What Happened To The Blues?
Updated: Mar 29, 2021
Last week, I tried Clubhouse for the first time. It was an interesting experience, with its audio-only conversations and ability to go in and out of “rooms.” I joined a conversation led by Eric Weinstein, titled “What Happened to the Blues?”.
To say this conversation was amazing would be an understatement. Eric’s argument was about non-mainstream, even esoteric art forms, and music genres, like the blues, being relegated to the margins of the music industry and society at large. The room was full of personalities from various backgrounds, including independent music artists, advertising professionals, tech geeks, and me, the lone physician.
Three hours went by and we went down a rabbit hole like no other. We discussed how the blues and similar genres that focus on storytelling, improvisation, and originality don’t work with the current music industry model of manufacturing, packaging, distributing, and scaling music that boosts the bottom line. Someone said that “music has become something people consume while they are doing something else.” I thought this sentiment was spot-on.
Gone are the days when a family sat around a record player to listen to a musical work, mainly because it was so rare and novel an aspect of one’s life. I learned the history of bards, who were the professional storytellers, music composers, verse-makers, and historians of the Celtic tradition.
So, why is this?
With the advent of the Internet, a revolution has taken place in society unlike any other. But, as with everything, there are trade-offs. The problem is not only how music is created and consumed, it’s how our attention spans have narrowed and withered over time.
With the information in the palm of our hands, we now have ectopic brains. The velocity of information exchange and distribution is exponential, catalyzed by social media platforms, and increasing mobile device use. Now, with 5G data infrastructure, this velocity is only accelerating.
As we are increasingly bombarded with information, it is not neutral. Rather, we are constantly influenced by groups, organizations, and firms that want you to think, act, consume, and buy a certain way. As a consumer economy, the consumption must not slow down. Thus, newer and efficient forms of marketing are burgeoning. Social media companies, like Facebook and Twitter, have business models based on advertising revenue. With shortening attention spans, we, as consumers, are also affecting major changes in how products are made and sold to us; music is no exception.
The music industry has become a proxy for how technology has transformed an art form, namely music, from a novelty to a manufactured product. This packaging and selling to us have become a self-fulling prophecy. That which can be measured, scaled, and reproduced cheaply is desired. Standardization and predictability are the names of the game.
Thus, artists have also leveraged technology to change their art form to something that can be monetized. From the creation of auto-tuners to current platforms for the creation and distribution of music, artists have conduits to monetize their creativity. Platforms like Patreon allow patronage of artists with alternatives waiting in the wings for market share.
One would think that the availability of platforms for creatives would bolster the artists’ success and financial standing. This is far from reality. For example, Spotify’s top 1.4% of artists bring in 90% of royalties and make just shy of $23,000 per artist per quarter. The remaining 98.6% of artists (3 million artists) made just $36 per artist per quarter.
In her December 17th newsletter, Li Jin masterfully discusses the problem with top artists earning disproportionately, skewing the statistical distribution so that smaller, niche artists and brands have a much smaller share of the market and lower earning potential. She argues there is a need to develop more platforms that cater to those that are on the tail end of this distribution, with less emphasis on metrics like ad revenue generation. I highly recommend reading her piece.
As we head into 2021, I believe we will see more platforms and media for independent artists to succeed and focus on their creative talents, rather than worry about what will be the next big thing that the streaming platforms and music labels want. Who knows, maybe the blues may even make a big comeback!