The music industry continuously changes based on the technology and culture of the time. Today, everyone has a phone in their pocket, and we spend a significant amount of time online on social media. Unlike previous generations, the entire history of our music is easily accessible and streamable online in a way that was not possible before. These facts have significantly impacted the music industry as a whole, changing many ways music is published and owned, how artists become successful, and how the music itself is presented. It is important that we understand this shift so that we can navigate the industry as a listener and as a worker.
Looking back, music was subjected to quite an immense amount of technological change. In the ‘20s, the phonograph could hold two or three minutes of music. In 1949, RCA released the 7-inch 45 rpm vinyl record, which made music cheap and accessible to the public but only allowed for a single track at around three minutes and thirty seconds in length. This was perfect for radio play as it was driven by profit and optimally only played music for around 3 minutes. Anything longer would be cut down anyway, so most songs around the time would not exceed that mark. Even today, despite the technological constraints at the time, most popular music is quite short. Interestingly, there is proof that songs are becoming even shorter now as a result of streaming services paying out very little per play and not valuing track length. The most profitable music is that with the most plays, and it’s achieved by having shorter run-time so that they are replayed more often. It is certainly difficult to make a catchy, memorable, and unique track while being short, but this is what is valued in the industry today. The share of Billboard Hot 100 Songs List that is 2:30 or less has increased from one percent in 2013 to six percent in 2018. This is reflected in the average song lengths by many artists decreasing over their last few releases. On Drake’s Scorpion, tracks are 11% shorter than on Views. Kanye’s The Life of Pablo has 38% shorter tracks than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. We can see that his later projects have mostly followed this trend, with Jesus is King songs only being 2:37 on average. Meanwhile, Donda has longer tracks in comparison. This trend is seen across hip-hop and country shows similar results. Streaming made up 84% of music revenues in the US in 2021, up from 21% in 2013. This is an enormous difference, and economics may well continue to drive song length down to maximize profit. Social media likely has a role in this shift, with Tik Tok especially benefitting from access to a large volume of music for the purposes of content creation. Artists can grow their audience easily by getting their music trending on Tik Tok and Instagram Reels, so the more music they make, the more that enters playlists and reaches consumers.
Today, the most optimal form of marketing will reach people through their phones. Physical word of mouth, never mind physical music, is no longer as important as it once was, and artists that focus on social media marketing are most likely to succeed. Singles are extremely accessible through streaming. They are easy to market and share, making them extremely profitable and preferable for record labels. Social media makes it appear that the entry-point to success is simple; all you need to do is make some flashy videos and your followers will skyrocket. On the other hand, a lot goes on behind the scenes. The artists we see on Instagram do a lot more than record music. They are personalities that record, do live streams, market themselves, interact with their following online, and often distribute their music independently. The pandemic has certainly accelerated this shift, but things were trending this way before. It is simply a profitable use of time to market on Instagram, Tik Tok, and other media platforms. To me, this is a bit stressful. You have to wear so many hats, and only a fraction of people actually become popular and successful. Blind luck is still a major factor, and the entry point to making the music itself is the lowest that it has ever been. It is important to remember that the music industry is an incredibly broad place and, like any industry, there are many different pathways one can follow within it. Artists and big names are only a small fraction of the people who put together big hits or events. If you look for the credits on popular tracks or albums, the list of names goes on.
Life as a musician in 2022 is about enjoying the journey rather than a fast-track towards stardom, even though some will shoot up to the top in a short period of time. It teaches musicians that you should spread out your options and avoid putting all of your eggs in one basket. Though risks may sometimes pay off, the stories we hear are told by the victors. Those who fail to become successful simply move on. This is not to say that one should not try to become an artist or a musician, but that it is dangerous not to invest in other options. Everyone should make sure that they have a backup plan, but that being said, we all deserve to invest in our passions and spend as much time as we can doing things that we love.
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