Glitter and poverty: how the digital revolution made musicians poorer

Glitter and poverty: how the digital revolution made musicians poorer

It may seem that musical glory is a guarantee of stability. If you released an album that critics praise and listen to millions, then poverty is out of the question.

But, unfortunately, the status of the "star" as such is not a source of income. Even famous musicians sometimes face financial difficulties throughout their careers.

Let us explain why, after the digital revolution, musicians had more problems, how it changed the music industry and made the performers look for new sources of income.

Photo Jörg Schubert /CC BY

It was: albums and “physical” sales

The main musical form of the second half of the 20th century was an album - a self-contained recording from 30 to 45 minutes, created for listening from beginning to end. The focus on album sales has played a big role in shaping the music industry.

Albums were the main way to express themselves and create their own identity, and other events in the lives of musicians revolved around their recordings. Contracts with labels to this day are often made not for a calendar period, but for a certain number of albums. br/>
Sales of records were a very important source of income for musicians and their labels. In the golden age of albums (1960s - 1980s), the revenue from the sale of physical media exceeded the revenue from the tour 2-3 times . This allowed some performers to simply ignore concert activity. The Beatles spent the second half of their careers, not appearing in public (not counting the farewell speech on the roof ). Yes, popular musicians of smaller caliber could not afford to ignore other sources of income - Kate Bush toured only once in the first 36 years of her career.

But the value of LPs, and then of physical music in general, began to fall. The first blow to the settled order of things struck music channels. MTV, with their focus on hit singles , encouraged superficial musical omnivorous. Singles - compact records with one song on each side - existed in the west from the 19th century on and cost in 5-6 times cheaper albums. Such a “price point” made the labels limit mark-up, so that the musicians had a hard time making serious money.

Moreover, the fixation on hits has changed the attitude towards music. Buyers of singles were less interested in the context in which the song was conceived (they did not hear the whole album). “Single consumption” made it harder to create a strong emotional connection with the musician and his work, making it impossible to invest in the artist’s artistic vision. Translated into business language, such purchases rarely generated brand loyalty, which could be earned in the future.

Began: streaming, singles and collecting

With the advent of broadband Internet, the threat to the music industry has become massive piracy. Almost anyone could make a copy of the purchased disc and share its contents.The lack of security of audio files scared music companies that bypassed the digital market. Instead, they fought in vain against the illegal distribution of their intellectual property. Metallica filed a lawsuit against Napster, the American Recording Industry Organization sued with a Limewire P2P exchanger, and CD manufacturers introduced measures for Prevent copying. In their eyes, it was a theft.

But for Internet users, exchangers became a revolution in music distribution. Napster, at the peak of its popularity, had about 80 million users, not only allowed them to save, but was also more convenient than going to a music store. He was a prototype of streaming platforms and gave access to a giant music catalog in a couple of clicks. After the death of Napster, the first major digital song store, iTunes, was launched. He slightly corrected the situation with the legalization of digital distribution of music, but he could not “lure away to the bright side” the majority. As a result, for the first decade of the 21st century, revenue from music sales fell twice.

A decent alternative to piracy appeared later. Streaming services, subscriptions to which are cheaper than buying a single CD, attract users who are not accustomed to paying for music. But there is no question of profitability for musicians - a million plays on Spotify bring the performer only 5 thousand dollars .

But it is worth starting with a conversation that it is still worth walking up to a million auditions. Often, the distribution of music on streaming services requires regular contributions and costs to attract the audience to listen (not all authors of the tracks are made by recommender platforms themselves). In the end, this is turns into a loss for small teams and independent authors.

At this, the problems of musicians with digital distribution do not end. In this format, again, singles and, as a result, genres that focus on singles win. Albums are interesting only to a limited circle of people - on platforms with millions of different songs, it is hard even for recognized stars to keep attention to their work.


Thanks to the digital revolution, physical formats became, first of all, objects of collection value. In order to increase sales, performers release beautiful box sets, interestingly draw out covers and booklets, or even experiment with the physical carrier itself. Such releases attract a very narrow audience, consisting mainly of loyal fans. Therefore, modern musicians, unlike performers from the 60s and 70s, cannot live on the sale of albums alone on physical media.

As a result, in order to simply pay back the recording of the album and earn something, the performers have to release merchandise, participate in television shows and tour a lot more.Although touring is not a guarantee of good money for many performers.

From radio to internet sites

Radio was a reflection of the music industry and an important, though not leading, source of income for independent musicians. The fee for each song playing with a fairly wide rotation could pay for the recording of the track and ensure stable earnings.

In the golden age of albums, playlists of large radio stations often picked up DJs themselves . This greatly simplified the process of broadcasting. Some moderators (e.g. John Peale or Seva Novgorodtsev from the BBC) could independently create musical phenomena. It was the appearance on the Saw show that led to the popularity of artists like Joy Division and PJ Harvey.

Independent radio stations also played a role in the development of musical stars: despite its illegality, British pirate radio was influential, and the American indie movement, represented by groups such as R.E.M and Pixies, was "born" on university radio stations. Getting on the radio was a guarantee of income and the way to a wide audience - that is, to a greater volume of album sales.

In the 90s, the process of radio consolidation began, both in Britain and in the USA. Large radio stations and media corporations gradually bought up competitors. The result was obvious - focus groups and centralized playlists replaced the DJ curators, and independent radio stations closed one after the other. For 2015, only three songs from the top 100 British radio was released by independent labels, and similar trends are observed in other countries. According to a Finnish study, over the past ten years, popular radio stations have begun to repeat the same songs more often. Now to get on the radio, without having connections with employees of media giants, is not an easy task.
A kind of substitute for radio has become the Internet. Anyone can literally upload their song to SoundCloud or another similar service, but this does not guarantee either earnings or a wide audience. On the one hand, thanks to the Web, a lot of people got their voice in the music industry. On the other hand, in this noise it is easy to get lost, but it is difficult to make money on your work.

Photo Best Picko /CC

Accidental discoveries, previously possible thanks to DJs or selections of lesser-known groups in music stores, occur less and less. Algorithms of streaming services can not risk, as it was done earlier by experts-curators. Of course, the musician can get lucky, and this or that platform will start offering his music to thousands of people. Over the past couple of years, such situations have been at least two .

“Flatten” the track on a laptop and record a single in your own apartment, create a group page in social networks and post your work on SoundCloud - in the seventies this was hard to imagine. The digital revolution has opened up many opportunities for beginning musicians - but not the opportunity to earn seriously on their work.We will tell about the “what life” of performers who do not have the status of superstars in the following materials.

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Source text: Glitter and poverty: how the digital revolution made musicians poorer