- Feature photo via Capital XTRA
With the advent of streaming services and sites where music is readily or freely available, the landscape of the music industry, wherein artists made most of the revenue off album sales, has completely transformed. This change first took hold in the early 2000s, and since then, modes of recognition and promotion have been increasingly placed in the hands of artists, who are less and less reliant on large media outlets and record companies to build their brands.
Independent musicians ‒ Chance the Rapper to name a prominent example ‒ have been able to build industries based on self-promotion, which has largely meant giving out free music and building fan communities on social media. Chance, incidentally, is an imperfect example, because although he isn’t under contract with any major labels, he released his last two albums exclusively through Apple ‒ a choice which speaks to newly fluid frameworks of music promotion as much as it implies some degree of mainstream backing.
Chance the Rapper via Acclaim
Chance’s situation in particular points to a larger contradiction currently underway in the industry, regarding whether an artist can be truly independent if they remain reliant on (often corporatized) streaming companies. Some artists, like Frank Ocean, remain independent by forming their own labels ‒ Ocean released his sophomore album Blonde through his label Boys Don’t Cry, but only after fulfilling his contractual obligations to Def Jam via the visual album Endless. Others like Run the Jewels have made their music entirely free, thereby anticipating and embracing the trend in the music industry away from album sales towards other forms of revenue.
In an interview with GQ, Chance the Rapper explained that he makes most of his money off of touring and merchandise, which means he is dependent on a loyal fanbase for continued support and attendance. Although the decreasing viability of album sales is unfortunate for emerging artists, it can be managed if artists are able to supplement their recorded material with merchandise and performance. The domain has changed, but if an artist is able to create compelling performances or commercial material, a satisfactory level of success may be within reach. In some aspect, it all comes down to the consumer, and how much we as listeners are willing to support, in mostly financial ways, the artists that we love.
Indeed, for better or for worse, commodification has always been tied to the recording industry, dating back to the turn of the 20th century. In his seminal book Noise: The Political Economy of Music, social theorist Jacques Attali writes that music, “as a cultural form, is intimately tied up in the mode of production in any given society.” “The artist was born,” says Attali, “at the same time that his work went on sale.” Given these apparently universal economic circumstances for artists, the task becomes finding different ways of commodifying one’s work, as oppose to trying to end the commodification of the work altogether.
Along with changing the way musicians make a living, streaming services have also allowed artists to deconstruct the idea of a release ‒ especially the release of an album. Take Kanye, who after the release of his latest album on Jay-Z’s streaming service TIDAL, uploaded slightly different versions of several tracks long after its official release. But the fall of the label industry hasn’t only changed the kind of art we consume; it’s also changed the kind of artists we see and hear. Queer and minority artists with a multitude of interesting messages and backgrounds have increasingly emerged from the DIY and independent landscapes, claiming space previously reserved for label-sanctioned artists.
via Mona Haydar
Take Le1f and Mykki Blanco, two queer hip-hop artists subverting the way that we perceive the genre and giving viewership to alternate lifestyles and modes of expression that have for too long been underappreciated. Or Mona Haydar, a Muslim spoken word poet turned rapper who made headlines when her two videos “Wrap my Hijab” and “Dog” went viral. Artists such as these are swaying the industry to be more self-conscious and critical, and one can see the trend of conscious artists pressuring more commercial ones to be more self-analytical. Although Kendrick Lamar has become a globally popular artist, he has done so releasing albums that are not only staple rap offerings but which also carry content that is skeptical of narratives, particularly those around community violence, that tend to be reified by his contemporaries.
Mykki Blanco via Carrie Schechter
It’s hard to predict what kind of protest music will emerge from minority artists as North America’s sociopolitical situation evolves. Needless to say, social and cultural events have always been tied to music, in the same way that music has always been tied to the economy. These factors will always be at work ‒ what’s changed, thanks to streaming, is that capital (the cultural kind, at least) is back in the hands of the artist. And while the links between music and commerce aren’t much slacker than in the past, the future of the industry seems rife with possibilities for artists to take commercialism into their own hands, cutting out the executives, labels, and censoring for the sake of boundary-pushing work.