For at least the past 50,000 years or so, humans have entertained themselves and others with music and singing. Up until about 100 years ago, those artists good enough to perform for a living made their money by, well, performing.
Only since the advent of recorded music have performers had the ability to spend a few weeks in a studio recording and then, after some additional production steps and promotion, sit back and watch the money roll in. Usually, they tour for a while to promote their record, but the rest of their time – until it’s time to record the next album – is theirs to spend how they wish. Do charity work, meditate in Tibet, descend into a drug-induced fog, or whatever.
Ever since the selling of recordings (records, cassettes, CDs, downloads) became the primary source of income for artists, the emphasis on quality live performing has lessened. Various sorts of studio magic combined with slick promotion has enabled marginally talented performers to achieve fame and fortune, especially in the pop and rock genres. Many of them have been incapable of performing live nearly as well as they do in their recordings. In concert venues, they can cover their shortcomings with extreme volume, pitch correction, backing singers and musicians, and theatrics.
Lip-synced performances on television (and sometimes live) became common in the 1960s. This practice has produced moments that today seem absurdly staged and comical, such as this gem by the folk group The Mamas and the Papas on the Ed Sullivan show in 1966. Lip-syncing is now generally frowned upon, although it still occurs in live and televised performances. One of Michael Jackson’s most iconic performances was at Motown 25, where he unveiled his “moonwalk” for the first time during a lip-synced rendition of Billie Jean.
Perhaps the most egregious deception of this kind was perpetrated with the euro-pop duo Milli Vanilli, who won a Grammy for Best New Artist in 1990. It was soon revealed that Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan, who were promoted as Milli Vanilli, were lip-syncing at their concerts and didn’t even sing on the their recordings.
Music industry revenues began to take a hit soon after the advent of digital music and personal computers with optical drives. CDs could easily be copied and shared, digital downloads could be stripped of digital rights management (DRM), and peer-to-peer file sharing services (such as Napster and its successors) allowed exchanges of large quantities of music online. Millennials used these methods to obtain and use digital music without paying in their teen and college years. Yes, this is stealing, but the end result is that most Americans under the age of 30 are used to not paying to listen to music.
Streaming music services, around since the mid-1990s, have exploded in popularity as smartphones have put music players in the pockets of young consumers. The negotiation of royalties between the largest of the services (such as Spotify and Pandora) and the record labels has been a point of contention for many high-earning performers. Taylor Swift, AC/DC, and other prominent artistshave refused to allow their music to be streamed.
Into this environment came Jay Z and other megastars, launching a pay-only streaming music service called Tidal. Touted as “the first ever artist-owned global music entertainment platform” at a painfully awkward press conference in March, the service is being marketed as a better experience for the consumer and a way to preserve the value of the art. Putting aside that the service seems likely only to put more money in the hands of its super-rich owners, Tidal is swimming against the tide. Simply put, young fans don’t want to pay to listen to recorded music, and unless Tidal is willing to offer an option for free service supported by ads, it is likely to struggle.
The most popular artists (including the owners of Tidal) are the ones whose bottom line has been most impacted by streaming music, not the struggling up-and-comers. The invention of digital music formats and the Internet have provided easy and low-cost opportunities for new and lesser-known artists to distribute their music and promote themselves to potential fans. Justin Bieber is probably the most prominent example (for better or worse) of an artist who originally garnered attention on the Internet.
If revenues from recording music continue to fall, perhaps there will be an increased emphasis on live performance. It’s possible that musicians and singers who can actually perform their music will rise to the top. Maybe, just maybe, that would be good for the artist and the art.