As a rebooted version of “Australian Idol” appears on network television, I can’t decide whether programs like this are a result of the current state of the music industry OR are they the cause of the industry’s malaise…?
I’ll admit upfront that I know I’m not the target demographic for these shows (Idol, Voice, Talent…), so I’m not even going to comment on the quality of the musical content or the presentation format.
Before we had recorded music or broadcast radio, the industry relied upon song writers selling sheet music, in the hope their compositions would get performed in theatres and concert halls – and audiences would want to buy copies of the songs to perform at home.
Then, radio largely killed the music hall, and with the advent of the 7″ vinyl record, together they eventually displaced the reliance on sheet music sales. From the early 1960s onwards, we also saw more artists writing, performing and recording their own material, which transformed both music publishing and the record industry itself.
Although record labels still exist as a means to identify, develop and commercialise new talent, only three of the so-called major labels have survived – a process of industry consolidation and M&A activity that began in earnest in the 1980s – ironically, a period now regarded as a “Golden Age” of pop music.
A key legacy of the punk movement of the 1970s was a network of independent music labels, distributors, publishers and retailers – along with a strong DIY ethic of self-released records and independent fanzines, thanks to lower production costs and easier access to manufacturing and distribution.
Now, there is more new music being released than is humanly possible to listen to. It is relatively quick and simple to produce and release your own music – record on a home laptop (even a tablet or smart phone will do), upload the finished mp3 files to user-accessible platforms such as Bandcamp and SoundCloud, and promote yourself on social media. However, without significant marketing dollars to buy an audience, those hoping to become an overnight viral sensation may be disappointed. And even if you do manage to get traction on one of the global streaming platforms, the income from digital plays is a fraction of what artists used to earn from physical sales.
So that’s how the major labels (and some of the larger independents) still manage to dominate the industry: they have the budget to spend on developing new talent, and they have money for marketing campaigns (and possibly to influence those streaming algorithms). Plus, they have access to a huge back catalogue that they can carry on repackaging at a fraction of the original production costs.
It’s also true, however, that the shorter shelf-life of many newer artists means that labels don’t have such an appetite for long-term development plans, where they are willing to nurture a new talent for several years, before expecting a return on their initial investment. Just as with fast fashion, the pop music industry has become hooked on a fast turnover of product, because they know only a fraction of new releases will ever become a hit, and they have to keep feeding the beast with new content.
Which brings me back to programs like Idol. First, it’s one way for the music industry to fast-track their next success. Second, it literally is a popularity contest – the industry gets an idea of what the public likes, so they can pre-determine part of their release schedule. Third, hosting these contests on commercial TV means advertising dollars and sponsorship deals can help defray their A&R and marketing costs (or, at least help them to prioritise where to spend their money).
But let’s not pretend that these singing shows are nothing more than televised karaoke. Performers don’t get to play their own songs, or even play any instruments (as far as I can tell). The program content relies on cover versions – usually songs that are well-known, and therefore already road-tested on the audience. Plus, by choosing to perform a particular song, a contestant may hope to win by association or identification with the successful artist who originally recorded it. But contestants are not free to choose whatever song they like – my understanding is there are only 1,000 (popular) songs to choose from, just like karaoke.
In pretending to discover new talent, in part, the industry is simply hoping to re-release songs in their back catalogue, albeit with a new face on the record. Through the restrictive format of these programs, the industry is not discovering new musicians or finding new song writers and composers, and it’s certainly not forging any new direction in music, because of the reliance upon an existing formula, and dependence on a very specific (and somewhat narrow) strand of pop music.
Next week: Eat The Rich?