If you want to understand the future of the music industry, follow Cortney Harding. She is an expert at helping emerging artists find audiences through the intersection of music, branding, and technology — the three essential requirements for any artist to succeed in the reinvented music industry. Her resume includes being Billboard‘s music editor and working with hot music start-ups such as interactive media site ThingLink (a source of innovative digital music art) and Muzooka, a new hybrid streaming service and intermediary that helps artists, brands, and music executives find each other. (If you hear a fresh artist playing at a hotel like the W, chances are Muzooka may have had a hand working behind the scenes connecting the artist and the hotel). Harding, who writes a music column and co-hosts a podcast, recently spoke with me about the state of the industry — and it’s not always pretty for anyone who clings to pre-Napster days when record labels and albums ruled. She also has some words for artists: look for your audience in unexpected places, super serve your fans, and don’t plan on making money off your music.
Sound bleak? To the contrary: as Harding sees it, artists have more ways to find audiences than they did in the so-called good old days of the 1990s, when, in actuality, only a small handful of musicians really had it good.
Read on for an insight into a wide-ranging discussion that covers everything from the future of music streaming to how artists can succeed in a fractured industry.
You have been both a music journalist and consultant, collaborating with music companies ranging from Muzooka to Soundrop. Why did you switch over from journalism to marketing and consulting?
Well, I haven’t made the switch completely — I still write a weekly music tech blog and co-host a podcast. But I saw an opportunity in the market a few years ago and was really curious about startups and wanted to see what I could learn working in that field. Journalism is a tough place to make a living and it seemed like there was more of a future in the startup space. My goal for my career is always to be learning new skills and growing. Who knows, I might stay with startups, I might find a path back to writing, or I might do something totally different next.
Music is a notoriously fractured industry. What excites you about the industry?
The fact that it has been so disrupted, and that there are so many new opportunities to experiment. I think people recognize at this point that you can’t just cling to the old ways in music, and there is a willingness to try new things. Music is also growing on a global level, and I’m excited to see where the next big markets are.
What’s on your playlist right now? Which artists excite you?
I just got Apple Music and am working my way through the Indie Hits playlists year by year. In terms of new stuff, I love the new Sleater-Kinney, the new Bjork, Speedy Ortiz, and Torres.
It’s difficult to keep up with all the streaming services in the marketplace now. There’s even a streaming service for Christian rock available. Where are streaming services headed? What do you think the landscape for streaming services will look like a few years from now?
I think niche streaming services are super interesting — I was just talking to someone about an Indian and South East Asian service that is doing well in the expat community in the U.S.A. On a bigger scale I think there will be a contraction in the market and we’ll be left with a few big players, kind of like what we have in streaming movies and TV right now. Much of the future of streaming depends on the future of connectivity and devices, and better connectivity will only be good for streaming. But formats also come and go, and I don’t think streaming is the final place we end up.
What are your feelings about artists such as the Black Keys and Taylor Swift, who have been outspoken critics of streaming services such as Spotify?
I don’t want anyone to get the idea that musicians should not get paid — because they should. Musicians should monetize their content. But there is the idea and the reality. The reality is that you have to give something up to get something in return.
Musicians like to hearken back to the pre-digital era as being the height of fairness and prosperity for musicians, but the pre-Napster era was only good for certain people. If you ran a record label in the 1990s, your life was awesome. If you were one of the few boy bands that hit it big in the 1990s, your life was awesome. But the music industry was protectionist then. It was very hard for a bands to get their music into stores. There were bands every now and then who broke through, but the acts that succeeded were a small segment of Western acts in Western countries.