The early 2000s were a simpler time. Mobile phones only sent 10 word texts, photographing your dinner wasn’t a thing and the UK’s most popular song was the one at the top of the charts. Obviously.
Fast forward a decade and knowing what’s hot isn’t so simple. Take 2017. Last year Ed Sheeran stormed the UK charts with his single ‘Shape of You’, a poppy little number that sold nearly 800,000 copies. Problem is, those sales are nothing compared to how much music is really being consumed.
Far from the bright lights little-known artists such as jazz ensemble Ezra Collective are building followings of their own. Ezra’s track The Philosopher racked up over 750,000 listens on Spotify in the first six months of 2018 alone and while this might not be a completely fair comparison – Sheeran himself earns some 47 million listens a month – it certainly tells a story.
No matter whether an artist is established, mainstream or underground, one fact stands: sales alone don’t reflect what’s popular. It’s clear the music industry has changed forever. But what next?
Artist first, industry second
As major record labels scrabble to keep up with technological advances, artists have learnt to put out tracks on their own and new opportunities are arising from it. It's become possible, more than ever before, for individuals to take control of their careers, explains Dr Rowan Oliver, an original member of the band Goldfrapp and a music lecturer at the University of Hull.
“Artists no longer have to get past certain gatekeepers of the industry in order to reach whatever heights they're hoping for,” he says. “Increasingly the control is in the hands of the individual, to make the music, to produce the music, to release it. There's been a democratisation, if you like, regarding the creative process, and the creative industries."
Niche is no longer niche
This is largely thanks to technology, where social media can help you find collaborators and audiences alike, while Bandcamp and Patreon can allow audiences to pay artists for their work directly. Josh Hall is a former music editor at Red Bull and works with music streaming companies to find new listeners. He says that in an era where any artist can be discovered, find a loyal audience and be compensated directly - niche music finally has a way to sustain itself.
“The most exciting evolution in the industry right now is the explosion of smaller labels that have sprung up as a result of the internet and its technologies,” he says. “There's less and less reliance on the legacy parts of the industry, and an increasing recognition that small groups of people with great ideas and a common vision can get real results by leveraging the opportunities that the digital landscape offers.”
Music streaming: saviour or boogeyman?
Not that streaming comes without its own considerations. Spotify has become notorious among smaller labels and independent artists for low payments, offering musicians around $0.006 per stream of their song – though many claim they receive much less. This is particularly worrying given Spotify’s dominance, where in 2017 they made up 62.97% of all music streamed online. The entire industry is having to realign itself to a post-sales world, seeking new revenue streams and platforms. For a new generation of music industry insiders this should spark a world of fresh opportunities.
So much more than performers
Technology moves with music, says Caroline Waddington, a music lecturer at the University of Hull. “Now there are apps like Musicly, where people can create and remix content. There are all these different ways that we engage with music. From my perspective, as a researcher as well as a performer, it's getting to know how the technology is changing audiences, changing musicians and how we can keep up with that, and keep adapting to that."
And how? If the rise of EDM and modern jazz has taught us anything, it’s that music is no longer just about the performers on stage. Everything from house to hip hop and pop has become a producer’s medium, with the people on the mixing board becoming equally as famous as the artists laying down vocals in the booth. Even major apps like Tidal now list each song’s producer, DJ or writer and let you search which other songs they’ve created.
Of course it doesn’t end there. New blockchain technology is going to revolutionise live touring and merchandising for bands, putting the power directly in their hands. It’s going to create a whole new sea of jobs, with the role of tour manager, t-shirt designer or booker being opened up to anyone with a smartphone.
Genres are blurring
With less reliance on big labels and traditional markets, artists are finding more freedom to test and collaborate outside of previously fixed genres. And what’s more, audiences are willing to listen. This is becoming especially apparent on music courses, according to Connor Phelan, a music student at the University of Hull.
“Right now I’ve got the freedom to just find out what works, I’m meeting artists doing classical and jazz, and finding out how we can put that into hip hop or rock music. It’s all mashing together and the people behind the glass are just as excited about it as we are. It’s a good time to be making music.”
Written by Daniel Humphry – award-winning writer and founder of OFF LIFE, the UK’s only street press comic.