How Internet Killed the Radio Star
How is a pop star made, in an age where Internet savvy is just as necessary as music talent to catch the public's eye?
If your birthday falls before 1990, you probably remember obsessively scouring radio stations to hear that perfect song, then fumbling to record it on a blank cassette. Or maybe you meandered down aisles of musty and aggressively hip independent music stores, looking at imported CDs of B-sides and rarities and hoping the employee's side-eye wasn't personal. Perhaps you even browsed the shelves at your local Borders or Barnes & Noble, looking to score some deals.
When MP3s came along, they created a seismic shift in the music industry, rendering those experiences obsolete. Consumers no longer buy physical copies of music in the same way they once did, and this is unlikely to change as our world becomes increasingly digitized.
To make it in today's music business, Internet savvy is nearly as important as musical talent. Musicians' innovative practices during this digital shift are helping tear down the down the lucrative music sales industry of yore, while engaging fans on an unprecedentedly direct level.
But this growing Internet savvy, which gives them cachet among younger listeners, doesn't result in blossoming bank accounts, and Internet fame to any degree is no guarantee musicians will be able to make a sustainable living from their work.
A New Path for Artists and Listeners
Napster and other peer-to-peer distribution services blasted an irreparable hole through the industry's crucial scaffolding by giving music fans the ability to collect digital copies of tracks without paying. Even as the MPAA cracked down on illegal downloads and paid downloads grew in popularity, there was no way to quell the precipitous decline of CD sales.
The adoption of peer-to-peer sharing ushered in a potentially permanent shift in the idea of ownership of music. Instead of carting around a case full of discs, we now depend on smartphones for streaming services or MP3s -- even the iPod, though still popular, is considered little behind-the-times compared to simply using music apps.
Given all the popular music alternatives to broadcast radio, the way artists gain recognition, fans and acclaim has likewise shifted. A new generation of music journalism -- whose power is now concentrated in online blogs like Pitchfork -- has created new channels of influence, and outlets of exposure and distribution like YouTube and even Spotify have proliferated.
The contemporary music industry is littered with the first generation of music superstars, built on the success of social media and the Internet know-how. Current pop golden boy Justin Bieber took an Internet-generation appropriate route to fame, using YouTube and Twitter to gain attention. An irrepressibly catchy viral video skyrocketed Cee Lo from hip-hop darling to "The Voice" judge.
Kanye West ascended to fame by producing music for major labels and releasing his own gargantuan hits, but he maintains his digital relevance by using Twitter to connect with fans and amplify his already larger-than-life public persona. West also caters to the digital download crowd by putting out weekly free G.O.O.D. Friday singles, which he gives out on his website. This effort garnered positive reviews from music blogs and helps West ride continuous waves of hype by allowing him the chance to expose fans to new music more frequently than he could within the label system.
And then there's Lil B, an unconventional hip hop artist who shot to fame by relentless self-promotion on Twitter and other social media -- he has over 400,000 Twitter followers, and 60 million YouTube hits. He started by setting up hundreds of pages for himself to maximize his reach on MySpace, then giving his MySpace friends and other online pals self-released and digitally distributed mix tapes. The artist also showcased his formidable charisma into perfectly calibrated by 140-character tweets and YouTube clips.
Lil B seized control of his career through social media, but sometimes artists can catapult to fame simply by gaining attention online, even if they are not the ones doing the blogging and tweeting. Grimes, the stage name of musician Claire Boucher, is experiencing career highs now, selling out concerts around the world and enjoying massive critical success. The artist, who is still with the same independent label she started with and records all her albums from home, gained attention after popular music blog Gorilla vs. Bear wrote glowing reviews of her music.
Music stars also use their social media muscle to boost other artists. Justin Bieber recently changed the life of fellow Canadian singer Carly Rae Jepsen after hearing her on the radio while he was back at home. He tweeted about her infectious song "Call Me Maybe," which was only just breaking into Canadian radio at the time, and recorded a lighthearted unofficial music video starring himself, girlfriend Selena Gomez and a handful of other tween superstars. The combination of Twitter accolades and the star-studded video -- which racked up nearly 52 million views -- helped Jepsen's catchy pop confection rocket to the top of the charts.
Helping or Hurting the Artists: Trading Big Labels for Blog Cred
The Internet is an enormous help to musicians without labels or on small labels as far as winning an audience is concerned, but even critical darlings of the digital age are strapped for cash due to the changes in the music industry, with less robust royalty rates and a bigger emphasis on touring to recoup costs and investments.
This does not always perturb burgeoning acts: Marilis Cardinal, the publicity director for Arbutus Records, home to Grimes and a number of other up-and-coming musical acts, was up front when she discussed the economic realities with us. "We don't really expect to turn a huge profit with our music, it's more about collaborating with fellow artists and friends," she said, explaining how acts on the label keep expectations of financial windfalls to a minimum.
Some independent musicians don't focus on money, but others are concerned about their ability to make a living, which means they still covet agreements with labels. Artists signed to major labels pull in the big bucks in the form of hefty advances and marketing and licensing muscle, even if they're sometimes derided as inauthentic. While the Internet and social media are critical tools to gain an audience, without support from the traditional music industry, artists often can't move beyond the middle class financially.
For their part, labels, adjusting to the new demand for "authentic" artists propelled by self-released music, attempt to create "viral" stars, but often with mixed results. Interscope's recent notable controversial foray into the new music frontier made headlines when one of their artists, singer Lana Del Rey, gained acclaim for a seemingly DIY music video for her single "Video Games." Bloggers who initially heralded the video disavowed it when they discovered her image was a carefully calculated attempt at establishing indie credibility. These critics felt manipulated since they initially believed Del Rey's aesthetic matched an equally low-budget back story, and lambasted her "Gangsta Nancy Sinatra" persona as manufactured dross.
The Future of Music Is Online and On Tour
If musicians want to reach Lady Gaga-style super-stardom, they will eventually have to enter the label system or see their reach top out -- for now. The age of owning physical copies of music is fading fast, and though collectors continue to hoard vinyls, digital is the new arena for media. Specific formats will likely change -- especially if Neil Young succeeds in popularizing a better format -- but the music will remain as files, and are unlikely to migrate back to physical discs. This may let artists who manage to build followings break free and sell directly to their fans.
Musicians like Radiohead and Lil B, for example, are wresting control from labels by releasing their music independently, which is something Louis C.K. is doing in the comedy world.
Radiohead released its seventh album, "In Rainbows," directly from its website using a pay-what-you-want model. Though fans had the option to download for free, the band still made money off the gambit, though they did not release exact figures. Radiohead sells its most recent album, "The King of Limbs," for $9 on its website, cheaper than the iTunes price.
Artists self-distribute digitally to forge a long career that is both creatively fruitful and financially viable. And listeners will benefit from this shift, because these artists try to cut unnecessary distribution costs to give their fans a better price.
But the emerging modes of distribution are rife with controversy, especially since many of the popular streaming music services are still in their infancy. Programs like Spotify are gaining steam, but not without resistance. For instance, to boost profits, country-pop savant and potential succubus Taylor Swift withheld her most recent hit, "Red," from the service, which may inspire other acts to do the same.
Swift likely gained inspiration from fellow songstress Adele, who also staggered her music distribution to maximize profits. Adele and Swift won't immediately receive a financial windfall once their songs hit the service because just like standard album sales, Spotify pays royalties to labels instead of artists, so even musicians on labels who get large chunks of revenue through these streaming music services may see lags in payment.
Right now streaming music services, especially those with excellent mobile apps, are making inroads, but unless they keep musicians on their good side, there could be a content war if artists withhold their catalogs.
Both music fans and aspiring musicians do well to look online for the best places to find and distribute new songs. As cars increasingly plug into streaming services and come equipped with MP3 players, radio will decline in importance, while the Internet will continue to make or break new artists. Artists still scramble with the age-old problem of how to build audiences, win fans and sustain a career, but the digital landscape of media offers both a new path to take and another puzzle to crack. ♦
Categories: Media Mind