Success and Apocalypse in The Music Industry: Moving the Goalposts

In an age where the music industry is characterised as a scattered landscape of disintegrating relics and the arthritic hands that once built them, it may be worthwhile to examine the measures used to justify such an assertion.

Declining sales are often quoted as proof. However, when viewed without proper context they can be misleading. After all, apocalypse has as much to do with creation as it does destruction. Perspective and position dictate how an event will affect any given entity, and a baron of industry’s nightmare is often an entrepreneur’s opportunity.

A mining magnate might posit that wind turbines and solar power will spell the end of the energy industry. However, they would be making a mistake: they simply mistook themselves for the energy industry. There is an important parallel here to be drawn within the music industry.

This article will appear in Happy Mag Issue 6. Order your copy here

success and apocalypse in the music industry happy mag dani hansen
All photos: Dani Hansen

We have witnessed giants fall. We have seen the king’s well run dry. But if we are to be honest, there is a sense of optimism for what is yet to come.

The ever-changing ways that music fans find, relate to and consume music have created an environment that has bred uncertainty and turmoil within the industry. They have also directly contributed to the creation and growth of countless artists, styles of music and listening mediums.

The DIY ethos of the 1970s punk scene focused on community and authenticity, and was originally in response to the over-commercialisation of music. It was an attempt to revolutionise the way people connected with artists. However, through changing paradigms and financial muscle, large record labels and established industry players were able to cut themselves into the equation.

The more recent adoptions of social media and music streaming platforms have created a landscape that has proven far more difficult to traverse for these historically important businesses and organisations. Artists are now able to promote themselves and cultivate an audience with little help from the industry at large. These developments have had a cumulative effect and resulted in the largest pool of artists the music industry has likely been witness to. Yet the demand of the market, in this case the music-consuming public, has not grown at a rate that correlates with the increase in available product.

Dune Rats at the 2017 ARIA Awards

While the market has stagnated, at least in terms of the amount spent on recorded music, the number of products has increased exponentially. The big fish are now having to contend with a far greater number of competitors in an environment that no longer facilitates their continual domination.

Carrying on with this under-the-sea metaphor, we come to the issue of parasitic fish; clever little organisms that latch themselves onto apex predators that had previously been thought too big to fail. The Billboard charts, the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) are examples of these organisations that rely on the continued success of certain parts of the music industry.

These organisations have built themselves around celebrating and promoting artists that have been able to sell a great deal of their music. It is a questionable relationship where artists are selected due to success, with the intention of further increasing their success by formally recognising their success.

It is a model that has a proven track record. Success breeds success. People like to attach themselves to a winning entity; be it a sports team, business or artist. However, the underlying assumption is that the entity is successful in their chosen field because they have genuine ability; that their success is tangible rather than just spin and misinformation.

Earlier this year, Jay Z made headlines by announcing that his most recent album, 4:44, had been accredited as platinum by the RIAA. At first glance this wasn’t surprising in the slightest. All of his studio albums to date have also been platinum sellers in the USA. However, accusations of corruption and gaming the system began to appear when it was realised that the announcement came before the album had sold a single physical copy. It became apparent that the vast majority of sales had been achieved through a complex agreement with Sprint, an American telecommunications company. The agreement involved Sprint purchasing a million copies of the new album at $2 per copy; coincidently the exact number of sales needed to ensure platinum certification at the minimum price allowed. These copies were later offered to Sprint customers for free.

The whole fiasco was essentially paid promotion. The awarding of platinum status to 4:44 was in no way representative of the relationship between the album and the music listening and buying public. The accreditation process was manipulated into being little more than marketing; its meaning and purpose lost at the very moment it demonstrated itself incapable of protecting its integrity against outside forces.

It seems pertinent and timely to question why the RIAA would allow such an obvious attempt to circumvent the meaning, and therefore credibility, behind their accreditations. Self-preservation is a pretty solid bet.

As was noted before, the stable of artists is larger and more diverse than ever before. It appears that this greater competition, combined with the widespread adoption of music streaming platforms, is having a negative effect on the number of artists that are able to achieve platinum status through traditional sales means. Imagine a scenario where no artist is able to sell over a million copies of their new album. The RIAA would become obsolete. However, the RIAA foresaw this tragedy, didn’t much care for it, and hatched a new set of rules.

Jay Z’s 4:44 being accredited as platinum in such a dubious manner is just the latest example of the RIAA making concessions to stimulate their own activity. In an attempt to ensure continued relevance, the RIAA altered their accreditation criteria to include data from approved music streaming platforms such as Spotify. However, this attempt is both transparent and superficial, only further emphasising the point that RIAA-style awards and charts have become rather arbitrary. The goalposts have been moved in such a way that the original game is unrecognisable. These certifications and awards no longer appear to be focused on providing information to the public. Damn the man, save the empire and all that jazz.

Perhaps it is time to call a spade a spade and abandon these complex algorithms and sales figures. These certifications are about money. The money that needs to be earned in the first place to be certified “successful”. The promise of more money once that certification is complete and the golden records decorate the walls of everyone involved. The rest of this debate is little more than justification.

If you really want to know what’s popular, check out a list on Spotify. If you really want to know what’s good you’re going to have to use your ears. If you want to know where the money is at then maybe check out who just got platinum certified.

This piece was started by asking if the current state of the music industry can credibly be characterised as apocalyptic. For some entities there’s no doubt that it seems that way. We have witnessed giants fall. We have seen the king’s well run dry. But if we are to be honest there is a sense of optimism for what is yet to come.

After all, the music industry has already weathered many apocalyptic events; none more destructive and frightening than when it became apparent that money had become more important than the music itself. Perhaps this latest episode isn’t apocalypse at all. Perhaps it’s course correction.


This article will appear in Happy Mag Issue 6. Order your copy here