Why you should care
Because eight tracks were really once a really big thing.
“Hey, Dad. I want to show you a song.”
The speaker was my 16-year-old daughter. Music for her? Primarily visual and to be enjoyed in video clips. Video clips that did not always feature videos. Sometimes it was just some clip art and the music. But no record store, no record album, no tape — reel-to-reel, eight track, cassette or otherwise — and finally no compact disc. And she’s not alone in how she’s digging on the music she digs on.
According to Nielsen’s music report, digital and physical album sales declined (again) last year — from about 205 million in 2016 to 169 million copies in 2017 — down 17 percent. Over the past five years, right up to Nielsen’s mid-year report, sales had fallen by roughly 75 percent. That decline is coinciding with a streaming juggernaut that continues to grow. How much so? Last year streaming skated, quite easily, beyond 400 billion streams. You include video streams and you have figures over $618 billion. You look back at the year before and you see a 58 percent increase in audio streams.
While this buoyed the damned-near-moribund music industry to the tune of 12.5 percent growth from 2016 to last year, the music business is now, as it has been, all about discovering the music that can generate all of those streams. And that’s where things get curious because record labels that are used to creating heat now have to go places where the heat is being created to stay viable and vibrant.
I’m hearing bands that … have no label, no representation, nothing but an IG feed.
Mark Thompson, Vacation Vinyl
With a number of presently high-profile artists — Odd Future, Lil Yachty, Post Malone, etc. — being “discovered” on places like SoundCloud over the past five years, entire communities of music fans can beat both the hype and the Spotify/Pandora/SiriusXM radio/Amazon algorithms that suggest if you liked this, you might also like that, by starting there, and branching out. First stop: Instagram.
“People come in all the time and play me stuff from their IG feeds,” says Mark Thompson, founder of Los Angeles-based Vacation Vinyl (that sells, yes, primarily vinyl). “So I’m hearing bands that it soon becomes pretty clear have no label, no representation, nothing but an IG feed and maybe some music recorded on their laptops.”
To put this in perspective, in July 2018, Instagram added the music mode in Stories, and just that quickly streaming started to feel … old. Because from the musicians’ mouths to our ears, unmediated music finds its way from the creator to the consumer. Spotify is trying to adapt too — it has over the past year begun to sign deals with independent musicians to give them access to the platform. While some would argue that you can’t get more mediated than Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, for my 16-year-old daughter this is of little concern.
In fact, she’s not motivated by concerns at all but interests, and being able to free-range and discover new and cool stuff captures the very essence of what musical art represents in the best of cases. She reels off a list of singers and rappers who I’ve not only not heard, I’ve not even heard of. But music, if musicians are going to make it while not also being waiters and waitresses, has got to pay.
“It’s free,” she says, having endured speeches about listening to unpaid/stolen music. Since she and her friends don’t ever listen to more than 60 seconds of any song, at least while I am around, this raises the question: Is it a business and is it sustainable in the same way that Apple Music, Tidal, Deezer or iHeartRadio have managed to be?
“Unknown,” says former promoter and music industry executive Mark Weiss. “But the business is where the ears are. And if the business is any damn good it’ll figure out how to stay in the conversation.” So when oddball musicians like Odd Future had their fame crowdsourced on account of freely produced and distributed music, it was still girded by the old-fashioned ways: Weirdos who dug weird music hanging out in online locales populated by weirdos who made weird music.
Flash-forward to record contracts from the mid-1990s that covered cassette tapes, vinyl, compact discs and “future technologies not yet known.” The digitization of analog music had already changed the landscape for everything from crime to interior design.
Whereas previously you’d have needed a turntable, an amplifier, maybe a preamp, a tape player, a receiver, speakers and a subwoofer to listen to the music that you’d be playing off of tapes, vinyl or CDs, after everything was digitized you just needed a phone and speakers. Breaking and entering seemed not nearly as attractive without all of that stereo gear to steal: And when you can store 10,000 songs on a pocket player, why even keep the actual artifact — vinyl albums or CDs — around anymore? That space could be much better used for a flat-screen TV or something else felons could break in and steal.
But old-fashioned was imbued with immediacy as well: If you wanted to hear singers sing, you had to hear them sing live. First through megaphones, then through microphones. Now, fans can access that experience through 60-second clips on Instagram, practice room demos on SoundCloud or Bandcamp, or streaming via artist-driven freeware music libraries like foobar2000 or MediaMonkey.
“Everything changes,” says Thompson, whose first gig was as a radio DJ. “But no matter what changes and how, music will remain part of our lives.”