Why the Music Industry is broken & possible solutions

A lot of people listen to music all over the world. I remember getting my first cassette tape a long time ago and looking at the super expensive CDs on the shelves — the foreign/ English ones were especially expensive because of the custom duties in my country. Over time, T-Series revolutionized the music scene by producing cheap CDs at very reasonable prices and there was a scramble to buy CDs of all the popular music released at that time.

The CD is dead for all practical purposes now. But, when I go back I try to find a CD shop to buy CDs in bulk because all the music available online is mostly MP3s at 320kbps — especially the Bollywood ones. Where do you go to get atleast CD quality sound? It is hard — a few rare albums are released on Tidal as well, but for the rest I just try to find a shop and buy ~100 at a time. Every time I go back, the shops selling CDs have dwindled. Apparently, now it is almost impossible to find CDs anywhere.

It is definitely a good thing that music is more accessible now. It is almost impossible to be in the situation where a great new album has been released and you could not afford to listen to it. And it is easier than ever, and more friction free than ever to listen to (new) music (allegedly). The friction free part — I agree to. But music has never felt so same, as it does today.

With 40,000 songs uploaded on Spotify on anyday, I expect to be able to listen to a wide variety of music. For many people, streaming seemed to be a way to listen to great music from artists you have not heard before. That is definitely a reason to use streaming (even with lower quality to begin with) — you can listen to anybody, anytime — not just the usual suspects with the $$$ to post cool music videos and supported by the industry.

I did not get into streaming to listen to the same old songs I had, or new songs from the same old artists I listened to before. I got into it, so that I could listen to new stuff — and at the rate of 40,000 songs per day, honestly, I should be able to listen to great new songs I’ve never heard before — all the time. But that has not been my experience.

Let me tell you a secret here. God knows I have tried — I never liked anything which Spotify has ever recommended to me. I greatly prefer Tidal. I hear in better quality, and it genuinely feels like they try to match my tastes and recommend music based on my existing selections.

I have gone back and tried Spotify so many times — but it always recommends the same harsh sounding music. I don’t know why — it gives me a headache, and this is one of the reasons, I did not try streaming for a long time. It is not like Spotify did not know the songs in my offline library — it did. But every recommendation it ever gave to me had lousy music, which sounded the same, and I never liked a single track I heard on it.

If the supposedly best music platform is serving out trash to me, which does not seem remotely similar to anything I like, and every song sounds the same — maybe everyone else is the same?

Tidal was a big game changer to me, because while it may not recommend a lot, what it did recommended seemed to be what I liked, and its playlists are more musical than Spotify.

Seems reasonable isn’t it?

I watched this video recently, and I love Bill Maher. But, I think what he says is a very shallow perspective on the reality out there. The problem is not that everybody deserved to be heard, so the solution is to force people to listen to everyone. The problem is that because 40,000 songs are uploaded everyday, it seems to me that nobody has come out with an algorithm to really sort through all this music and serve people fresh, new music from new artists they may like.

When humans enter the picture of selecting music — they always bring their tastes into the selection process. Nobody can really sort through 40,000 songs per day to pick the good ones out and match them to 300 million listeners.

So, inspite of what Spotify or others may have you believe, it seems that streaming services have “given up” and gone back to the usual model of “if someone is sponsoring it, it must be good”. In some ways, that is not too bad? but is this true?

The Labels

If you go by what the labels do, it seems like only very attractive people, with little inhibitions can create amazing music. “Ugly” or fat people, who don’t look or dress like models can’t create good music. Is that true? You tell me.

Susan Boyle is an Amazing Artist with an Amazing voice

How long did it take for Susan Boyle to get noticed? Do you really think anyone cares about how she looks? Do you really think that everyone in the world can relate to scantily clad, beautiful, size zero women or outrageously handsome men singing all the time?

How many ugly, fat great artists are out there? How many are out there who cannot perform, or who do not look good on TV? I know of a great singer who now works in Marketing. A major music TV show did not cast him because he did not look good enough for TV.

Is Music a “performance” only? — so, if you can’t perform, you can’t create amazing music? If you did not see the simulated sex on stage during a “performance”, if you just shut your eyes and listened only to the music, would you like the Artist who got the Award?

What happened to music itself? just the listening part? Is it just an add-on to a stage performance or a video? I thought this was the “music” industry?

The Music Industry can do whatever it wants to do. I just want to make the point that this is why a lot of people do not listen to music anymore. They are putting off a lot of customers who would otherwise have paid money to actually listen to good music. But they will only do that if the music is good.

A great many people might be listening to music while doing their office work. They are not going to see the sexy writhing on the stage — they are not going to see the exposed body in the photos and videos. They are just going to listen to what is being played intently and get really put off like me when I listen to Spotify.

They are going to conclude that there is no good music out there, because all they hear is this trash. They are then going back and listening to their old CD/ LP collection, or their local CD/ high-res music they have collected painstakingly over the years.

So, you are good and an A&R picks you up and you sign up with a label. As in every sensible business now, they try to match the artist to the largest addressable audience possible purely on the basis of monetization and nothing else. So the song you like on a playlist picked for you by a streaming service which relies on the music labels would have:

  • Music by people A, B & C
  • Lyrics by D
  • Artwork by E

Basically nothing about the artist is real by the time everything gets packaged and gets to you. You hear the output created from the inputs of 200+ people which is supposed to be entirely done by Artist X.

Think about it. Is this really the way Art is supposed to be created? It feels more like software to me. No wonder every song seems to be similar these days.

Once the label has “taken over” an Artist, she is just a puppet completely controlled by invisible wires. Everything from her dress, fashion, dance, performance, music & lyrics is probably created by someone else. Everything is sliced and diced and made to be as pleasing as possible to the audience.

I read this interesting story about Hayden Panettiere a while ago, which really stayed with me — young, very popular who wanted to do an album and worked with a label. She eventually cancelled because she found that, almost everything was decided by someone else for her.

Yeah. This is definitely not how music was supposed to be created. Noise is the result.

Some of the most audiophile music listeners, the ones with a real ear for music probably don’t even listen to pop anymore. In 2021, with AI and machine learning, I would think that we should have figured out a better way of getting the right music to the right listeners.

  • I definitely don’t get the business model where labels get a certain pot of money, which is then paid to the top artists on that label, instead of distributing the earnings more equitably, based on actual streams for an Artist.
  • I completely agree with that fact that streaming services pay too less per stream. If someone listens to a song fully for say 10 times, I think it should be considered to be equivalent to a “download” and the artist should get $1.99 and the listener should be able to listen to the music without paying anything more.
  • I am not entirely sure whether streaming services should really be hosting ALL songs uploaded to them, because that is a lot of data which is expensive to host.

Perhaps, music studios with real equipment should be able to undertake an easy certification process wherein they can get certified to produce professional quality music — and only such music can be uploaded. It is hard to imagine that 40,000 studio quality songs are uploaded everyday.

  • Maybe just listen to every single track in a queue and stagger the release over time, making sure the professionally created ones are released instead of all 40,000 in a day like a data dump. Value the music more — release the professional ones which can be categorized as “real music”. It will take a while, but the quality of the available music will improve. Music should not be published as a data dump.
  • Why can’t Music Streaming service Ads use a new artist as the track music for every Ad? Just pick a new artist for every time an Ad plays — someone, somewhere may find a good artist they like from the Ad.

Telling me over & over again to pay for your service does not necessarily make me feel like paying for your service. Make me happy by letting me hear some amazing new Artist I may like — if I really enjoy your service — that is why I may pay for it eventually. Not because you just keep telling me to buy your subscription over & over again.

Maybe a lot of people may not even have the $$ to pay for a subscription per month. But you give them real value, make them happy, make them forget their troubles by calming them down with music they love — maybe then, they will pay for it.

  • Truly crowdsource the discovery of new music and its promotion on streaming services. Any track from any Artist starts from zero, and it is promoted based purely based on listener likes alone and not just because of which Artist created it.

Why can’t the recommendation engine for Music streaming services work like those used for Instagram (photos), Twitter (info) or Youtube (videos)? They do a much better job of surfacing really good content from anybody (remember the Zoom cat video?)

Maybe I don’t get it, and some of these are wrong ideas. But it is high time someone start thinking about how to fix these issues and allow Musicians to get a living wage when people are actually, probably listening to even more music during COVID.

The revenue flowing to Artists from streaming is definitely too low for the vast majority of them. If labels can take a strong stance and increase the payment per stream, that may solve the problem. In 2021 is it really that hard or that expensive with caching, large HDD sizes, etc to cache and play back low res MP3 files? Even high-res audio playback would not be that expensive.

The world is changing, and when the costs to the streaming services go down, instead of being greedy and making even more money because of lower hosting costs, they should pay back more to the artists.

Maybe the labels will never do it. In that case, the most realistic way is to do what Taylor Swift did. Artists with massive following should create an Industry group which puts their feet down, and renegotiate the fees with all streaming services & create a uniform fee. Do we really want the US Senate and House create new laws for this? Seems to be common sense for the Artists and Labels to work together to get this done.

Why can’t the Music Industry come together and build a music streaming + download service which pays the Artists better? Create the competition to these streaming services, provide high-res audio streaming and options to download (like Qobuz does). Maybe just acquire a service like Tidal do what you want to do. That maybe the easiest way to do this because you don’t have to develop anything from scratch anymore.

I take this opportunity to introduce you to an unknown artist who is pretty great, but you have never heard of before. This is like the perfect example of someone trying a different path in a world where most people are very self centered. It is all about them, they can talk about themselves and their problems for hours.

Meanwhile, they have no idea of the suffering out there in the real world. What if there were artists who dedicated their songs to others? to highlight the problems faced by others? who just absorbed their own pain and struggle, and focused on something else?

Why can’t we have Artists like that? Because you don’t really get to see the real artists anymore. You just see the mirage created by the label. It is time to bring about a change.

This song does not have a “hook”. Why does a song need to have a “hook”? why can’t it exist by itself, in the way it was supposed to be created, without being modified “artificially” by anyone else, because that might make it sell better?

Why should we try to create music based on what some analyst found to be best targeted to the ideal audience?. Why can’t we just have good, direct & honest music from a musician nobody has ever heard of, dedicated to someone else like this?

The vocals do not start within the first 10 seconds. It uses real instruments, and not electronic sounds. What happened to real music people? What happened to the rebel musicians? The ones bold enough to show the middle finger to the powerful, who others fear to challenge?

This is a track from the album which is an EP (that means, all tracks flow from one into the other seamlessly)

And listen to the strings in this track, which is supposed to flow right after the above track:

They probably spent $7,000 on the entire album. The ROI is effectively zero, even though the studio probably loved working on the music because absolutely nobody listens to this kind of music anymore.

People may not even have the patience to listen to this kind of music. Music has become a drug where the addict has to feel the massive first dose providing instant gratification. No Art form should be created like this.

How can something which took $7,000 to create be fairly priced if a single play of that track costs less than a cent to playback? It does not make any sense to me. Music created by the top artists would cost even more — much, much more to produce. I don’t think there is any industry in the world where you sell something for a fraction of the price it was created for. If an Album is truly great $10 for its CD or $30 for the LP is a bargain.

Even if you “crowdsource” to get millions of listeners for ALL tracks in the world, beyond say 10 plays, the cost per play cannot and should not be as low as it is currently. I think we can all agree in 2021 that the better model maybe $1.99 (fixed) after 10 plays from one listener.

Equate X streams to a certain dollar amount equivalent to a download. If necessary, let that file be effectively purchased by the listener after 10 full plays. Give the musician a living wage, give the listener something to hold on to.

It would not be such a bad idea if this is the lifecycle of a hit song:

  • Music gets released at a baseline allowing it to fairly compete with everything else release at the same time out there.
  • Give a better rate when a song is played < 10 full streams
  • Beyond 10 streams, it automatically becomes an offline available file equivalent to a download, and the listener pays $1.99 for it. The listener owns the file at this point even if the streaming service is changed.

Slowly over time the listener may collect more and more offline files, and has paid say $50/ $100 for these offline files. After every stage, the listener gets something:

  • $25 spent on an Artist gets Album Artwork digitally sent to them.
  • $50 spent on an Artist gets actual physical Album Artwork + Merchandise sent to them.
  • $100 spent on an Artist gets more media related to the Albums sent to them.

So, we are able to take the listener closer to the music, as they engage more with the musical content. This maybe the way to slowly make streaming an entry point to getting people to own music again, and get real merchandise of actual value.

I am not saying “make everything more expensive”. I am saying that “what is there now simply does not work”. We need to find a better model where if listeners like Artists, no matter how small they are, they can make a living off of the plays of their music. And listeners should be able to find even the smallest artist whose music they may like.

Like the listener decide what they like — don’t just feed them the constant, IV drip of the same damn drug, you feed everyone else.

The Marketing Problem

The only advantage of music over other kinds of products is that once created, there is nothing more to do. No bugs to fix, no improvements based on customer feedback. It does not go bad like vegetables over time. Good music could be the easiest product to sell — if the people can get a chance to listen to it, and like it.

Nobody has ever heard of this Artist. If he spends money on marketing, he probably gets to more listeners, but in the crazy world we live in, unless you can afford to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, you cannot really market anything to anyone — at least not in the US — not on any platform including the cheap ones like Facebook, forget Google Ads which is way more expensive.

I have never been able to understand why marketing is so expensive for the small business.

Even if you have a good product, nobody can find you unless you spend more money on Marketing to these gigantic corporations that you can really afford. I would think that if good products could be found more easily, the seller would be able to make money, and then he could sell more, and pay more for marketing.

In most cases, good products are killed right in the cradle — no matter how good the product is, because of the extremely high cost of marketing in a first world country like the USA.

There is no better example of what is wrong in the world than the fact that for many, many products when you do something like a Google Search, you will not be able to find the best product anywhere.

I came across an example recently where an author had mentioned a product as a great streaming solution for high-res audio, and I had done the same search many, many times. The only way to find this company based out of Singapore is to search for its name specifically. This is exactly the problem with streaming solutions today.

There are really great Artists out there. But unless you search them by name, unless you already know who they are, you cannot and will not find them on any platform.

And, it is way too expensive for these Artists to spend the hundreds of thousands of dollars to become “known” names. Honestly, it is frustrating that in 2021, say a companies with such bad reputations like Facebook and Google, cannot even the playing field by making marketing really, really cheap for small businesses so that people get a chance to become aware of a great new product.

Give them a chance. If they get big, they will get more revenue, then they can spend more on marketing like the big boys do. But, if you never give them a chance to sell their product because Ads are so expensive, basically, you are cutting out a major portion of your prospective customers from even starting to use your service.

Things should be priced differently based on what is being marketed. The struggling musician may not have as much money as say the local grocery store owner to advertise anywhere. Everyone tells me newspapers are dying — well, it is expensive to advertise on newspapers as well. Why not get some revenue, by making Ads cheaper, and let good Artists and small businesses thrive, and they will come back and pay you more when they actually have more money?

I am telling you this is a real problem today. Doing Ads is totally out of the reach of most people even if they earn a lot by today’s standards. Even if you spend a lot, a significant amount of Ad money is spent just by trolls clicking on Ads because they are bored and having nothing else to do.

This is related, because the only way for musicians to get heard, just like that inventor working from the basement to get his product sold, is to market what they are selling. Even if nothing else changes, if this one thing changes, both could be able to make a living wage.

To be continued…

“If you see something that’s not right, not fair, not just, do something about it. Say something. Do something.” — Rep. John Lewis

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