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What does the current state of the music industry tell us about the wider world?

Sam Walker May 20, 2020
What does the current state of the music industry tell us about the wider world?

In a 2017 interview, Luke Steele from Australian band Empire of the Sun says: “I’ve basically become a businessman, and you have to be to survive.

“You start to realise tour buses and commissions and flights, it can be great, but it adds up pretty quick.”

He was speaking about the realisation as a musical artist that to survive in the industry you have to be business savvy, tenacious, and realise it’s as much about making money than the art form itself.

In that 2017 interview, on the 10-year anniversary of the formation of Empire of the Sun, it says it took him five years to come to that realisation.

Does that realisation say something about the modern music industry, and is it symptomatic of the wider issue of globalisation and the ever-increasing power of tech-industry behemoths?

It’s known that musicians coming into the industry today face an uphill battle trying to make it. Royalties are down, labels are much more willing to drop a band after one dud album, and, importantly, and shifting the blame away from the industry itself slightly, consumers’ behaviour has changed.

It’s important to acknowledge this point because it’s easy to blame the music industry’s pervasive nature for its own demise when changes in consumer behaviour are just as crucial. Although that change in consumer behaviour was brought about by one event in particular.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

It was the introduction of the iPod in 2001. The iPod allowed consumers to have an array of music at their disposal on a device which could fit into their pocket, unlike Walkmans which spent much of their time being crammed into pockets which just weren’t big enough – hardly anyone’s idea of portable.

Beyond this point, it was hard to see why anyone would go back to the old way of listening to music, until recently when the ripple effects of this change in how we listen to our music has been seen to damage the industry that many love. People are buying vinyl again, and there are independent labels such as Transgressive Records which according to one of their founders Toby L, “endeavour to take risks and support outsiders whilst still competing on a mainstream level.”

Since 2001, we’ve seen the introduction of Spotify, YouTube Music and more, which have given us fast access to music, but have ultimately changed the nature of the way we consume our music. I know personally that having the ability to just move my finger slightly on a screen to change a song means I am likely to do so. 

It’s for this reason that a lot of chart music today tends to be rooted around the idea of a three minute song with a simple structure that is catchy and doesn’t allow the listener’s ear to stray.

Whilst consumer behaviour should bear some of the responsibility for the state of the music industry, the situation is emblematic of a wider event in our recent history – the tech-industry behemoth. 

It was Apple who released the iPod, and increasingly we see that tech plays a crucial role in how we consume our media, news and music. 

Companies such as Facebook and Google all feed off algorithms that show us what we want to see, but rarely stray from that path, and offer us something which might shift our attention, or, dare I say it, make us change our views on a particular topic. 

Might this shift in the way we consume our music show us something about the way our politics is becoming more partisan by the day, where the showdown between the left and right seems to be pushing them further and further apart?

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