Warmer: How do you listen to music? Do you have a music collection of some kind? How much do you pay for music?
Is it possible for an artist to have a successful career in music today? Why/why not?
The music scene is dying - and you youngsters have to save it or kill it
Written by Roger Hartopp, February 2, 2021
In a previous discussion on music, I was of the opinion, and still am, that back in the 20th century if you wanted to make money as a successful music artist you had to sell hard copies of music, that is, getting the public to make a physical effort to go to the shop and so would appreciate their purchase so much more. And in order for them to do so, that music had to be good. I opined that the UK top 40 today is full of acts with totally unmemorable names and songs that were, well, mostly forgettable. Today’s acts simply rely on both lazy and armchair listeners and the number of free plays on music streaming service Spotify to count towards the chart.
But I was interested to learn that, in the UK last month, there was an ongoing government inquiry into the impact of music streaming. Perhaps this was spurred on by the effects of COVID-19, which meant that many acts, who rely more on live performances than actual music sales for their income, were now struggling financially. Peter Leathem, a representative for PPL, an organisation that tries to ensure that its 120,000 performers get their music royalties – the money they earn when their music is sold, broadcast on TV and radio or streamed – claimed that ‘Up-and-coming pop stars are facing "massive competition" from classic bands like Queen and the Beatles due to streaming’. He added that ‘…any artist at the start of their career has got the last 50 years of the music industry to compete with. Ultimately, you've got some of the most talented people in our society [who] are struggling to make a living.’
It seems that in 2020, three of the UK's top 10 best-selling albums were Greatest Hits collections from artists whose career peak came in the 1970s - Queen, Elton John and Fleetwood Mac. At the same time, only one British debut album - KSI's Dissimulation - sold the 60,000 copies required to be awarded a silver disc. Leathem said increased competition for fans' attention on streaming platforms like YouTube, Spotify and Apple Music meant that "everyone is fighting" for a share of a "smaller pie". Backing him up were artists from the likes of Radiohead, Nile Rodgers and Elbow's Guy Garvey, claiming that the way artists are paid for music on streaming services meant some musicians "can't afford to pay rent". On the 2 February 2021, Electronic musician Jean-Michel Jarre told BBC World News that 30% of artists were now out of work and people should stop considering music "to be as free as the air we breathe" and pay for art and entertainment online in the same way as if they were attending a real event. It was "unacceptable" for the British government to tell artists struggling to survive to find another job.
Today, streaming now accounts for 80% of music consumption in the UK, so I suppose at this point I should explain how royalty payments for streaming services work. Royalties are based on ‘popularity’ - so if someone's music accounted for 1% of all the music played on Spotify, they would receive 1% of the money generated from users' subscriptions and advertisements. Now depending on your deal with the record company, every time you sell a CD, you would receive 20-25% of the money earnt from that disc. But every time one of your albums is streamed on the likes of Spotify, it has to be played at least 1,000 times for it to earn just the one ‘sale’. To put that in more perspective, if your album is streamed 675,000 times, that’s the equivalent of just 675 discs sold. Imagine what that amount would be if we’re just talking about one song.
When discussing the subject of music in my English discussions, it’s almost become de rigeur for me to ask my students about their music collections. I’d say that the vast majority now listen to the streaming services, with less than half of those actually having any form of hard copy collection. I’d say that almost all of my students are younger than me, but some are still old enough to perhaps be in that age group who prefers the physical copy of an album.
But let me be blunt about where the vast majority of money comes from as regards music sales - it’s us oldies.
Looking at the current top 40 albums in the UK (I’m writing this at the end of January), we have Barry Gibb (ex Bee Gee) at number 3 (and his band at 35), Queen at 9, Fleetwood Mac at 13 and 36, Elton John at 18, Neil Diamond at 18 AND 20, Arctic Monkeys at 25 and 37, Abba at 30, Oasis at 33 & 34, Michael Jackson at 39. In between are the few established acts of the 21st century who have fan bases large enough to make money: Harry Styles, Lewis Capaldi, Taylor Swift, Little Mix, Dua Lipa, Eminem, Ed Sheeran and so on.
The point is that the album chart is still heavily influenced by physical sales of albums – that is, CD and vinyl. And the people most likely to buy physical albums are those born before the 1980s for the simple reason that the music we enjoy is the music that I’ve listed in that album list.
The problem is that the current top 40 singles chart in the UK is practically meaningless. The chart can often be full of totally unforgettable acts – those that are well known are there because the number of streams individual album tracks get counted into the chart. Even the sales of the number one record are only between thirty and sixty thousand. So if and when Ed Sheeran chooses to release his next album (Multiply?) you can count on the top 40 being 25 per cent Ed Sheeran.
So why do newcomers have such problems breaking through? Well, one solution would be for them to make better songs. But the reality is not that straight forward, and for that I have to look towards my own habits.
I have to admit that I am no longer a great buyer of music, although there is one exception with one online artist from who I make regular purchases as he is very good at performing and composing. The last hard copy album I bought was a box set of my favourite electronic band last year, a band that was at its peak of popularity in the seventies and eighties. It was a wonderfully packaged CD set, in a box the size of a vinyl release, complete with a large hardback full-colour ‘coffee-table’ style book.
Basically, all my favourite artists are no longer prolific, or are shadows of their former glories. We oldies still look back on the 20th century as the golden age of rock and pop, and lament that today the young generation are being brought up on bland, over-commercialised pop that is released for a quick buck. We oldies don’t think much of it with a few exceptions such as Ed Sheeran and Adele, but they’ve already been going for some time. We just can't associate ourselves with the kind of music today’s acts are producing; with very few exceptions, we’re simply not interested in that market. But it’s mainly the generation from the sixties and seventies who are buying the vinyls and CDs, the media that gives the artist a thousand times better rate than being streamed the once.
In the 2000s Napster, a file-sharing service, made such inroads into physical sales of music that a substantial number of high street record shops closed down as a result; people were now copying music, uploading it onto Napster for others to download for free. A short time later the infamous Pirate Bay website extended this to include all forms of transferable data, with musicians particularly hard hit because of a massive drop in income.
Since the arrival of streaming services, that desire to illegally download music has all but gone, but with the record shops no longer there, there’s no desire to go and spend money. For the older ones amongst us, it’s almost like a code of honour that we should have the actual, physical form of the music. It’s a feeling we get that we truly own the music and not feel bad about it because we have passed some of our hard-earnt cash, hopefully safe in the knowledge that a good chunk of that money will be going to the artist. We’re rewarded with not only a disc or two, but often some nice packaging. We’ll also buy some downloaded stuff and, hey, some of us will then burn them onto CDs and recreate that feeling of having a physical copy. But in today's online modern world the youngsters are pretty much used to having everything for free, and today that very much includes Spotify, Deezer and YouTube.
These days young people simply aren’t interested in the physical form of music. Now I’d respect those who have made the choice to listen only on streaming sites as, they might argue, buying a physical item isn’t always good for the environment. But realistically they prefer to just listen to what they want, when they want, and so on, and in the majority of cases, not pay for it unless they pay a small subscription fee to remove the advertisements. The downside is that they’ll only have truly supported the artist when they’ve streamed the song or album a thousand times for them to have earnt the cash they would have got had they actually physically paid for it. Today the reality is that a lot of what is listened to is done so passively rather than actively just to fill the room while they work on something else. This may be a Polish thing, but I suspect the truth is pretty much the same the world over. After speaking to several of my younger students, they admit they don’t have any physical music collections.
But one thing all the younger generation admit to is that the music from the older, more established artists is more interesting and will be remembered in the future. What’s produced today is, quite simply, bland and boring. Going by the UK singles chart, it’s hard to disagree. But going by the album chart, is it any wonder the established acts remain successful? Even those who are past it or dead and buried? Why is it that an album such as Goats Head Soup, a Rolling Stones album from 1973, when re-released on the 17 September 2020, went straight to number one? Could you ever imagine a rerelease by the current crop of artists doing the same thing fifty years later?
The reality is that it is us oldies keeping what there is left of the music scene going, and we’re not going to be around for much longer to pass on our hard-earnt pennies.
These days the only way an artist is going to have any success is to produce good music, obtain good support and promotion from their record label and management, and be a good performer live (something that has been missing since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and arguably is a major reason for artists struggling today). It’s no secret that artists today are more likely to make considerably more money from touring rather than rely on music royalties. And, let’s face it, the older, more established acts would be much more of an attraction than many of today’s acts.
So what’s the answer to all this? Well, the artists could start making more original music that can be enjoyed by the mainstream and not to a limited market. Join internet music companies like Bandcamp, which is the one online shop that the oldies like me are attracted to, and offers a far better rate than being on Spotify. It won’t be easy, but finding an extremely supportive independent record label who are sympathetic to your cause would be of help but it certainly won’t earn enough to think about buying a house in the Bahamas.
Unfortunately, my feeling is the business that is rock and pop has passed its peak. The music industry, slow on the uptake to the threat of illegal downloading back in the 2000s, had not only bitten the hand that had fed it, but started gnawing away at it to the point that the whole limb will be gone. And this will be proved in a hundred years if, should the music business and charts still be there, the top 40 albums will still be dominated by the likes of The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Oasis and so on.
But because it’ll be a generation that’s only used to streaming, there’ll be little or no new music. Unless you are a really good live act, perform original music, able to show your vocal and musical virtuosity in public and not pre-program everything into your laptop, and maybe even be an excellent songwriter, there simply won’t be a career in it anymore.
A vocabulary list to this text will be added soon.