Are Music’s Failures Now Ours?

Consolidation, producer-centrism, monoculture, and a lack of focus on the consumer all killed rock music — sound familiar?

Music publishing and scholarly publishing have been compared now and again, with some at times hoping for an “iTunes of articles” to supplant the journals economy, while copyright, reuse, and other parallels have emerged from time to time.

I usually don’t see the point of these things comparisons, as music represents a very different kind of business — it scales differently (there is no #1 article that can “top the charts” for weeks on end), and it ages differently (there is still a market for “Rock Around the Clock” but little to no market for scholarly or scientific articles from 1952). The music industry also elevates individual artists in ways that contradicts the priorities of science, which should be on results and not vainglory.

That said, what has happened to the music economy — what has stultified it, turned it inside-out, and robbed a generation or two of robust music innovation and diversity — may be happening to us.

In the era from 1960-1995, the music cauldron boiled with innovation, as new acts emerged from left, right, and center. Southern rock, heartland rock, alternative rock, rockabilly, punk, ska, dance, electronic, thrash, hip-hop, country rock, emo, boy bands, tween bands, grunge, and more all bubbled up, with artists emerging from university towns and small cities, and being repeatedly elevated by disc jockeys at radio stations in unexpected markets (Cleveland, Louisville, Birmingham, Seattle, Atlanta, etc.).

No longer. Everything runs through Spotify or Clear Channel, and a handful of tastemakers in one or two major cities determine who succeeds.

Terms and phrases I’ve found myself using this year — monoculture, consolidation, lack of innovation, producer-centric, and more — are all on display in this video from Rick Beato, released yesterday, in which he and Jim Barber discuss how the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the resulting consolidation of radio and music production, and other forces led to the downfall of rock music, and music innovation in general.

It’s an interesting discussion, with interesting parallels. In our world, we might substitute:

  • How OA mandates led to the collapse of society publishing and the consolidation into five major publishers
  • How the industry found a way to accept corruption and conflicts of interest
  • How production — even though the terms mean slightly different things — became the path to profitability
  • How consumers became an afterthought
  • How innovation died
  • How independent thinkers, jobs, and diverse inputs were all sidelined
  • How society has stalled out as a result

History rhymes, even as it unfolds . . .