The music industry may or may not be dying, but it’s definitely changing. “Metamorphosis” is probably the right word because some days the music biz seems to have woken up and found itself transformed into repulsive insectine creature without notice. Just because it’s new and shiny doesn’t mean it ain’t ugly.
Not that everything different was bad, although we might want to seriously rethink a chart system that allows Rebecca Black into the Hot 100 for a second time. The “Friday” singer recently scored a second viral hit with “Saturday,” a slightly less inane sequel to her extremely inane ARK Music Factory earworm. Here’s the difference between then and now: The YouTube success of “Friday” translated into actual sales, whereas “Saturday” cracked the Hot 100 (at #55, a full three spots higher than “Friday” ever got) almost entirely on the strength of streams; it racked up 3.3 million plays online but sold only 3,000 copies. The disparity in those figures says a lot about how we consume music now, which is why Billboard started factoring YouTube streams into the equation in the first place. The specific catalyst was Baauer’s “Harlem Shake,” the song that soundtracked an insecapable February meme involving lots of college kids suddenly gyrating when the beat drops. (Shout out to UGA Men’s Swim & Dive!) Billboard had to find a way to recognize the song’s widespread popularity, so any time someone viewed a video built around “Harlem Shake,” the song accumulated chart power. It easily debuted at #1 on the revamped Hot 100.
“Harlem Shake” thankfully feels like ancient history by now, but its impact was felt all year, sometimes in weird ways. The new rules (not to be confused with #NewRules) better reflected the modern music landscape, but they also resulted in some chart oddities. Sometimes the songs themselves were weird (what up Ylvis), sometimes just the circumstances. Perhaps most notably, Kanye West’s 2005 deep cut “Gone” shot to the Top 20 on the strength of this viral video, a feat none of the songs on Yeezus even came close to pulling off; actually, none of those songs charted at all, which is what happens when you stream your new single on the sides of buildings instead of on YouTube, I guess.
YouTube may have evolved into our collective musical vending machine, but lots of streaming was happening on other services this year. The most notable and most controversial was Spotify. A long list of musicians aired their grievances — David Byrne, Foals, Beck, Peter Gabriel, and Johnny Marr among them — with complaints ranging from poor audio quality to paltry royalty payouts to diluting music’s value by making it too convenient. The faces of the anti-Spotify movement became Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich, who removed the Atoms For Peace catalog from the service and went on the warpath in interviews, calling it “the last gasp of the old industry” and “the last fart, the last desperate fart of a dying corpse.”
Corpse-fart or breath of fresh air, Spotify continued to emanate this year, announcing plans for limited free mobile streaming on demand and finally sharing its payment formula with the public. Meanwhile, everybody wanted a piece of Spotify’s on-demand streaming model and its personalized radio format (the one first popularized by Pandora, another alleged enemy of modern musicians). We witnessed the launch of iTunes Radio and learned of new subscription music services from Beats By Dre, YouTube, and Google. In other Google developments, they promised the most utopian/dystopian music experience yet via Google Glass apps so futuristic they seem like science fiction. Twitter put its own spin on online music discovery with #music, but that service was DOA, suggesting that tweeters don’t need an additional app to share their favorite sounds. It was sometimes hard to tell all these services apart, whereas the more Yorke-friendly Soundhalo offered something genuinely unique in high-quality, real-time downloads of concert footage.
It wasn’t just apps competing for attention. Musicians rich and poor pulled out all the stops to get people to notice (and purchase!) their albums, undertaking strategies as disparate as launching music into space (30 Seconds To Mars) and Bowerbirds presenting Kickstarter donors with homemade dishcloths knitted by the lead singer’s mother. Elaborate stunts and goofy homespun fundraisers weren’t the end of it; we also saw music being sold in new locations, with Whole Foods selling vinyl records, taking the CDs-at-Starbucks thing to its logical conclusion.
Many musicians (but not the Beastie Boys) kept licensing their songs for advertisements too, implicitly agreeing with Kurt Vile’s contentious statement that punk rock ideals are “irrelevant.” Indeed, the ways musicians chose to pay their bills and stay in the public eye were fodder for some of the year’s juiciest beefs. Speaking of disputes, musicians continued to battle over money and intellectual property in ways that had nothing to do with streaming, from the kinda newfangled (David Lowery’s campaign against lyric websites like RapGenius) to the sorta old-fashioned (Weird Al’s suit against Sony that hinged on the difference between sales and licenses).
As it has been for well over a decade now, the common denominator in most of the industry’s changes was the internet. We already mentioned the way YouTube changed the Billboard charts, but how about the real-life ripples from the social media world? How else could “small” acts like Passion Pit and Ed Sheeran sell out massive arenas but with equally massive social media followings, perhaps the most accurate way to gauge a musician’s popularity these days? How else could a sub-household name like Phoenix qualify as a Coachella headliner? The leveled playing field isn’t entirely an internet-spawned phenomenon — how many times has super-producer Ariel Rechtshaid been credited for shrinking the sound of pop music and blowing out the sound of indie? — but even that change seems related to the internet’s role in breaking down walls between worlds. Whether that demolition job will result in a full structural collapse remains to be seen, but a hardhat seems advisable as we proceed.