Music Industry Considers a New Direction

American music as an industry peaked in 1995, when thanks to the new hip-hop boom, CDs fully taking off, and a record number of Generation X consumers buying music, record sales went through the roof. However, right after that point, something went wrong.

Within the year, harried executives were devoting time to figuring out how they killed it:

Growth in the $12 billion record industry, which for more than a decade has ranged from 12 to 20 percent annually, has slowed to nearly a standstill, and people in the business can’t agree on why. All that is certain is that a malaise is sweeping every facet of music — its production, distribution and consumption.

Record labels still expect to take in at least $11 billion this year, but too many businesses are competing for a piece of a market that not only is barely growing but is also failing to create stars with durable careers, people in the industry say. Executives say they expect the problems to last 12 to 18 months longer as the industry levels out after a period of overexpansion and misplaced optimism.

In the first half of the decade, record labels were confident as sales of alternative rock and country music boomed. But the presidents of several record labels said they felt they had since lost touch with their audience. They blamed themselves for this, saying that by chasing hit singles instead of building long-term success for bands, they had turned off many consumers.

“We do a lot of audience mood-checking,” said Judy McGrath, president of MTV, “and the 17- to 24-year-olds we’ve been talking to are not that dissimilar from people in other age groups. They’re re-electing the same president and not feeling that enraged. A huge percentage of them live at home and are happy to. They don’t say, ‘My parents aren’t cool and I don’t want to live with them and I hate their music.’ The us-versus-them thing seems to be disappearing. People are more complacent.”

Perhaps people lost interest in the 1960s protest rock that was being rehashed as grunge, which mixed a little punk and metal into music from the Boomer generation and repackaged it, and in the rising hip-hop trend, which ensured that popular music would basically be propaganda set to a beat.

As it turns out, this trend of losing faith in the music industry continues today, where we see the classic bands outselling the recent:

Last year, 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”.

This touches on two issues: first, quality of music, and second, the effect of having a centralized source of music, since a few monopolies control basically all streaming (Apple, Spotify, Bandcamp, SoundCloud, Amazon).

Just like apps took us from the glory days of late 1980s computing when we finally got functional operating systems and interoperable formats that could take control of our data away from specialized programs, streaming services have taken us back into the 1950s: they are analogous to radio.

When radio ruled the airwaves, a few big commercial providers determined what the audience knew was out there. These “top 40” days meant that some won big, and everyone else got shuffled off to jukeboxes and hipster record stores.

As it turns out, streaming services have the same desires that radio did, which is to produce big hits which mean quick cash instead of building long-standing relationships with niche artists. Underground metal rebelled against this by creating a parallel industry based entirely on artist longevity.

Metal could do this because it is artist- and album-focused, instead of single-focused. People do not want to follow that one great song, but to buy the album… and if that lasts, buy the rest of the discography of the artist.

The radio model, on the other hand, emphasizes novelty, which in turn induces record labels to focus on a steady stream of highly similar music to suppress competition, in which they can use advertising to hype low-cost production into a stream of hits.

Since the goal is to have fat margins — low cost, high price — this leads to an industry which exploits artists by paying them tenths of cents on each dollar of revenue:

Gary Numan recently said that he made £37 from a million streams of one of his songs. Again, he wasn’t griping about the money due to him, but painting a picture of what it’s like for a new artist who couldn’t hope to get a fraction of those plays. Let’s say 25,000 people streamed that artist’s latest track. As popular as that might make them seem, it wouldn’t buy them a coffee in the shop where they had to work a second job because their income from music was so meagre.

The thing is, streaming has taught us that people are willing to pay for music. Spotify had total revenues of $7.4bn in 2019. A lot of that money goes to major labels rather than directly to artists, so they’re part of the equation too.

As if rebelling against this, music fans are increasingly turning away from streaming services, where they can lose access to music that they have bought if they are deplatformed or the company ends its licensing deal with the copyright holders, and turning to physical music, especially analog physical music which, once sold, cannot be controlled by any centralized party:

U.S. vinyl album sales hit another historic high, as 1.842 million LPs were sold in the week ending Dec. 24, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data. That’s the largest week for the format since Nielsen Music/MRC Data began electronically tracking music sales in 1991. The previous high was set only a week earlier, when 1.445 million were sold in the frame ending Dec. 17.

Furthermore, vinyl album sales outpaced CD sales for the week: 1.841 million vs. 1.671 million. It’s the fourth time that’s happened since 1991, and all four instances occurred in 2020.

Funnily enough, record labels knew of this back in 1995 (from The New York Times article, repeated from above):

But the presidents of several record labels said they felt they had since lost touch with their audience. They blamed themselves for this, saying that by chasing hit singles instead of building long-term success for bands, they had turned off many consumers.

They are seeing a fundamental flaw in marketing theory here. You can boost short-term profits by selling to the widest audience, but in the end, your bread and butter are the fans, or those who enjoy music and consistently buy it, not the Top 40 audience.

Metal remains uniquely poised to take advantage of this since the entire genre that is not the aboveground commercialized and neutered (Boris, Sunn, Mastodon, Pantera, Linkin Park, Gojira, Deafhaven, Liturgy, Winger) material is oriented toward albums that endure, not temporary distractions.

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22 thoughts on “Music Industry Considers a New Direction”

  1. baguette au seigle says:

    no more drugs for this man!

  2. Spaniard says:

    Hmmm, after reading this article I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m a black sheep consumer. I’ve never been a buy the full discography of an artist type of hesher. For instance, I like Deicide’s S/T debut and Legion, that’s it! I don’t care for the rest of their albums. I also feel this way about Carcass, Exodus, Morbid Angel, Obituary, Sepultura, and many more. Lastly, as someone whose childhood took place in the 80’s, I will forever prefer CDs over vinyl. The vinyl mania is a kitsch fad for cornball nerds to fap over. However, when CDs first appeared in the 80s, those who could afford them at the time purchased them over the inferior vinyl format. CDs are a vastly superior medium by virtually every metric you can measure: better sound quality, less prone to warping, easier to store, can be played in more places. Those who actually lived in the decade will concur.

    1. familyman says:

      But aren’t CDs less durable than vinyl ? They degrade faster due to all the chemicals inside, while vinyl from 100years ago is still playable. I’m thinking like if you want to leave some of this stuff as inheritance, CDs are a poor choice.

      1. Spaniard says:

        False, CDs are not less durable than vinyl. To properly protect vinyl, you have to use a dust jacket along with the sleeve and cover. With CDs, all you have to do is take it out of and put it back in the case. Two moves equals less chance for trouble. Vinyl, even if it’s 180 gram and you’re fussy about handling it, inevitably wears simply due to how it’s played. Dropping the needle in the groove deteriorates LPs over time and changing the needle a million times won’t stop it. If you’re a slacker, both formats will suffer, but CDs are still the better option. Try leaving an LP and CD laying around unprotected for awhile then get back to me about which surpasses the other.

        1. Monty Python & The Spanish Inquisition says:

          Ha! CD’s wear out just like vinyl, for example, what pisses me off the most is my original pressing of Megadeth Rust in Peace CD has skips!
          I didn’t think it was possible from repeated listening, as factory pressed CD’s are not supposed to do that like CD-R’s … or so we were told.
          I thought it was just my stereo, but it also happens on my computer disc drive.
          anyways, who cares, I will just download what I need if an old CD no longer works,
          and most of my vinyl, even after a lot of plays, still don’t have any skips in the record.

          1. Spaniard says:

            Something tells me you’re omitting some pertinent details here: Did you leave the CD in your car for extended periods? How did you handle it over the years? Do you suffer from the dropsies? Did you keep it your attic or basement or a storage unit susceptible to inclement temperatures? Unless you purchased it with a factory defect (in which case you got a dud and not a proper copy), I find it hard to believe your CD skips solely from repeated listening.

          2. foofoo says:

            CDs only get damaged if you somehow scratch them. They do not dissolve or self destruct over time, that is fucking stupid.

              1. Nuclear Whore says:

                yeah some CDs have problems, in my case I only recall two issues with lots of CDs. For me, the main issue is the CD player. A good CD player will solve lots of problems, they are the problematic ones in my case. DMU has some articles on the matter.

                BTW DMU I had some problems with your site, Cloudfare told me something.

        2. circlebacker says:

          Let me “circle back” to the subject matter: after 100 years from now, between a vinyl and a CD – properly stored – what will play ? Vinyl, and we have proof. CDs, we don’t have any proof + we have a more complex production system, thus more chance for disc rot.

          But you’re right that vinyl is more fragile in day-to-day use, of course.

          1. Other than manufacturing defects, has anyone observed disc rot?

            1. thomasw says:


  3. Gay R2D2 says:

    Bandcamp is quite different from something like Spotify.

    You buy albums individually instead of paying for a service, and when you do you can download them in multiple formats as many times as you want, so regardless of deplatforming you don’t lose your music as long as you have a working hard drive.

    Frequently the physical copy or even a tshirt will come with a digital copy of the album.

    Also, from a cursory Google search, a lot more money actually goes to the artists.

    1. Nuclear Whore says:

      Spotify is 100% centralization greed. I detest it, it’s Big Tech for the music sector.

  4. Doug says:

    Everybody secretly loves quality metal (ie. not Limp Bizkit or Gojira but Slayer, Bathory or Prong), and there’s little more attractive to even a pop-oriented female than a metal dude with his shit together and not short haired/bald, strung out on drugs/alcohol or riddled with piercings.

    1. Leather, boots & cockrings says:

      How many active individuals are there in metal that aren’t riddled with bad tattoos and piercings at this point?

  5. Nuclear Whore says:

    Hi, after lockdown I made a little tour of the shops I know. The only one that was doing OK was the 100% metal one. The electronic music one reduced sells by 60%.

    Metal is metal.

    1. Spinal says:

      Yup, ask ANY record store owner and they will tell you that metal / hard rock is their main breadwinner.

      1. Nuclear Whore says:

        This is a thing that makes metal special :)

        Didn’t know about hard rock, thanks for the input.

  6. Al-Shaytan-Al-Akbar says:

    “but is also failing to create stars with durable careers”

    This indicates that the society itself has disintegrated. There are no more communities; while it’s communities that force long-term thinking and aesthetics.
    Fashion has won. And when that happens, you no longer have a nation ( = a people), even if your mass of individuals are all of the same blood.

  7. Doug says:

    Oh yeah, Gary Numan has a beloved song called “Metal” and it is a humdinger. But I remember an interview with him awhile back and suffice to say I don’t think he would call himself a conservative.

  8. maelstrrom says:

    Abyssum ‘Poizon of God’ is finally available for listening/purchase on elnigromante bandcamp

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