Cash Rules Everything Around Us, in the music industry – or at least, it did up until about the turn of the century. Now that we are fully immersed in the “Digital Era,” we are seeing more and more emerging artists with lower budgets and less major label support. So is this a good thing or a bad thing for creative expression?
It was as recent at the year 2000 when record sales were at an all-time peak. This was the year of Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP, Britney Spears’ “Oops!… I Did It Again“, and, of course, ‘N Sync/*NSYNC’s blockbuster album “No Strings Attached”. Since then, in just over a decade, U.S.-based sales have dropped over 50% – a scary statistic to any members of the Mickey Mouse Club who were hoping for a career in the next big boy band. It’s as if the Internet has become the new century’s Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.
Many smaller artists have clawed their way into the public’s consciousness due to online publications such as Pitchfork Media (the now-Grammy winning Arcade Fire were reported to have gone out of print with their first record, Funeral, in the week following its review). On the flipside, sales have dipped for big artists like Eminem, whose 2011 release ‘Recovery’ – which was deemed a massive “comeback success” by most of the industry – sold roughly a million less copies in its first week than the aforementioned ‘Marshall Mathers LP’ did in 2000. Thing is, Em still ain’t hurting for cash, and relatively well-known, working-class indie rock bands such as the National and Arcade Fire certainly aren’t living in Hollywood mansions. The gap between the two has simply narrowed a smidge – which is as much as most up-and-coming artists can ask for in the newly-digitalized musical landscape.
Don’t get me wrong – when it comes to the record industry, pop music still reigns supreme. Take one listen to Justin Beiber‘s Top-10 hit “Baby,” or to Rihanna’s seemingly ubiquitous string of recent singles, and you’ll sense instant commonalities between today’s and the year 2000’s popular musical climate. The difference is simply that pop music is selling slightly less, and smaller, more experimental artists are getting a shot at the market. When it comes to making money, some artists with more condensed fanbases have found ways of marketing themselves that larger artists could only dream of. One such example is post-hardcore group Glassjaw, whose last full-length record, Worship and Tribute, was released for Warner Bros. way back in 2003. The band has since departed from Warner Bros.; they went into hiding for a short time, but in the past year quietly released five separate 7″ singles on vinyl. Hungry for new music from the band, Glassjaw’s audience snapped up the 7″‘s in a veritable heartbeat; the proceeds allowed the band to fund the pressing of a new EP, titled Coloring Book, which they have been giving away for free on a recent national tour (Glassjaw played the Regency on February 27th, 2011, to a near-sold out audience). It’s a lesson in marketing that up-and-comers can only hope to emulate.
Also contributing to the prospect of a surging “working class” of artists are those with a certain degree of credibility, such as Animal Collective, who are willing to use their success in order to support their peers. The Collective – who have been releasing albums for roughly a decade, but only recently garnered mainstream acclaim for 2007’s ‘Strawberry Jam’ and 2009’s ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ – started their own label several years back, Paw Tracks, to which they signed Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. And in 2010 Ariel Pink responded with a landmark year of its own, releasing the excellent Before Today to rave reviews. This type of inter-scene camaraderie helps smaller bands reach a more widespread audience, therefore supporting independent music as a whole.
Overall, it’s tough to say whether having less money is helping popular music appeal to a more forward-thinking audience. Bands such as Radiohead are worthy of an argument in the opposite direction – while they are currently without the support of a major label, their fanbase is as thriving as it’s always been, and their per-album budget still knows absolutely no bounds. But for every Radiohead there seem to be a hundred Glassjaws – thriving, crafting incredible and intelligent music, and yet, staying within a reasonably maintainable budget. Only the future will tell which end will ultimately reign supreme. AME