When Billboard began counting iTunes sales towards its Hot 100 singles chart, it democratized an area of the chart that had long been ruled by the whims of the radio industry. Hit songs still functioned the same way, but an artist with a strong fan base could now more easily prevail over a lesser known artist’s breakout track, at least in the short run. Soon, certain buying habits of the iTunes demographic started to warp how popular music looked and sounded. When 2013 became the first year in Hot 100 history that no African-American artist topped the chart, the way iTunes single sales seemed to be disproportionately low for hip-hop and R&B artists was frequently pointed out as a possible cause.
YouTube is the other major player. In 2013 Billboard started counting YouTube views towards chart rankings, meaning major pop artists with millions of views like Justin Timberlake and Macklemore beat out the rest. While Jay Z, Kanye West, J. Cole, Beyoncé and Ciara all dropped albums in 2013, it was Baauer's YouTube sensation "Harlem Shake," that dominated the charts for weeks. It begs the question of what popularity really means anymore. Is a song the most popular if we listen to it every other day for a year, or if we binge play it off YouTube 300 times in a month? These are questions that record labels and artists are already starting to ask, adjusting the way they release music to match. Rihanna dropped the music video for "Stay" during Billboard's tracking week for the single. It garnered 3.8 million views on YouTube, which propelled the song from from its ranking at 57 to 3. Major music videos can garner millions of views in a matter of days. While video killed the radio star back in the days of MTV, videos now have the power to erect a Billboard star in a number of days.
With music sales cratering and traditional avenues of income shrinking, there are fewer and fewer high-end studios with cutting-edge technology.
With the actual recording and production of music, as with everything else, the last 14 years have been less about completely new innovations as they’ve been about the existing technology become better, and more affordable. With music sales cratering and traditional avenues of income shrinking, there are fewer and fewer high-end studios with cutting-edge technology. But the ability to make something sound not just good, but polished and professional, from a home studio has become cheaper and easier with each passing year. Justin Vernon, better known as Bon Iver, can lock himself in a cabin in the woods and create his entire critically acclaimed 2007 album For Emma, Forever Ago. Of course, you still can’t polish a turd—if a vocalist or musician lacks talent or creativity, if the room they’re recording in is acoustically dead, there’s no plug-in you can buy that fixes that. But more and more, there are ways around what would’ve been roadblocks to making a hit record, or a good record, in the past.
Pro Tools, and other ways of editing performances, correcting mistakes and compiling the best of multiple takes together have been around since well before the turn of the century. But as only the most old-fashioned and retro-minded producers hold onto the old ways of doing things, two-inch tape and Neve recording consoles become scarcer and more expensive. You almost have to be a rich, passionate rock star like Dave Grohl or Jack White to continue recording analog. Meanwhile, the appropriately named GarageBand has been part of the DIY revolution in home recording.
By the end of the ’90s, big budget pop music had begun to resemble futuristic sci-fi movies—it was all about showcasing the shiny, metallic perfection that could only be attained with the best machines money can buy. Major pop sensations like Janet Jackson, Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, Enrique Iglesias and Usher dominated the charts and airwaves alike. But as synths, drum machines and samplers found their ways into the hands of younger and less experiences musicians, things changed. Home recorded hip-hop beats and dance records began to take on the intimate, idiosyncratic qualities once associated only with indie bands with 4-track recorders. Those indie bands all got their own synths and beat machines, and began reflecting the diverse tastes of the iTunes generation with greater freedom. Genres became blurrier and harder to distinguish from each other, while dozens of new subgenres sprang up overnight.
But as synths, drum machines and samplers found their ways into the hands of younger and less experiences musicians, things changed.
Even something like Auto-Tune, a pitch correction technology once used to make singers sound effortlessly tuneful, was eventually subverted, as if hackers got ahold of it and cracked its code so that it would never work the way it was supposed to again. Cher’s “Believe” had already shown how the exposed fissured of Auto-Tune could sound delightfully wrong, but it was T-Pain, and the army of rappers and R&B singers in his wake, who truly expanded the software’s horizons as an aesthetic choice.
In 2014, small sea changes continue to come about at a rapid clip. YouTube popularizing songs has given way to Vine memes creating hit songs. Smartphones used to only double as MP3 players, now they're equipt with always-available offline streaming services like Spotify. Meanwhile, Apple and other tech companies, often using these kinds of platforms as a loss leader to sell their products or drive up stock prices, have had debilitating effects on the ability of labels and especially artists to actually profit off of their music. But no matter how little money there is, the means of production will continue becoming cheaper. No matter what happens in society, in pop culture, in technology, music finds a way to not just survive but flourish.
Al Shipley is a writer living in Baltimore.