportunity to do it, and that’s a good thing. I guess with music, it’s possibly similar in that artists can now put their stuff out independent of a label.

    As for getting paid, I don’t know much about the streaming model, but I have seen one case where they took back charge: Snoop Dogg bought his first label, and pulled all its music from streaming platforms, because he wasn’t happy with how the platforms make so much money but artists don’t. So his idea is to build his own app and put the label’s back catalogue out through that, and charge fans a fee on a platform he owns. And then pay those artists (all of who are now relative seniors) a more reasonable amount than what they make off the prevalent model. He’s also heavily into this metaverse stuff, which seems to be another way for artists with followings to really cash in.

    In the end, everything changes over time. But maybe it’ll balance out eventually. Just look at how vinyl made a comeback.

    I say: stick to your own preferred way of ‘consuming’ material (I hate that word, but it works here), and stop expecting sanity from these industries. Trends will change, hopefully for the better, even if you don’t live to see it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. On this sort of topic too, it bugs me how movies and documentaries also have very little physical form anymore. No more DVDs with special features and being yours to own and watch offline… it’s all streaming. I suppose you can still buy the discs, but from what I can tell, the prices are higher than before because demand is low since streaming took over. There’s also the loss of going to a video store to find something, since those stores have also disappeared.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Thanks for sharing, Yacoob. I didn’t know that about Snoop — good for him. I always liked him, and now there’s another reason because he’s putting more power back into the hands of the artists.

      I think my main problem with the music industry is the same problem I have with the book industry, which is that the new means of consumption makes it very difficult for the creators to earn a decent living. For all the talk about the power of self-publishing or making your own recordings, hardly anybody makes a real living off of it unless they monetize it on social media, and that’s a very small number.

      I know money is the secondary consideration for many creators, but if they can earn a living it gives them incentive to create more work. The sad part is a lot of work isn’t getting created because of the business model. Speaking strictly for myself, I just can’t bring myself to devote all the time and energy needed to write a new novel (which I have already scripted in my head) if I can’t profit it from it. I suppose if we didn’t have kids it would be different, but my time and energy need to be spent on writing that pays, which means web content.

      Interesting point about the movie industry as well, which sort of ties into the music industry. I too love the special features on DVDs, and like you say, you don’t get that with streaming. Similarly, I used to really like reading the liner notes on albums and CDs — how the albums came to be, what inspired them, where and when they were recorded, who played which instruments on which tracks, who wrote the songs, who the studio engineers were, etc. You don’t get that with streaming.

      Thanks as always for your insightful comments. Much appreciated!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Funny you should mention this because I was just reflecting on my music consumption habits lately, and I haven’t listened to an entire album in its entirety. Pros and cons though. Anyway, I still like your humorous style!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Stuart! I used to listen to albums in their entirety all the time. Now, only occasionally, but I still do it whenever I buy a new CD, curled up with the liner notes. As you say, from a listener standpoint there are pros and cons to listening to full albums vs. streaming different songs. From an artist standpoint, though, I have to believe a lot of musicians would prefer to create whole albums of songs and have them sold and promoted the way they used to be.

      BTW — I think I finally figured out how to subscribe to your blog and like/comment on your posts. What I discovered is that the main culprit is the browser — in my case, Firefox. I probably have to clear the cache or something because it just doesn’t allow me to navigate to certain sites easily. With Chrome it was no problem. Weird.

      Liked by 1 person

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