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Commodification’s kickbacks: trends emerging in the pendulum swing back from content overload and AI

Cover image for Commodification’s kickbacks: trends emerging in the pendulum swing back from content overload and AI

Photo: Carles Rabada

Photo of Hanna Kahlert
by Hanna Kahlert

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the state of entertainment (and culture more broadly). AI generated content is taking up ever-larger swathes of the internet. Passive consumption drives high numbers that don’t translate into value, and remuneration for music creators is low while profits at labels are up. The entertainment industry’s demands of consumer spending are rising, when those same consumers are grappling with continued inflation and a global cost-of-living crisis, leaving them with less to spare. 

As a result of these extreme issues emerging from the underlying commodification and techification of culture, there are trends pushing back in the opposite direction. As the current situation continues on the same trajectory, more of these kickbacks will emerge from the market, which will inform the next phase of rebalancing. Here’s what this looks like in music:

1. The album is making a comeback 

After years of growing fear that streaming has incentivised an unbreakable ‘song economy’, isolating listeners from relationships with artists and reducing artists’ format options to quick clips with the potential to go viral, the album is returning to the cultural fore. Foregoing Taylor Swift as a cultural outlier (although The Tortured Poets Department was an undeniable hit), Charlie XCX’s album Brat has sparked the trend ‘Brat Summer’. Billie Eilish called Hit Me Hard And Soft an “Album-a** album” in an interview with Rolling Stone. Others, like Bring Me The Horizon’s Post Human: Nex Gen and Normani’s Dopamine have become moderately successful albums in their own right, thanks to cross-genre collaborations and a cohesive ‘narrative’ sound throughout that listeners have found enjoyable.

Audiences will follow where artists are innovating at their best, and artists are beginning to reclaim the album, using it to collaborate with others on bigger creative projects and bring fans into the fold (and hopefully buy the vinyl and other album-centric merch). Finneas recently alluded to this in an interview with Zane Lowe, noting that the myth of the short attention span is a self-fulfilling prophecy, with artists producing music intended to cater to, and thus encourage, less intensive listening. Ironically, today’s hyper-competitive, attention-strained entertainment economy means that viral hits have lower ROI — a wider narrative with cultural impact is what helps artists not just break through the noise, but maintain attention too. Albums have clout that songs simply cannot generate on their own, creating a narrative arc where songs act as chapters, and both artists and audiences want this value back in their lives.

2. Choreo is so in right now 

The rise of the TikTok dance may have been accompanied by some amount of cringe, but it has had an interesting side effect. In a world of social media marketing, artists are bringing back choreographed dances. From emerging acts like Lynks to Jungle’s hit ‘Back on 74’, dancers are a central feature of performances. This has a double effect. It makes live shows more interesting for audiences who are now accustomed to the convenience of streaming, bringing an added ‘pizzazz’. Yet it also plays to the TikTok dance trend; if there is choreography, fans can learn it, and make their own videos to post on socials. It offers a built-in engagement follow-up for those who love the song, and gives it an added aspirational edge of the ‘real thing’ to enhance the digital half of engagement, which otherwise gets lost in an only-digital experience. Focussing on choreography and performance not only enriches the live experience, but also delivers better results in the digital realm.

3. Creators are driving culture

Much of culture up until now has been driven by the orchestrations of labels and studios to promote creators who they deemed worthy of success. Now, however, these big machinations are lumbering behind the cutting edge of culture as nimble independent creators are able to do everything themselves – from launching their own careers to finding mass audiences. While the industry flails for answers on how to use TikTok effectively, artists like Charli XCX who come from that scene know it intimately and are able to surf its unruly waves. The people have seized the means of creation, production, and distribution. This leaves little room for the industry except to provide background support. However, despite this empowerment, music creators themselves still do not earn much, with most profits still going to the many labels, collection agencies, digital platforms, and creator tools platforms. You win some, you lose some (for now).

4. The growing trend of tech agnosticism 

Most data comes from digital sources and observation of digital behaviour, which we tend to conflate for the whole picture of a person’s habits. Yet a rise in ‘dumb phone’ purchases, eagerness to replace digital activity for IRL equivalents (a fifth of consumers say they have done so in the last month, according to MIDiA’s Q1 2024 Consumer Survey), and off-grid TikTok accounts – ironically, people who upload sporadic chapters of their off-grid journeys – indicates that a silent minority may be siphoning off and disappearing from this dataset entirely. 

We know that increasing demands on time and attention from the digital world can cause mental health issues and have negative impacts, like the spread of misinformation and – now with the boom of AI – the proliferation of deepfakes. Audiences are overwhelmed, with nearly three quarters saying they have tried to reduce their screen time in the last month (MIDiA Research Consumer Survey, Q1 2024). Similarly to how the problems of meat overconsumption have driven a rise in vegetarianism and veganism, digital overconsumption is driving people to reduce their use, cut themselves off from aspects of it, or disconnect entirely. Future-facing propositions need to look beyond tech solutions for the sake of tech solutions, by isolating their goals, and asking what – on or offline – is actually the best way to achieve them, with an awareness that this trend could destabilise purely digital propositions moving forward… especially in music, where fans over-index for social awareness trends like the climate crisis.

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