All too often, I hear people say that the music industry is dead. Now, maybe that is due to the decline of digital/physical sales, the profitability (or lack thereof) of streaming, or the greed of record labels. I argue that we, as consumers, may have killed the music industry.
In past eras we looked to musicians as people to aspire too; they were better than the average person. David Bowie and Prince were better artists and instrumentalists than us, Michael Jackson was a better entertainer than us, Whitney Houston was a better singer than us. We acknowledged that these people were better than us, and we continued to invest in their careers (legally) because we were hypnotized by their contributions not only to music but to society in general.
Yet, at some point, I would credit the boom of late-90s teen pop, consumers began to prefer relatability to musical ability or proficiency. Late 90s teen pop gifted us classics by Britney Spears, *NSYNC, and the Backstreet Boys, but they were all acts specifically curated for a target audience (teens) that wanted easily digestible music in a conventionally white American package. These acts gained intense notoriety and record-breaking sales not because they were vocal or instrumental prodigies, but because they were young and looked like the average American consumer. Their songs were not as difficult to sing as “Run To You” (Whitney Houston) and their choreography wasn’t as difficult as “Bad” (Michael Jackson) or “Remember The Time” (Jackson).
This trend would continue because once record labels find success in a specific pattern, they run the pattern into the ground. We would get more acts over time that weren’t exceptionally talented but had the relatability factor, i.e., Hilary Duff, Ashlee Simpson, Cassie, Katy Perry, Selena Gomez, Rihanna, Cardi B, Trey Songz, Jacob Sartorius.
Katy Perry. In general, we like her because she has a quirky personality in a traditionally sexy body. She has catchy songs that are easy to sing along to, but her entire career is personality based. Specifically, her music videos almost exclusively live in the camp genre which emphasizes her sex appeal, quirkiness, and funnily awkward personality. She’s a solid instrumentalist, a clunky songwriter, an awful dancer, and a below average vocalist with bad technique and even worse stamina. Nevertheless, she is one of the most successful artists of all time. In addition, there is Cardi B, she’s an average rapper but her outlandish personality and social media influence keep her on top. She is a perfect example of when society gravitates towards character over content, thus blindly overrating the quality of said content. If any other rapper said “it’s like a stamp/lick you like a lamp” they would be laughed off the Internet, yet Cardi is still here. JT of rising rap group, City Girls, recently said, “Cardi opened the door for a lot of normal girls to feel like they could be rappers. I love Cardi for that.” It’s valid to be inspired, but not every person has the God-given talent to be a rapper or singer or performer. If an artist is giving off the impression that anyone can do what they’re doing, then there is a serious problem.
Rihanna can hold a note and do some simple choreography, but she isn’t an exceptional vocalist, instrumentalist, songwriter, dancer, or entertainer in general. Nevertheless, Rihanna has the “I don’t give a fuck, I’m a bad bitch that can sometimes be vulnerable” persona that so many people, myself included, gravitate towards. To her credit, Rihanna has undeniably improved her vocal ability and artistry in recent years. This does not negate, however, that her career was launched off of her beauty and catchy tone and sustained through the cultivation of a “relatable” public persona. Also, Selena Gomez, can’t sing or write and she can barely dance or act, yet due to her personality and large social media following, she has amassed numerous hits and the safety net of a major record label.
This phenomenon is not exclusive to female artists, take Trey Songz, for example. He literally sounds like a sheep, or maybe a goat, or maybe both. His lyrics are abysmal and he’s had the same overall image for about thirteen years. Guys relate to him because he’s a ladies man with a gangsta slant, women like him because he’s conventionally sexy, and people generally like him because he has at least one catchy hit song per album. On the other end of the age spectrum, there is Jacob Sartorius, a pre-teen singer borne from Musical.ly. Jacob is absolutely awful at “singing,” he sounds repulsive even with Auto-Tune. However, he has already topped iTunes, and charted EPs and singles on the Billboard charts, because of the backing of a label. His label saw his potential, not through his talent or artistic ability, but through his “pretty” face and large social media following. Not to go on a tangent, but social media has also helped to damage the music industry. Yes, social media has brought us undeniably talented stars like Shawn Mendes (Vine) and Justin Bieber (YouTube), but it’s also given us Silentó, Ayo & Teo, etc. These are artists who are taking up funds and space on label rosters from actually talented musicians.
Maybe I’m over-exaggerating or maybe I’m just plain wrong, but this desire to relate to musicians has left the door open for mediocrity to run rampant and cheapen the art of music. When mediocrity becomes the majority, people feel that their music is no longer worth their money, thus resulting in declining sales and the rise of questionably profitable ways of consuming music. It is okay to acknowledge when people are better than you, this ridiculous “everyone is a winner” mentality is partly to blame for this. I believe that there is still time to change, there are artists that are delivering game-changing albums and beautiful music in the vein of Prince/Bowie/MJ/Whitney, we just need to put our money behind them and legally support their art.