Oversaturation May Be Diluting the Music Industry, But it’s Not All Bad News
Back in January, Sam Moreland, who works in digital marketing at an L.A. record label, tweeted, “I’ve said this before but most [music] fans are becoming artists themselves. Fans are now participants … just like in sports. Majority of football fans grew up playing the game. Most of these ‘artists’ will make music for a couple years, quit, and tell stories about it one day.”
Fans becoming participants, that’s what Moreland has seen, when he was working as a manager and now while he is marketing artists. Moreland says that the music industry is becoming over-saturated with those fame-seeking fans. The catalyst at fault? The age of the Internet.
GarageBand is just one of the countless, free music production apps available, and it is automatically downloaded onto every iPhone. Without any musical training, theoretically anyone with a phone can make a song. And with a modest understanding of algorithms, anyone can go viral on the internet. With these two new technological advances mixed together, the music industry looks completely different than it did 20 years ago. This combination is the structure producing an over-saturation, according to Moreland.
Magnus Ferrell, an upcoming artist from L.A., explained how virality is one of the key ingredients these days to entering the music industry. Ferrell, who has 23,000 followers on TikTok, says, “the new form of busking is going viral on social media.” One is no longer discovered, but instead artists actively start marketing themselves before they are found or try catch on a wave of virality, according to Ferrell. Anyone and everyone can go viral, a business model producing overnight artists at a rate like never before.
One might worry that this lower gateway to entry will condemn the music industry to an overall diluted quality. For record labels, like the one where Moreland works, it can be challenging to identify true talent buried in all the noise. “It makes it hard for labels to shake the sand out,” says Moreland, “One hit wonders are more and more common than ever…But it's really hard to find a career artist, someone that's here for the next six, seven, 10 years and can build a brand, can sell merch, can sell out a tour and can really bond with their fans.”
Ferrell, however, is more optimistic. “I think the music will speak for itself,” he says. “I think it just serves as more and more motivation for those who know how to make a better song… If anything, the standards are being lowered.” Lower standards may not be the most inspiring sentiment from a young artist, but Ferrell remains steadfast in his drive. Still, as Ferrell competes with the other 11 million artists on Spotify and the constant cycle of online virality, one wonders if the public can tell the cream from the crop.
Perhaps the industry is suffering from an expansion that seems to decrease the overall quality, but it’s not all bad news. With a lower gateway to entry, the music industry has now opened its doors to those who didn’t necessarily fit the artist mold in the past.
There exists the image of the wild rockstar, in media and in reality. It’s rumored that Keith Moon of The Who would trash his hotel room before taking the stage, that Iggy Pop of The Stooges would take amphetamines, or that Steven Tyler of Aerosmith would do cocaine. Musicians have a reputation for their crazy behavior on and off stage, from smashing guitars for the audience to all the scandal that happens in the green rooms. But it’s not just rock stars, indie singers like Ariel Pink, Justin Vernon, and Courtney Love are all rumored to engage in these same pre-show rituals.
But before Mark McKenna hits the stage with his band, milk., he orders a Thai salad from Mendocino Farms and chats with drummer Morgan Wilson about how Irish Gaelic and English differ so much in typical slang and vernacular. Backstage of their final show, bassist Conor King, has left his suitcase with all his tour clothes at their previous show in New York. When his bag finally arrives via assistant 20 minutes before the show, it’s a carry-on, filled with his un-ironed dress shirts. He throws one on and gets back to soundcheck. It’s the last night of tour, and the boys are discussing how to spend their night. It’s a Tuesday, and they’re quite tired, so they’re considering staying in– early flights in the morning. Punctuating the small laughs and conversation lulls, Mark sarcastically chuckles to himself and says, “hey, look at us, rock and roll’s not dead.”
Aware of the ironic quiet backstage of their own concert, even they understand there is a gap between what a green room is and what it is imagined to be. Still, the boys of milk. are not pushing any image or selling any personas because they do not have to. Musicians can now market themselves, produce on their own schedule, and even sell out an international tour without a record label. The flip side to over-saturation is an industry that opens the door for artists to pursue music more independently.
Milk. is living through the phenomenon Moreland described; but rather than being fame-seeking fans, the lower gateway to entry has allowed for them, “just four lads from Dublin” as they say, to realize their dreams of creating music without being signed. The boys say they prefer not being signed to a label. They can release, record, and tour on their own timelines, without the pressure of a contract.
Ferrell agrees that there is more freedom for artists these days. Via social media, artists decide their own image before being built up by a label. Ferrell explains that there has been a progression from being branded and now branding oneself. In the early 2000s days of paparazzi, artists had little choice as to what their image was beyond their clothing. Today, a fully curated Instagram feed will tell any listener, and any label what the artist’s image is. Ferrell tells Annenberg Media that in his “baby stage” of artistry, he can experiment with his image and looks, but he is prioritizing staying true to himself. Moreland agrees, even adding that a clear, personal direction of one’s online image is what his label looks for when scouting musicians.
This new age of the industry is not just getting bogged down with 15-minutes-of-famers, it’s actually producing more unfiltered art. That means there is indeed more quantity total, but that also more risks and more seity. There are fewer rules to rising to fame in music now, and while some of those rules upheld traditions of technique and training, some of them kept incredible talent quiet.
Backstage with milk. before their final show of their first international tour, the setting is anything but a chaotic green room full of booze and cigarettes. And truly, the boys of milk. are nothing like that erratic rockstar image that some media sells about musicians. In fact, McKenna says that he actually hates touring. He’d rather spend these days in the studio, creating more music. (Somewhat ironic to say backstage of his tour, McKenna digresses that he does love to see who’s come out. But being on stage and traveling is not why he does what he does.) Milk. can operate truer to themselves in today’s industry, with no pressure to be anything but authentic. In the age of social media, the open access provides a space where bands will find fans who appreciate them as they are, before a label decides how to market them. This new structure gives musicians more agency.
The internet may have expanded the music industry and opened the gates to anyone with a phone, but the expansion of access has also allowed for those who do not have to rely on a label’s rules or adopt any wild, on-stage persona to procure a fan base. Milk.’s music has been described as a ‘coming of age’ soundtrack, and in that true fashion, the boys embody an honest, pure dedication to their craft.
Whether it be the more introverted rockstars or a kid who can master his social media presence, upcoming artists are an unfettered force, rising to fame on their own terms, more authentically than ever before.
Forget Your Competition, a Robot Can Make a Hit Now
If having to compete with the over-saturation was not enough, now a new technology is challenging artists, and it can make more music exponentially faster that any human. Today, AI can make viral, technically sound songs in a second. Some skeptics worry it could replace humanmade music.
In March, DiffSVC, an AI software developed at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, produced an AI-generated cover of Drake’s “Passionfruit” but with Ariana Grande’s vocals. Researchers fed the program Ariana Grande’s songs and performances and learned her vocal patterns and placed them onto a new set of lyrics. The song received over 100,000 views. But that’s just a cover.
Space150, a U.S.-based creative agency, produced a Travis Scott-inspired song onto Vimeo, which has received almost 400,000 views. The lyrics have no coherent meaning, and the song does slightly skip beats and falter in its rhythm. Still, AI songs are taking over TikTok, showing fans their favorite artists covering each other and wholly new music produced by these generators. The limits of AI music are unclear, but a level of originality is present, and one may wonder if those generators will replace human artists.
The legal technicalities seem to be already overwhelming music companies, as Spotify just recently banned an AI company called Boomy from uploading music. However, Spotify did so on the basis of “artificial streaming detected,” not artificial creation, which remains controversial. Boomy was reinstated after just a week.
Universal Music Group has stepped in to prevent the sourcing of AI music for now. For AI to create a new song, someone must feed it other songs to learn from before producing an amalgamate, albeit new, track. UMG, the largest music company in the world, has asked Spotify and Apple Music to block AI companies from feeding their artists’ music to the AI programs. Legally, definitions of copyright law are becoming hazy in the new setting of artificially produced music. Original artists can sue anyone who creates music with the intention of deceiving listeners of the true artist for a lack of a “passing-off claim.” However, a simple cover is not illegal, even if it is produced by a machine.
Some artists, such as Grimes, are embracing AI, by even creating her own platform to use her voice to produce new songs. Others, like Drake, are calling AI covers that evade royalties “the last straw.”
The debate over technology catching up to human creativity is lengthy, but one thing is for sure: to achieve a lasting career in the music industry today, one must absolutely master the short-form system of gaining virality in people’s minds and on their feeds, and that may now be expanded to including AI music. Still, artists must, more importantly, outline a longterm vision that outlasts whatever trend boosted their original virality.