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After The Bell: Beyond Beyoncé — the surprising resurgence of the music industry

After The Bell: Beyond Beyoncé — the surprising resurgence of the music industry
(Photo: EPA-EFE / SASCHA STEINBACH)

The music industry is back, as the saying goes, with a vengeance. It’s hard to believe that a decade ago, the industry’s global revenue had almost halved and it was widely thought to be on crutches.

Like other South Africans, I was thrilled when Tyla won a Grammy this year, even though she’s hardly an established star and the Grammy was awarded in the newly created Best African Music Performance category, which has the aura of a participation award. But the song that propelled the victory, Water, is excellent; it probably helps that Tyla is gorgeous; and she popularised the phrase “Wat tha hek”, which is a victory in itself.

There is a lot more going on here than immediately meets the eye. Unlike previous African Grammy winners who won for very traditional music styles, Tyla received recognition for a song more or less in the amapiano style, which has a slightly African, kwaito-ish flavour, but is deeply entrenched in R&B and other Western music styles.

To my ear, this is a genre that has international legs and it’s interesting that the Nigerian nominees in the same category, Asake and Olamide, were nominated for a song called Amapiano, also in the amapiano style, which is a shift away from the most popular Nigerian music genre, highlife. For Tyla, this is just the start, but already she has become the first resident South African artist in more than 50 years to make it on to the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Talking about genres, the music world has been rocked on its axis this past week with the launch of Beyoncé’s album Cowboy Carter. It’s not a country and western album in any formal sense, but it does play with the genre in a creative and mesmerising way. (On Instagram, Beyoncé wrote: “This ain’t a Country album. This is a ‘Beyoncé’ album.) 

Her rewrite of the old Dolly Parton hit Jolene is musically adept, as you would expect, but is lyrically a powerful blowout, transforming the pleading discarded wife into a feline, prowling queen. The album has given Beyoncé a Billboard No 1 with the song Texas Hold ’Em on the main chart. It’s also No 1 on the Country & Western chart — Beyoncé is the first black woman to achieve that. 

For a member of popular music royalty so associated with R&B to genre-bend in this way is remarkable, but I suppose for an artist of her stature, it’s par for the course. Her global reach is formidable; one of my colleagues spent a small fortune travelling to Texas to see her live, which he described as a trip of a lifetime. With this twist on country music, she further entrenches herself in a new branch of the US music lexicon.

The music industry is back, as the saying goes, with a vengeance. It’s hard to believe that a decade ago, the industry’s global revenue had almost halved and it was widely thought to be on crutches. 

In 2023, global revenue climbed by 10%, according to IFPI’s latest Global Music Report, to $28.6-billion. (The IFPI, you may be interested to know, is perhaps one of the most anachronistically named industry watchers: the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.) This is obviously not the oil industry in scale, but it is now 25% larger than it’s ever been, and it’s grown almost every year for the past decade. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the industry’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

We can attribute this to music streaming, particularly on Spotify and Apple Music, after sales of albums and CDs fell by the wayside in the first decade of the 2000s. The industry found a new route to market, using technological innovations rather than fighting them. The media industry could learn a lesson here.

This rebound is remarkable for many reasons. It has been assumed that music streaming’s popularity was directly correlated with the Covid-19 crisis and people alone at home looking for something to do, etc. But if you look at Spotify’s average monthly users, it increased faster in 2023 than it did during the lockdown years, adding roughly 25 million new users each quarter. It now has around 600 million active monthly users, compared with 68 million in 2015.  

The second remarkable thing is that for years, the global music industry was something of a European/US-dominated thing. I don’t mean music generally, or even making music, which is as human as jealousy and backaches; I mean the money side of it. Of course, there were music industries in many countries, but the big bucks have always been American, which is partly why US music is so dominant internationally.

This is changing pretty fast; Spotify’s European and Latin average monthly users both outnumber those in North America by pretty substantial margins. African music consumers are growing extremely fast, and the rather generic Spotify fourth category, “rest of the world”, is now its largest. Spotify has about 30% of the total streaming market, and because Apple phones are more prevalent in the US, Apple Music has a greater proportion of paying North American users.

The point is that the new, global method of transmission – the cellular telephone – is contributing to the global democratisation of music and I guess it is this change in part that the Grammys are responding to with the creation of a new category for specifically African music.

If you talk to musicians, they are full of anger and bile about the streaming services and it’s not hard to see their point. The actual creators of the music get around US0.003 cents per stream, which means you need about 4 million streams a month to make the US minimum wage. According to one estimate, only around 0.2% of the 8 million artists on Spotify in 2023 were generating more than $50,000 a year off the platform.

I would caution that it’s always been this way. Artists Neil Young and Joni Mitchell pulled their music off Spotify to protest against the streaming service’s financial support for the world’s most popular blogger, Joe Rogan, whose main selling point is that he is a dick, which of course means he is also an anti-vaxxer. Well, both musicians have quietly put their music back on, with the lesson here being that the owner of the distribution channel holds almost all the cards. In the old days, artists would rail against their label, which would take most of the profit from their creative genius. But the sad fact is that there would be no profit at all without an avenue to market, and both sides know that.

Does the new world change the competitive balance in any significant way? After all, the barriers to entry for new music are low since the cost of adding your album to Spotify, for example, is tiny and the whole process of being signed by a label is now largely redundant. I think it does, but much less than musicians would like. 

It is now easier to present your music to the world, and the control over the recording and distribution process the industry once had has faded, but musicians are learning that having the backing of a professional marketer and publicist does make a difference, just like it did in the old days. 

The route to market is still controlled by “the man”, as industry bosses used to be called. There is a great line in a Bruce Springsteen song: “Man with a cigar says ‘Sign here son’; Held up without a gun.” And The Who famously sang, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

That still applies, since musicians are many, and while the routes to market may be different, they are still concentrated and becoming more so. This is particularly so since musicians don’t control the algorithms or, crucially, the payment for streams. Yet, the industry is building, and the relentless battle between content creators and distributors continues.

The bosses of streaming services and record companies will argue, with some justification, that musicians don’t usually come to the market with an entrepreneurial mindset. Musicians will argue, with some justification, that they don’t for a reason, namely that musical creativity is not a production line notion. Oh yes it is, record companies will counterargue. Musicians will respond that you have to break rules, challenge expectations and execute with passion. You have to be like that R&B artist deciding to do a country album, for example. That might work — and maybe it won’t. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    Oh dear, Tim, you dissed an anti-vaxxer. They’ll be out with the pitchforks pretty soon! EMI by the Sex Pistols is also a fabulous up yours to record labels.

    • Colin K says:

      Nah. I’m sure the anti-vaxxers won’t bother us. We were all supposed to die within 3 years of getting vaccinated, after all. They’re just waiting for us to shuffle off this mortal coil.

      • Robert Gornal says:

        Please do get vaxxed as many times as you wish, but respect those anti-vaxxers who have done their reseach and made their decision based on the evidence found from all different points of view, but mainly from respected medical people not connected to Big Pharma.

  • Dillon Birns says:

    Streaming (and by extension technology, social media and digital distribution services) have helped make the industry more accessible for artists and listeners alike – but it’s still incredibly difficult to break into the scene, let alone make being a ‘young creative’ professionally sustainable.

    I can understand why Spotify et al are loathed to pay more per stream to the likes of Beyonce (she and other mega stars would sink their profits in a matter of months) but as an independent, hard working and emerging artists myself, it would be great if Spotify would at least consider a sliding revenue scale for smaller artists based on their monthly listenership. For example: if you’re only getting 30k streams per month, just R0.50 per stream ($0,027) would give you a living wage to focus on being an artist. I’m no economist of financial analyst, so a proper equation would need to be developed, but the point is that streaming is blowing up; platforms are raking it in; and they’re aren’t doing much to help make the industry more sustainable in the long run.

  • jason du toit says:

    when a market is saturated each individual product will always struggle. too many artists fighting over the same pie.

    spotify has never, ever posted an annual profit. it’s unlikely youtube makes a nett profit either (although that’s a closely guarded secret). so where does that leave artists? either they can create their own distribution channels that they can attempt (and likely fail at) to run profitably, or take low payouts. the fact is, if you want a piece of an oversaturated market, you’re likely to struggle. i love good music passionately but the number of artists and the sheer quantity of music means that each artist is going to earn less. there is just such a vast array of music to choose from. and every listener has only a limited amount of time for consuming music.

    in the end artists need to be realistic about where their money comes from. the industry can only support a certain number of artists, and there are already too many for most of them to consider it as a sole income stream.

    PS the marketing wins the race in this arena, not the quality of music. the music industry is a business, not a space for creatives to shine or think they should get paid more.

    🙁

  • Bryan Mitchell says:

    agh shame Tim……Joe has upset you maybe instead of lazy ad hominems you should embrace some wider perspectives…..

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