Serious music fans constantly complain about the current state of the music industry but few have offered theories that identify the causal factors that have created this situation. So, this is where we enter from stage left with possible reasons for the drastically lowered standards for success.
The airwaves were formerly dominated by performers who talented enough to earn the title of ‘artist’. Whether gifted musicians, singers, songwriters or all of the aforementioned, those acts were truly larger than life and were easily set apart from the average wannabes seeking fame.
Yet, there was a major paradigm shift in the mid-2000s that greatly affected the landscape of popular culture. As if it occurred in an instant, mediocrity replaced the extraordinary on the charts and the great entertainers who once ruled were suddenly cast aside in favour of far less talented acts. So, what caused such a startling change?
There are countless reasons for the turn of the tide in the music industry and they are all rooted in that one word that somehow gets forgotten when people discuss this land of supposed make-believe: business. That’s right, the cat is out of the big, green money bag. This is a business and similar to all other areas affected by the dwindling economy, the music industry - pay close attention to those emphasised words – had to change to survive.
Yes folks, contrary to the popular beliefs of fans, who think that their favourite artists exists in a glamorous land of kings and queens ruling over their respective genres, the music industry is just another sector of the business world. Behind the smoke and mirrors bolstered by media fodder and propaganda – you know, titles such as The Voice, King B, Songbird Supreme and King of Pop – there are regular people trying to sell product for their respective companies.
“The main reasons for the current state of the music scene are a lack of artist development, the dominance of visual artists and the deliberate actions of more talented acts.”
That’s enough of me shattering the hopes and dreams of the naive. Let’s get to the main points of this article before the shocking reality forces one of them to go outside for the first time in months. The main reasons for the current state of the music scene are a lack of artist development, the dominance of visual artists and the deliberate actions of more talented acts.
Dating back to the Motown era and the work of mastermind Berry Gordy, newly signed performers were very rarely introduced to the world within the first year of joining labels. Rather, they joined special deals that required a period of artist development in which they perfected their craft, therefore leading the best possible outcome with their debut efforts.
Firstly, those diamonds in the rough would plot the early stages of their career with A&R representatives, whose main purpose was to give unseasoned acts direction. Secondly, it was quite common for young artists to learn from more established stars while simultaneously honing their skills as singers, writers and/or dancers.
However, artist development has never been the cheapest venture and as labels downsized under the pressure of the shrinking economy, such undertakings became very rare. As a result, record companies are churning out performers with very little understanding of music, unless they ere signed as ready-made performers. In other words, those who had some prior training or are simply naturally gifted.
The most popular example of a successful act who benefitted from the training from artist development in the post-2005 era of music is Chris Brown, who was reportedly mentored by R. Kelly in his early career. No wonder Brown is so keen to apply the same attention to his signees on his CBE label.
Another reason for the decline of talent in the music industry is the dominance of visual artists. Have you noticed yet that my theories are all linked the mid-2000s? If so, do you remember what happened during that time? I’ll give you a hint: You watch it everyday when your boss is in the other room. Get your mind out the gutter, you pervert. I’m talking about the launch of YouTube!
As high-speed internet became more common during the mid-2000s, YouTube quickly became more popular and visual artists were propelled to the forefront of the Digital Age. No longer were people tuning in to the radio or even television to discover the latest hits by their favourite entertainers because all the material became readily available with just a few clicks.
Concerned parents were previously worried that MTV generation was too visually driven but digital media has made the televisions of our older siblings seem archaic. The internet provides us with millions of images everyday and for most artists, the quality of their music has become secondary to the visuals demanded by their fans.
Just look at the recent success of Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop”, which scored a high debut on the Billboard Hot 100 at #11, thanks to a strong reception on iTunes, before tumbling to #27 the following week. The song quickly rebounded in its third frame, however, after garnering 9.6 million million online streams in a week, primarily because of its intentionally controversial accompanying video.
Such is the case with many other visual artists, such Rihanna and Lady Gaga, who initially excel without music support from traditional broadcast media. Usually, they do not need heavy airplay on radio or television to rank high on the charts, especially now that online streaming contributes toward the Billboard lineups.
Based on this logic, most visual acts also categorised as digital artists with regards to their chart impact stemming from sales via online retailers and streams. The most notable exception to this reasoning is Beyonce, whose videos certainly give her songs much-needed boosts on the charts (“Single Ladies”) but like many other R&B/Pop stars, she still requires the added momentum of radio airplay as her digital sales take time to build.
Visual artists generate massive revenue from singles for labels and since album sales are still generally bubbling in the toilet, record companies simply follow the money trail. Hence, those performers unable to keep up with the demands of constantly generating exciting visual content for the new age of consumers – R&B and Soul acts, especially those over the age of 30 years, really feel the pinch – are left on the back burner. That, ladies and gentlemen, partly explains why Melanie Fiona is treated like the unwanted bastard child of her label and Roc Nation management.
Sidebar: It will be interesting to see how Janet Jackson adjusts to the current state of the music scene since she is a visual artist and her last release, Discipline, was issued just as digital single sales began booming and 5 years before online streaming became a factor on the Billboard charts.
The final reason for the current mediocrity in the music industry are the deliberate actions of more talented acts. In an effort to compete with their more in-demand peers, many great artists have dumbed down their material to the most basic levels possible.
Remember that article I wrote detailing why good singers fail on Pop radio today? Well, you should give it a read because it closely relates to this point. Basically, young consumers aren’t interested in grand vocal performances or melodramatic songs that tells stories of love, loss or social justice. Instead, they just want catchy music to which they can sing along and if great artists are to stay relevant, then they need to adapt.
Robin Thicke provided a perfect example this year when he explained why his Blurred Lines album was a departure from his previous introspective works. He stated that he made this latest record without serious thought and made songs about having mindless fun. Obviously, Thicke understands how to play the game because he has been catapulted from a moderately successful R&B act to a global chart force, all by singing about his “big dick.”
Unfortunately, by many artists refusing to put forward their best material, the charts as well as many formerly prestigious award shows no longer reflect the best of the best. Rather, they depict the most popular of the mediocre and acts with less than impressive music sneak through the backdoor of the history books to replace the greats. Rihanna has most #1 hits than Stevie Wonder, Prince and Elton John. Let that sink in for a bit…
At this juncture, you’re probably thinking of Adele’s massive success on the charts with brilliant material but how many other cases can you name? Honestly, Adele’s impact with 21 occurred because of the right timing and promotion by her label. Adult Contemporary artists are generally strong album-sellers and her ability to crossover onto the Pop charts was a result of many factors, not just good material.
So, the primary reasons for the current state of the music industry are the lack of artist development, the dominance of visual artists and more talented acts deliberately dumbing down their music. As the landscape changes, labels will follow the trends that produce the largest revenue sources, even if it continues to lead us down the wrong path to a world of mediocrity. That is the nature of business.