Cortney Harding is on a mission to wake up the music industry.
The writer and music industry consultant has recently published How We Listen Now: Essays and Conversations about Music and Technology, a provocative examination of two different worlds: on the one hand, consumers are experiencing music on their own time, in their own place, and on their own terms. They’re not just streaming music; they’re also discovering great music through games, in hotel lobbies, movies, and many other media. And they’re not just listening to music anymore — they’re remixing their favorite songs and reposting those moments on apps, video- and song-sharing platforms, and everywhere else they can express their passions. But on the other hand, musicians, music labels, and other members of the music industry continue to struggle to keep up with the new reality of how people experience music, clinging to old models of music sharing, such as hoarding songs on record albums.
Harding sees music executives and musicians as viewing their world in black and white terms: everything that happened before Napster and everything that has happened afterward. In fact, she asserts correctly, Napster was just a precursor to several waves of change that occur to this day. Her book assesses those changes, ranging from streaming to user-generated content. How We Listen Now argues that only musicians and executives who constantly adapt to a constantly changing new normal will succeed. And the consumer defines that new normal.
Hers is a book that constantly asks questions. Why do artists make record albums anymore when it is patently clear that consumers don’t discover music through albums like they used to? Why do artists insist on releasing singles in the traditional 3-minute, verse-chorus-verse-solo-chorus format at a time when younger listeners especially like to listen to shorter snippets of content that they can remix into their own Vines, Instagrams, and Snaps? Why aren’t more artists more active on Twitch? Why doesn’t Spotify launch a music label and get into content creation as Netflix has?
For instance, she bluntly calls for artists to kill their obsession with record albums: “For some artists, who really want to present a body of work and tell a story, fine, keep [the record album],” she writes. “For everyone else, just scrap it.” She goes on to write that in the CD era, record albums became bloated filler, and consumers rejected them when Napster unshackled them from having to buy an entire collection of often-times mediocre songs when all they wanted to do was sample one or two songs from a new artist. And yet, with record albums in a permanent state of decline, artists cling to the format because it’s familiar to them. Even worse, artists insist on hoarding songs and releasing them every few years in album format. And artists cannot afford to be invisible for months at a stretch.
“So just start putting stuff out there,” she writes. “Kids are fine with imperfections . . . Release little clips of tracks and see what the response is. If it doesn’t get a bite, toss some more chum in the water.”
It’s not that Harding is on a war against record albums; in fact, she objects to long-held assumptions that hold back artists from succeeding in the record industry, and the record album is a prime example. She also rethinks the singles format, noting that in 2014 Spotify reported that one in four songs get skipped before the five-second mark.
“To me, this points to the fact that listeners want something shorter, more akin to the length of Vine or Instagram videos, than the standard verse-chorus-verse-solo-chorus etc etc format they’ve been served for the past several years,” she writes. “But this would also force a radical reimagining of what a song actually looks like.”
She challenges artists to share “clips and stems of tracks” and invite listeners to remix them and create their own tracks. Why? Because listeners are already doing so with their own customized soundtracks to their lives, which they post on Snapchat and YouTube all the time. And the same holds true for videos: consumers, especially younger ones, are creating their own musical soundtracks on video platforms such as Flipagram. She urges artists to get proactive about sharing their music for use on Flipagram. “What if the true use for music is not to be consumed but to act as a platform for further creativity?” she asks.
And the music industry has been catching on. Since she wrote the core of the essays that comprise the ebook, Flipagram has signed licensing deals with labels and artists to permit them to share their music in an official capacity on the platform. To Harding, platforms such as Flipagram play an important role in the future of music. The more artists share their music on platforms where consumers live, work, and play, the sooner they will find an audience. And those platforms include Spotify. She is unsympathetic to artists who refuse to accept streaming. Spotify may not pay the bills — but it’s where audiences are built. And you cannot monetize music without first finding an audience.
After pointing out the disconnect between how artists share music and how people experience it, Harding talks with visionaries, thought leaders, and musicians who are closing that gap. Tellingly, the forward thinkers include people who do not conventionally fit the description of a music industry insider — such as Andy Weissman, a partner at Union Square Ventures whose portfolio includes Soundcloud. The conversations with people living in the thick of changes make for interesting reading. You get to know how indie musicians earn their livings, finding audiences through licensing deals, finding day jobs when needed, and building a support infrastructure around them. If you read the conversations closely, you get the message: the time has long come and gone when artists could succeed by leaving the business end to someone else. Artists need to wear many hats to succeed: musician, social media maven, merchandise seller, distributor, and overall hustler.
How We Listen Now provides a snapshot into a changing landscape. If you want to stay abreast of those changes, I suggest you follow Cortney Harding’s column and get to know her better through her website, and subscribe to her email newsletter. Her book is a great way to get started on your own journey.
Related: “‘Be Prepared to Never Make Money on Your Work‘”: A Music Insider Speaks,” July 8, 2015.