What is music? That question, at least for now, has no definite answer. One way to look at music is as a product that is distributed and consumed, which occurs under market conditions that inevitably influence the type of music beeing produced and who is involved in creating it.
Market conditions not only affect the digital or physical form in which music is made available to music listeners, the consumers, but also determine which music becomes available. The music industry operates as a preselection system, sifting through an array of options that will always be larger and more diverse than what ultimately gets produced.
This leads to three major problems. Due to intense competition, musicians find it difficult to reach an audience with their music.
In the late 1970s, the then-head of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) estimated that as much as around 80 percent of all released records fail to recoup their costs.
As a result, record labels are compelled to focus on artists deemed capable of delivering hit songs, a reality that still holds true today.
The artists signed by record labels need to generate enough revenue not only to cover the production and marketing costs of their own music but also to offset losses from other artists whose work doesn’t perform well. Record labels strive to produce a product that will appeal to the most significant number of consumers, while also repelling as few as possible. We can see similar patterns in the film industry, where production companies shy away from anything other than potential blockbusters. This beeing the reason why we now have 10 Fast & Furious movies.
Justin Bieber, together with Olivia Rodrigo, were Universal Music Group’s top-selling artists 2021, earning almost US$1 billion.
This brings us to the second problem, which is how a prefiltered selection limits consumers’ choices. Which ultimately results in the third problem, a reduced visibility of musical diversity in society.
The challenges that arose in the 1990s with piracy and music beeing downloaded from the internet resulted in declining revenues for the music industry. In 2008, a potential solution emerged with the launch of music streaming service Spotify. Initially, Spotify functioned as a music library with a central search function. Users were expected to search for the music they wanted to listen to, not unlike file-sharing programs like Napster and Kazaa. Over time, Spotify evolved into a service that provides music recommendations, with the promise of:
“The right music for every moment”
Spotify’s slogan implies the new function of the platform. Which is to filters music and presents it in the form of playlists and recommendations. Users can now easily find the so-called “right” music for all life occasions. The similarities to 1990s file-sharing programs are now minimal, and the commonalities with record labels are significant.
Even though Spotify doesn’t produce any music, one could argue that what they offer in the form of playlists is a type of music product, akin to a compilation album. The music is filtered in a way that an entity, based on predetermined criteria, selects what is “good” enough. The result is a product pushed out to consumers with the purpose of economic gain.
While Spotify is indeed a service where artists can independently upload their music, which theoretically could mean that everyone has equal opportunities, the prioritization of certain selected music inevitably leads to other alternatives being sidelined and drowned out.
So, what is the solution? Perhaps there is no complete and all-satisfying awnser. For a record label to remain financially viable and continue to exist, they must filter out a large portion of musicians and artists. A hypothetical reality without filtering would mean that the already substantial noise in the market would grow to an astronomical, suffocating size. How would music listeners even navigate through that?
Diversity already exists within music, so perhaps a better way forward is for companies to dare to be less uniform.
Maybe the root of the problems lies in many individuals’ pursuit of market-leading positions, economic gains, and a madman’s idea of success.
One could argue that music listeners do need some kind of assistance in navigating, sorting, and finding music. However, this is not the basis for record label business plans or services like Spotify.
The thought experiment of broadening industry filters would undoubtedly lead to greater diversity in the market, but it is more challenging to speculate on how this would impact music listeners’ actual music choices. The circular process that exists today is one where the supply of music influences the demand for it, and that demand, in turn, affects the supply. The balance of power is ambiguous, and perhaps it is no longer possible to determine if it was the chicken or the egg that came first. However, in this thought experiment, the scales tip towards the side of music listeners and their demands.