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The internet blew up the pop star factory
And the world and music biz will be better for it: corporately-manufactured stars are a blight on culture, creativity and possibly themselves
“Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.”
The music biz once again mourns the fact that their industry has changed and they’ve done almost nothing about it for two decades now. The story is just tired at this point, we’ve written on it several times.
In an era where streaming platforms own discoverability, not radio stations, and UGC, not MTV function as pop catnip for the masses, the traditional model of breaking new stars is crumbling under the weight of digital. This was all but inevitable as on the internet diversity, aggregation, incentives ultimately rule everything around us — not music industry suits.
Amidst the sector’s struggle to create lasting sensations, one cannot help but wonder if the relentless march of tech has finally torn apart the seams of the star-making machinery. We’re still early days in this unwind, but an unwind it is. The recent sentiment echoing through the music industry claims that "nobody knows how to break music right now, they're all lost." Well, yeah. Star power by decree of fiat was the last century (and good riddance, frankly).
The traditional path to stardom, once dominated by powerful record label and lawyers platforming barely-sentient teenagers via radio airplay, seems more arcane daily in the age of viral trends and algorithm-driven playlists. The music industry's attempts to manufacture stars through glossy marketing campaigns and carefully curated images now appear to fall flat in a world where authenticity, relatability and memes reign supreme. The internet has granted artists unprecedented access to their audience allowing them to bypass gatekeepers and establish direct connections. The result? A deluge of fresh voices flooding the stage, with execs trained in an am/fm world asking themselves: “does anyone really know how to sift through the noise?”
The analogy between the pop music business and sensationalist news outlets is eerily fitting. In an age where clickbait and shallow content dominate the media landscape, the parallels to the manufactured world of pop stardom are uncanny. Just as discerning readers seek out indie or serious news sources, discerning music listeners are drawn to independent artists who offer a genuine and unique experience (and full albums, not clips or ‘hits’), rather than the conveyor belt of cookie-cutter (and frankly depressing) chum-bucket songs churned out by the corporate music machine. While the trad guard appears flustered at trends that should have been easy to see coming, it heralds a golden age for ideas and music alike (even if monetization hasn’t quite caught up). Again as I wrote at the bottom of this post, the future doesn’t have to be bad. The long tail of artists is significantly more talented and creative than what you’re spoon fed by MBAs (separately, my wife and I watched ‘Begin Again’ on Netflix last night which was a fun movie on this post’s topic and perhaps a bit of unintentional optimism even shared by record label execs themselves for a new future).
It's undeniable that the music industry has been forever altered by the internet's democratization of distribution. Each day sees a tidal wave of new songs and albums uploaded to the web (1,000s) creating an abundance of choices. The conventional top-down, radio-industrial complex that once held sway over music charts and user preference struggles to maintain relevance in this chaotic sea of creativity. From a ruthless capitalist perspective, the product quality is significantly worse from the large institutions, and it’s an inevitability they’re outgunned. The age-old formula of pushing songs through mainstream media no longer guarantees success, leaving record labels scratching their heads and yearning for the days when their influence was unquestioned.
I’ve posted this video before but I will again: as Frank Zappa explains, this is the best possible outcome and “music lindy” — a return to form of celebrating a diverse number of artists, styles, sounds and experiments, as opposed to worshipping Disney-like caricatures providing soulless, devoid of meaning music (providing the soundtrack to a soilless, devoid of meaning world). Unserious humans get unserious art (and unserious art produces unserious humans). We must break the cycle.
The culprit behind the music industry’s struggle lies in the fundamental nature of manufactured stars, and where all this was always going to end. The contrived and calculated image of a pop sensation, meticulously molded by corporate executives, now rings hollow in a world that craves genuine expression, boundary-pushing creativity and relatable narratives. The recent memory of the "Extremely Dangerous to Our Democracy" clip serves as a stark reminder of the dangers of orchestrated narratives, resonating eerily similar with the assembly-line approach to star-making.
None of this is entirely different to what the music industry does. You get glimpses of it when you see media try and do reporting on music. Bless their hearts to discover it. It’s really not hard to see, but more than this it’s the vapidity and safetyism. Art does not come from a factory. This is all just more cultural nihilism.
Say you still cared about none of this. You’re still doing damage you don’t even realize to your personal creativity and ability to think by letting the aural cancer from the music factory poison your subconscious. Music, unlike text or video, possesses a unique power to program the human brain, evoking emotions and memories and calling us to action in a way different from other forms of art: it bypasses our logic circuits and goes straight to our deeper, more primitive layers. I am personally extremely careful what I let in, and am unsure why you wouldn't be. I strongly believe people will look back at this era similar to how we do the previous one of consuming mass amounts of refined sugars or seed oils. Of course we live in a free society, so no one will tell you what to do here, and you’re free to elect to poison your mind, just like your body. But you tend to get the state of mind and creative output you nurture (your output can’t be better than a remix of what is input). If you trust nurturing an interesting and iconoclast creative persona to major labels, I don’t really know what to tell you here. They’re the antithesis of art and creativity, a dead end of a cancerous evolutionary tree branch. We’re quietly in a renaissance of creative music but you have to choose to join.
The struggle to break new pop stars reflects a larger shift in cultural consumption patterns, where audiences yearn for substance over spectacle, authenticity over artifice. At least by those who wish to free themselves from the depression and anxiety propagated by institutions failing us (note: I am actually not of the mindset they all are, and am not a permabear, but do believe the music industry in particular is existentially broken).
As the industry grapples with this shift, one thing remains clear: the days of relying solely on manufactured stars are fading, and a new, more genuine era of musical expression is dawning. We’re still early to this one, but it does feel we’re at the end of a ‘fourth turning’ event for this sector. Unless the world stays infantilized forever, or we have simply lost this aspect of broader culture (which would be a very dark timeline).
Final note: I finished this post and felt like I shouldn’t wax poetic about there being more interesting alternatives to manufactured child stars without doing my part to point to examples. For friends and those who want something different, I’ve been curating interesting music I find around the web for many years here. Not shameless self-promotion, as these aren’t my tunes. Broadly, even if you didn’t like the style of anything I curate, the point is many people do this now and you can pretty easily find and connect with them. So, as I said above, you can choose to have music served by algos/exec-appointed committees who work at major labels that sue their own fans and hate internet users, or let other humans help with this one. I plan to die being on the side of individuals with a point of view here.
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