Ostensibly, live music is in a healthy place. Its revenue topped US$30bn worldwide last year for the first time as UK festival numbers skyrocketed to 2,850 in 2018. So we can breathe a sigh of relief right? Well, that depends…
Live’s gain contrasts with a dramatic dip in music sales revenue which fell from $20bn in 1999 to under $8bn in 2015 as digital streaming devoured the physical medium. Those feeling the pinch from the CD’s demise are often the artists: as hip-hop pioneer Jazzy Jeff told Vibe: “I’ve never heard a label say one bad thing about streaming culture. Those who complain about the streaming industry are the artists.”
Mr Jeff’s vitriol is underpinned by figures from Ernst & Young, whose report cites artists’ percentages from streaming at just 6.8% of total revenue. Labels take a meatier 45.6%, while the maligned ‘Tax Man’ takes 16.7%.
“The record is dead, long live the record,” Harvey Goldsmith CBE
So artists have turned to live to generate more cash, which is good for the events industry until the touring pressures impact on a band’s dynamics. Think Radiohead’s Meeting People is Easy or, erm, Spinal Tap.
Major promoters and festival organisers from Michael Eavis CBE to Wayne Hemmingway MBE have appeared in the pages of Access decrying the lack of quality headliners emerging. Indeed, circa 2005 appears to be a cliff edge for emerging headliners, with the likes of The Strokes, Adele, Kings of Leon, Kanye West, the Arctic Monkeys and Arcade Fire emerging just before then.
But even those who would tout the new school of headliners – Ed Sheeran, Stormzy, Ariana Grande et al – as geniuses in their own right would face an arduous task comparing any emerging headliners from the last 15 years with the household names releasing records in just one year in the 1960s.
Indeed, in 1969 alone, the following artists released albums: Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Frank Sinatra, The Doors, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Creedence Clearwater, Fleetwood Mac, Aretha Franklin.
But we needn’t go back that far to uncover timeless artists. In a single month in 1991 (September), the following albums were released: Nirvana, Nevermind; Primal Scream, Screamadelica; A Tribe Called Quest, Low End Theory; Guns N’ Roses, Use Your Illusion I and II; Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blood Sugar Sex Magik.
But while quality is subjective, longevity isn’t. And there’s no denying the reliance on festival favourites in their twilight years: Neil Young, The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton and Paul McCartney, etc, etc. This is in contrast to only a handful of acts emerging since around 2005 who have managed to maintain Main Stage momentum into their 30s.
So what can be done to coax out the next Bowie, Beatles or Blondie?
Some factors are difficult, impossible or even undesirable to change, ie: the lack of a cohesive counterculture movement; the demise of Top Of The Pops and the relevancy of the pop charts; then there’s the homogenisation of mainstream musical sounds (see the Medical University of Vienna’s study Instrumentational Complexity of Music Genres and Why Simplicity Sells).
But, its uncontroversial that more studio time is beneficial for artist’s creativity and longevity. The Beatles (not a bad UK plc export) produced their most accomplished work when they ditched their live obligations and holed themselves up in Abbey Road.
Comparing recent chart topping acts’ longevity to bygone eras reveals an apparent trend towards short-termism. However, The DCMS’s 2019 Live Music report, published last month, gives some factors that can be managed by the live music and event industries. It cites issues including ticket touting, music venue closures, a lack of opportunities for artists from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds, and failing music education policies.
Access’ ingenious panel of contributors touch on these issues, and detail some brave new business models for creative capitalists looking to cash in on the music scene, while still giving plenty for artists to chew on, and ample time for them to hone their creativity.
Recovery in sight?
“The mega companies of tomorrow will positively impact society and culture for good and it’s changing from the top down,” Theo Gentilli
Despite the huge chunk downloading took out of the market, the introduction of Spotify in 2008, Tidal in 2014 and Apple Music in 2015 brought much needed competition, helping more than double streaming revenue by 2019. Such services now bring in close to $8bn, accounting for more than 75% of total music revenue.
This is far from the heyday of physical sales, but it’s important to note that physical products require greater manufacturing costs, so revenue figures on physical products are inflated. Nonetheless, there has been a sharp decline in high street music stores, like HMV. But could, or should, the High Street have done more?
“The record is dead, long live the record,” Nvisible CEO Harvey Goldsmith CBE told Access. “I’m gobsmacked at the HMV saga. I went to see the HMV management and told them the reason you’re not selling is because you’re completely targeting the youth audience who can rip music. They said ‘we have to’, and I said there’s a big market of over 40s who want to hold a record, have the artwork, and not have a computer tell them what to listen to. But when this demographic enter the store they feel like they’re in an alien bar in Star Wars.
“The big labels that are left are actually recording record profits: bigger than expected, and bigger than ever before. Money is now coming from many different sources. There’s always a market for a great songwriter and a great performer, but now not a lot sticks out. The average kid listens to something one weekend, then a new thing the next. It is what it is, but I believe guitar-based rock will come around again. There’ll be a new frontman, another Freddie Mercury, and that cycle will start again. There’s a role for long term music, it will come through, but we’re in the cycle waiting for it to come around.”
Much can, and is, being be done to fuel this cycle, according to culture marketing agency Warm Street’s co-founder Theo Gentilli, who is optimistic about brands’ increasingly empathetic relationship with music fans and musicians.
“Five years ago we were rarely approached by a brand to write them a ‘cultural strategy’, but brands understand more than ever, that they must deliver on a purpose. Young people are ever more demanding in terms of how they expect brands to engage with them: they want a meaningful, enriching relationship, and music culture is the perfect place to do this.
“The business environment is shifting too. The mega companies of tomorrow will positively impact society and culture for good and it’s changing from the top down. For example Larry Fink, CEO of the largest investment fund in the world, Blackrock ($66.8bn market capitalisation) now includes environmental, societal and ethical indicators into how they value prospective investments.
“So what we see is that the importance of purpose is driving the desire to play more meaningfully in culture. It’s this trickle down effect that now helps to plug any shortfall from reduced physical music sales that many artists face. It’s a very healthy space for collaboration and mutual benefit. With brands wanting to cut through the social media noise, the experiential industry is booming and this holds great opportunity for live music.”
Be-Known Music’s co-founder Dan Andrew agrees that brands are playing a more active and meaningful role: “I worked on a Jack Daniels campaign called Jack Rocks. Brands are now understanding the parallel importance of working with micro-influencers rather than working with one big, famous influencer. The same principle applies to musicians producing great music. A more unknown act costs far less money for brands, but can still really resonate with their business aims.”
But is social media a double-edged sword? We Are The Fair’s CEO Nick Morgan says the under-40s make up a large proportion of live music attendees and social media has changed this audience’s engagement. “It’s massively reducing attention spans. They offer instant gratification and have erupted a disposable culture. Platforms like Spotify offer so much choice that people listen to seconds of music before moving on and as such band loyalty is not what it used to be. There are pockets of fans however and lifespans of bands are shortened by this culture.”
But this disposability also means greater choice, and it’s never been easier to be independent as an artist, according to Gentilli. “Advancements in production software like Roland, Ableton Link, Dubbler, Tenori-On means an 18-year-old can make beats using the same software as Four Tet. Technology has democratised music production. Technology has also democratised music marketing – innovative companies like Platoon, AWAL, Mycelia are changing the game – they’re providing the tools for artists to raise funds, distribute, promote and manage their music. Record labels aren’t going to die just yet but it’s no longer make or break if you aren’t signed. It’s an exciting time, and the talent pool out there is larger than ever before.”
Artists weigh in
Access chatted to an emerging talented artist, Sean Quincy (below) about his experiences in the recording and live industry, which he says is shifting in a positive direction: “The internet’s so incredibly oversaturated with art that’s it’s almost impossible to get heard. Everyone’s so indulged in the digital world that people have forgotten about real life, about actually being out there physically and building relations. I think there needs to be that perfect balance of being in the real world and online because the real inspiration comes from the streets not from Instagram.
“I see many artists jumping into deals with literally no leverage and you can see how short lived their career is and how unsustainable it is. The label gives an advance, the artist doesn’t manage to recoup the money back and then gets shelved and once that happens it’s pretty damn hard for any other label to want to dig you out of that hole.
“Create a brand, build a team around you, pump out sick content and the audience will grow. What’s super important is knowing your target audience because, once you have that, all the power is on your side. There are so many steps to do before even thinking about a major label – with the way the internet is the artist has their own platform. If you’re an artist and you’re not seeing yourself as a brand make sure you start now.”
“I think streaming is definitely fixing things, labels and live agents are literally jumping on artists who are getting into official Spotify playlists. Find your niche! It’s hard to adapt to the industry because it’s changing so fast, think ahead of it.”
Goldsmith CBE agrees, adding that you don’t need to ‘go big’ to wow audiences. “Mariah Carey played Wembley and bought 11 trucks and we only put five up. I said ‘what’s all this stuff? They’re coming to see you and hear you. Lets cut it down accordingly.”
More optimism comes from Andrews, who says there there are acts coming through who will be the next Arctic Monkeys. “There are great pop acts emerging. I’m excited about Billie Eilish, but she will take some time to mature. We are still seeing artists on the level of Justin Bieber. Sean Mendes and some US and Canadian artists, as well as the Korean and Japanese sound.
“The market is different. Small bands can finally make a lot of money from Spotify – in fact there’s probably more opportunity for artists. People are making projections far above the industry size, so if there’s not physical sales, you need to make it elsewhere. Meanwhile, countries that had a big pirate market are now seeing millions of streams, like the Philippines that didn’t have the access before. There’s also artists in South America that are bigger than the biggest US artists, but they’re only just being discovered more widely.
“The real inspiration comes from the streets not from Instagram,” Sean Quincy
“So while we’re seeing a slight demise in the big headliner, we are seeing big artists emerging. This is a time of friction and change. Social media is where artists are exposed not so much TV like in the past”.
Adrian Dixon, one half of The Dixon Brothers (KISS FM), adds: “It’s important to first establish the type of headliner we’re ‘missing’. Are our worries borne from looking for the live artist that fits the traditional headliner box? As multi-genre DJs, we’ve definitely seen the pendulum swing more towards the DJ/producer performance than that of past artists.
“I question if you had the opportunity to see Daft Punk on the Main Stage at a festival, or your more traditional act, who is going to give the best show for your money across all avenues – performance, stage show, sensory overload etc?
“As the two worlds collide we’re seeing both take influence from one another, which can only be a good thing. Emerging artists should of course learn from those that have achieved Main Stage status, whilst importantly pushing things forward. Artists such as Chainsmokers and Billie Eilish tread the boards of a multitude of sounds and styles whilst delivering electric stage shows, which for us is the sweet spot of the headliner. It’s more than just the music.”
Brands to the rescue?
While artists’ hone new channels of communication, and technology catches up, Gentilli warns that there are still substantive obstacles. “Whilst music production is booming – what happens when that 100 cap venue you played at as an early stage producer closes down? These are the hotbeds where talent hone their craft, and where they get noticed. In current conditions, we worry that the live music industry will suffer as smaller venues are the life blood of a healthy live music industry.
But, according to Andrew, there are now many venues popping up around the UK that cater for emerging acts. “Yes, a lot of venues are dying out, but many developers have a criteria to build new venues,” he adds. “Some venues are less effective, as they haven’t updated their PA system, and there’s a lot of venues that double-up as clubs, and you need a live PA and a club PA. Venues need to be multiple use. Older venues, meanwhile, can be very unique and built out of purpose and demand. Some hugely iconic venues might have support beams, or impractical elements.”
Brands can play a key role in helping venues, Gentilli adds. “We feel brands can have a positive impact on the live music industry – tying into purpose – there’s a real opportunity for brands to bring resource, drive and credibility to support venues in staying open. We see many more venues who are open to working with brands and when these partnerships are sensitively implemented it can be of real cultural value. Alongside this, we are discussing with some brands that there is an important role for them to support the venues at a legislative level – because imagine the impact on Diageo if, for example, we lost 30% of our venues in the next 10 years?
“A lesser known threat, but one we are aware of – is that producers, especially in the club world, don’t get paid for tracks played out by DJs who are being paid handsome sums for performances – so what happens when bedroom producers have to get day jobs as they can’t live off streaming anymore? This is an exciting space for the right brands to play and make an impact, and there the PRS are starting to affect some change here, but there is scope for much more to be done.
“A final space which we are excited by are the opportunities afforded virtual performances – cheaper, engaging and with huge opportunity for scale, we think this is a space that will provide a great opportunity for young talent to engage and reach their fans. It will also provide talent with a chance to engage with global fans at a virtual event, rather than localised communities. See Fortnite’s stunning work with Marshmello as an example of this early stage trend at play.”
The festival market, meanwhile, is showing signs of embracing new acts and playing to emerging audience demand. Andrew says: “There are new festivals emerging that cater for new sounds, like one in South London called Ends, an urban music event in Croydon which has had a successful world culture festival for ten years. The acts may not be in the top 20, but they get slots at these festivals.”
With streaming coming of age, technology enabling greater participation, and brands becoming savvy to the rewards of working creatively with emerging acts, the stage could be set for a new spate of lasting headliners. However, with consumer attentions being diverted into unpredictable new areas, the headline slot itself is under threat for its dominance in the live mix.
The adaptation to the music industry’s Brave New World, and its effect on live, is just beginning.