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What happens when the “relentless toll” of the music industry meets the creator economy in a cost-of-living crisis?

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Photo: Kajetan Sumila

Photo of Hanna Kahlert
by Hanna Kahlert

The music industry is in a cultural crisis. It is more demanding than ever to be a successful artist, with the work required to meet the demands of social algorithms and to cut through the clutter being more competitive than ever, in addition to touring being hit hugely by the pandemic lockdown and now by a cost-of-living crisis limiting fans’ ability to attend real-life concerts. Artist remuneration on streaming has been broken for a while, and NFTs have failed to step into the gap. Creators who make a living by being artists are finding it harder than ever to make ends meet.

In stark contrast, it has never been easier to become a music creator. The availability of software, sounds, hardware and instruments at affordable, entry-level prices has made it imminently accessible to reach a high stage of quality without much time or financial investment. Social platforms, like TikTok, have made it possible to compete on the same airwaves as the superstars, and anyone with an interest can now make a little bit of revenue on the side by uploading their work to a platform of choice and finding a niche fanbase.

With the rise of discovery personalisation and individualised listening, niche fandom has become more important than ever. But fandom is based only in part on the quality of work; it is a more self-reflective affinity, linked more to the personal identity of the listener and the community of fans around them than necessarily of the work itself. And there is now a lot of music to choose from.

A recent interview with Trent Reznor of Nine-Inch Nails revealed that the artist has his qualms about the ready availability of synthesizers and other equipment. Namely: “With all these tools available, every synth in the world – available to anybody essentially for free […] you’d think that maybe music might sound more interesting or experimental or exciting or branch off into new places. [… but] does it seem like that’s happened? Not that there isn’t [sic] some cool things happening, but a lot of it sounds [bad] to me.”

The quandary: anyone can make music that sounds good, but apparently something extra is required to make something that sounds interesting, and make it, ultimately, great. The algorithms are no doubt partially to blame; with discovery focused on “more content that your profile indicates you would like”, it is far easier to become successful on a platform by sounding the same as everything else than by sounding different. Then again, it is also largely a numbers game. When more people make music, there is more to sift through. The average sounds outnumber the new and different ones, meaning that not only are they harder to find, but they are simply outnumbered in a static-filled environment of digital-content clutter. It is inevitable that not everything is going to be great just because a free tool makes it sound good. Discovery is more important than ever, then, to truly sift out the iconic sounds of tomorrow. Yet discovery has also been almost gamified, played by novices and professional marketers alike.

Now enter, of course, a cost-of-living crisis. North American and European markets will be facing sky-high heating bills this winter, while many developing markets continue to face the flooding, fires, and heatwaves of the climate crisis. The Russo-Ukranian conflict is impacting food and fuel supplies, and the knock-on effects of this are to be felt around the world. Entertainment is the least of anyone’s worries, but it also will play a huge role in people’s abilities to cope. How they can afford it, however, is another question entirely. This is why the coming months will lay the groundwork for an entirely new creative heyday.

Reznor’s complaint is that nowadays “it’s a great time for cool, creative types to be making these things and for the public to have access to stuff relatively cheap… [but I think we need to try] to not overcorrect and over deploy the tools that can become lifeless, a sterile sound, too perfect”. He believes it is limitation that truly boosts creativity; “it makes me appreciate the scarcity of what I came up with. When you could afford one thing and you had to learn every possible trick and you’ve mastered it… figuring out every way to milk every bit of interesting stuff out of the limitations you had”.

If so, then it is both a blessing and a curse that we are entering an age of what certainly qualifies as limitations. Tickets may be too expensive, travel too onerous, and associated festival expenses out of reach for people. But they will still want their luxuries, their music, their communities, and their escapes. In previous eras, this has given rise to techno and house music, among others. When the big band at the fancy venue is too pricey to see, it is the local dive bar, the invite-only house party, and the abandoned warehouse that takes hold. New sounds will emerge and find their groove, spin, character, and audience. Creativity thrives on limitation, and the industry is about to face the reckoning this period will offer in that regard.

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