How We All Killed Commercial Rock And Indie Music
Allow us to preface this article with an exemption. If you, our valued reader, are below the age of 25, this probably doesn’t apply to you. As far as you’re concerned, music always came through the internet, and streaming was always a thing. The internet has been around for as long as you can remember, and you might not even remember those early days when a connection was 56kbps, and you had to sit through two minutes of buzzing and dinging before you could get online. If your preferred method of listening to music is streaming, you’ve done nothing wrong. You’ve just engaged with the industry as it currently exists.
For the rest of us – especially those of us thirty or over – it’s time we took a good, long look in the mirror, and asked ourselves whether the lack of chart success for most of our favorite rock and indie bands actually has something to do with us, and how we decided music wasn’t really worth paying for anymore.
The Napster Revolution
In 1999, Sean Parker brought Napster to the internet, and everyone with a little technical know-how suddenly had access to free music. Although this now seems nonsensical, at the time, it was thought to be a “good thing.” People who couldn’t afford to spend $20 a time on the latest album by their favorite artist suddenly had a way to enjoy music without paying for it. We convinced ourselves that it was a great way of trying out new bands and new sounds that we wouldn’t normally listen to, without incurring expense in the process. We told ourselves that if we liked what we heard, we’d go out and pay for a physical copy. In reality, we never did. We just took the music, and in the process, we stole money from the very people who were devoting their lives to entertaining us.
Many opinion pieces have been written on whether Napster destroyed the music industry as we know it, and most of them will try to represent an alternative point of view, and make a case for all of us who used it being blameless in the whole process. Let’s be clear on this – Napster was theft. We were stealing. Even after Napster got shut down, identical programs took its place. Morpheus, LimeWire and plenty more stepped into the hole that Napster had left, and allowed us to carry on stealing. The cat was out of the bag. The money was out of the system.
This gave record companies a huge problem. We like to think that record companies are evil, exploitative companies who make millions of dollars from their artists, and pay them a tiny fraction of that amount. In some cases, that’s true, but it still meant the artists were making money. Compare that situation right now, where the attempt to bring streaming under control has led to musicians making fractions of a cent when their music is streamed on Spotify. What’s the point in devoting yourself to writing and recording music when you’re not going to make a return on it? You might say that true musicians do it for love and for passion, but they still need to see a financial return on that love and passion; otherwise, the eventually have to get a normal job like the rest of us. Eventually, that job eats their time, and they’re no longer making music. How many bands have we lost this way in the last ten years? When’s the last time you could say that a band truly broke through into the big time? Perhaps the Arctic Monkeys, all those years ago? Look at who’s headlining big festivals around the world. It’s largely the same names who were playing the same festivals a decade ago or more. Nobody can break through, because nobody is willing to take a risk on them.
‘Risk’ is the key word in all of this. Back when people were paying a reasonable price for music, a record company could afford to take a risk on a new sound, or something unconventional. They might not make a huge return, but they should make just enough to cover their own investment. Even if they didn’t, the amount they were making off their established stars gave them the budget to invest in young up and comers, and those from the alternative scene. That’s no longer the case.
Record companies are not gamblers. They have a finite amount of money to spend and invest, and they’re going to invest it in acts which they can reasonably sure are going to make a return on that investment. Releasing records as a business isn’t like visiting an online casino or sister site, and putting a little money down here and there to see what comes back. No big company is going to treat an act like a roulette wheel, lumping all their money on one number for long odds. Nor are they going to take a single spin on a slot machine to see if the jackpot comes up. They want something solid, reliable, and likely to be profitable. Otherwise, they’d go out of business.
Bland, Safe, Dull
That leads us on to where we are now. The charts are full of generic hip hop artists and bland pop stars, all of whom sound largely the same. Nobody with a guitar – other than folksy sounding artists like Ed Sheeran – gets the time of day, or a platform for true commercial success. The next Radiohead is probably out there somewhere, but because there’s no guarantee that the public would love them enough to spend money on them, there’s no incentive there for a record company to give them a try.
On top of that, factor in how ubiquitous streaming has made music. It used to be the case that if you wanted to hear it, you had to turn the radio on, or make a conscious decision to put a CD in your CD player, and play it. Now, it’s everywhere. It’s on your phone. It’s on your computer. It comes through your Bluetooth speakers. Music is all around us, and because it’s all around us, it’s disposable. When something is so massively available, it has no true value.
We had a great time in those early days online, stealing music in massive volumes, and finding out all about artists we’d never seen or heard before. In the process, we accidentally denied the next generation the opportunity to do the same. Indie and rock music is dead. We were the ones who pulled the trigger.