In the old days of physical music formats — CDs, vinyl, tapes — a collection was considered big if you had more than 100 of anything. Completists and obsessives might have upwards of a thousand or so records. If this sounds like you, I’ll bet that you knew the title of every song you owned and were familiar with each album on the shelf.
Record stores were wondrous places, too. The biggest ones — think Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street in Toronto or any of the HMV superstores in major cities around the world — might stock 100,000 titles or more. A full browse of the shelves took days.
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Then came the internet and the illegal filing-sharing that began in the late 1990s. People went nuts, accumulating as much free music as they could. Others began ripping their CDs to digital files where they lived alongside purchased downloads from storefronts like iTunes. Hard drives were filled to capacity with thousands and thousands of songs. A buddy of mine purchased a super-sized iPod Classic just so he could say that he carried 40,000 songs in his pocket.
Very impressive. But then came the era of streaming platforms (Digital Service Providers or DSPs) like Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, YouTube Music, and all the others. Suddenly, artists didn’t need a record label to get their music out to the world. For a very modest fee (or free for new artists), companies like TuneCore, DistroKid, CD Baby, and United Masters will see that any musician anywhere on the planet is uploaded to all the libraries used by the world’s music streamers. Hit “enter” and a song is available globally.
Music distribution had been democratized. Artists were in charge of their own destinies and not beholden to some record company. Great, right?
Well, hang on sunshine. What we have now is too much music. WAY too much. Let’s look at some numbers.
Luminate, a company that tracks worldwide consumption of music and follows the habits of music fans, looked at new ISRCs coming into the system. An International Standard Recording Code is assigned to every song that gets released. Think of it as a Dewey Decimal System for books in a library. Better yet, it’s more like the ISBN code assigned to each and every book that gets published. Or you can think of it as the song equivalent of a social insurance number.
Luminate published data early this month that shows somewhere around 98,500 ISRCs are uploaded to DSPs each day. In 2022, a total of 34.1 million songs/ISRCs were uploaded. Today we have the equivalent of a jukebox that holds 196 million songs and videos. And the number keeps climbing every second.
And it’s not the major labels. The same scan of the data showed that only four per cent of daily uploads — 3,940 songs, which is still a lot — come from the big three record labels, Universal, Sony, and Warner. That’s way too much for the music consumer to even begin to process and for the majors to properly market and promote. But it pales in comparison to what’s uploaded by indie labels and DIY musicians. That’s another 90,000 songs. Daily. Music Business Worldwide points out that for every song released by one of the Big Three, 24 come from other sources.
What happens to all these songs? In the case of about 20 per cent of them (39.2 million tracks or roughly one for each living person in Canada) nothing. Nothing at all. They’re completely lost and never heard by anyone, ever.
Another interesting stat: A full third of the 196 million new audio and video tracks were created during the pandemic. If we back up one more year, we see that half of all the music available today was created since 2020. Musicians obviously took COVID-19 lockdowns as an opportunity to write songs. And even though things have returned to normal, that firehose of DIY uploads shows zero signs of slowing down.
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Well, so what? There are a couple of issues.
First, with so much choice out there, it’s tempting to default to listening to songs and artists you already know. Sorting through new music is just too overwhelming. Could this skew overall listening to older songs rather than new ones? Maybe.
Second, there’s an environmental component to all this. Digital files take up space on servers. Servers require electricity. A lot of it. What’s the point of DSPs spending money on electricity to harbour songs that no one listens to? There are some suggestions that if your song doesn’t attract X plays over a certain number, it should be expunged from the global jukebox. Either that or you’ll be asked to pay a storage fee until such time your song takes off. I’ve seen discussions about what to do with these “junk” songs that are nothing more than flotsam and jetsam in the ocean of music available.
I’ll throw a third point in here just for fun. With artificial intelligence now being used to create even more music, uploads to the DSPs will soon be much higher. Maybe exponentially higher.
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If you’re a musician, none of this is encouraging. How is your music supposed to rise above all this noise that just keeps getting louder every day? Beats me. If you’re a curator of playlists, be it for Spotify or a radio station, what does your future look like? No clue, but it’s going to be overwhelming.
Want to sample some of that 20 per cent of the music universe that’s never been heard by anyone? If you have a Spotify account, use it to sign into Forgotify and get a stream of unheard songs, tracks with ZERO streams. You may be there for a while.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.
Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music Podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play
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