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2014 Retrospective: The Declining Staying Power of Artists in the Internet Age

Despite only a decade having passed, the musical environment of 2014 bears little resemblance to today's landscape. In that era, social media platforms such as TikTok had not yet ushered in the hyper-compartmentalization of genres or the unionization of niche communities, nor had programs such as Spotify Wrapped or AI-tailored playlists catapulted the sharing of music forward several orders of magnitude.

The realm of online music existed in a strange transitional phase, navigating between the constraints of the past and the innovations of the future. The days of physical music, or even paying for music on a per-unit basis, had long since passed, but listeners had yet to experience the true power of having the entire scope of the industry at their fingertips.

The artists that littered Billboard's Hot 100 Songs list holds even less in common with today's than the methods of consumption. A decade ago, the list contained electronically influenced pop artists such as Tove Lo, Clean Bandit, and Jeremih. If you haven't given these names a second thought in the last decade, that's to be expected: artists are beginning to stake a claim to shorter and shorter stints in the limelight than ever.

Of course, it would be disingenuous to suggest none of the year's biggest stars have remained relevant, as the likes of Taylor Swift, Charli XCX, and Lorde are still capable of churning out chart-topping hits frequently. However, the former two have significantly revamped their sound in recent years, navigating away from the sounds that initially made them popular.

The case of Taylor Swift is perhaps the most interesting of the bunch, as she has navigated an artistic renaissance in several ways. While the megastar has never shied away from reinventing herself, many of her recent records have explored an understated approach, such as 2020's duo of "Folklore" and "Evermore", both of which heavily featured the contributions of indie folk legend Bon Iver. Additionally, Swift has re-recorded several of her albums from this era, for a myriad of reasons, this time pulling from a more contemporary pallet.

Swift's artistic reinvention can be seen as a microcosm for the ways in which artists must now maintain their fame over longer stretches of time: reinvent themselves, or face fading into obscurity. This stands in sharp contrast to artists from the pre-internet age: artists such as Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Prince, and Madonna all achieved chart-topping success more than a decade apart in the 1980s. They don't make them like they used to, I suppose.

While correlation does not equal causation in every instance, the causes behind this trend are easy to diagnose. In a world where 61% of artists say music no longer adequately pays their bills, 99% of streams are generated by 10% of the songs, 70.4% of record label market share has been consolidated into just three companies (Universal, Sony, and Warner), artists are finding it challenging to carve longer careers in the music. The message from the industry is clear: adapt or die.

Would Taylor Swift's stardom have faded had she not taken up the mantle as indie rock's newest darling? Perhaps not: in some sense, she may be seen as too big to fail (her Eras Tour proves as much). However, if music in the internet age were mapped onto the 2008 Financial Crisis and record labels the government, there exists very few 'Citigroup's and a substantial amount of 'Washington Mutual's, so to speak. Public opinion certainly soured on other "cult of personality" artists such as Kanye West and Justin Bieber throughout the decade.

So, what remains? Well, not much, in truth. Taylor Swift still dominates the zeitgeist, with her 2019 song Cruel Summer currently holding the #2 spot on Billboard's chart. Who knows how long before she falls by the wayside, either because she created more than 1,000 times the average person's annual carbon emissions in 2022 or maybe because people get tired of seeing her at Kansas City Chiefs games, though I certainly never will. Aside from her ever-presence, critical outcasts such as Morgan Wallen and Jack Harlow hold spots within the top 10. While these two men may go on to have long spanning and illustrious careers in music, my money would go to the contrary.

I don't want the message of this piece to be misinterpreted: I'm not sitting on my metaphorical porch complaining about how things used to be artistically. I hold no more like or dislike for the merits of the superstars of today than the ones from 2014, 1984, or 1954. The music industry has been churning out one-hit wonders for as long as it has existed; such is the nature of the beast. Instead, see to it that your favorite artists do not go quietly into the night the way that Tove Lo, Clean Bandit, and Jeremih certainly have.

It has been estimated that small artists earn three times more from a single show than a year's worth of revenue online. That alone should stand as a call to action. Do things that further the careers of artists you love: buy merchandise, attend shows, and cover them positively in news articles, if that's your fancy.

Some of my favorite artists of all time, Death Grips and Open Mike Eagle, released their seminal albums in 2014 respectively. A decade later, I was able to see them in concert and bought sweatshirts at both shows. It is only through the efforts of their fans that these wonderful artists can maintain their careers, and that should be motivation enough to do your part.


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