When Commerce Eliminated Art…


The music industry, in its entirety, was always a thriving industry. History, down the years, has revealed it to be a place for artists and musicians to express themselves, with freedom, whether lyrically or musically; a place for innovation and creativity to intertwine and grow; a place for people with such beliefs and interests to flourish in. So why, come 2010, has the industry fallen?

How could the years be increasing, yet the industry decreasing? Advancing technology, no doubt, has played its part in ‘the-downfall’, amongst many others (and there are many), but, and lets be frank, what it ultimately comes down to, as one would expect, in our times of heightened conflicting capitalism, avoiding all forms of cynicism (as much as possible) is ‘commerce’. Or, rather, the ‘greed’ for it; the hunger (and no, we’re not talking Shreddies here). And greed is never a good thing. Despite what Gordon Gekko may have exclaimed in Oliver Stone’s infamous Wall Street.

Growing up, when younger, much like most teenagers, music was a big part of my life. I ‘found’ music, as opposed to it finding me. The melodies; the lyrics; the charismatic; as well as the eccentricity – there was just something about it. Something rebellious. Something free and expressive. Something artistic and humane. It captured the spirit – gave a sense of time and place (ever hear a song you haven’t heard in years then suddenly get whisked away to feelings and experiences you once had at a particular moment in time?). But never was any of it forced upon me. It was something I learned to love. On my own. Something I grew into, and become part of. Something I just ‘felt’. A connection; an alignment. And there was a diverse variety – with my era, the likes of The Stone Roses (indie – real indie), Nirvana (grunge-rock), Run-DMC (hip-hop), Public Enemy (political rap), Radiohead (arthouse-rock), Massive Attack (trip-hop), The Prodigy (dance), Blur (alternative pop), Oasis (rock‘n’roll), the list is endless.

And that’s not to mention the many one-hit-wonders which graced the top-40 charts (remember that? When the top-40s used to properly exist and people used to listen to it every Sunday, often in front of their tape-decks, their fingers on ‘play’ and ‘record’?) Music, summed, was about individuality. Creativity left to roam – the sheer undeniable capacity for it. And for this very reason, it was successful. Highly successful. Great creativity equalled great profit. But, unfortunately, this is where things began to go wrong. And boy, did it go wrong! Since, for the generation of now, quite ironically, it has produced a negative effect…

…as it gave those with their business-degrees, their textbook ‘business-model’ frames-of-mind (generalisation, in this case, is apt), fresh out of university, looking for an easy cow to milk, a quick buck (yes, ‘buck’), an opportunity to put their “ideals” to work, resulting in them flooding, in their droves, to the industry (think a lump of cow-pat dumped on a fresh field of green; the redistribution of sewage).

And it is those, with their formulaic static processing, their numbing constricting impostures, who have turned (flattened) the industry into what it now is – a carcass stripped to the bone. Udders that no longer squirt milk (if you pardon the expression). All creativity and freedom – gone. Cut off; blocked. The putting up of a brick-wall. And, naturally, this has largely been due to the financial frameworks these “people” have imposed, and work from. As everything, now, solely, is about money. 100%. All other factors secondary. Discarded. (And no, this is not a case of naivety.)

Beforehand, it’s fair to say, there was definitely more of a 50/50 split  between art and commerce, within the industry. A thin line that worked. But these ‘business jockeys’ let’s call them, who more-often-than-not aren’t even into music, came along, forced themselves with their ‘boxed’ models, altered what was natural and free, and have cut the water-supply. Taken away the spring season (and with it, summer). Leaving the dead animal (so to speak). Constant winter.

By looking at the market (‘their’ market), and working on stereotypes (and let’s face it, most people are), they have aimed at the lowest common denominator, the easy target; ‘the inferior’ (to-the-point). And, sadly, this has worked. Equalled increased dollars. Their manipulative tactics, no effort gone into it, a success (be it socially immoral). And via this free-destroying method, the opposite of going and actually finding gifted musicians, they have developed a method of manufacturing their own. Creating a ‘product’ as opposed to discovering an ‘artist’. Cheap supermarket-brands to the real thing. Something that could be easily mass-marketed with no effort, and sold as if from a sweet-shop. No rawness or artistry. No flavour. And people, conforming to what you’d expect, have bought it! Aim at the simple, or those whose minds have yet to develop (so mainly kids, amongst others) and reap the rewards. And, as a result, actual artists, ‘real’ people with ‘real’ emotion and talent, have been left on the scrapheap. Unheard. No outlet, avenue, or exposure. The reason why, as of this decade about to expire, we no longer have any musicians or artists that bring along anything innovative; or original; or noteworthy. Just trash, mass-marketed, and lots of it.

A question to ask yourself: ten years from now, will anyone remember any of the acts currently around, being promoted as ‘the-next-big-thing’? Will they be thought of in the same light as people regard pioneering bands from previous decades, when art and creativity were allowed to flourish? La Roux? Please. The Kooks? I’m laughing. Razorlight(sh*te?)? I’m laughing hard.

What it comes down to, which ties in with the whole modern commerce notion, is marketing-and-sales. Or, to put a name to it, ‘advertising’. Marketing-and-sales, quite simply, has annihilated everything. Like a whirlwind. Forget about udders, there isn’t even a cow. They, single-handedly, now dictate and govern everything (a complete role-reversal from how it should be); control what is and what isn’t allowed for distribution. The ones pulling the strings (when they, in fact, should be a separate entity from it).

If, as was done in the past (almost a distant memory), people were actually exposed to great music, of all varieties, they would no doubt (and I’m being optimistic here) react in a positive manner, being able to ‘choose for themselves’. Make them think and ‘feel’ – as great music has always done. The evoking of emotion and thought.

However, this would, of course, take away the power from the marketing people, their business-degrees rendered useless, and that, sadly, is not something they’d openly let happen. Even for a fair 50/50 split (as was done in the past – and no, I’m of course not talking about artists’ payment). And this is where the problem lies – marketing. Or what ‘marketing’ has become. Beforehand, stuff wasn’t forced-fed to the extent it now is. Music was ‘distributed’, not ‘mass-marketed’ – there’s a difference. A big difference. But the business jockeys, with their “methods”, have their targets to hit, with their business-models to abide by, not having the ability to ‘see’ outside the box, and this has narrowed and eradicated what the music industry was all about – being free and expressive. ‘Taking risks’; trying something new. Creativity; lots and lots of creativity. But business and marketing, of course, are the opposite. Which is why we now have a music environment where everything is 100% solely profit-based, and in the wrong manner. Art, for the want of a better word, has been sacrificed – the very thing that brought money into the industry in the first place, and saw it become so popular. What was once rebellious and free, venomous and edgy, has become controlled and processed, like from a factory. Nothing other than a marketing-tool. Something simplified in order to be used to sell products. Orchestrated. Advertising’s little prostitute. Diluted. The industry, a complete transformation, restructured and reduced into nothing more than something stale, drained, lacking innovation, and where marketing has overpowered creativity.

Oh, it gets worse. With the collapse of the CD-market and the file sharing/illegal download problem, and the fact the industry is no longer making money, the suggested proposal, or ‘way out’, which has already begun, is that bands of the future will be expected to sign to corporate ‘brands’, as opposed record-labels, since the money quite literally isn’t there anymore. Can you imagine that? Seriously. How could edgy, progressive music ever be produced this way? How could art or free creativity ever breathe?

Could you see a band like The Smiths being signed by a corporate brand? Being endorsed? A contradiction in terms. Something like N.W.A or Nirvana? Would not this “movement” make things even more watered down and shifted into advertising than it already is? A complete alteration of what music is about? (Was about?)

A quote from George Orwell’s 1984 comes to mind – ‘if you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.’

There is an incline of hope, though. And I say ‘hope’. In situations where an institution is on the verge of collapse, what normally occurs is the barriers are released and taking risks becomes a priority. As there’s nothing left to lose. So who knows, maybe the music industry, in its plight, may finally wake up and start being daring and provocative again. Like it once was. Stop mass-marketing people into consuming rubbish, which gets disposed of quick, with more rubbish in the pipeline awaiting. And maybe the avenue for ‘real’ artists will re-open. Rage Against the Machine’s Christmas no.1 victory, if anything to go by, be it a little childish (and ironic), was an indicator; a step in the right direction. And as Sting has recently been quoted as saying, ‘The real shop-floor for musical-talent is pubs and clubs – that is where the original work is’. So here’s hoping. Waiting for someone to reopen that door. But until then, expect the flies to continue buzzing and those udders to forever hang dry. Come to think of it, does anyone even remember what fresh milk tasted like?

Related Posts:

Grammy Winners and Losers (2011)

The Art of Discovery

BRITs in Pieces: The Reanimation of the UK’s Premier Music Gong Show

Imeem Executives Walk Away with Golden Handshakes whilst Leaving Artists High and Dry

The Human Recommendation Engine

US Music Biz Hits All Time Low – Future is Bright

Exile From Mainstreet – The Rough Trade Experience

Not All Music Artists Are Big Fat Lip-Synching Social Media Babies


Discussion14 Comments

  1. Bands like the Smiths will not NEED labels to distribute their music anymore. And, if the “next Smiths” happen to be as good as the real Smiths, they’ll make money, and they won’t need a label.
    The reason for the whole branding business is just that bands who won’t sell out don’t need labels to be heard anymore. Labels were always just out there making money for big moneyholders. It’s just that today, the labels are unnecessary middlemen who can be cut out. Bands who want to make big money by supporting the big fatcats can go there directly, and those who don’t want to support the fatcats don’t need them. If anything, the music industry has improved.

  2. I agree with wholeheartedly with your article. Not only has all the creativity, diversity and art disappeared from the music industry, but more and more, music seems to be aimed solely at teenyboppers, and under-twelves. No wonder all of us over 25 are listening to music from the eighties, nothing is being created for anybody over 17. Please don’t tell me we should all sit around listening to Justin Beber and the Saturdays. Is this really the only fragment of the market where money can be made? Awful, cheesy, cheap manufactured pop, generic RnB, watered down hiphop, and perhaps the worst offender of them all, “emo/indie” (don’t get me started), slithers out of my radio day after day, pure trash, instantly forgettable. Is this really all they can come up with? Generic manufactured “artists” try on different styles as if they were fashions, one track on their album may be pop, one may be RnB, one may be a dance track, and of course, one will have a rap thrown in there. Who can we blame? Simon Cowell? Do you really think he listens to this rubbish? Him and all the other boys and the record labels must be laughing all the way to the bank. Bet they haven’t got their own artists on their MP3 players. Who cares if the record industry crashes, they’ve all got their millions tucked away in the bank, its only the artists who will suffer.

  3. I think everything is great in music. If you dig on YTube, Last FM etc.. there is great music that is being produced which rivals prior stuff and often excels past it in musicality. Those individual new musicians are left to their own devices as to whether they’ll make money or not, but creativity is definitively alive and well. …and that’s all I give a damn about.

    ps. I’m not talking about the ‘suggested’ stuff from a web page like YT, .. you have to dig a little … Just like back in the day combing thru CD’s or paging thru album bins hunting for a gem. Still fun …

  4. Hello Jaysen,

    I agree, music has always been conflicted, the tension between art and commerce. It is a product. Or used to be, now ‘the kids’ want it and can get it for free. The point is whether or not the death of record companies is a good thing, and they are all going to die slow painful deaths. Anybody who gave Robbie Williams $100m deserves to get it good and hard. But I digress, all commercial pop [controlled and produced by record companies] is now aimed at contrived and completely artificial demographics. They don’t have the margins or the A&R men to do anything else. It is purely commerce. SUBO for the grannies and Pussycat Dolls for self abusers. Like politics, [New Labour = Brit Pop] dissingenuous discourse devoid of content. None of it is ‘real’.

    The problem is that in theory the new technology allows artists to control every aspect of their ‘work’, production, design, distribution. Complete autonomy. Unfortunately most artists are completely incapable of doing this. Not just financial savy, but most musicians are dickheads; they need a helping hand. Also the space they have to experiment is more fractured, smaller, and marginalized than ever. There is too much stuff, like searching for an unreleased Joy Division track in Texas’s largest Walmart. You could make the most beautiful record ever and you will never make any money unless you sell it Unilever. New technology that promised so much will destroy everything [cover art anybody, I’m a mightily pissed off graphic designer [download [ironically for free] the 2,000 best album covers from http://www.con-crete.info to see what you are missing] If people who make [good] music [and not for stupid, ignorant tabloid reading scum] don’t get paid then we are all in trouble. Look forward to meeting you in the asylum, after we have hung Simon Cowell from the guts of Susan Boyle on Camden Bridge.


  5. Denzilpub, I think you are missing the point that’s being made, which others have agreed and commented on – maybe that’s not a surprise? Or maybe failing to see it (or choosing not to?). Has the so-called ‘magic’ of music been lost on you?

  6. It was undoubtedly all different in your day; I apologise for being a bit crass but could we put your 2,000 word diatribe down to your age? However inclined I might be to want to agree with you I am aware that music (and subsequently our perception of the industry) was seemingly at a “perfect” stage somewhere around everyones 16th birthday; whenever that may have been. The real art is being able to eloquently post-rationalise this uncomfortable truth, which you’ve done quite well. Unfortunately it looks as if I was 16 a few years before you and it was all MUCH better then.

  7. I agree Jaysen, the music industry is based on the illusion that we are creatures of habit and predictable. Art is about evolving, creating something new which will contradict previous habits. As an Artist I am compelled by higher spiritual forces to create regardless of the rewards and now the technology enables more artists to create. Music can’t die, but the music and marketing industry has fallen under fantasy blind to reality and will have to evolve…

  8. Travis, I completely disagree when you say music as an art-form and business have never been stronger, as it is in fact the direct opposite. The music industry is in the worst state it has ever been in, in my opinion. Art-form? Are you being serious? Maybe it once was, but not anymore. And business?? Not sure about that either. You say great music always finds a way, which I’d love to believe, like anyone else, but does it? It did when the music industry was functioning properly, but can you really believe that if you take into consideration the music that has come out over the last 10 years or so? As stated in the article, most of it has been rubbish. Good stuff no longer does find a way, or it is struggling to.

    Jeff is right in saying that you do find some decent stuff when you search (and search hard) on the web (as I have done), but the percentage of rubbish outweighs it and it is increasingly difficult to find the good stuff. I think you are wrong though when you talk about marketing being the same as it always was. As that’s clearly not the case. Marketing and advertising have practically taking over everything, and removed the quality. It’s made everything composible rubbish. Again, like the article says, stuff that can be mass-marketed and flogged with ease. I, myself, can’t see a Nivana making it in this current music landscape. Or a The Smiths for that matter. If bands having to sign to brands is true, then that is a worry.

  9. hmmmm – I think I disagree. I have found so much good music lately from creeping around on the web. I’ve listened to a few free singles that artists have tossed out. Then bought their album. I think the power to find good music is totally in the listeners hands more than ever.
    I don’t think marketing is taking over and is being done like never before. Music has always been marketed – to me it’s the same as always. Record companies have always marketed with the tools they had. long ago – the only real tools were the radio and touring. Now there are more tools available to them so they’re using more of them.
    Whether or not you like the artists they are marketing is up to the listener. I don’t think that someone can be made to like something??? I do believe though, that in the bell curve of music savi-ness there is huge portion in the middle that has tastes that can be catered to with some really ‘mainstream’ sounding stuff. that’s where the big labels chose to play in the past. Thankfully now there are heaps of smaller labels who are choosing elsewhere. I tend to listen there.
    My 2 cents worth!

  10. Well, what difference does it make? People are still searching out and finding interesting music for the love of music. They just might not be searching for or finding it in the “traditional” places. It’s clear the old music industry has failed in the era of digital, but that doesn’t mean there is not a Music Industry. It is just taking a different form and migrating to other areas. There are plenty of examples online, (and yes, this is the home of the “new music industry” whether or not the same players of the past will live there is still up in the air. But music as an artform, and as a business is even stronger today than ever. It is just taking a little longer than everyone likes to see it clearly through the still smoking cinders of the fallen. Just look at sites like rcrdlbl.com, and http://wwww.notethrower.com interesting business models, but still focused on the artists “the music industry” as we knew it is dead, but the artist’s themselves are taking the lead in forming the next reincarnation. Lot’s to look forward to in my opinion. Great music will always find a way.

  11. Exactly, as you say yourself ‘now it is worse’. And that’s probably an understatement. It’s far far worse. And it wasn’t always 100% about money. If it was, acts such as Joy Division, Nirvana, etc wouldn’t have got signed. They’re not exactly the kind of bands that are going to get number-1s after number 1s, now, are they? And they aren’t going to make masses of money immediately – as required now. But given time, and OVER time, yes, with their artistic talent and ability they will be successful. But only if given time.

    And yes, you’re right that people LIKE the crap they are fed, as I believe that also. But what you’ve got to also understand is that they don’t really have an alternative, which is a large part of the problem. The variety isn’t there. There’s hardly any decent music around, which doesn’t have the avenue for distribution anyway (as stated in the article). It’s basically crap or nothing; no other option. Or go back to previous decades and listen to things that were good. The industry, without doubt, are largely at fault; they are. You can’t deny that. But as you rightly say, yes, it is also the people consuming that are part of the problem.

  12. I agree with some of the things you said, but in general, I think its the same system it ever was. The music BUSINESS has always been about money. Now its worse because labels take less risks because of all the freetards who download stuff for free.

    And people LIKE the crap they are fed. If labels promote the last fad band/artist with no talent, and songs for kids its because IT WORKS.

    ITs about time music fans stop blaming the industry and start looking at themselves. STop buying crap and stop pirating the bands you like!

  13. Hey Pat. Thanks for the reply.

    With the 50/50 split, I meant it more as in the line between how the music industry, as an output for opportunity, was run – 50/50 between art and commerce. Whilst now, I feel, the artistic/creative side/viewpoint has been sacrificed. But hey ho….

    But what you say is true – back in the day artists did indeed get shafted. But I’m not too sure when you comment that they now have ‘that opportunity to be heard’. I think this is a yes-and-no situation. It’ll be easier (to an extent), since they have no record-label constraints, but at the same time it’ll be more difficult, since finding that ‘piece of gold’ in the mountains and mountains of building rubbish will be ever more difficult. Cliched, but it’s that needle in a haystack. Quite simply record-labels need artists, and artists need record-labels.

    If you thought old-school radio was bad, what about now? I think the ‘forced-feeding’ has gotten far far worse, though. The variety is simply not there anymore. Or, on the flipside, it is, but it isn’t distributed at all.

    The whole point with the corporate brands signing bands, though, is that a brand will not sign something edgy and overly alternative like The Smiths; they’re too controversial, and it wouldn’t go in line with their company. They’d more likely than not go for something simplier – something they’d be able to use (and manipulate) for their mass-marketing purposes. So where would that leave a band like The Smiths in the world of today? Good to see you feel the pain also, though. :)

    Maybe I was a little harsh on the ‘no creativity’ front, but I believe it is fairly accurate, especially if you look at things collectively. Yes, you are right when you say there is still ‘inclines’ of creativity in the music today, but it is so few-and-far, and so buried by all the crap, the likelihood of seeing any of it come to birth isn’t great.

    Victoria’s Secret commercial, aye? ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’….

  14. Hi Jaysen:
    I’m curious. What are you referring to when you talk about a 50/50 split? That certainly does not apply to the artist back in the day when record companies reaped the majority of profits (and then some) while musicians rarely made money on Album #1, no matter how popular. At least now they have the opportunity to pocket a larger chunk of their income. They also have the ability to be heard without having to be one of the chosen few funneled through the label’s tiny pipeline.

    We were always force-fed music in one way or another. I grew up on radio and concerts. You want to talk about another aspect of the industry choking with payola and non-creative forced decision-making, talk old school radio. For that matter, talk about the old school chart system. Do you think Mariah Carey’s first LP went gold by itself?

    Who put the Smith’s first album out? A label. Where did we hear it? On the radio. No, it wasn’t selling us beer, but it was being served up to us with the label push of airplay, charts, sales and press. Is that better or worse than hearing Wilco selling VW’s? I’m not convinced, but I feel your pain.

    I disagree with your contention that there is no creativity in music today. The issue is that it’s often buried in the blur of endless new music at our fingertips every minute. Who can possibly keep up? We need gatekeepers. The fact that that role is starting to be filled by brand marketers is just an example of one delivery system replacing another.

    I agree with you that commerce rules the day, but it always has. Brands are just as mercenary as the record labels. The main difference — and the one you are feeling — is that brands have an agenda beyond picking music they think they can sell to the masses, and therein lies the rub. Does that mean you will never hear good music attached to a brand? Let’s hope not.

    Good music is everywhere. Just like all the forgettable music playing right beside it. Who knows if there will ever be another Smiths. I’m sure there will be, but you might have to search for them on the blogs. Or catch them 20 years after the fact when you hear them on a Victoria’s Secret commercial.

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