Derek Thompson of The Atlantic recently wrote about how the evolving music industry is now utilizing modern, mostly online technology to predict which bands and artists will emerge as the next breakthrough acts.
HitPredictor, a subsidiary of iHeartMedia, that Thompson notes is the largest owner of FM stations in the US, predicted forty-eight of the top fifty radio hits in 2013 by playing key sections of songs for online listeners and rating their responses. Other companies, including Shazam and The Next Big Sound, offer similar tools for industry forecasting.
Some are suggesting, however, that these new services are “discouraging good music” by leading investors toward what listeners are already known to like, and less toward new or obscure artists and styles. Music fans typically agree that the best artists have been those that were “ahead-of-their-time” original, such as Elvis, The Beatles, or Bob Dylan. The hesitation is that contemporary musicians of this caliber will be tragically overlooked. Admittedly, such artists before they explode do present greater risks for record companies and investors — but there’s the potential for greater rewards also.
The Consumers Are in Control
In the end, the listeners are in control, so rather than view these innovations as detrimental to the state of music, it should be recognized that this is what people want, after all, as evidenced by their purchasing and streaming trends. People don’t want to waste their time scouring through music trying to find artists they enjoy; they want their favorite music brought straight to them, which is exactly what is being done.
In general, the market economy has done fascinating things for the industry over the decades — from the perspective of fans, artists, producers, and publishers alike — with the advent of amplification, recording, and mass distribution, as well as computer generated sound. Popular music has become less of a luxury for the rich and more than ever accessible to the common person. These new techniques should be seen as continuing the trend of giving listeners what they want, rather than as a negative happening.
Just this past year, YouTube-popularity launched the careers of the German band Milky Chance and also the Irish musician Hozier, both of whom are now booking major venues. Of course the most popular artist to gain massive exposure from YouTube — which then propelled him to the top of the charts — is Justin Beiber. Love him or hate him, evidently he’s giving millions of young people music they like.
Purevolume.com, which sparked the careers of the bands Gym Class Heroes and Panic! at the Disco — and some say even sparked a new musical genre altogether — is a further example of this phenomenon. Such platforms and opportunities as these were non-existent until the digital revolution when these cutting edge internet-markets emerged.
Another major advancement has been the dramatic increase in the availability of inexpensive, quality instruments. Of course the majority of people who play a musical instrument will never become famous from it, but they still enjoy playing and creating music independently as self-patrons, i.e., people who do music in their free time and pursue a different occupation to make a living. There are certainly more composers living right now than at any other time in human history — some of whom do make the leap from obscurity to a successful music career, who wouldn’t have even had the means to purchase an instrument centuries ago, let alone be able to get their music heard around the world within minutes of recording, if not writing it!
Peaceful Cooperation and Collaboration Are Key
Certainly these developments aren’t to be dismissed as harmful to music. As in all areas of human action, cooperation and collaboration are central to progress. No individual knows everything, and so the more feedback mechanisms they have to bounce ideas off, the better. The most famous example of this is The Beatles, who have twenty number-one singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the most ever. For reference, The Fab 4 were around for a mere ten years, but still have more number-one singles than do all of their solo careers combined, over a much larger time span.
This principle is the same as it relates to the role of fans in the process of musical creation. Blues hits, and singles of other genres too, have been covered and redone time and again — not due to artistic genius or even design — but simply because fans like the originals and new interpretations. And the more direct control fans have to purchase music they prefer, the more artists and producers gain insight into the types of styles and melodies that people like, based on what is bought (or streamed). The market in this way promotes the composition of more and more popular — well-liked — better music.
Furthermore, there’s an organization called Bandcamp, a free microsite which allows artists to distribute their music online and gives fans the ability to make donations. The option is also there for the artists to charge, in which case Bandcamp takes 15 percent from sales. Kickstarter is similar, providing a platform for crowdfunding campaigns, where musicians can present their ideas to the public and people are free to donate money to assist with funding. Kickstarter only takes 5 percent and has received $1 billion in pledges from 5.7 million donors since 2009.
The Market Provides Resources for All Types of Music
Yet for all the influence that markets have on the music industry, progress is not confined to what’s popular either: plenty of room is left over for the avant-garde. Sure, for most coffee shop folk singers and experimental indie groups, the money isn’t there; but if the mentality common to underground punk music is any indication, some artists don’t seek monetary profits for music and others even despise them.
The market is the “marketplace of ideas,” the setting in which culture is realized by different people voluntarily coming together and exchanging music, or anything else really. The market is responsible for creating abundant opportunities, resources, platforms of distribution for composers, and for giving fans music they like — thus the market ought to be seen as a boon to the development of musical culture generally. Not as a destructive force promoting “bad music.”