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How the music industry is evolving at the expense of independent artists

“If you go too long without showing up, you’re forgotten.”

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The era of YouTube, Soundcloud, and TikTok has forever changed not only the way we consume music — but even the ways in which artists create and put out music. More singles are being released than ever before, and full-length albums no longer seem to be the end goal even for artists who are trying to make a name for themselves. According to Billboard’s Year-End Report, the U.S. sold 233.8 million digital songs in 2020. Whereas album sales (physical and digital) made even less, totaling at 102.4 million.

In Beyonce’s documentary Life Is But a Dream, the star confirmed the statistics recorded in Billboard. She told an interviewer, “People don’t make albums anymore. They just try to sell a bunch of quick singles. Then they burn out, put out a new one, etc. People don’t even listen to a body of work anymore.”

The cultural shift around music could be attributed to none other than social media, where independent and mainstream artists alike are experiencing heightened pressure from their labels and followers to release a high volume of content in order to maintain audience engagement.

R&B star Normani is a prime example of what happens when relevance takes a backseat to creativity. The singer initially debuted as a member of Fifth Harmony. The group formed on the X Factor in 2012 and split six years later to pursue their own solo careers. Normani has yet to release an album in an effort to perfect her craft, and her fans have not allowed her to forget it. On countless occasions, she has been criticized for delaying her debut and offering singles instead.

In a recent interview on the Zach Sang Show, Normani spoke about her hesitation to release a full album, including her latest singles Motivation and Wildside. The album has taken over two years to finish, which is how it should be, according to the singer. Normani stressed the importance of delaying its release so that she could take time to find her voice and make music that felt as timeless as her predecessors.

“I love artist development, and I feel like that’s [sometimes] lacking because things are moving so fast,” she told Zach. “There’s records coming out every week, and it’s like ‘I gotta keep up.’”

But what happens when the same pressure, deadlines and industry standards are applied to independent artists who lack the proper resources to take a hiatus?

Justine Thompson, formally known as Jus Muse, has been a performance artist since she was a child: performing, dancing, and in more recent times, producing her own songs. While music is such an integral part of her life, the 24 year old has yet to commit to making a full body of work, such as an album.

Thompson told me, “I don’t have the urge to put together something extensive because I know that no one’s going to interact with a long project.”

And the list of reasons why she believed people would not interact with an album were a mile long, the most interesting being that independent artists do not have the luxury to create as freely as mainstream artists. For Thompson and many others like her, not only is there pressure to release music but an added element of releasing music at record speed just to receive half of the same engagement as mainstream artists. The singer discussed the Internet as a tool but also a detriment to independent artists who attempt to keep up.

“People don’t have a minute. You have to give your best 30 seconds and make a hook that’s memorable enough for them to remember you,” Thompson said.

To be frank, the starving-but-hustling artist is a tale as old as time. What sets this newer generation apart is how they are able to use social media as a resource. However, resources like TikTok and Instagram have plenty of cons as well as pros.

Bianca Jade is a force in her own right and lives to see her audience grow along with her artistry. The Miami native started performing at the ripe age of nine. Although she has never succumbed to the constraints of deadlines and requests from her supporters, Jade does recognize the limitations of being a one-woman show in today’s music industry. By the time she turned 18, and had started writing her own songs and recording her own music, the business had already been flipped on its head.

The Everything I’ve Got singer told me, “It’s constantly shifting, right? We’ve gone from the physical CDs to the streaming age. Now, we’re here, you know, it’s all about these bite‑sized pieces and the instant gratification in the moment.”

Producer and vocalist for In-Flight Safety, John Mullane, talks about the music industry.

Too often, instant gratification comes at the expense of independent artists trying to get their sound out into the world. New expectations from artist fans — and even their labels — require artists to be machines, doling out single after single to keep everyone happy. These unrealistic standards tend to lead to artist burnout.

Brandy Haze, another independent R&B artist, is passionate about wearing many different hats when it comes to her music. The visuals, concept and sound have to be right before the public even has a chance to see what she’s working on next.

But even the L.A. musician has admitted to being overwhelmed by all that she is responsible for while trying to break into the music industry.

“I would say that, time-wise, it’s hard for me to be on social media a lot. That’s definitely a hindrance because the more you’re active, the more you can engage with your fans — it’s really become one of the ways to make it,” she told me.

Photo of Brandy Haze provided by artist

The same cannot be said for popular artists who are currently established. It has been a solid eight years since Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time was released; five years since Rihanna’s Anti; and four since Kendrick Lamar’s Damn. Each artist has faced backlash, but the difference lies in how they have been afforded the opportunity to step back and simply create.

Today, independent artists are living in a whole new world — a world where they have to sacrifice their creativity in order to keep up with their counterparts. Mainstream artists tend to have teams of producers, agents, managers, publicists, etc. backing their every move. Whereas independent artists are at the forefront of every aspect when it comes to their music production in order to get it heard by the public.

The biggest setback of all? Time. Independent artists are being conditioned to release something on tight deadlines to finally get their spot in the limelight and appease their supporters.

As Thompson said, “If you go too long without showing up, you’re forgotten.”