I recently had a discussion in class about whether, these days, the quality of an album is as important as the buzz around it.
(I’m doing a music business degree, taking the entertainment industry very, very seriously is sort of what we do all day.)
So where to start?
How did we used to find music? Well, back in the old old days, we went to these wonderful mythical places called ‘record stores’. The main benefit of record stores – particularly independent ones – was the experts one could find therein.
“You could go into a store and ask a clerk, “What’s really good?” and he’d give you 10 choices, most of which were pretty high quality. This is something that the music industry is still looking for today online. Now we call it “music discovery” and VC’s still throw big money at anyone who claims to have an app.” – Music ThinkTank
Which was fabulous. Except record stores are few and far between these days. They started to see a decline when the CD came in – a new technology that was priced accordingly; a price that never came down. The CD could hold many more minutes of music than vinyl could and artists / record labels took advantage of this fact. CDs ended up full of absolute twaddle. People went to buy 10-12 great songs and ended up with 3 radio-friendly wannabe-hits and 7 or so fillers.
Then there was the internet. Piracy – and later legal downloading from iTunes and the like – killed off much of the remaining interest in record stores as people realised they could get hold of the killer without the filler.
That’s that unbundling thing I mentioned before.
“We could quite easily get caught up here in the seductive stories of the democratization of music (where anyone talented enough can chart) and the notion that the consumer is now setting the musical agenda. However, this would be to overlook the continued and undoubted power of contemporary culture industries, or ‘global culture industries’… as they operate in new and unseen ways to restructure buying habits and as they flex the marketing skills required to get artists heard in the digital arena.” – Music Culture and Web 2.0 [PDF]
We somehow all hoped that the internet would set us (musicians) free from the tyranny of the major labels. We were mistaken.
The surprise release, pioneered by Radiohead with In Rainbows (but, as though the trick’s history has become as mainstream as its use, later attributed to Beyoncé), is one spectacle used to cut through all the music freely available on the internet… and all the distractions we find on our various social media. (One of my favourite facts at the moment is that our generations now, apparently, has the collective attention span of a goldfish.)
“[If] there’s one thing digital natives do understand, it’s the concept of the Pop Moment: the trending topic, the Gifable glimpse.” – Robinson, the Guardian
While occasionally (rarely) an artist or an album comes along that’s so utterly, unbelievably brilliant that everyone spontaneously and simultaneously sits up and takes notice, it seems like it’s only the big artists who are able to pull of stunts big enough to get the public’s attention.
Almost everything else falls by the wayside.
So… does that mean that the hype around an album is now more important its content?
“These days, a new album needs a lot more than a billboard or hit single to galvanize the public’s attention; it takes a nonstop barrage of social media and news headlines…” – Grammy