It’s no secret that the very nature of the music industry has shifted dramatically in recent years.
Various well documented and widely discussed factors have had an impact on how we perceive and access music in the post internet age. But I’m not here to discuss the merits of downloading or streaming, but rather to ask a simple question: Are there too many bands?
It feels like we’ve either reached or are about to reach a saturation point where every genre and sub genre is bristling with proponents. The very nature of the industry means there is no overall control of how many bands are out there, plying their wares, and the outcome of this degree of saturation is that it becomes harder to function as a going concern.
There are more bands at a time when there is less income making it harder than ever to earn a living from making music.
Being in a band has always been a highly desirable occupation; it marries the joys of creativity with the visceral excitement of live performance and all the paraphernalia that goes along with the "rock star" lifestyle. Therefore there are lots of people who want to make music, become famous, be successful or just get their 15 minutes. And one of the truly great things about music is that anyone can have a go, all you need do is string together a few chords or cut up a few samples and you’re making music. However not everyone is talented at it and only a precious few (relatively speaking) rise above the rich and varied melting pot of the "unsigned" to receive the investment required to get them on the radar.
One of the most startling statistics of this year is that not one artist’s album has gone Platinum in the first nine and half months (as reported by Forbes); that means no one has sold one million albums so far this year. Even if you bear in mind the fact that most sales occur in the last quarter it’s still quite shocking. No doubt the ability to buy individual tracks or just stream the songs you like has contributed to the devaluing of the album as the default music medium, but the sheer extent of choice must also contribute to this dilution of sales figures.
For all it’s flaws and excesses the pre internet music business and label system acted as a kind of quality and quantity control, ensuring that the limited number of acts that got to the point of releasing records were of suitably high quality to achieve a reasonable level of success. Granted this was in the pursuit of profit, but by inadvertently limiting the number of bands out there they increased the quality of the material on offer.
The modern music industry is a different beast but it still pursues profit. It does this by diversifying, offering more niche products, trying to tap into new audiences and by saturating the market with sound-a-likes. As a result there is more pressure on new acts to deliver quickly and less willingness to develop acts over time. This has created a worrying trend of high impact debut albums followed by less than stellar second offerings followed by the band being quietly dropped before the third. There is much less risk taking and all this means that while there are more bands there is, paradoxically, less choice.
It’s been a while since a major new genre has burst on to the scene, modern popular music seems to be driven forward by sub-genres and new interpretations of old ideas. Maybe this is a natural progression? Fifty years after Decca records rejected The Beatles on the basis that "guitar groups are on the way out" maybe the time when they are is fast approaching? A lot of the most seismic genre shifts were inspired by new sounds: the electric guitar, the synthesiser, the sampler not to mention advances in recording technology. But are there any more new sounds to be made? An average laptop is now capable of producing practically any sound imaginable so have we finally run out of new sounds? I can’t answer that question but I’m hoping there’s someone out there, beavering away in their bedroom, who can.
I started this article with a question for which I have no answer; there are many bands out there but who can say if there are too many? I will defend to my last breath the right of anyone to get out there and make music because there is great personal satisfaction to be derived from the simple act of making music – things only get messy when music meets the industry. Hopefully this difficult period we’re experiencing is just a period of flux before things settle down. Music is a true joy to behold and there are many good people out there making it for exactly the right reasons.
Andy Coules (andycoules.co.uk) is a sound engineer and audio educator who has toured the world with a diverse array of acts in a wide range of genres.