By Elise Bryan
The music industry landscape is unrecognizable from what it was even ten years ago. The days of having to sign with a major record label to be a successful artist are long behind us. Technically speaking, there is no reason to sign a contract when an artist can have more control over their artistry and receive a bigger cut when working independently. Social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram make it possible for anyone to gain a following and/or establish a career using their likeness. There are no barriers to entry, at least not at face value. Accordingly, anybody who wants to be heard, can be heard. However, the accessibility of social media that enables the abandonment of major record labels, is a double-edged sword. With the advent of social media, our attention spans have become much shorter. We value quantity rather than quality. More followers ultimately has greater significance than cultivated skills, talent, or expertise. The reach of a particular individual depends on the relatability of said individual or how adjacent their curated lifestyle is to our personal aspirations.
We are living in the era where trends move through a revolving door; they are here one moment and gone the next. The tendency to cycle through trends permeates many facets of our lives, including the way music is produced and consumed. Industry standards continue to evolve with rapid technological advancements and social trends. The introduction of streaming platforms is one of many technological advances that has contributed to the influx of nontraditional music submissions.
Streaming platforms require a listener to play 30 seconds of a song for an artist to generate any profit off of the stream. Those first 30 seconds better be able to grab the attention of the listeners before they switch to something else. As a result, many artists are abandoning customary songwriting practices to maximize streams. Traditionally, artists would write songs with a predictable writing scheme: a verse, followed by a chorus, then another verse, perhaps a bridge, and then another chorus/outro. Current songs tend to start with a chorus to hook listeners until they have at least reached the 30 second timestamp. A significant number of popular songs these days don’t break the three minute standard that was established several decades ago, which alludes not only to the shortening of our attention spans, but the departure from a certain caliber of expertise as well.
Platforms such as TikTok have exacerbated the inevitable, wherein a catchy fifteen second snippet of a song is enough to dictate what ranks as number one on the global charts. A catchy hook is enough to make a song good. The quality of the song beyond those fifteen seconds is unimportant. People who have amassed a large following on these social platforms are more likely to gain traction with their music regardless of the overall quality. Those who have spent years honing their craft are displaced by those who have been able to master the art of being an “internet celebrity.” Accordingly, awards and accolades are distributed based on the popularity of the individual, rather than the actual quality or artistry of the composition. The bar for what is considered exceptional is lowered as a result of the popularity contest.
Furthermore, popular creators are handed opportunities in the entertainment industry simply because the streaming potential is there. They are able to attend award shows and perform at huge arenas that others before them spent years preparing for, slowly working their way up from little cafes to Madison Square Garden. They are invited to the Met Gala, something that was previously reserved for only the most exceptional guests, due to the fact that they have a sizable following rather than an indisputable prowess (e.g. Addison Rae and Dixie D’Amelio).
The music industry is now saturated with artists who have established themselves through a social media presence rather than years of preparation. A successful music career does not require an extraordinary amount of talent. Today, it is possible to accomplish some of the greatest achievements that legendary artists had to wait several years for within one year of starting a career. Extraordinary talents like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Beyoncé, and Amy Winehouse spent years cultivating their craft to be regarded in such high esteem. It is not lost on me that the artists I have named are either Black or heavily influenced by Black culture. Therein lies the crux of the issue. The aforementioned people, who are universally recognized as some of the most talented people to ever grace this planet, earned their respective titles despite the prejudice they faced, and continue to face in some cases. Meanwhile, an increasing number of artists are esteemed simply because they have amassed an online following, and are therefore entitled to numerous opportunities.
While social media has the potential to serve as a great equalizer, affording Black creators more exposure through algorithms, non-Black creators have been able build their fan bases further through imitation. For example, Charli D’Amelio, the most followed person on TikTok gained traction after popularizing a dance made by a young Black girl. Shortly thereafter, she performed at the superbowl halftime show alongside Jennifer Lopez while the original creator, Jalaiah Harmon, remains largely unknown and uncredited. Making Black content palatable proves to be lucrative as imitators are able to launch full-fledged careers simply because they represent what many consciously and unconsciously aspire to be. We must acknowledge the pervasive nature of white supremacy that often inspires us to follow and pursue people who embody the eurocentric standards that we have been conditioned to favor.
Aesthetics play a large role in what demands our attention regardless of the cost it has on integrity and authenticity. Those who are most adept at performing whiteness are more likely to strike gold when it comes to the social media lottery, which comes with a plethora of opportunities. When doing a cost benefit analysis, I am hesitant to say that social media does anything to lessen the barriers to entry within the music industry. Instead, it reveals an ever present collective prejudice that we cannot seem to shake. I do not present the following question to be inflammatory, but rather to encourage some reflection. Is the commodification of music yet another vehicle through which white supremacy is able to dictate what is worthy of our admiration and hard earned dollars?