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Music has become a ‘just-in-time’ economy

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Photo: James Owen

Photo of Mark Mulligan
by Mark Mulligan

The modern day economy is built upon ‘just-in-time’ supply chains. This framework has enabled the benefits of consumerism that we have come to enjoy, such as next day delivery, out of season foods on our shelves, and the digital devices we live our lives through. Each component of the just-in-time economy works in tightly coordinated partnership, from factories, through transport, to point of sale. The underlying principle is that every component is manufactured and delivered at just the right time, to ensure that there is a continual throughput of production, assembly, and consumption. Gone are the old days of large warehouses containing product, just in case it is needed. Instead, just the right amount makes its way around the world in shipping containers to meet demand. Most of us never even knew this system existed until the pandemic, when it suddenly broke down and we found ourselves short of essentials, like toilet paper. Perhaps without even realising it, the music business has become a just-in-time economy too, and that is not a good thing.

The music business used to be characterised by artists disappearing into the studio for months on end and emerging with an album for expectant fans to get their hands on at some time in the future. Bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers were able to average four years between their albums and still expect their fanbase to be there, waiting eagerly for the next release. Streaming and social media combined to turn that model on its head, heralding the era of the always-on artist. Now, artists fear the consequences of not putting out a single every month. Heck, even Daniel Ek said it is “not enough” for artists to release albums “every 3-4 years” and that they need to create “continuous engagement with their fans”.

Add this to the very real fear that the algorithm will ‘forget’ artists if they do not keep up a steady flow of social posts and releases, and you have the foundation stones for music’s just-in-time economy. The implication, no, the reality, is that if artists do not conform to the always-on model then they will be lost by (not in) the system. Artists (and their rightsholders) have become just-in-time suppliers, with the subtle, yet seismic, shift from delivering art to their fans when they have finished their creative process, at their pace, to filling a slot in the never ceasing supply chain. It is an environment that, unsurprisingly, has created the hit today, gone tomorrow world that today’s music business operates within.

The model works well for platforms, and consumers, but less so for artists, due to misaligned incentives across the industry. The underlying problem with the system is that the content platforms that shape today’s entertainment business (TikTok, YouTube, Twitch, Spotify, etc.) value creation more than they do creators. The more creation that there is, the more that the platforms’ algorithms are able to target users with ever more specific and personalised content. The platforms all, of course, talk a good talk about creators, but what matters most to them is that their users get the right content. It does not matter whether that means a thousand creators delivering one piece of content to a thousand users, or one creator to one thousand users. With the pervasive obsession with ‘new’, as soon as one piece of content has been served, another is needed.

This is how we described this dynamic back in early 2021:

“In the attention economy’s volume and velocity game, the streaming platform is a hungry beast that is perpetually hungry. Each new song is just another bit of calorific input to sate its appetite.”

And it is not just the consumer platforms that fuel this fire. Artist distribution platforms play a role too. The unspoken promise of the platforms is that artists have a chance to compete with the likes of Taylor Swift. Of course, 99.99% of the nearly six and a half million self-releasing artists will never get into the same race, let alone win it. 

We are at the point where there needs to be a duty of care to creators, from both distributors and platforms. This starts with selling the right dream. Some artists may only ever have a thousand fans (or fewer) who want to listen to their music. That should be embraced as an aspirational goal, not failure. Service offerings should be geared around helping creators understand what their realistic (but aspirational) goals should be, and helping them achieve them. Not a nudge and a wink implication that they can all become superstars.


If this does not happen, we are heading towards a massive creator backlash, driven by a generation of creators wondering why they are not superstars yet. And that is not in the interest of any of the industry’s stakeholders, except perhaps the homes of superstars.

The just-in-time model in the wider economy has underpinned an unprecedented amount of consumption, and that comes with its own set of challenges, especially with regards to sustainability. It has also contributed to, as the Guardian put it, “the growth of low-wage, often more precarious jobs, with workers recruited only when they would be needed. This constant squeezing of workers has fuelled our 24/7 work culture and the mental health problems that go with it, while attempts to cut the price of labour have added to the growth of economic inequality, regardless of who sits in government”. All of which sounds remarkably similar to the plight of many of today’s artists.

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