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.