The Rise of the Bard: Part 1

If you’ve read some of my other posts about the music industry, you’ll know I have some strong – and mildly fatalistic – views on where the business is headed.  For the most part, I’ve spoken about why we’re all doomed because the same too-close-for-comfort perspective that let’s me speak to the current state of the business means that my views are pretty emotionally driven.  It’s my day-to-day life, my career, and – as much as I’d like to be academic in my views – it is deeply personal to me.  When it feels like your industry is collapsing around, it can be hard to visualize what comes next or what will survive the massive paradigm shift.

Chicken-little-movie-poster-1943

Basically, I’ve been channelling my inner Chicken Little and shouting about the sky falling.

It’s a bit like watching an avalanche come down a mountain towards your town.  Will your house survive the impact?  What will be left of it?  Will you make it?  Why did you build a house on this stupid mountain anyway?  But mostly you’re probably filled with the wordless, pants-shitting fear that all creatures share when facing impending doom.  You don’t worry what your property taxes are going to be next year or how you’ll rebuild in that moment; you’re too busy doing the mental math on your chances of survival.

But recently I’ve seen some incredible musicians getting out there and doing it and some of my avalanche-induced terror is subsiding.  Let’s face it, even if there’s still a couple snowballs rolling down the hill, the town’s already buried.  The music industry is a gaunt shadow of it’s former glory.  We’re seeing the last, desperate throws of a dying beast.  Labels are manufacturing pretty-but-unartistic “artists” with songs and careers that aren’t meant to have longevity.  Material gets pumped out as quickly as possible because they need to make as much money off of it as they can before the well finally dries up.  I’ve heard plenty of people of all ages complain about the quality of material that’s currently dominating radio.  Is it so surprising that folks aren’t spending their money on music any more?

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For example, Fifth Harmony’s song “Worth It'” has a second verse that’s so poorly written, English professors across the nation clutched their chests in pain when it hit the radio.  Seriously, Google the lyrics.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the problem with the music industry isn’t the music, it’s the industry.  Labels and radio used to serve as a sort of filter.  They were the gate-keepers and taste-makers that found the best of the best and brought them to the populous so that consumers didn’t have to do the sorting themselves.  This isn’t to say that there haven’t always been shallow, nepotistic practices within these systems.  Just look at the disgusting practice in the 50’s and 60’s of having white artists cover black music to make it “suitable” for white audiences.  But I would argue that things have skewed even farther towards the shallow end of the pool, if – hopefully – for less racially motivated reasons.

One of the biggest issues facing both consumers and artists is that the filtration systems of radio and record label are broken.  It may be the single biggest issue in the business today.  The distribution and renumeration systems are dated in a way that will not ironically come back into fashion in twenty years.  Rather than fixing this problem, our filters have chosen to lower product quality.  We have some incredibly talented artists like Adele or Hozier breaking through, but we have a lot more that are developed not because of a talent or creativity that brings something special to the scene, but because their physical appearance and/or backstory are marketable.  It’s no longer about music, it’s about pure profit.

As much I would like it to happen tomorrow, I suspect it will take a few more years before this system finally breaths its last, and it may never completely die but rather reinvent itself.  Even though we’ve seem mediums (i.e.: vinyl, tape, CD, mp3) evolve over the decades, this is a young industry and it has yet to be faced with a paradigm shift of this magnitude: it’s product (i.e.: recorded music) losing the majority of its value.  Perhaps we’ll see companies like LiveNation that handle ticketing and touring take more of a “filter” role as profits shift from record sales to live shows.

But at the end of the day, we’re still faced with the issue of the broken filter.  There are a lot of catch 22’s to overcome as you start in the music business and one of the biggest is getting past the gate-keepers of the industry to actually get heard.  Many of these large corporations can feel inaccessible and insurmountable to the DIY solo artist.  If these companies are mostly beneficial to that top tier of artists – largely associated with a label of some sort – it doesn’t really help new, genuinely different music get heard any more than record labels or radio do.

So what do we do?  We work outside of these systems.  More and more – at least in Nashville – I’m seeing solo singer-songwriters or duos touring, just them and their guitar.  This isn’t a new thing; artists have followed this model for the last several decades, if not the last several centuries.  To put it through a romantic lens, we’re seeing the rise of the modern day bard.  And there are some incredibly talented musicians making a living doing this.

Broken filters and out-dated business models might kill the industry, but they won’t kill the music.  These modern bards are picking up a mantle that has existed for ages.  Musicians have historically been tradespeople, middle-class artisans that weren’t rolling in money but were sustaining themselves.  Although we’ve had celebrity musicians for centuries (Liztomanio isn’t just a word the band Phoenix made up as a cool song title), it has by-and-large been a middle class profession.  In the past few decades, we’ve seen the musical middle class shrink dramatically and in the last century recording artists have gained a level of celebrity to rival – and, in some cases, surpass – that of political and social figureheads.  This hasn’t elevated the industry as a whole any more than Walmart has helped local, family-owned businesses.

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In case you forgot, this is what Walmart did to locally-owned chains.

Those of us who choose to reject the Walmarts of music will walk a hard road, but it’s one that’s been traveled by thousands of years of kindred spirits.  And the more that choose to walk this path, the better the music that survives the journey and makes it to the public will be.  You can build a career on crap when you have a multi-million dollar marketing team behind you; but when you’re relying on your own talent and business savvy to engage people, you need to have a genuinely great product.  There are artists that have become mainstream that did just that and I think this number will increase as the major players in the industry either catch-wise or fail.

As far as I can tell, I have the best job security in the business.  I’m working towards creating a product that won’t require clever marketing to engage people; I can stand in any venue and tell stories that will touch a soul or a play a groove that makes people tap their feet and I don’t need someone to auto-tune it into listenability; heck, I don’t even need to rely on someone else to write content for me.

Towards the end of my college career, I began to get the first inklings of the avalanche-fear and it only grew as I sat in at internships in the business side of the industry.  But roles like managers, publishers, and distributors are relatively new and rely on a system that may or may not be part of history by the time my future children are entering the work force.  I’m picking up the mantle of the musician, the story-teller, the bard that millennia of artists have worn before me and will wear after I’m gone.  I am both the creator and deliverer of content and it’s that content that will survive any cataclysm.

You can kill the business but you can’t kill the music.  Long live the bard.

Check back soon for part two, where I talk about why solo artists are on the rise and delve more into the new Age of the Bard.

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