As 2020 looms, it’s important to look back and reflect upon what has been, for music, a momentous and historic two historic decades. The period from 2000 until today has been a masterclass in how to create, re-invent, and then market every inch of your music, your mind and your body. Amongst the euphoria of Teenage Dream, The Fame Monster and 1989, it’s also pivotal to remember artists have set the template of how to establish change that ripples beyond the industry; Taylor Swift demanding better rights for artists via an open letter to Apple, or Rihanna proving that brands can prove lucrative when she got Samsung to pay for $25 million worth of her album ANTI, offering it as a free download to fans with a code she tweeted. The rise of social media and the best free advertiser, the ‘stan’. The rise of Rihanna. Katy. Stefani.
On the cusp of a new decade, it has to be asked: where will the next 20 years take us? We’ve seen just how much can happen in a month (I Kissed A Girl and Just Dance were both released in the April of 2008), and with 240 of them between now and 2040, just how much is going to change? And more importantly, what if it all goes wrong? What happens if this all turns a little too ‘Black Mirror’, as we saw recently with Miley Cyrus’ bumpy portrayal of trapped Singer Ashley O, with capital taking precedence over satisfaction, with profit margins a higher commandment than morality?
Segueing rather bumpily from the aforementioned TV show into the bulk of the article, in the episode ‘Rachel, Jack & Ashley O’, there exists a concept entitled ‘Ashley Infinite’. The idea for those unaware is that the artist in questions’ likeness, singing voice and persona can be manipulated through virtual reality technology; the theory being that if, for any reason there exists dispute between musician and label/management, you can simply ‘remove the original’ and, in a sense, ‘clone’ a realistic replica. Now, how you’d work your way around a meet ‘n’ greet with this is a mystery to me, and the idea is expertly played through the show as a tool to strip talented musicians of the only power they have (their uniqueness), but, from the corporate side, it’s kind of a home-run. One, in fact, that is already being concocted this very day, with holographic versions of Michael Jackson and Tupac already having hit stages in 2014 and 2012 respectively, and a virtual tour of Amy Winehouse being threatened for the near future.
Playing simultaneous gigs around the world through a screen, streaming to Berlin and New York from a corporate office on Old Street in London, with one dancer cutting millions’ worth of artist fees, stage set-up costs, and the extensive expenses associated with a Worldwide tour, is a no-brainer for profit margins. Investing in local tech crews to aid set-up and delivery is a rare positive of the possible future, sure, but aside from that… where is the originality? Will fans not miss the aura and grandeur of a true live show? Will the term ‘stage presence’ age like the thousands of species rendered extinct in recent years, gradually fading from memory altogether like the once euphoria-inducing arrival of a ‘Greatest Hits’ album?
Of course, there’s no money to be made without the fans to spend it; something board executives are realising year-by-year, leading us to where we are today. We all remember the Golden Globes x Fiji Water crossover earlier this year, wherein the water company hired an otherwise ‘ordinary’ girl to pose behind celebrities as they were papped on the red carpet. A rights battle ensued after she realised she was but a viral marketing campaign, and she actually ended up trying to sue them for royalties accrued by her own likeness. If that isn’t peak 2019, I don’t know what is. Brands realise that the internet is the new superpower, and they will stop at nothing to utilise it. In music-industry-specific terms, think of ways that record labels and marketing teams can entice young fans who have grown up with streaming any song they want for a cheap 4.99 a month to part ways with their pocket money and (eventually) salaries.
Today, we have merch and album combo’s to boost chart positions, and pre-order deals wherein if you put your name (and wallet) down for an album TBC this fall, you’ll receive 2 TRACKS RIGHT NOW and EVEN A PRE-SALE CODE TO SEE YOUR FAVOURITE STAR ON TOUR. In ten years, who knows where this (admittedly brilliant) forward-marketing could lead us? As we stray closer towards e-commerce, cashless society, what’s to stop record labels to see online content as currency? Madonna, for example, is currently doing this online to support her new ‘Madame X era’, persuading fans to alter their social media accounts to mimic her own. The prize? A chance to enter a signed vinyl. Thousands of fans scrambling to change their usernames, profile pictures and inform their own followers, all in the chance of grabbing a rare piece of memorabilia.
In twenty years, what’s to stop Interscope (or most likely, Syco) from launching their own app, say, fully integrated with a support system for sales to navigate around low streaming royalties and the closing of high street record stores? In order to gain credits to spend within the app, fans have to ‘compete’ in tasks to raise recognition of artists and releases, with credits used to spend at the in-app store on exclusive pre-sale offers, merch and fan experiences. Tasks can be given by app managers, from simple acts like sticking up posters in your school and tweeting out links to various associated articles and sponsored press, or designed and implemented by app users, with credits awarded on a ‘how inventive we think you were’ scale from big wigs. Here are some examples:
“Stage a flash mob for 100 credits, enough to score yourself early access to the Golden Circle for your favourite artists’ upcoming tour. Create a promo viral video that gets over 1 million hits in its first week, and we’ll send you an exclusive fan package with exclusive items you can’t buy and a personalised 10-second video to all your social media inboxes. Shave your hair or tattoo your body with an artist name, logo or lyrics, and a meet ‘n’ greet is yours (T’s and C’s apply, limitations, first-come-first-served). Feeling brave? For untold riches, fool the worldwide news into thinking you’re about to rob a bank or terrorise an airport. Work hard enough, and you’ll be recruited for our premium secret club and advance to a level your friends and enemies can only dream of”. Sound far-fetched? Don’t get too complacent.
Yes, it’s fair to say that the world will most likely become more elitist, with climate change, economic divides and, as a result of Instagram, the power of FOMO ruling many of our purchasing decisions. Naturally, any professional with a hint of entrepreneurship is going to decode how to manipulate and train the next generation from an early age into falling in line and climbing an imaginary ladder of likes, paid advertisements and the ideal career meaning that Nike will send you some free trainers in the mail every month as long as you post a photo set of you wearing them and saying how ‘actually, really comfy’ they are. Perhaps though, looking through a more optimistic lens, things may not be as bleak as they could appear, and the spectrum could swing towards a more united way of business-growth?
Every bit as tactical yet without any of the fear factor, it’s long been a tactic to employ fake rivalries and chart battles to secure media coverage at important times in artists’ careers. Lady Leshurr reported via Instagram that she was offered $250k by Atlantic Records to start ‘beef’ with Nicki Minaj; for reasons of which the specifics were never made clear, but all revolved around publicity. Kanye West’s iconic ‘Imma let you finish’ speech became so relevant to pop culture that it spawned a celebrity feud full of sharp-tongued lyrics, secretly-recorded and virally-shared phone calls and even an entire Taylor Swift album born of revenge and protection of her reputation. Looking forwards, it’s safe to assume the puppetry of artists isn’t going anywhere, and that ‘Bad Blood’ and ‘Miley, what’s good?’ are some of the tamest clashes of titans we’ll see onwards.
We’ve had Lady Gaga vs. Madonna, Mariah’s ‘I Don’t Know Her’ (‘her’ being Jennifer Lopez), and couple-turned-rivals Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, who each used the respective break-up to record and release hit songs, propelling them into pop’s history. What sex scandals, award-show interruptions and sour relationships are going to melt identities and ignite careers in the future? Is the ‘Girl Squad’ system that proved so lucrative with the release of Bad Blood (an essential cog in the Perry vs. Swift feud), recently employed by Charli xcx et al. in the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge) to become a predictable technique? Or Swift pulling everyone from Avril Lavigne to Leona Lewis on-stage, fuelling career revivals of Alanis Morisette and Mary J. Blige in the process. What can easily be marketed as ‘reaching out to an artist that I love’ (quoted by taylor on her Apple Music 1989 World Tour Documentary) could be utilised in the future to introduce smaller acts to a wider audience. It’s just smart thinking, really.
Some good news for consumers, at least. Things are likely to get a whole lot more entertaining. As the popularity of music festivals (a sure-fire way to make sure we’ll spend physical money, whether it be on merch, food and drink, festival rides, glitter, you name it) only hits new heights yearly, you can expect wilder themes and more intricately designed weekends than ever before. Your Instagram feed will thank you (and potentially gain you some extra credits), while if you’re in a creative career or the industry, you’re going to need to upgrade your portfolio cloud storage. We’re gonna need more journalists, PR specialists, and creatives to think and implement strategies that will surely see a complete reinvention of the music industry.
Stick around, and mark my words when you’re all fighting to be the ‘first like’ on a social post to win tour tickets, or camping outside arenas for days just to be at the front of the queue. Oh, wait.