The casual listener is dead.
The best analogy is television. Boomers will remember when you watched what was on, even changing channels was a big deal, you had to get up off the couch before the remote.
And then came the remote and ultimately cable TV, with its plethora of channels. But recording was still done by VCR, which most people could never figure out, the VCR was mainly a playback device. So people would sit down at night to watch television, and click through the available channels, unless they rented a movie.
Then came the DVR. And the internet. And the ability to pick and choose your content and watch it at a later time. “TiVo” became a verb, remember those days? Ask a member of Gen-Z what a TiVo is and they’ll have no idea. They came of age in the on demand era. What you wanted to consume was at your fingertips, you only had to make a choice.
And then there’s today, we live in the on demand culture and there’s a plethora of choices! In TV, in music… And then there’s the internet, with its endless diversions, never mind TikTok, which is the Netflix of the young.
But the point here is there’s no more drive-by listening, never mind viewing. You choose what to consume, and if you don’t choose it, you never hear it.
No one wants to admit this. Because this means they’ve lost control, that the lunatics have taken over the asylum, that they no longer control the market.
The record companies had it good. They controlled radio and physical distribution. Most people didn’t know about it unless they heard it on the radio. Sure, there were active fans who consumed print publications, but ironically they were the most dedicated radio listeners! And sure, you could learn about an act via an opening slot at a gig, but all the money was in the recordings, the live gig was an advertisement for the record.
Today, terrestrial music radio means little. Because who wants to listen to the same damn station ad infinitum, never mind consuming twenty minutes of commercials per hour. I mean how many music-oriented stations are there even in your market? And they all don’t play the genre of music you like. And your car comes with Bluetooth and you can stream from your smartphone. The only people passively listening to music are the same boomers flipping the channels on their TV sets every night. Meanwhile, subscriptions to cable TV keep going down, people have cut the cord, and some never ever were connected, they’ve picked and chosen their entire lives. You go to college with a laptop, you employ your parents’ Netflix account. You borrow passwords for other streaming giants. Other than that, it’s the internet.
So how are you going to expose people to new music? YOU CAN’T!
Oh, you can strong-arm the media the same way you used to strong-arm, and probably still strong-arm, terrestrial radio. But the target audience doesn’t see it. They get the headlines on social media, they never drill down to your story. They evade it completely. If people can evade hard news, politics, what are the odds they’re going to see your promotional campaign, the reviews of records? NEARLY ZILCH!
Then there’s the playlist… Never has there been that much concern about something with so little impact. Talk to Spotify, read their screeds, most people pick and choose their music, they don’t want to listen to endless playlists with so many tune-outs. Come on, ever try? If you’re a music fan it’s excruciating! So people make their own playlists. And as far as being turned on to something new, they depend on their friends, they constantly have their ear to the ground taking the temperature of the buzz.
But buzz mostly works for the unknown. People’s time is so limited that if they’ve already sampled and didn’t like it, they don’t go back. Yes, there’s that first impression, and after that good luck!
Having said that, there are rabid cults. But they don’t cross over to the general public. I’d say much of the population is aware of K-Pop at this point, they’ve heard of BTS, but they’ve got no desire to listen to the act’s music. That’s for a hard core who live and die, who are invested in BTS. And they punch above their weight. They’re so busy talking about BTS, and going to the shows that media and insiders believe it’s a widespread phenomenon, but it’s not! It’s just a very large cult.
The vaunted acts of the past fifteen years, they’re all like this. They don’t appeal to everybody. They’ve got a hard core, and that’s it. No one’s even a casual fan, why bother, why spend the time?
As for those who do listen to playlists, they are the least active consumers, the last one to stream one track ad infinitum and pay for a ticket to the show. These are the people who employ playlists as background music, at home or at work, they may not even be able to recall ever hearing the track, never mind that it played.
There are other cults. Public radio. Rabid fans who follow deejays and then stream what is featured. Like WFMU or KCRW. Listeners know it, but no one else does. So, when the hipster band comes to town an elder audience will show up, but the act will never play arenas on the first tour, the cult is just not that big.
As for all these sellouts…
Let’s say you play fifteen stadiums. Let’s say you sold out at each, 50,000 seats, never mind many stadiums today hold fewer than that. Sounds impressive, but…
That’s 750,000 people in a country of 330 million. It’s a drop in the bucket. Apple doesn’t even wake up for that number. It’s bupkes.
I’m not saying it’s not good business, there’s a lot of money there, but if you think there’s endless demand to see that act, you’re wrong. Never mind there being additional acts on the bill to turn it into an event so people show up to begin with.
Festivals? 100,000 a day? Good money, not much impact.
This is very different from being on “Hee-Haw” back in the day. Or even MTV. TRL was a club that moved the needle, there has been no replacement, there can’t be, because everybody is no longer on the same page.
And then you’ve got the history of music competing with the new. And a lot of those acts are still on the road, albeit not that much longer.
Once again, there’s plenty of money to be made, but don’t confuse this with IMPACT!
So you have a #1 record. Big deal. Most people have never heard it. Morgan Wallen’s album “Dangerous” has been in the Top Ten for over a year and I bet most people reading this have never ever heard a single track and couldn’t pick Morgan out of a lineup. Sure, they might know about the n-word controversy, but that’s part of the cancel culture, gotcha, political sphere…that’s the entertainment now, much more interesting than anything anybody is putting down on wax. And don’t get me started on the touting of vinyl records. A tempest in a teapot. Many people are never even listening to them, they’re a souvenir. And the numbers proffered are not reflective of reality. It’s all calculated on suggested retail. And retail for a vinyl record these days can be $40. How much comes back to the record company? Maybe $20, assuming there are no discounts and people actually pay the suggested retail price. And then there are all the costs involved, manufacturing and shipping…the only good thing is vinyl is sold one way, and if you don’t know what that means that means you’re not burdened by the record company economics of yore, which no longer apply today. When the label gets paid by a streaming company that’s NET! And other than the usually de minimis royalties paid to the act, if they’re even in the black, it’s all profit. As in there are no costs. No manufacturing, no shipping, no returns. So to compare vinyl to streaming is like yes, comparing apples to oranges. I’m not saying there’s not money in vinyl, there’s a good amount. But it’s not as high as they say it is, cut the number in half right away, that cash is going to the retailer, and it’s still a fraction of what is made on streaming. People LIKE vinyl. They want to FEEL it’s successful. But vinyl itself is just a cult. How many people own record players these days? And many own them as fashion, and you know fashion is evanescent.
But the vinyl story is paraded everywhere. You’d think Tower Records is still open on Sunset and there’s a line to get in, but there’s not. In many cases, vinyl is positively cottage industry. Small acts sourcing a few records to sell at gigs. Good for them, just don’t tell me it’s a big deal. Never mind that getting your albums pressed is so difficult because of the lack of capacity. There’s almost no capacity because people stopped buying records!
The truly universal acts of yore… They don’t exist. Whether they be from the British Invasion or the MTV era. Come on, every boomer and Gen-X’er knows Men Without Hats, AND THEY ONLY HAD ONE HIT. But it was on MTV.
I’m not saying the music business at large is suffering, that’s not my point at all. It’s just that the music business is built on hype, about saying so and so is the biggest and brightest. NO ONE IS THE BIGGEST AND BRIGHTEST ANYMORE, NO ONE!
So I don’t want to hear about your chart numbers, bumped by selling souvenirs. And I’m supposed to applaud you for selling multiple albums to the same customer? That’s a grift, that’s consumer abuse, it’s only youngsters are so immature and myopic that they spend their allowance this way, or get their parents to lay down the cash so they can stop hearing about it. I mean do GM or Ford or Tesla or Toyota try and sell four cars to a single person? No, that’s not a perfect analogy. Do these same companies try to sell a car to someone who lives in MANHATTAN? Where there’s no parking and in truth you don’t even need a car. Yes, people are buying physical product that they can’t even play. Quick, look around your house, do you have a CD player? I bet most of you don’t. They’re no longer in cars… Hell, most people no longer even have a DVD player, WHY?
So the music industry and media keep telling us that there are these monolithic stars, that rule, that everybody knows and pays attention to. WRONG! There are some big cults, that’s it. And even worse, if people even know about the act, they often HATE IT! Just because a cult is enamored that does not make it good, never mind not having broad acceptance.
And speaking of acceptance, this is something the aged boomer and Gen-X acts can’t get over. Well, I used to make so much money, but Spotify has killed my income stream. No, that’s not it whatsoever, Spotify is just a reflection of reality, and in this case a scapegoat, you’re competing against everybody who recorded music in history and not that many people want to listen to you. Sorry. Sure, you might have a million streams, but there are acts that have a billion, that are still cults. Come on, sing an Ed Sheeran song, I doubt you can do it. Oh, there are millions who can, but there are many more people who can’t! Yet the guy sets all these streaming records…
I won’t even judge the quality of the music. Even if you’re talented and great at most you will be a cult, if you’re as successful as you can be.
It’s time to reset our barometers. But no, the music business wasn’t built on truth, it’s all smoke and mirrors. The industry wants you to believe there are these huge stars that dominate the culture, are bigger than “Stranger Things”… But “Stranger Things” is much bigger and broader, and most people haven’t even watched THAT!
So take everything you see and hear with a giant grain of salt. When they start touting numbers, put them in perspective. The devil is in the details, never mind outright lying.
But no one wants their balloon punctured. No one wants the truth. Because then, concomitantly, how powerful are the major labels themselves, never mind the people who run them. The average American has no idea who runs the major labels, and now there are only three! Same deal with the movie studios. Many more people have heard of Ted Sarandos, never mind Reed Hastings, than anybody working in music. The heads of labels were titans! Remember in the “Sopranos” when Christopher called out to Tommy Mottola outside the club? Do you think today’s Christophers are going to be calling out to Rob Stringer, head of Sony today, never mind Lucian Grainge?
This is where we are. Acknowledge it. Because it’s hard to march forward without knowing and accepting the truth. And once again, everything is a cult today, EVERYTHING!