Happy Friday! After five weeks of travel, I’m finally settling back into the rhythm of reality here in NYC. While I’m totally late to the party, I’m excited to soak in the final week of New York Music Month
, which is full of everything from legal workshops for artists to themed city tours (histories of jazz, hip-hop, punk rock, etc.) and outdoor concerts in Central Park—all free to the public. :)
Today’s newsletter is inspired by a panel I attended at Sónar+D in Barcelona last week called “The New Internet,” which dove into what problems people see with the Internet today (lack of privacy, enduring centralization of power, etc.), and how we might appease them in the future using technology.
While the panel wasn’t solely about music, some of the speakers are quite well-known in the music industry, including Ian Rogers
(former CEO of Beats Music and senior exec at Apple Music post-acquisition, now Chief Digital Officer of LVMH) and Mat Dryhurst
(digital artist & musician, Holly Herndon
’s husband and frequent collaborator, creator of Saga
, advisor to Resonate
At one point, Mat made a comment that has been playing over and over in my head ever since: “The music industry is now the visibility industry.”
Mat went on to argue that, contrary to its initial cyber-utopian underpinnings, the Internet has largely encouraged and strengthened monoculture instead of disassembling it. With music in particular, the pressure to be visible has made creative processes and marketing strategy more homogenous, not less—even though “the idea of diversity of choice is well-represented and everybody’s talking about it,” he said.
Specific examples that Mat pointed to included artists spending a disproportionate amount of energy gaming Instagram feeds to reach their fans, and indie labels feeling pressured
to work with streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music even if they don’t make any meaningful money from them.
Part of me thinks that this outlook isn’t actually anything new. The concept of “the music industry as the visibility industry” is arguably as old as MTV—or even as old as the live concert itself—and it’s almost a tired narrative at this point that the craft is secondary to the exposure when it comes to the mainstream music machine. What is new is the fragmentation and disintermediation of attention beyond mass-media channels like radio and cable TV into anyone with the means to put their own content online.
If you’ve spoken to me recently, you may have heard me go on a rant about how digital-first musicians aren’t just competing with each other anymore—they’re competing with every other brand in every other industry with a social media account and an advertising budget. Even CGI influencers
now have social-media followings that a lot of artists can only dream of.
As a result, a music company looking to compete online is far from just a “Music Company” anymore; as Mat put it during his panel, “everything is basically run by the advertising industry.”
In a similar vein, I recently grabbed coffee with an A&R manager who told me, verbatim, that “artists are competing with people taking selfies.”
Recorded music, as with any other media/art sector, is competing with our own egos and self-righteousness. Think what you will about Snap, but the ingenuity behind their revamped music partnerships
with labels like Geffen Records lies precisely in rewriting this reality—weaving otherwise top-down music promotion seamlessly into the egocentrism of selfie culture, rather than keeping the two arenas separate.
I want to return to Mat’s argument that the pressure to be visible stifles diversity and homogenizes creative strategy. From the above examples, it seems that this homogeneity stems from an exacerbated, capitalist incentive to play into some sort of system or list of rules—be that an algorithm (Instagram feed) or a social/product norm (digital egocentrism and personalization).
Taking a tip from mathematical logic, though, I wonder whether the contrapositive is also true: if you embrace a myriad of cultures/scenes and diversify your creative strategy, does that minimize the pressure you feel to be visible, because attaining visibility requires less effort?
During the panel I moderated last month at IMS Ibiza
, Lauren Pavan (COO of GRM Daily
, the most-visited grime & urban culture site in the UK) gave some interesting insight into the tight-knit connections between grime MCs and Instagram comedians. For instance, Big Narstie
and Mo The Comedian
now have a TV show together on Channel 4, while Michael Dapaah
, a comedian with a grime-MC alter ego, has amassed over 1.3 million Instagram followers to date.
While I’m definitely still a newcomer to grime, these examples sound to me like an organic, mutually supportive cross-pollination of passions, art forms and audiences that lends itself naturally to visibility—by sheer force of being authentic to multiple subcultures that exist in real life, rather than solely of gaming any particular algorithm. (Then, says the devil’s advocate, that leads to even more homogenization once every major label wants their biggest artists to partner with a comedy influencer.)
One thing I’m keen on following in the future is what happens to the “visibility industry” of music once visual interfaces disappear. As podcasts, smart speakers and voice-enabled experiences continue to rise in the mainstream, and as more and more people consume music regularly without their smartphones
or other devices, does the primary currency in music then move away from visibility and toward “audibility”? Or will visual dominance always take top priority?
I’m also curious to hear how you personally understand the relationship between music and visibility. How, if at all, has the pressure to be visible impacted and/or homogenized your own career and creativity? Is diversity of strategy alone a sufficient cure? Simply reply to this email and let’s chat!