New Music, Nostalgia And The Music Economy – Some Thoughts

[caveat – it’s half term and I have a 7 year old asking me weird and amazing questions every 30 seconds, so this may not be as concise as it could’ve been, but you’re not paying me to write it, so read on 😉 ]

Some questions

  • When did you last pay for music by someone you know?
  • Do you pay for a streaming service? Does that feel like it’s “enough” because they say that a large percentage of the money they take in goes back to rights holders?
  • Have you ever worked out what that’s worth and whether it reflects what you would like to see happen for the musicians you know?
  • When did you last buy an old album, something you loved when you were a kid, reissued, remixed, repackaged? How does your spending on reissues compare to your spending on new music?
  • How much of your music listening time is spent on music you already know and love vs discovery
  • Bonus question: When did you last describe someone online as awesome/genius/amazing that you would have no real intention of investing any time or resources in?

Don’t answer these in the comments – that’s really not the point. The questions are the beginning of a line of questioning that is designed to help us throw some light at how we understand the music economy today.

Here are a few statements I see on a fairly regular basis:

  • “no-one pays for music any more”
  • “streaming services are destroying the music industry”
  • “streaming is the future of the music industry”
  • “Google are making it impossible to be a professional musician, there’s just no money left in music”
  • “Piracy has destroyed the music industry”
  • “There’s too much music these days”

So here are some thoughts to try and connect the series of questions at the top with the statements at the bottom. Let’s start with the disparity in the nature of the answers to the top questions with the statements. All of the questions are about what YOU do. How you respond to the music you hear, and what you choose to spend YOUR money on. Those are about you. Not about ‘the music industry’, not about piracy, or sharing or streaming or anything of those big concepts. Just about you putting your money where you think it has most meaning, or just trying to get balance spending as little as possible while absolving your conscience of any sense that the malaise you may or may not see within the wider music economy is your fault. The questions recenter the agency at the heart of the music economy discussion on you (and me) and what we invest in.

The statements that I see are all generalised, external, mostly unsupported by actual peer reviewed research, and are almost exclusively made with no reference to the practices that the questions above would reveal.

Let me give you a couple of examples – there’s no way that I could say that ‘no one pays for music any more’, because I pay for music, at least weekly if not daily. And WAY WAY more of the money that I spend on music goes right back to the people making it – the artists, the small labels, and because so much of it is from Bandcamp, the service that is providing the best possible mechanism for getting it out there. I also get paid by people on Bandcamp. On a daily basis. So for me to say ‘no one pays for music any more’ would be nonsense.


But I also can’t turn my own activity or economy into a universal truth – it wouldn’t be true, as far as I can tell, to say that people are paying more for music than ever. It may be true if we work out what percentages of the money that people spend on film, TV streaming, TV licensing, digital gaming, music streaming services, the percentage of their money that they spend on shit they discovered while watching ads on online music videos that must work or no-one would still be paying for them to be there… But I have no way of calculating that, and to be honest, no massive interest in it. It’s not my circus, nor my monkeys.

So what am I interested in? Right now, my big fascination is how terribly we (collectively) seem to be at parsing the information relating to the music economy and nostalgia. It’s been a maxim in marketing circles for decades that it’s much easier to sell someone something they already love than it is to persuade them to invest the time in new music required for it to become a part of their lives. In the old days, (read: pre-internet) that service was supplied by radio – the biggest radio stations played mostly new music, and the social capital of the DJ telling us that it was important was enough for us to let that music seep in over repeated listening until it became the soundtrack to our lives. That was coupled with a late 20thC/late-modern obsession with newness that permeated so much of culture (remember the vintage guitar market in the 80s? There wasn’t one to speak of…)

Without that passive exposure being central to our leisure (or work) time, we need to do a whole lot more work to create time and apply our attention to the task of absorbing new music. We need to seek it out, and we need to actively choose to pursue that future magical feeling when we find amazing music for ourselves. It rarely happens by accident, and given the very specific ways that social media algorithms distribute attention, it is very rarely prioritised as a thing in itself – if it comes packaged with something that makes us go ‘wow!’ it can seep through (EG, Jon Gomm’s video for his beautiful song Passionflower), but the ‘wow’ is initially more important than the art, and if you haven’t already put in the years to build a meatspace fanbase like Jon had, the lure of ramping up the ‘wow’ and dialing back the art in order to get more likes and views next time can be pretty strong.

There are a huge, huge number of musicians and music related services online focused entirely on ‘reach’ – on social media interaction metrics – in the hope that at some point in the future it either scales to the point where the micro-payments attached to those interactions (mostly ad-revenue on YouTube or Spotify/Pandora streaming payouts or some equivalent) become meaningful, or the artist will just luck into a situation where it turns into money. Some do, for sure. There are artists who’ve turned viral videos into a healthy live music career, and others who’ve turned it into corporate money (think Pomplamoose doing Hyundai adverts before Jack became a tech overlord at Patreon), but there’s no direct path, and it’s no more ‘open to everyone’ than the old system of record labels was. What it very effectively does is allow the tech companies to accumulate their percentage on ALL those transactions and build an extraordinary amount of capital. And it’s way more conspicuous because it’s concentrated in a company with, often, a skeleton staff and a priority to pile money into the banks of its execs and shareholders, rather than one focussed in redistributing profits to the stakeholders who created the value in the first place. In this way, it’s pretty much identical to the workings of the major label music industry of yore…

The bit that IS more open to everyone is making the records in the first place. Or perhaps I should say recordings, because creating a physical entity out of those recordings is now wholly optional, based on your economic placement. That a ton of bands are making vinyl because ‘people think you’re more serious if you’ve got vinyl out’ is again outside of my sphere of understanding or interest, but it’s now wholly possible to presell anything physical you make, or at least do market research to ascertain the viability of the project.

But still, that’s not the question here. The big question is about nostalgia (man, this whole argument was WAY shorter when I literally dreamed it last night… sorry about that, it happens when I start typing). Because listening to anything without first paying for it is astonishingly easy, for those who aren’t actively seeking out new music, it makes absolute sense for them to listen to music they already love. ESPECIALLY if they invested hours, days, weeks, months as kids foraging for the good stuff. The social capital I accumulated in my teens and 20s as a music forager is still a tradable commodity. I see my peers displaying their knowledge of 90s indie, 80s pop, ECM classics, jazz funk, etc. online in order to gain bragging rights. It’s tougher to do that with new music, because the people you’re talking to all need to invest some new time themselves into the work in order to be able to discuss and and acknowledge whether your assessment has value. If you’re saying ‘guys, I can’t believe how often the Pale Saints are overlooked in discussions about great shoegaze bands’ or ‘As much as I love Scofield’s Uberjam band, the Blue Matter era is where it’s at’ – anyone who already knows that stuff can pile in and talk about it, anyone who vaguely remembers it can YouTube it and get back up to speed, and a discussion can happen. Even people who only read about those bands/records can recognise that what you’re saying is either radical or orthodox based on their memory of the music press at the time…

  • None of that favours new music.
  • None of that prioritises new music.
  • None of the algorithms generated relating to how FB and Twitter measure the interestingness of a social media artefact favour new music.

The only thing that favours new music is people who have decided that it matters. People who have continued to experience the wonder of The Music Of Now, who aren’t content to solely relive their youth, or revisit classic mythical ages in the history of recorded music, but instead are seeking out what’s new, what’s exciting and what is made by people experiencing the same planet as them at the same time. If that doesn’t matter to someone and you want to reach them with your music, you either need to trick them with WOW, or hook them in with some association to the nostalgic things they already love (ever wondered why cover versions are so popular online?) or tie it in with a less nostalgically driven media like gaming or a TV series. The number of medium to large acts that have had their biggest boost by getting a song on a hit TV show over the last 15 years is pretty amazing.

So, to those questions. The reason I ask them is that to not see our own public, performative, declarative support for new music as WHOLLY ESSENTIAL in communicating the value of new music and the meaning and vitality of investing in it beyond a Spotify subscription is to entirely miss the only solution right now. Complaining about piracy while absentmindedly sharing YouTube links to things you friends have done that you haven’t even watched, but spending all your music money on 5:1 remixes of albums you loved in your teens is to be part of the problem, not part of the solution. This is not a minor tributary in the discussion about how we move forward, about what the internet makes possible. It is absolutely the central path by which new music is discovered, prioritised and made visible.

It is, of course, OK for you to only want to listen to ‘classic’ albums, to continually share memes that reinforce the idea that all the good music was made 30 years ago, that no-one is doing anything meaningful now, that we should be spending out time thinking about and listening to reissues of 70s rock albums instead of seeking out and supporting new artists who are the ones our culture needs to help us make sense of the absolute shit-show of politics and society right now. That’s OK. It’s your choice to do that. But don’t you DARE complain that other people are behaving exactly like you are and that’s why your poor friends can’t make any money from their music. If you spend a year talking about nothing but Prince and David Bowie, and then post some shit about how terrible it is that no-one buys music any more, you can expect me to neither care about or listen to your complaints when your own new album goes wholly ignored.

Be the change you want to see, stop peddling bullshit canards about no-one paying for music, and do some soul searching about how, why and where you find music, share music, talk about music, promote and encourage others to find new music, and WHERE YOU PUT YOUR MONEY.

Cos it matters, and you can be the change. Go do it.

One Reply to “New Music, Nostalgia And The Music Economy – Some Thoughts”

  1. What I find sad is artists who spend more time telling their friends and fans about how bad Google /YouTube /Spotify are rather than telling us about either what’s exciting them or what they’ve done themselves. 🙁

Comments are closed.

© 2008 Steve Lawson and developed by Pretentia. | login