There was recently an article going around by the producer Wolfgang Gartner that discussed the rise in importance of social media in the music industry. His point was that success in social media has not always aligned with musical talent and often people rise to the highest echelons without the musical bona fides to back up their bookings. He also criticizes the practice of dick riding which I abhor.
It was his discussion of the increased prominence of social media in the advancement of artists that got my creaky, substance abused mental gears moving. We live in one of the most cynical eras in the history of music. I’m not the first nor probably the last person to say this but it all comes from one reason:
Things have become quantifiable. They can be measured. Numbers rule supreme.
You can see how many people like an artist, how many people like what they say, how many people like what they do etc, etc through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other outlets. Soundcloud and Youtube can measure how much a track is played and therefore, one could assume, it’s popularity.
For people on the business end of the music industry, this is an amazing development. For the first time in history, you can get a real sense of who is going to be profitable (or at least has the potential to be profitable) for hardly any investment at all. Even artists without management can get feedback on where they are and how close they are to where they want to be. Theoretically this is an incredible development. It’s a democratization. The only catch is that these numbers don’t measure the actual quality of what is at the centre of this entire industry: the music.
I know this seems very close to Gartner’s point but he never goes as far as to address this specific problem in detail. Chasing numbers has become the end all of the music industry and more specifically the dance music industry today. People are chasing those numbers like junkies chase crack.
What’s the play count on Soundcloud? Is it low? Then this was a fail. How many likes on this snippet on Instagram? Not enough. Better release something else. Less and less are people asking “Is this good music?”
With this reliance on numbers there has arisen the practice of “gaming” the system by artificially inflating the metrics with bullshit likes and plays. Another more recent practice is to gain (sometimes) real likes by losing the focus on music altogether. Now DJs and producers are becoming “meme curators”. They have Facebook fan pages that rival the original MySpace in tackiness since they’re chock-full of photos with big ugly writing on them and videos. These “meme curators” give the impression that they have a large audience (and thus they are a good investment) but really no one sharing their memes and liking and following them is into their music.
So you get this shit rising to the top like Goshfather & Jinco and Caked Up who’s fame is entirely based on fantasy social media numbers (does anyone actually like those two acts?) Or you get the Stanton Warriors who some kids probably think are just DJ meme sharers and don’t even know that once upon a time they were a real act that did real life music stuff. Numbers just turn artists to shit.
If you’re still not convinced that chasing numbers turns things to shit just look at journalism. Journalism success used to be measured on ideas and social impact and uncovering the truth but now it’s just based on whether it made a ton people shocked or think a cat was cute.
I’ve seen people give the fuck up because they just weren’t getting the numbers. They were talented artists but the goal is no longer about making great music so that wasn’t enough. Artistic integrity is disappearing.
In a chase for numbers you have those dudes that just jump from genre to genre to genre like a surfer trying to catch a wave. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with evolving artistically and trying new things but I regularly see discussions where people are like “what is the genre I should try now that you think will be famous?” That isn’t artistic evolution, that’s a cynical choice.
If numbers meant quality then Soundcloud wouldn’t be filled with either copycat versions of big tunes or cheap remixes of the track of the moment. Soundcloud is like one of those war cemeteries of cynical artistic choices where the same few bad decisions stretch as far as the eye can see like those identical white crosses. Each shitty track is like a grave for the person’s integrity.
Music journalism would be an annex to that giant cemetery. I discussed above about how numbers and metrics have killed most serious journalism and the same applies to music journalism. I’m taking a big risk writing an article like this. I’m spending a few hours on this trying to get the tone right and make some kind of coherent argument and it might just get 100 hits. I could do a post aggregating the best Dillon Francis Instagrams or some stupid naked chick at a festival in 2 minutes and know I’ll get thousands of clicks. That’s why every fucking blog covers that same thing. The ROI is just higher on clickbait. So again the music suffers because we’re not actually talking about it. We’re talking about things that surround it. In fact, as music journalists and bloggers we are enablers encouraging this behaviour from “artists”. We validate it with coverage so they keep on trying to get it and keep those numbers high.
I wish I could propose a cure but I’m not smart enough. All I can hope is that there is some kind of industry crash. Anyone with a basic understanding of economics knows that when the price of a commodity exceeds its true value there is a market correction. Older people will remember the Dot-Com bust of the early 2000s. Companies were getting tons of website traffic and were thus assumed to have a lot of potential value because of that. Then people were like “Wait, are people buying your shit? Can we actually make money off this?” and when they saw that they couldn’t then they bailed and those companies became worthless.
The same could happen when bookers and agents look at all these supposed high numbers artists are getting from different types of social media and then are like “Wait, this is a music festival, not a social media festival. This shitty yet apparently popular artist is gonna destroy the vibe and might not actually have a real audience and/or music audience to support us paying them thousands of dollars”.
That’s my fantasy at least. Probably will never happen. Or maybe we will just start having meme fests with the biggest meme curators presenting their latest creation that took 30 seconds to make/they stole from someone else. That would be terrible.
Let’s go have a picnic.