20 years after Napster, Gen Z leads the 2nd music revolution of the digital age

Take a look at the charts. See any patterns? In the last decade, guitar music has slowly disappeared from the popularity charts, giving way to a new wave of pop, hip-hop, and K-pop acts. Synth sounds, emphasis on rhythm and voices over melody, the eighties and nineties influences in sounds and aesthetic, samples, and multi-tracked voices seem to define the sound of Gen Z as they move into young adulthood.

While critics debate on the present and future of rock-and-roll and some established rock acts experiment away from the genre, a new generation takes advantage of the technology at their disposal to create a sound unique to them—bold, hyper-aware, hyper-connected, whimsical, and perfect for a 60-second TikTok video.

It’s been over 20 years since Gen X and older Millennials started sharing music on Napster, changing the way music was discovered, sold, and consumed. Suddenly, people had access to an unprecedented catalog of music from all over the world—for free. 

In that time, nothing and everything has changed. Fans have even more ways to discover new music and support their favorite acts—from streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music to YouTube and platforms like Bandcamp. Now, in 2021, artists can cut off the middle man and promote their music themselves, at least until their career gets too big for DIY music distribution and touring. 

The newest way for young musicians to promote themselves is TikTok. Its rise as one of the favorite social media platforms of Gen Z is taking digital music distribution to its natural consequences. If in the old days people shared files through P2P networks like Napster to give exposure to their favorite bands, nowadays its user-generated content on Tiktok propelling many new and undiscovered artists to fame.

One big change arising from social media is the democratization of music creation. In other words, more people have the tools they need to make music—music instruments and equipment, editing software–and putting it out there using social media for free. These musicians are not big acts backed by multinational record labels. They’re your classmate, your neighbor, your cousin. They record in their bedroom and make videos with their cellphones. 

Just like influencers and YouTubers in previous years, relatability is a big factor in their early success.

Musicians like 20-year-old New Zealander Benee and 21-year-old Canadian Powfu have seen a meteoric rise since their songs were used in millions of videos on the platform. A quick look at the YouTube comment sections of their popular songs ‘Supalonely’ and ‘Death Bed (Coffee for your Head)’, respectively, shows that many listeners came from TikTok. After their songs went viral, Benee released her debut album and Powfu signed with Columbia and released an EP. 

Those who are lucky enough to get a viral Tiktok song need to be smart about using the momentum to secure a way to a more mainstream career, but artists can’t count on having a viral hit on social media to launch their career. For most artists, promotion is relentless hard work that involves creating content frequently and engaging with their audience. 

Although the internet has made promotion tools more accessible to artists, that also has its downsides.

AI already has a prominent role in music curation, and it will only grow over time. On the one hand, it means users will get better, more varied recommendations. On the other hand, it’ll be more difficult to keep people’s attention for too long. 

Before the age of file sharing and streaming, music was collectible. You had a limited budget to buy music, so you had to make sure every record you bought was worth it. Now, most streaming services allow users to access a catalog of millions of songs for less than the price of a CD. 

Why is this a problem? Well, music is still expensive to produce, but the prices people and platforms are paying for it is abysmal. Streaming services pay between $0.011 and $0.001 per play. While the big acts get a pretty penny for streams, the vast majority of artists are not making enough from streaming to pay their bills.

Most streaming services use a ‘pro rata’ system to distribute payments to artists. The platform pools all the subscription money takes out and distributes it according to the number of plays each artist gets. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never listened to Ed Sheeran on Spotify—he still gets part of your subscription money. 

In this scenario, most artists turned to touring as their primary way to make a profit. Touring is also expensive, but it puts more money in their hands than streaming or merch sales. If in previous decades artists toured to promote a record, perhaps after the year 2000 artists release new albums to have a reason to tour. 

However, with the pandemic paralyzing the live music industry, artists are finding other ways to monetize their work. Platforms like Patreon and Bandcamp allow artists to monetize their work outside the album-tour cycle, giving them more freedom to create individual songs regularly instead of releasing new material every 3-4 years. This also works well with a music industry where playlists and viral hits take the front seat over albums.

What else does the future hold from here? All bets are off, but it wouldn’t be surprising if streaming is adopted more widely for paid concerts. Some music festivals have live-streamed shows before, but it can be a way to help some artists stay afloat until better times come and live performances are safe again. 

Social media and the effects of COVID-19 on live events have brought drastic changes in the way music is created, promoted, and consumed. A new generation is taking charge of their own creative process from beginning to end, building a vibrant, distinctive music scene with the potential to leave a lasting impact on the way creators profit from their work.

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