Staff writer Gray shares some of their thoughts and experiences of consumerism and music production in the digital era.
There is a common sentiment shared online that music is severely undervalued. You can ask anyone in the underground music scene and they’ll tell you the same story: the shelf life of a song is about 2 days, and an album only a couple weeks. In the digital age of music, artists are pressured to release and promote nigh-constantly, in an ouroboros where they’ll be forgotten and tossed aside by the audience if they can’t keep up.
The bitter pill to swallow here is that the audience simply doesn’t value music enough. It’s difficult to get anyone on-board with your project, but with music especially there is a time investment involved. Looking at visual art is instant, it occupies the realm of space, so the time taken is up to the individual. An album asks the listener to set aside their schedule and give anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour (or more!) and focus on the music. No one is willing to do that in an already rushed world. Therefore, there is an incredibly small flow of attention to go around for online musicians. We can do our best by sharing and interacting with announcement and release posts, but in truth nobody on Earth has the time to view, let alone listen to each upload – even in a smaller community.
The other half of the equation is the way sites value music. Much has been said about the abysmal pay-rates streaming provides, and Bandcamp Friday is definitely a much appreciated gesture, but is more of a band-aid to a gaping wound than any real solution. On top of this, the way algorithm-driven homepage feeds affect the industry is alarmingly inhumane. In order for your posts to be shown at all, you need to keep a constant presence online, promoting and posting new music in an endless rat-race against your own friends. If you take a break for even a week or two, the algorithm will simply drop you, and your posts won’t be shown! Even to your audience who followed you to stay updated. Make no mistake: This is a full-time job, and one that doesn’t follow any labor laws.
When you first join an online scene like this it can be exciting. You get a shot of adrenaline every time you post a song, and the instant feedback is addicting. This led to the current status-quo; constant updates and new drops. It brought rapid evolution and advancements in genre and production, but just as quickly moved on from them to the next new thing. The excitement wears off quickly, and suddenly the musicians who just wanted to create music have a ball-and-chain attached to them. They have to keep posting or they’ll lose everything they’ve gained so far. The sad state of affairs is that artists must promote and shill to get a chance of being heard, when really most join simply to write music. There’s constant success stories surrounding them- of people the algorithm randomly selected, who were playlisted and blew up; and that hope of blowing up is what keeps a lot of people going. It’s not sustainable to endlessly produce content that is quickly tossed aside like this – but if by chance you were to get popular, it would all be worth it. This climate is part of the reason why musicians themselves undervalue their work. They work so hard for such little attention, and begin to doubt their own art or skill. When both the producer and the consumer treat the art like fast-food, then both suffer.
In truth, only a select handful will ever attain success, while the rest work a dead-end job on the side while they continue to roll the dice with each new single, hoping for even a moderate amount of attention. Eventually this leads to burnout, which might explain why we keep seeing people leaving the scene. I think this is something everyone intuitively understands, but nothing can be done by the individual. We just have to hope for change. Let’s once again compare this with the state of the online art scene, which has a lot of similar issues, but also a key difference.
I believe both communities have a very strong sense of camaraderie. There’s lots of collectives, collaborations, and group projects in the music scene, and lots of events, trades, and challenges in the art scene. This is great! More so than the audience, it’s the creators themselves that keep a scene alive. However, art generally does a lot better in terms of reach than music, and there’s more audiences interested in directly supporting their favorite artists. They’ll commission artists to draw things just because they want to see those things visually represented! They wanted to see an OC or fanart or image, and are willing to support an artist to get that! Whereas for music, the only commissions going around are beats for vocalists or soundtracks for games or session work for larger projects. Musicians are only valued when they can turn a profit for someone else. The economy is contained within the music industry, and you are only ever paid if you can provide a service for someone that will, in turn, provide them money. I’ve not heard of a single example of a music producer being commissioned to create music just because the client wanted to hear a song from them.
If you wanted, you could commission an artist to create your platonic ideal of a song! Everything you love about music; your favourite chords, emotions, instruments and lyrics could be laid out for you. It’s an odd concept, but something so prevalent in visual art, yet unheard of in music. As it stands now, fans mainly find music through pure algorithmic chance, and only support the music through streams which pay out less than a penny. The most dedicated of those fans may spend some more on Bandcamp or merch, but that’s a much smaller percentage of the whole. Even after you manage to gain a fanbase, you have to relentlessly sustain it lest you be swept aside. It’s a suffocating rat-race that is growing quicker and quicker. I’m so thankful for the friends I’ve made in the online music community, and the genres and sounds that were born there – but for all the life in my body we need to break this cycle, and fast. Music is an incredibly skilled art form- even getting one song out there is a huge accomplishment! I wish artists didn’t have to promote, or beg for beat commissions to pay rent, or feel pressured to release constantly. I think the first steps out of this mess are to stop undervaluing the art and to take pride in the creation. To feel no shame in plugging yourself and to charge what you deserve for your work. I think the most important thing is to check in on your friends and make sure they’re doing okay, it’s hard out there.
– Gray / Polygon Cove (@polygoncove) (Staff Writer)