IN certain sectors, 10 years can pass by with little more than a few changes in administration, standards or the onset of a few innovations that serve to enhance previously flailing components to make it more efficient. However in the case of the ever-evolving and technologically minded business such as the cantankerous beast that is the music industry, the last decade has been nothing short of transformative.
In order to explain the drastic shifts in the landscape that have resulted in the world of music becoming completely and utterly inalienable from its previous form, it is necessary to look back to the very beginning of 2008 A.D in which ‘experts’ foretold of a near-apocalpytic fate for the industry after a particularly rocky end to the previous year.
As detailed by then prominent pro-artist and peer-to-peer sharing organisation Downhill Battle, there was reason to believe that the sun had just about set on the illustrious record companies of yesteryear:
“Variety reported last week that “overall music sales during the Christmas shopping season were down an astounding 21% from last year.” No industry can survive a drop like that, especially on the heels of a similarly terrible year and decade. […] Expect to see the four major labels slashing their operations over the next few months. These labels will probably make a some last gasp moves: dramatic online music giveaways and desperate attempts to get artists to sign over their tour and merchandise revenue. But the trend towards decentralization, self-publishing, and direct artist-fan relationships is simply too strong. There will continue to be a role for online music stores and companies that offer promotional services for artists.”
Early adopters of the notion of file sharing sites such as Napster, Limewire and Bearshare, it is near impossible to know if these activists that had previously been so optimistic in espousing of the idea of “direct artist-fan relationships” would know how pivotal this would become in the modern sphere.
Faced with a grim prognosis and with record execs that had skirted critique or reprisal off of the back of their legacies now being forced with the ultimatum of ‘adapt or die’, little could they have known that an emissary of relief and prosperity would arrive from across the Scandavian Peninsula.
Officially launched on the 7th October 2008, a start-up known as Spotify arrived in both free, ad-driven format and with an additional paid subscription service. As if to serve as a perfect summation of how swiftly the once shadowy and guarded corridors of music industry power could now be infiltrated by any new concept or idea that could replenish the now dwindling revenue streams, its launch coincided with licensing deals with the major labels that would’ve previously balked at the idea of offering their artists’ music free of charge.
Alongside the embryonic form of the streaming service that would now become synonymous with the listening experience coming to the forefront, record companies would also receive some more heartening news that would further shed light on the direction that they were headed towards.
On the digital sales front, just over a billion songs were downloaded over the 12-month period and this would represent a 27% increase on the previous year. Although this incline was nowhere near enough to recuperate the losses that were incurred with diminishing physical sales, there were also reports in the New York Times that some labels were “finally beginning to wring significant profits from music on Web sites like YouTube and MySpace.”
Although MySpace may now be rendered obsolete, this idea of being able to tangibly monetize the support that is generated on social media sites remains prevalent to this very day. With the blueprint established by bands that were releasing their own content onto the then-prominent site; with notable examples including soon-to-be household names such as Arctic Monkeys, Panic! At The Disco, Lily Allen and Kate Nash, this would be the spark from which everything from Facebook’s promotional algorithims that extracts real cash from aspiring artists in exchange for the illusion of exposure to positive evolutions such as the PledgeMusic model in which fans can contribute directly towards the art that they’d like to engage has emerged.
What’s more, the concept of label execs attempting to quell the notoriously cavalier YouTube music community seems all the more absurd now that they continue to war with the video streaming giant to this day coupled with the fact that its empowering ability to give users the platform to distribute their art to the masses has given rise to innumerable stars in the same manner that S0undcloud would begin to when launched in October 2008.
With vibrant, DIY fanbases sprouting unbeknonwst to the increasingly marginalised oligarchy , this gave artists ranging from Tyler, The Creator to Chance The Rapper and Justin Bieber the ability to establish a vast and global fanbase before ever entering a record label hallway.
When we delve back into the figures that were compiled at the conclusion of 2008, the Soundscan numbers that chart the year’s biggest albums also make for insightful reading when viewed in coincidence with what now holds away over the zeitgiest.
As the final sales were tallied up, Lil Wayne’s The Carter III stood tall as the year’s biggest album despite being the first album to top the list with sales under 3 million. In the runner’s up spots, Coldplay’s Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends and Taylor Swift’s sophomore project Fearless marked the continued success of two musicians that remain immensely successful to this day. Whilst Lil Wayne’s cultural relevance and fanbase may have slumped in recent years in the wake of disputes with his label Cash Money and a sharp decline in quality, his acquisition of the top spot in the 2008 list was an early indication of the dominance that hip-hop culture has over the pop world in 2018.
As proclaimed by Kanye West in a soundbite filled interview with Zane Lowe from 2013, ” we culture. Rap the new rock ‘n roll. We culture. Rap is the new rock ‘n roll. We the rockstars. It’s been like that for a minute” and while many refuted his claim at the time, he couldn’t have been more right. Now indisputable and imperically documented in the 2017 Nielsen Report, hip-hop & R&B has now officially overtaken rock & pop by accounting for eight of the ten biggest albums of the year. Far from just demonstrable in data and sales figures, the regular innovations and polarising shifts in the genre have made it clear that hip-hop and its associated genres are breaking new ground in a way that too few bands seem willing to do as they continue to move within the constricting confines of what is approved by the music industry’s biggest bodies.
Conversely, the Billboard list of the year’s most listened to artists pinpointed the transience of success for hip-hop artists that would fade into obscurity (Plies, T-Pain, Ray-J and Sean Kingston to name but a few) whilst bands such as The Killers, Kings Of Leon, Mogwai, Foals, Jack White’s The Raconteurs attest to the loyalty that is felt within rock ‘n’ roll circles to this day.
WIth the music industry now experiencing its biggest period of growth since the 1990’s, it is hard to predict whether a similar boom and bust scenario could be on the horizon as we make our way into 2018 and beyond. However, what is clear to see is that the ramifications of changes made in 2008 have forever changed the mainstream and underground music industry in ways that have both good elements and negative consequences for today’s artists.