Learning the harp - how to take the first steps
How does creativity work? Where does inspiration come from? And can you control it, tame it like a wild animal, and then release it when you need to? People have been trying to do this in every conceivable way for decades; for example, in advertising agencies, studios, songs, or in film and television. Doesn't something get lost in this optimization of creative processes? And can real music innovation still exist in this climate?
The germ of a good product is always a good idea.
And this is where the problem already starts. The word "product" is the first thing that immediately comes to mind at this point. But can creative works that evoke emotions, shape people's lives and sometimes accompany you through life like good friends, be products at the same time? Do they perhaps even have to be in order to come into being?
This is where the dilemma begins. Art usually requires an extreme amount of time and space. Because inspiration is an unreliable mistress. The work that comes out in the end is not just the product of the work that was put directly into work XY. Rather, it is the result of a way of life, a character, and represents just one waypoint on a big map. In addition, there are the years that have already been spent on acquiring the craftsmanship to be able to implement ideas in the first place. Creativity doesn't usually work on the principle of “the muse kisses me and now I'll create something unique for a moment.” It is rather the result of years of work and passion on a path with some ups and many downs.
This space, which is required to really be able to work on projects long enough, demands, among other things, a certain financial independence. The romantic idea of artists working day and night on their art and creating musical innovation is quickly contrasted with the sober reality of an empty fridge. Artists need their work as a product. And the product needs the artists so that it can exist in the first place.
As a newcomer, it is of course not at all self-evident to earn money immediately with your own art. That means you have to keep your head above water with side jobs, or musical services. And here, too, you first have to build up a network in order to get these ever-fewer music-related jobs. On the other hand, it is still expected that you perform in all areas as established artists do. Because that is the level that consumers are used to and therefore also expect. Artists are no longer just musicians. They have to market themselves in order to become as visible as possible. That’s because visibility is now at least as important as the music itself.
Anyone who listens to lectures on how to make the most of social media will always find it all very plausible at first. However, the fact that musicians are not full-time influencers who can continuously take care of their own accounts is never brought up here. Musicians have to earn money with their music in addition to their social media presence. They have songs to write, concerts to play, and instruments to develop. A lot of the social media advice is simply not suitable for independent artists who don't have a big team behind them.
In a world of Amazon and the like we are conditioned to everything being available quickly and consistently. On various platforms we are entertained every second, until actually no one is really receptive anymore. So artists should also please create content on a regular basis. In principle, the content is rather secondary here. They should be approachable, but also not too private—that disenchants the myth. Oh yes, and please only the glorious pages, because on social media everything can be presented as it should seem. Because only those who post stories, reels and posts on the various platforms as often as possible make the supposed successes visible.
Whoever reliably delivers content, and conveys success has the chance to really make it big. "Fake it til you make it": Bowie had already understood this when he had the biggest grand piano in town brought to the location at the beginning of his career. But that wasn't as perfidious as what's happening today. Because in the end, the biggest grand piano was there for all to see.
The music market as a whole has moved away from albums in recent years and has become more single-based. This of course makes it easier to release new songs on a regular basis. However, the flood of new stuff that gets released as a result quickly buries it. And real music innovation? That could pretty much fall by the wayside here. Everyone is chasing the algorithms of Spotify, Tik Tok and the rest. And with luck, that can be a big boost. But if you fall through the cracks, you'll just get lost in the noise and have to hope for better luck with the next release.
Shouldn't art be more than just chasing algorithms?
If everyone in a large group shouts loudly, no one will be heard - but those who remain quiet don't even have a chance of getting a few crumbs of the cake. Social media is of course a great opportunity for promotion and makes things easier. But only in phases where there is something to promote. If the demand on artists is to offer entertainment on a daily basis, there is almost no time left for what originally made us fans of the respective artists: The music.
When there was a scandal at the beginning of the year about artificially inflated streaming numbers in German rap, no one was really surprised. After all, it's been common practice on social media since Facebook to buy followers. And yet, it makes you wonder which acts bought their success and why it's so crucial in the first place. True to the aforementioned motto “fake it til you make it,” a career can be built on high streaming and follower numbers. After all, fans usually see the numbers before they listen to anything. The algorithms do the rest and then carry frequently-clicked-on artists with new releases much more comprehensively into the world. It’s a kind of “self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Also, the promotion budget of major labels is significantly larger than that of independent artists or small labels. There are labels that still sign unknown artists with a pinch of idealism and are not exclusively fixated on the market situation and the bare numbers—they are in search of musical innovation. But in a world that is more and more about presence and visibility, a big promo budget is of course an even bigger advantage.
Sure, there are always acts in pop that produce music innovation, but it feels like they are becoming less and less visible. A lot of acts that have success either rehash successful genres of the last decades or try to get as close as possible to what's trending at the moment anyway. The industry has always been a business, but the financial situation was different before the streaming and the internet age. In the U.S. alone, the phonographic sales market (the sale of recordings such as CDs, records, or revenue from streaming) plummeted 17.4 percent in three years at the turn of the millennium. Although the market has been growing again for a few years, the effects of the transformation at that time has, of course, long been felt.
In the past, artists had to go on tour to promote their records and sell as many of them as possible. Today, artists have to make records in order to go on tour. The time pressure to complete a new work is then, in case of doubt, significantly higher. With an average of about 0.3 cents per stream on Spotify, the business of live performances is one of the most important sources of income. For small acts, it's often the only decisive one, because the distribution of the streaming income primarily benefits the big, highly clicked acts.
For many of the bigger acts in pop, this further optimizes all (creative) processes. Songwriting camps are held for the next starlet and songs are tailored precisely to the market. When a song that has gone viral on TikTok is enough to build an entire career on, it all looks very simple from the outside. Of course, how big the team behind it all is not visible at first glance. When the priority is placed on pushing your marketing rather than to worrying about a new album and really digging into topics, it becomes difficult to be truly innovative.
The conflict between artistic idealism and the fact that artists still have to make a living isn’t new. Nevertheless, so much has changed in recent years that the business and also one's own consumer behavior can be critically questioned.
This article is by no means intended to join the "everything used to be better" chorus. There’s already been a lot written about the opportunities for artists today. And many things have indeed become much easier. But today's possibilities also bring with them the danger that everything will be smoothed out and become more and more digestible. And art is supposed to be able to cause a stir.
This article is rather a plea to give the music creators more time. And for consumers to get away from viewing artists as service providers who have to deliver. A plea to go to concerts of smaller bands and maybe even buy a shirt or a record while you’re there. To really listen, even if the numbers of the artists are not (yet) earth-shattering. Just to go to smaller stores again and thus make a small but meaningful contribution against the death of the club. Because these clubs are the only possibility for newcomers to play tours and to be able to live from it sometime. Look at it this way: You could pay to see Metallica (once) or, with that same money see perhaps five concerts in the Molotow, Knust, Astrastube and co. And the beer there definitely doesn’t cost 6.50€.
Do you see it the same way and want to stand up for music innovation? Or you have a different opinion? Either way, get in touch with other music enthusiasts on mukken. Want to make music yourself, for the sake of music? Then you can also find great fellow musicians from your city here. And if you want to delve further into the world of music, take a look at our blog and read, for example, an article on the question of whether modern rock music is dead, or perhaps a post about post-punk.
Originally published on February 8, 2023, updated on February 8, 2023
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