Music is stagnating, are neoliberalism and the gig economy to blame?

A crowd lights a bonfire of disco records at Comiskey Park

Progress in music is slowing down, a look at how neoliberalism and developments in music production and distribution may be to blame

By the end of the 1970s, the excesses of the disco era finally began catching up with the music industry. Consumers had become highly resentful of record companies who were force feeding them largely mediocre releases cynically produced to capitalize on the public's obsession with disco. This resentment combined with spite for the genre's association with black and gay people to create a backlash in the summer of 1979.1 Leading the crusade against disco was Chicago shock jock Steve Dahl, who announced that fans who brought their disco record to Comiskey Park on July 12th for the White Sox-Tigers doubleheader, could get in for 98 cents and have their records blown up. To the shock of Dahl and Comiskey Park staff, more than 70,000 people showed up to the Thursday night game. With the park filled to capacity and the smell of marijuana hanging in the air, Dahl cruised onto the field in a jeep after the White Sox lost the first game 4-1. After doing a couple of laps of the stadium, Dahl announced over the loudspeakers, “This is now officially the world's largest anti-disco rally! Now listen—we took all the disco records you brought tonight, we got 'em in a giant box, and we're gonna blow 'em up reeeeeeal goooood.” At this point, on Dahl's signal, White Sox ground staff blew up a giant box full of disco records with fireworks in center field. The fireworks worked the beer and adrenaline soaked crowd into a frenzy, leading them to storm the field, burning records in bonfires and even stealing the bases.

As Steve Knopper writes in his book Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age, the incident represented the downfall of disco, and probably played at least somewhat of a direct role in disco’s demise

Quote:
The week of the demolition, July 8 to 14, Chic's “Good Times” hit the Top 10—one of six disco songs to do so. On August 18, three disco singles were in the Top 10. By September 22, the number had dropped to zero.2

The story makes for an interesting little historical footnote: record companies inflated their own speculative bubble, oversaturated the market, and caused a backlash from a public probably driven in part by racism and homophobia. However, more importantly, maybe this incident is interesting because of how hard it is to imagine anything like this taking place today.

Disco was a true phenomenon, coming into existence at a time when music genres were progressing at lightning speed and were subsequently causing impassioned public reactions. Within the span of two decades, radical progress had been made in the African-American associated music genres of rock, R&B, funk and soul, psychedelic funk, and finally disco, with notable advances taking place in jazz and reggae as well. Today, music seems like it is in a comparative state of stagnation. Whereas decades like the 70s were defined by the aforementioned genres in addition to progressive rock, punk, and synthpop, among others, the years 2000-2010 merely saw modest progress across genres, with few major breakthroughs. Musically, the last 17 years seem dismal in terms of progress.

Before his death earlier this year, cultural critic Mark Fisher argued in his talks and writings that, “despite all its rhetoric of novelty and innovation, neoliberal capitalism has gradually but systematically deprived artists of the resources necessary to produce the new.” Speaking from a UK perspective in his talk, “The Slow Cancellation of the Future”, Fisher points out that the replacement of social democracy with neoliberal capitalism has meant the, “end of indirect funding for music culture…one particularly important example of this would be art schools,” which were responsible for “The Beatles, The Who up to post-punk… the institution facilitated a circuit, which had a particular class dimension to it. Art schools in that period were zones were working class could go. And it was an encounter between the working class and a kind of high culture, experimental arts scene. And that encounter was highly productive for popular music culture.”

According to Fisher, aside from the “rebourgeoisment” of arts schools, the elimination of student housing and unemployment benefits, the decline of the squatter's movement, and the elimination of affordable rents in the West's traditional cultural centers have all played a role in the current musical stagnation.

Declining Revenue and the collapse of the record industry

Compounding these issues has been the major changes in the production and distribution of music. The invention and popularization of the compact disc in the 1980s allowed record companies to begin charging much more money per album, and consequently allowed them to slightly expand their profit margins on each album purchase without the consumer noticing. In 2000, record companies were making $10-12 per sale of each $18 CD.3 The sudden bump in revenue fueled another speculative bubble in the industry, and when pirating software like Napster started to proliferate, the subsequent drop in revenue brought the music industry to its knees, allowing Apple to come in and dictate the market on its own terms.

By 2003, music consumption was taking place almost totally over the Itunes store, and contrary to what the techno-utopianists have argued, the development was far from beneficial to musicians. Itunes was giving just ¢67 of each ¢99 track purchase to the rights holders, with albums typically selling for $10. This meant that instead of getting $10-12, rights holders began receiving just $6.70 for a 12 track album. To make matters even worse, the Itunes store allowed consumers to pick and choose songs from the albums, thereby bypassing the record companies' preference for albums over singles which had traditionally forced fans to buy whole albums just to gain access to one or two songs.

Around 2010, the landscape changed again through the rise of streaming services like Spotify. The number of factors that go into determining payouts for Spotify makes it difficult to analyze, but Spotify's claim that it pays out on average somewhere between $.006 and $.0084 per stream seems like the best information available on the topic. Taking the top end of Spotify's own estimate means that a song would have to be streamed 79 times for it to generate the same amount of revenue that a rights holder would get from an Itunes purchase, which as already explained is a drastic step down from previous revenue streams.

To be fair, a dramatic increase in concert revenue has offset the decline in recorded music sales. The problem with this is that concert revenue is by and large going to nostalgia acts. Pollstar Magazine reports that of the top 10 grossing live acts in 2016, just 2, Adele and Justin Bieber, emerged since the turn of the millennia, with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band topping the charts at $268 million. The obsession with nostalgia acts has also been reflected in recorded music purchases, with acts like Prince, David Bowie, Metallica, and The Rolling Stones all getting into Billboard's 2016 list of top 10 worldwide album sales.

A supposed upside to the new landscape is that, nostalgia acts aside, some of the money is going directly to new artists instead of to labels. However, this seems at best like an ambiguous positive. As terribly exploitative as the old system was, labels—especially after the popularization of the CD—spent millions on unknown groups on the off chance that one of them would make it big. As Knopper writes, “Sony routinely spent $1 million on a new artist, knowing full well that few of these artists would come close to making any money. The ones that did paid for the ones that didn't.”4 Without a large investment from a record company, artists are unlikely to make enough money to fund a quality recording session. Today, the cost of professionally recording, mixing, and mastering a non-electronic album is well into the thousands of dollars. This is money that independent artists simply aren't going to make through a few thousand streams on Spotify. It's true that artists can hope to raise money through Kickstarter and other platforms, but this means that artists will be spending their time raising money instead of making music, a far cry from the days when record companies—at least to some extent—insulated artists from market pressures.

On top of all this, rising health care costs have probably played a significant role in choking off creative production. Whereas record labels often provide health care for their artists, the new gig economy does not. Consequently, musicians are among the least insured groups in the country, with The Future of Music Coalition reporting that 43% of U.S. musicians were uninsured in 2013, meaning that they were just one accident away from economic catastrophe.

The collapse of print media has also likely had a negative effect. In the past, musicians could often get publicity for their music from their record label, which relied on sophisticated marketing and distribution networks (as well as payola schemes) to help get their artist's material heard. Additionally, full-time arts critics at newspapers and magazines across the country helped touring bands attract audiences to their shows. Today, with record labels in shambles and major cutbacks of the music sections in papers like USA Today, The Times-Picayune, New York Daily News, The Detroit Free Press, The Village Voice, The Austin Statesman, The Boston Globe, and a host of other smaller publications, minor artists are finding that there is little to no infrastructure that they can rely on to get publicity from. Scattered blogging efforts are no replacement for centralized distribution networks, and as Jazz Journalists Association president Howard Mandel said to the Columbia Journalism Review, when newspapers cutback on their music departments, “most often news of lesser-known artists is lost, replaced by news of national and international pop culture celebrities issued by their publicity machines.”

All of these developments have supposedly made artists more “free”. But artists are only “free” in the sense that they are now “free” to do the non-musical work that was traditionally done by other people.

It's important to note that the criticisms laid out here are totally different from the ones put forward by people such as the insufferable right-wing trash receptacle Paul Joseph Watson who claims that, “Popular music is duller, dumber, and more homogenized than ever before.” Pop music today is just as good, maybe even better, than it ever was, and Watson's supposedly “objective” argument is debunked rather well here. My argument is not about the quality of pop music, but rather the fact that music is not progressing, that there have been few major breakthroughs in recent years, and that the years 2000-2017 pale in comparison to the musical output of the decades prior to it.

There is a good argument to be made that neoliberalism and the gig economy are destroying the future of music.

  • 1. Steve Knopper, Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009), 1-5.
  • 2. Knopper, 4
  • 3. Knopper, 178
  • 4. Knopper, 202

Comments

jef costello
Jul 16 2017 19:40
Quote:
the years 2000-2010 merely saw modest progress across genres, with few major breakthroughs. Musically, the last 17 years seem dismal in terms of progress.

How can you define this?

I am a bit confused by this article as I agree with quite a few points but there seems to be a lot of nostalgia for the days of big labels and music deals which is a little unwarranted.

The part about art school funding sounds as if it has some truth to it, education in general is becoming more results-focused so students have less time and inclination to form bands, but that isn't really much to do with the decline of the multinationals.

Major labels didn't give money to artists in that sense, they invested money in them that could be written off against profits if lost or taken out of the artists' incomes if they were a success. In return for these advances bands signed over control of their output for a significant period of time, hence multiple stories of records released to meet contractual obligations or bands refusing to record while fighting such contracts.

The costs of recording, while high, are much much lower than they used to be and with music software it is very easy to produce music now with minimal equipment. The general loss of revenue is a problem, obviously the music industry invests less now that it has less revenue and artists are less likely to make money and continue.

Labels did invest in artists, and were more willing to take a long term view but that doesn't necessarily mean that music was better, although some labels at some times took a punt on new music there were also feeding frenzies once new genres or subgenres or whatever emerged, so for example the feeding frenzy surrounding britpop, I've read comments from several bands along the lines that labels would sign anything with four blokes and a guitar, as a result bands got a chance, but they also got saddled with debts and intereference from labels.

I do remember reading a lot about how bands wanted to get signed, but the fertile grounds for new music were a gig (other meaning) culture and venues, being signed didn't create the music but it was the most likely way to get rich and famous. The disappearance of live music and venues is endemic, nowadays it is hard to get a gig simply because few pubs can/will put on gigs.

I read an interesting article a while back (can't rmember by whom) arguing that the internet has stifled development of new genres to an extent because there isn't the insularity for groups to develop a sound on a local scene before breking out, which is in an interesting idea.

Mike Harman
Jul 19 2017 22:31

I'm also confused by the article. Major labels may have stagnated, but there have been small labels and self-publishing since the late 1960s (at least) which happens to be roughly when 'neoliberalism' started.

Self publishing has also get easier first with the advent of CDs and CDRs, and now with streaming. With soundcloud (although soundcloud is about to go bust) and myspace/youtube etc. there's no cost to releasing music as such - obviously recording equipment is still expensive but very different to having to pay for a run of CDs.

Jef Costello wrote:
I read an interesting article a while back (can't rmember by whom) arguing that the internet has stifled development of new genres to an extent because there isn't the insularity for groups to develop a sound on a local scene before breking out, which is in an interesting idea.

That's been the case more or less since the advent of recorded music or at least wide availability of it. Early jazz musicians like Freddie Keppard refused to be recorded initially because they didn't want people to steal their ideas via recordings.