The artist(s)


Human beings create. That’s what we do. We create things. It’s also one of the traits that delineates our species from others (well that’s what we’ve been thinking for a long time, at least). We create art with the intention of it being nothing more than art. The history of art production is a long history of interaction between concepts and the tools available to bring them to life, and as these tools evolved throughout history, we’ve seen a democratization of art production leading to a plethora of pieces, a phenomenon which endangers the very existence of art as a viable career to make a living. Through this blog post, we’ll try to explore & understand why the crisis music artists (in particular) go through nowadays is not necessarily due to corporate greed, but more to an imbalance between offerings and demands.

The good old days

Can it be that it was all so simple back then? Modern music in the 20th Century was fundamentally based on skills. Traditional music instruments require both knowledge and skill to be played well. Not necessarily academic knowledge, but at the minimum practical knowledge about how an instrument produces sound. Traditional instruments are also very unforgiving -  there’s no safety net. If you play a wrong note, or play on the wrong beat, everyone can hear it. In the past this resulted in natural selection as to who could become a professional musician and thus offer their work to the public at scale. This natural selection led to a limited quantity of artistic productions, coupled with gatekeeping by record companies. This was actually at the core of their business model: if you’re going to invest money in an artist or band, would you rather invest it in someone who plays guitar like George Benson, or someone who has never touched a guitar in their life? Record companies are risk takers, and to offset their risk they need guarantees. One of the most obvious ones was to make sure you’re a master of your craft. For a long time, this served as a primary filter to decide who qualified to live off their music or not.

In parallel, the post-second world war era marked the beginning of the consumer society with Western societies starting to consume cultural goods like never before: music, cinema, television… There was a growing spending power among the middle class along with a combination of having more free time, and more access to an availability of cultural goods which led millions and millions of people to spend more money on art and - for what is our focus in this blog post - music. The modern vinyl record as we know it appeared at this exact time, with the invention of the 33-rpm vinyl record in 1948. The combination of all these factors gave birth to a business model for music artists. Record companies felt more comfortable giving advance payments to artists because they had assurances they could recoup (and more!) their initial investment. It’s unclear how this actually affected the % of musicians’ revenue represented by live music in the the 50s & 60s, as there’s very little data available to verify it. There’s been many testimonies telling the story of the exploitation of artists, but it’s hard to find reliable data to clarify the impact of the advent of the modern vinyl record on artist revenues at that time. One thing is for sure, the format amplified artists with greater exposure which opened opportunities for more gigs. Artists who had access to this way of life were still limiter due to the filtering/curation by record companies - since studio recording + record pressing + distribution + promotion costs were cost (and access) prohibitive for artists to be able to release independently at scale. But soon, technology would start to shift this paradigm.

The slippery slope

The 70s were the true golden age for music artists. Artists had access to a mass market of people ready to buy their music and copying LPs was just too costly for a regular consumer, so piracy was limited to an insignificant amount. On top of that, technology-assisted music making was still nascent. Synthesizers & electric instruments were already a thing of course, but not wide spread and not financially accessible enough to non-professional musicians to pose an existential threat to a whole class of people in the music industry. They were often only found in large recordings studios, but this too would soon change.

The 70s saw huge improvement for cassette tapes, invented in the 60s by Phillips. For a while sound quality was too low to be used by professionals, but progress was fast and towards the end of the 70s things changed with full albums being released on cassette tape. 1979 also saw the birth of the Walkman, and as this article from Victrola’s blog says it, everything changed:

Devised by Masaru Ibuka, the co-founder of Sony, in 1979 another device hit the music industry with implications equal to that of the first record player: the Sony Walkman. If you are over the age of 35, the hair on the back of your neck probably just stood up.

The Walkman changed everything.

Using magnetic cassette technology (cassette tapes), you could grab a music tape, some batteries, and listen to your music anywhere: on the bus, at school, at the beach. No more rushing home from school to crank up your turntable; with the Walkman, you could take to the streets with your favorite tunes blasting in your eardrums.

Within five years of the Walkman’s release, cassette tapes were outselling records, and it would only be a few more years after that until vinyl record sales would plummet to an unsustainable low point.

Not only were cassette tapes starting to outsell vinyl, but this era also marked the birth of mass music piracy. With blank cassette tapes and a boom box, anyone could duplicate an original album released on cassette tape, with absolutely $0 going back to the record company and the artist. This had the benefit of allowing musicians who didn’t have enough budget to press vinyl records to just buy a bunch of blank tapes and mass-duplicate their music on tape in order to distribute it. I said benefit, because I do believe this was a net benefit in general, but you’ll see that I’ll look at this through a different angle later in in this blog post.

It didn’t take too long for professional music artists & record companies to take notice, and soon, they started to publicly condemn this mass copying issue, requesting consumers stop using blank tapes to by-pass the paywall which supports the artists’ livelihoods. The image below is taken from an insert found in Bobby McFerrin’s 1st solo album published in 1982:

"Please don't tape the music"
"Please don't tape the music"

The line-up of signing artists is impressive to say the least. The text has a lot of very interesting content for our blog post, especially this:

Home-taping […] is already causing record companies to limit the number of new artists and new albums they invest in and promote.

Sure, we can dismiss this by thinking that this was a sentence commissioned by the record company, but this goes back to one of my point earlier in this blog. Record companies are risk takers, but if you change the environment and create more uncertainty, then you incentivize risk takers to be more cautious about their investments.

On the production side, another phenomenon was taking place that would change the very nature of how people produce music: the democratization of computer-aided music making. The progresses made in computer chips during the 70s and the quality improvement for synthesized audio led to the first wave of commercial synthesizers around the late 70s/early 80s, produced by the likes of Yamaha & Roland.

Original Commercial for Roland's SH-1 Synthesizer in 1978
Original Commercial for Roland's SH-1 Synthesizer in 1978

Besides giving birth to a whole new sound, synthesizers had another side effect: now, you didn’t need to pay several musicians to play your composition. You could create a track involving bass, piano & drums without having ever touched these instruments before, or even knowing how to actually play them. This lowered the creative barrier to entry for a whole generation of musicians. From a creative perspective, this has been wonderful. Computer-aided music making, along with tools like drum machines & samplers, gave birth to so many new genres: synth-pop, new wave, hiphop, house, techno, drum’n’bass and all their variations… From a music industry perspective though, studio musicians started to be relegated to the past. An unconscious trade-off took place: we traded skilled studio musicians who would get together to play on a project, for individual producers who would create everything alone replacing those studio musicians with new digital tools. Yes, this resulted in more music, but with less musicians involved per project.

The rise of the machines
The rise of the machines

Cassette tapes and computer-aided music making have been two unrelated phenomenon which started to seriously endanger the lifestyle of OG musicians as we entered the 80s. But the 90s would only make this worse.

Dematerialization of music

Before diving into the 90s, let’s briefly talk about Compact Discs, more commonly known as CDs. CD as a format had a double advantage from the music industry standpoint: its sound quality was way better than cassette tape, and it was not (for a while) easily copyable onto another CD by consumers. Towards the late 80s / early 90s, CDs rapidly replaced vinyl records & cassette tapes, and helped the music industry keep generating enormous revenues through established sales channels. For a moment, it was like going back to the LPs era of the 60s/70s: not just anyone could produce CDs, and although the cost was not as prohibitive as pressing vinyl records, it was not something you could do easily at home (...yet!).

But technology caught-up fast. Soon, CD burner machines started to appear in every household, and copying a CD became as easy as copying a tape. CDs - offering music by way of digital data instead of the analog sound-reproduction process of vinyl or tape -  also marked the first access for consumers to digital music, meaning that it suddenly became very easily portable to a computer, also working with digital file formats. Combined with the birth of Internet & the mp3 audio format, this was the perfect storm for a complete paradigm shift in the music industry landscape. For the first time, people started talking about dematerialized music. So far, music had only been made available through physical formats: vinyl records, tapes, CDs - these formats always brought with them some kind of barrier to entry for amateur musicians wanting to make music and distribute it. They had to find a way to manufacture physical product and then distribute it. By the end of the 90s, this had changed. Music didn’t need a physical product anymore and the Internet became the distributor. Remember the cost-prohibitiveness generated by “studio recording + record pressing + distribution + promotion costs“ during the LP era? Well now this all went out the window, and the record industry felt this shift painfully. The late 90s / early 00s saw massive layoffs throughout the music industry. Illegal mp3 downloads over the internet looked poised to kill an old music industry model which had been growing steadily since the 50s/60s, and for a long time, record companies struggled to find their new business models that could be a good fit for the new dematerialized music era.

In parallel with this on the music production side, things changed a lot too. The 90s saw the rapid expansion of consumer oriented Digital Audio Workstations (DAW), allowing anyone to have access to studio-like music production tools, and making the former main actors of the music industry more and more irrelevant. Pro Tools was first released in 91, and Cubase in 93. This is not to say that there was no difference between a project produced in a professional studio vs a project produced on one’s personal computer’s DAW, but it was the first time aspiring artists could access such tools without having to pay prohibitive studio and materials costs. Coupled with the explosion of music produced through synthesizers, drum machines & samplers in the 90s, soon one person could do everything from A to Z: music production, distribution, promotion.

Typical late 90s musician
Typical late 90s musician

At the dawn of the 2000s, we were in a situation where people didn’t buy physical music anymore: they would download it. The dent in artist revenue which started with home-taping, now reached a peak: copying a full album would take less than 5 min (vs the full album length with tapes), without any loss of sound quality (vs obvious quality loss with tapes), and with a distribution channel that, via the internet, is the whole world (vs just your local community with tapes). Because of this economically unstable reality, record companies slashed budgets - directly affecting already signed artists - and stopped investing in new artists, neither remedy managing to stop their revenue plummeting and ultimately a huge wave of bankruptcies and label/company-consolidations throughout the industry.

The 24 hours rule

I’m not going to go into the details of the transformation the music eco-system has experienced with the birth of social networks, Youtube & music streaming platforms. These were simply the apex of a much broader transformation which is basically as follows:

We went from a music industry where both the Production / Manufacture / Distribution / Promotion costs and the technology itself were barriers to entry for anyone wanting to become a professional musician, to an environment where most aspiring musicians can have access to professional level tools, and where the costs mentioned above are all reduced to zero, or close to zero. Practically speaking, this means almost anyone can become a music artist, even with limited resources. This is good from a creative standpoint as we get more diversity, more creative interaction, etc. But from an industry standpoint, there are still questions and challenges. With tools that keep lowering the technological barrier to entry, assist you in producing music, fix your mistakes, or even suggest chords and drum patterns, any 10-year old can now compete with artists that have been making music for decades (I’m over simplifying, but you get the point). In a world that now revolves around the attention economy, how do we create business models that allow artists to live off their art? Is the fundamental problem of the music industry now a problem of revenue distribution generated by greedy streaming platforms? Or is it that we have an equation that is bound to tend to zero:

Budget allocated to buying music ÷ amount of artists

Thank you Spotify!
Thank you Spotify!

The budget we individually allocate to buying music is not infinitely extensible. Even in the best case scenario where this budget didn’t move from past peaks, the revenue each artist could expect would still decrease in a context where the number of artists releasing music keeps going up. The growth of budget allocated to buy music can never outpace the growth of artists producing music, because practically, there’s a limit to it: we can’t spend more money on artists that we can’t listen to - ie, we all only have 24hrs in a day. We can’t listen to more music that we are right now, just because we don’t have enough time. This brings up the following fundamental question: in a world where technology allows anyone to be an artist; in a world where there’s no more financially-incentivized quality control carried out by record companies; in a world where there is no more cost-related barrier to entry, can we create a business model for artists where every artist can expect to make a decent living off their art? My answer to this question is rather pessimistic: under the current models, I don’t think it’s possible. To me, more than streaming platforms failing to distribute streaming revenues in a fair manner, the fundamental problem is that even if they did, it would still not be enough for every artist out there to make a decent living off their art.

NFT doesn’t fix this

I’m very optimistic about NFTs for music. NFTs bring back scarcity & create a collectible class of item in a dematerialized eco-system that has been missing it badly. But unfortunately, I don’t believe this is the miracle solution. In a world of content abundance but limited time availability, the fundamental issue remains curation. Good or bad, record companies & mainstream media were running this curation that was necessary for the business model to thrive. In a world where everyone has become their own media outlet and where anyone can be an artist, curation becomes increasingly difficult and too fragmented to be truly effective. It’s a well-known problem for artists nowadays: there’s less & less obvious go-to curation authorities. Platforms like Groover made a business model out of it, by monetizing the attention of people who are registered as curators, but their power to influence is as fragmented as the amount of curators present on the platform.

I unfortunately have no recommendation as to how to solve this predicament. I think proliferating the idea that anyone can be an artist AND at the same time live decently from their art is a pipe-dream in the current system. I see a lot of young artists on Twitter and elsewhere complaining about Spotify’s revenue’s distribution, but I think they’re missing the fundamental issue here. We’re living in sobering times in that regard. I see hope in web3 though. New web3-based models are emerging, built around notions such as collaboration & mutual support. After decades of fragmenting the music industry and its actors, maybe it’s time to start rebuilding communities.

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