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Name: Adam Bernard
Home: Fairfield, Connecticut, United States
About Me: Entertainment journalist with 15+ years of experience. Supporter of indie music. Lover of day baseball, fringe movies, & chicken shawarma. Part time ninja. Nerdy, but awesome.
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The Level Playing Field No One In Music Really Wanted
Wednesday, November 12, 2014

In the early years of high speed internet, when Napster taught us all how to download music, and we used Winamp and RealAudio players to listen to that music, it was thought that all of this new technology would eventually level the playing field for independent artists, giving them the best chance they’ve ever had to gain success. Today, the playing field of the music industry is as level as it’s ever been, but the result isn’t exactly what artists had hoped for.

Rewind to the year 2000, when in separate weeks NSYNC sold 2.4 million copies of No Strings Attached, and Eminem sold 1.76 million copies of The Marshall Mathers LP. TRL was MTV’s calling card, and there were competing record stores in every mall in America. Indie artists saw the burgeoning world of cyberspace as a potential great equalizer.

While they were right in one sense, they were slightly misguided when it came to their expectations. Record high sales numbers for top acts had visions of fat bank accounts dancing in every artist’s head, but what all of them seemingly neglected to realize is listeners have a limited amount of disposable income.

Many artists felt all the new technology would make it so everyone with a modicum of talent would end up with a platinum plaque on their wall, and a luxury car in their driveway. This is the same mindset of kids in school who want their tests graded “on a curve” thinking it will mean all their scores will be raised. That’s not how grading on a curve works, and that’s now how level playing fields work.

The concept of grading on a curve is a perfect metaphor for what’s happened with the music industry over the past decade-plus. The grading curve is a bell curve, with very few A’s, very few F’s, and the majority of the grades being adjusted so the bulk of the class ends up with a C. This is what we currently have when it comes to opportunity in the music industry.

Taylor Swift just registered the only platinum album an artist has achieved all year, selling 1.287 million copies of 1989 in the album’s first week. She’s at the “A” end of the bell curve. On the “F” end of the curve are the artists who haven’t even figured out how to upload their music onto streaming music services to get it to listeners.

Where are all the artists that used to go platinum? They’ve been pushed to the middle of the bell curve, selling less than they have in the past, but still doing just fine.

Where are all the indie artists that had visions of platinum plaques? They’ve been pushed towards the middle of the bell curve, as well, now able to make more money off of their work, some even being able to live off their work.

This is the level playing field of the music industry. It was never going to be “everyone goes platinum,” it was always going to be “everyone to the middle of the bell curve.”

Today, pretty much any artist can have their music on iTunes, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, and a litany of other services that stream and/or sell music to listeners. That’s the good news. The bad news is the purchasing power of listeners has remained exactly the same, so while more artists can live off of their work, this level playing field means sales are far more spread out, which results in very few artists being able to attain huge financial success.

The rich are not as rich as they used to be, and the poor are not as poor as they used to be. On the music industry’s level playing field almost everyone has been pushed to the middle.


posted by Adam Bernard @ 7:00 AM  
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