Music isn’t just about releasing a CD on a Tuesday anymore.
Modern artists have challenged the way that music was meant to be both created and consumed thanks to a slew of technological advancements.
Performers such as Lady Gaga, Kanye West and more recently Taylor Swift have taken charge of how they want to distribute their work. Whether it’s the promotional or the creative component, musicians have shattered the former boundaries that defined the music industry manual.
For decades, record labels were the foundation for an artist’s means to succeed in the music business.While record labels still have major artists on their roster, each talent is creating exceptional content and stays connected digitally at all times. In the last two years alone, the industry has proven to be malleable at the hands of today’s groundbreaking artists.
Donald Glover released his technology-centered second album, aptly titled “because the internet” under his stage name Childish Gambino in December 2013. The release could not be fully comprehended or properly experienced without its accompanied 75-page screenplay and mini-films that followed the journey of a character named The Boy. An app was also made for concertgoers to use during his “Deep Web” tour.
Three days later, Beyoncé dropped a self-titled visual album of 17 music videos in addition to her 13 song record on iTunes at midnight without any warning or promotion. The album’s glowing reception was virtually inevitable, but the magnitude of her marketing move has put a pin in music history.
“You can’t have this discussion without Beyoncé,” said Gerrick Kennedy, music writer at the Los Angeles Times. “We all remember that moment.”
Kennedy discussed more in-depth how Beyoncé’s surprise had a larger significance beyond the event of it.
“From her artistry, it was her giving the music directly to the people who consume it,” he said. “When you learn more and more about [the music industry] and you realize how many people stand in the way between the fans and the artist and the music – she knocked all of that down. Somebody of her caliber and with the level of success that she’s had, it was impossible. The fact that it was able to be a secret for 10 or 11 months is insane. It’s showing artists taking control of not only how they’re releasing music, but how they’re marketing it.”
Not to mention that industry veterans don’t care to deal with the promotional circus of interviews, dropping singles, etc., he added. “That’s really tedious for a lot of artists these days, especially if they just want their fans to have the music,” Kennedy said.
Cutting out the middle man doesn’t feel like a loss in this digital era as much as it would have 20 years ago. The digital landscape has changed the way both up-and-coming and established artists approach their work.
A 2004 PEW Research Center study found that 76 percent of musicians used the internet daily in relation to their music. When Myspace first launched in 2003, it was instrumental in helping undiscovered artists spread their work. In the last decade, social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and SoundCloud have given musicians even more tools to promote and share updates and music.
“Today, you really need to be creative in order to catch the eye of the listener,” said Adam Tuhy, of the Chicago-based hip-hop and jazz band OBY. He stressed the importance of having a social media presence because of the growing competition.
Tuhy cited Beck’s 2012 album release “Song Reader” in the form of sheet music as “absolutely genius.” It gave consumers an opportunity to interpret Beck’s work in their own way, which prompted a new form of fan interaction.
“It was almost as if he was trying to make music more subjective than it already was,” Tuhy added.
Risks taken by artists like Beck and Beyoncé sent shockwaves through not only the business side of the industry, but the content side as well. A bold marketing strategy could be undermined if the quality of the music is disappointing.
U2′s recent release “Songs of Innocence” automatically downloaded for free to every iPhone owner in America. While U2 fans were thrilled, a majority became so upset that Apple issued an apology and instructions to remove the album.
Many modern artists have turned to releasing music through a label they formed on their own or with no label at all, with their success coming from social media connections and word of mouth. Artists like Chance the Rapper gave his 2013 “Acid Rap” EP away for free and will do the same with his upcoming “Surf” EP.
Childish Gambino also recently released his double project “STN MTN/KAUAI,” with the “STN MTN” mixtape available for free and the “KAUAI” EP profits going toward keeping the Hawaiian island clean. But, how do artists make money if they don’t charge for the album?
Artists and labels don’t get their main income from record sales anyway, explained music critic Ben Wener. While Chance will make little to no profit off his albums, he can gross tens of thousands of dollars with a single sold-out show through ticket and merchandise sales.
“Live performance and touring is where the bread and butter is,” Wener said. “The album is just a means to an end.”
Partnerships offer a chance to expand on that goal. Video game developer Ubisoft approached Gambino to feature his song “Crawl” on the upcoming game “Far Cry 4,” combining his fans and the existing gaming audience for a hopeful surge in interest. The companies understand the consumer’s demand for enhanced entertainment, and collaborations like this make that happen.
Music’s success depends on these promotional outlets to get the listener to actually hear it. 77 percent of fans discussed music with family and friends, and 62 percent shared the music with others, according to a 2008 PEW Research Center study. Connecting with the audience in a user-friendly way remains crucial for an artist to sustain themselves.
Without the fans, all musicians could be starving ones.