‘Music – It’s About Purpose, Stupid! ‘ (How ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’ put Socially Driven Music back on the map)
[EXCLUSIVE] The music industry needs to focus on the meaning behind music, tying the art back to purpose. That’s the central thesis behind this thought-provoking piece by Stephen Love, former EVP of ATV Music, and Hanna Kahlert of MIDiA Research.
The pair believe that music for a purpose can have a major reciprocal impact on the business at a time when companies are coming to understand that consumers want social purpose in turn for product loyalty.
The title borrows from the famous James Carville quote and includes insights from Love’s time with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, as well as some cutting-edge points drawn from MIDiA’s latest reports and data.
Stay tuned for Part II tomorrow.
There continues to be a deluge of articles about the inequity intrinsic to the existing streaming financial models, especially as DSP’s become overwhelmed with user-generated content, AI, and generative artificial intelligence “songs.” The unharnessed fragmentation of music consumption and rise of disengaged, passive listening exacerbates the diminishing income of an increasing majority of artists.
Nonetheless, there has been a dearth of proposals that satisfy the breadth of participants. “It’s about purpose, stupid!,” to paraphrase the famous line by political strategist James Carville who argued that the election is about the economy.
Two prescient analyses were recently written by Mark Mulligan and Hanna Kahlert (co-author of this piece), respectively, of MIDiA Research:
Mulligan: “Streaming has shifted the majority of music behavior from active listening to lean-back consumption, using algorithms to push consumers towards niches. The result is a consumption landscape shaped by fragmentation and passivity. There is a lot more consumption than before, with more consumers monetized, but the previous, finite artist economy has been replaced by an in-effect infinite song economy. Consumption needs ‘fixing’ before remuneration.
While there are encouraging shifts towards monetizing fandom, those tools will never have full effect if audiences are simply spending their time listening passively. There will, quite simply, be no fandom to monetize.”
Kahlert: “[The Reddit blackouts have been] a frontier of what will likely be a debate that spills far beyond its borders: the clash of powers between platforms for user-generated content that need to make money, and the users who generate the content that makes the platforms valuable in the first place. As a result, platforms are having to share revenues with those creators – which is threatening their margins.
…moreover, the cultural audience shift towards values of scarcity, creativity, and authenticity are opposed to the traditionally polished ‘influencer’ content offered on the social apps – and threaten their USP if they cannot adapt. Amid all of this, revenues are dropping, and the apps are having to find ways to directly monetize users rather than continue to rely mainly on data and ad sales – a difficult ask in such a dynamic. As creators on-platform begin to demand returns for their value, the platforms will continue to find it more difficult to disrupt themselves without pushback, and platform fragmentation, rather than consolidation, will emerge.”
The points made in MIDiA, above, expertly identify some of the most significant music industry pain points, and provide the impetus for a blueprint of imaginative solutions to a rapid metamorphosis that is challenging to traditional norms and befuddling the industry writ large. We’ll drill down on some of the value propositions and “calls-to-action” that are logical solutions.
“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” – Viktor Frankl
There are music hobbyists, and there are professional artists and songwriters (craftspeople); there is also a difference between songs and tracks. Not everybody creating tracks in their bedrooms and who submits material to DSP’s is an artist or songwriter. Recognizing that music tastes are subjective, it is an objective fact that a relatively small percentage of aspirational musicians who upload their creations have the innate talent that can be nurtured. Lowering the bar to music creation is a noble idea, but we must devise methods to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Let’s stipulate that music has an undeniable role in the development of our personal identity and connection with others. If we step back for from the macro view, it is clear that music (and indeed our lives) must have a purpose to be meaningful and long-lasting, to be distinguishable from an inundation of sameness.
We contend that to achieve success, it is imperative to possess a compelling sense of purpose that permeates one’s existence and, in this context, informs music development creativity. Socially Driven Music (SDM) is the de facto leading, forward-thinking consultancy consortium that connects the dots between a mosaic of the complex music business and positive social advocacy groups for reciprocal benefit. It is a facilitator that cultivates original copyrights and links talented music creators, their fans and brands with positive social impact causes who don’t despair, but instead share a passion for actively making a difference. It is a philosophy the Japanese call Ikigai. The Japanese Ikigai (生き甲斐, lit. ‘a reason for being’) is a concept referring to something that gives a person a sense of purpose, a reason for living. We don’t accept that the purpose of today’s music industry executives should be to promote a trance-inducing, flash-in-the-pan insipid sameness. SDM’s Ikigai is also designed for reciprocal benefit. It looks to parlay each cause with supportive brands whose advertising funds are shared with musicians who have created chosen promotable themes for the project, each of which was meticulously created on a foundation of purpose.
Consumers are increasingly expecting a more personal, deeper relationship with their various product brands. What ethics do they represent, and how do they demonstrate sincere commitment to these ideals? Younger generations in particular are demanding purpose from their brands, as detailed by studies enumerated by Forbes. Fan behavior becomes more easily tracked and monetized due to its lean-in interactivity versus passive listening. The corollary is that it becomes essential to finally dispose of royalty obfuscation, to accurately analyze music consumption across diverse media, and to account for skewed charts and algorithms.
Companies like Verifi Media are demonstrating that traditional music charts and many algorithms are easily manipulated and irrelevant – meaning they can no longer reliably guide executives and listeners alike in the direction of ‘good’ or ‘successful’ music. Thus, it’s time to reinvent charts to reflect aggregate market penetration and saturation amongst a fluid collection of likely media distribution outlets utilizing music.
So, although there is always socially conscious music somewhere in the mix, it’s time for it to regain prominence. Of course, there are a lot of powerful, socially-driven tracks that have been successful – Donald Glover’s ‘This Is America’ for example, as well as ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ by Foster the People. Much more is out there, but, aside from a few of these standalone successes, a lot of it is only really breaking into niche scenes. If we contend that younger consumers are demanding greater social relevance and are engaging with it, why is this still the case?
Largely it is a reflection of music listening as a result of streaming, with artists divided between a few ‘mainstream’ stars and a multitude of lesser-known creators writing from the heart and looking simply to find their ideal fans, no matter their number. So, in a way, this is a natural trend, and one which nevertheless demands a reinvention of traditional charting and metrics. But there is more to it than that.
The problem, from a business standpoint, with driving socially-relevant music – or really anything challenging a norm, however straightforward – is that it inherently appeals most to the people being affected by the challenges being focused on. And the people most affected by the challenges, tend by definition to be the ones with the least money or political power, and so also the least sway in the charts and label signings. However, it is often music that is associated with the progressive counter-movements and becomes a clarion call, and not just background sounds, that can define movements and revolutionize music scenes. Think of House music, Jazz, Drill, Reggae, ‘War! What is it good for?’. The charts can show what’s been listened to by millions, but not whether they care – and it is that core of meaning that drives music that lasts. It is thus more important than ever, in this new crisis of meaning in the clutter of streaming, to find these artists and scenes, give them support, and bet on their ability to not only make good music but inspire real change.
“Music is the universal language of mankind.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The answer can be found in collaboration between a full-range coalition of people who care about a given issue. Packaging socially driven music will be catapulted when the need to incorporate the issues from the grassroots can’t be ignored, and sells itself to the people at the top who are compelled by its financial viability to continue the project. This can be challenging, but it is exactly these bridges (which importantly include collaborations with socially conscious brands) which need to be built.
Clearly, besides the topics most dominant in the news (e.g., the environment, gun control, abortion), there are myriad other social causes that galvanize attention, such as mental health / suicide prevention / bullying, disease, DEI, anti-discrimination, voting rights, democracy, LGBTQ+, human rights, homelessness, food scarcity, animal abuse, and many more, which should be included amongst traditional music themes more often. And, lest we forget, music fans can harness political activism to influence the politicians who affect the viability of causes and enact music laws.
“There’s something happening here | But what it is ain’t exactly clear | There’s a man with a gun over there | Telling me I got to beware | I think it’s time we stop Children, what’s that sound? | Everybody look, what’s going down? | There’s battle lines being drawn | Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong | Young people speaking their minds | Getting so much resistance from behind” – “For What It’s Worth” – Stephen Stills (Buffalo Springfield) 1966
Clever songwriters have always found metaphorical ways to make diverse social commentary palatable difficult subjects palatable and to infuse social songs with inherent intrinsic, sometimes subliminal, “call-to-action” plans. Songs like “For What It’s Worth” become classics. The solution to social apathy amongst the music industry hierarchy is to “show them the money.” It isn’t that socially poignant music isn’t being created, it is more that it is easily and mistakenly overlooked unnecessarily mostly being overlooked because it lacks a “call-to-action” for fans that is manifested by consistent interaction with and messaging of an artists’ core ideology. Music for a purpose energizes fans, creates new audiences and opens unexploited revenue opportunities. It can also engender thought and provoke grassroots debate, as is the case with the Jason Aldean controversy about his song, “Try That in a Small Town,” which has been accused of inferring racial prejudice. Juxtapose this with the meteoric resonance of Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” admonishment to politicians of the ramifications of overlooking the “Average Joe” and disregarding wealth disparity where southern pride, culture, values and making a living are synonymous. There is an interesting conversation to be had about the direction of country music as it becomes increasingly socially poignant, and how it is likely to influence the pop (and Rock ‘n’ Roll) music zeitgeist. This is a clear illustration of Socially Driven Music’s exhortations of the last several years about the need for music with a purpose (see Medium posts), along with offering a fascinating analogy about the potency of music with a message. Like Mr. Anthony, Mr. Stills was also an emerging artist in 1966 when he wrote “For What It’s Worth” about a protest over a club closing on Sunset Boulevard (but largely understood to be an anti-Vietnam protest song). Although the newer song is not likely to endure as well, its existence does invite others to speak up.
Given the propensity of younger generations to embrace purpose in brand marketing, it is axiomatic that actionable music for a purpose that is associated with social causes and brands will resonate. The book, “Good is the New Cool,” speaks to this phenomenon. Science and experience also tells us that music has major psychological and physiological effects; the limbic system, which is involved in processing emotions and controlling memory, “lights up” when our ears perceive music, and chemicals like dopamine and serotonin are released. Music can physically drive emotional shifts and galvanize action. Rather than despair about the woes of the world, music can combine and energize fandom and activism for universal benefit.
Perhaps we have lost some sight of this as music listening has become more of a background mood-setter than an activity on its own. What happened to the art of the excellent sync, for example, so prevalent in films and shows in the early 00’s? Iconic soundtracks that still evoke the era today – Garden State, Twilight, Greys Anatomy. Nowadays, it is a truly standout event when there’s a key song in a soundtrack (but, as “Running Up That Hill” can attest, it’s still effective). Sadly, generative Artificial Intelligence may threaten this – and other music placements – further, by being able to create generic background tracks for films / shows, cafe’s, public lobby’s, etc., that don’t require rights clearances (translation: are cheap, and uncomplicated).
It may not be all bad; while AI will offer economical sync licensing, it will be tantamount to, and likely extend, existing production music libraries with more competitively priced clearances. Where we will see a worthwhile distinction from generic music in visual media is when AI is used as a collaborative tool with human creativity, complemented by its ability to suggest specific choices to the music supervisor that inspire visceral responses amongst targeted socio-demographics for their social causes and supportive brands.
Increasingly, today’s fans want an interactive relationship with music artists and products they enjoy. Older demographics yearn to reconnect with music and artists that speak with metaphorical flair about topics relevant to us all. There is a very large constituency of estranged music fans who are disenfranchised with much of today’s recursive, prosaic tracks about nothing and which often use offensive profanity and racial epithets as if it’s de rigueur. The trajectory of music today favors the niche preferences of highly-engaged younger fans, which needs fostering, but, equally, older fans with higher spending power need more than just the legacy catalog being recycled as a safe bet for nostalgic sales. Offering them new messages that resonate for the present and future, not just melancholy over the past, can reinvolve them with the evolution of can reinvolve them with the evolution of the new music industry, from which many perceive themselves to be currently disenfranchised; i.e., ignored by. music has the enviable ability to address and defeat disrupt ageism in business development and marketing by example.
Similarly, it is urgent that we offer this plan of social interaction to the many legacy artists who remain viable, but who have been sidelined, to reassert themselves while there is still time to do so. Robust catalog sales is an indicator that there is still a loyal fan base for heritage acts and opportunity to grow it with younger generations based upon its proven emotional resonance. This said, we take issue with those who pronounce that Rock ‘n’ Roll is dead. Once the bastion of social commentary and activism, we anticipate a resurgence of this mainstay genre once someone has a socially conscious hit that everyone else will want to emulate, in keeping with the industry modus operandi.
Indeed, ageism is very relevant to our discussion, both in terms of the C-suite and directly influencing what’s being signed and / or promoted. This may be one of the most profound conclusions from this piece to admit aloud. Ageism reflects an embedded music industry myopia that has perpetually affected the unidimensional direction of the industry which focuses on youth, encouraged by old guard executives who cling to their positions and methods while woefully undervaluing the immense value of activating older demographic artists, songwriters and fans. While it is heartening that younger generations are becoming more purpose-oriented in their support of brands, it is their Baby Boomer predecessors who have lived it and fully embrace the power of music when speaking to positive social impact.
Equally important is recognizing the potential of unearthing “buried treasure” piano bench songs by successful songwriters who have been sidelined or pigeonholed. This is tied to the opportunity to bring these gems (particularly related to social good) out of obscurity with the use of AI to pitch them to target acts, giving them new life. (Sitting in Jon and Yoko’s living room at The Dakota, as EVP of ATV Music, the co-author of this piece wondered what masterpieces, perhaps unfinished, were sitting in the piano bench during that time of a business impasse with their publisher that he was there to resolve.) This also relates to the publishing opportunity for these established writers if they are receptive to collaborating with emerging writers.
Music fans’ identities are often tied to the artists and music they listen to most (as found in one of MIDiA’s recent reports). Identity-driven fans are inclined to share socially with friends, housemates, etc., and far more likely to want to buy associated merch – so the more social one is, the more likely to want to be engaged, buy extra stuff, and contribute back to the creator. For fans, sharing is caring, bonding, community, fandom – more than just a background track or a nice sound.
“By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong” -Joni Mitchell (1969: decades before social media).
Our thesis ties into a lot of music’s existential woes: over-saturation, inability to cut through or stand out, dilution of value, difficulty of discovery, revenue flows, and a cookie-cutter style signing model that has limited development and diversity in the industry for decades: the big hits have not often been ‘found’, so much as they are signed because they’re already making such a wave their cultural impact is inevitable with or without label support.
Where are today’s A&R innovators; e.g., Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, Jac Holzman, Mo Ostin, Clive Davis, David Geffen, Berry Gordy, Clarence Avant, Seymour Stein, Jerry Moss & Herb Alpert, Lou Adler, Jimmy Iovine & Dr. Dre, Russell Simmons, Sylvia Robinson, Terry Ellis & Chris Wright, Muff Winwood, Chris Blackwell, among others? These are some of the people whose visions changed the trajectory of society with music and seemed to raise the bar with each artist signing, as opposed to today’s lemming mentality of chasing copycat success.
We expect that we will see consolidation and increased importance of special interests and engagement across platforms. Again, the lean-in communities, along with their artists who are driven by shared purpose, will ultimately weed out the deluge of tracks (née music) that is diluting the royalty revenue of deserving, legitimate creators.
Joining music with social causes and the stories that inspire them can give it that deeper meaning and association to make it stand out – and can benefit everyone involved. This is to say that, crucially, the combination of music and social good can help promote those causes and rally fans to follow the cause itself, while working with the artist – a change to the advent of consistent interaction with a cause, versus the fleeting event we may witness for the occasional crisis.
It follows that world events today are more conducive than ever to socially poignant music (see SDM Spotify playlist) of heritage socially conscious songs.
Songwriting collaboration with AI can enhance the intellectual depth of lyrics with references and metaphors likely beyond the capabilities of many writers otherwise, especially when informed by the guidance of music publishers who traditionally function to hone the craft.
Done effectively, generative AI also affords established songwriters the opportunity to build secondary publishing companies as they license and participate in the works of third party writers / artists. Artists and labels have similar opportunities which can also reactivate catalogs. This can be achieved outside existing publishing and recording relationships and represents a new revenue source for songwriters and for artist participation in iterative recordings which we will call “Exponential Music Publishing and Recording Rights.” We can also anticipate the limitless opportunity for AI translations that will not only benefit new releases, but reactivate catalog in local languages. What’s more, this seems even more inevitable when anticipating an interest amongst UGC combined with AI established talent to create music that may be suited for fractionalized royalty opportunities (only by companies bound by securitization entities like the SEC in America) for superfans and the broader public, particularly when parlayed by interactive brands supportive of a social impact cause (revenue from corresponding products, merch and licensed fan-based merch can be shared).
This is also another compelling argument for the return of creative, objective A&R and music publishing which will once again function as intermediaries, this time to guide the fans’ creation of artist/songwriter generative AI “spinoffs.” (This is also an important SDM consult function, especially before the industry realizes that it should be an employment position.) Think of this as a Grimes-type model but focused on creating socially conscious songs that can be propelled by social good communities and supportive brands.
By necessity, because of its reliance upon learning/scraping what came before, music derived by AI without human Emotional Intelligence will inevitably (and increasingly) be distinguishable from original, genuine art that is created to “move the ball in a field of homogeneity/sameness.” DSP’s must take responsibility for finding solutions for isolating these imitative submissions into its own category and clearly separating “real artists” from AI generated and other noise that is diluting royalties. Blockchain, with its immutable and trackable metadata, will provide some answers. The first DSP’s to prioritize quality socially conscious music will arrive at a formula for equitable remuneration to creators, as this model will also serve to distinguish that content from the wasteland of vapid tracks uploaded each day by novices.
This leads to the discussion about transitioning from pro-rata streaming royalty payments to a more equitable system such as “User-Centric” (a/k/a “Fan-Powered”), where a portion of subscriber fees are allocated to only the artist listened to that month. Unsurprisingly, the latter system supports the fact-based proposition that artists can attract new fans by engaging with a constituency that also comprises social cause advocates. This serves to increase audience share and avail artists of the more equitable, larger royalty pool.
Imagine if Elton John, using his universally respected socially conscious credibility and activism, engaged his (mostly emerging) artist guests on his weekly Apple Music “Rocket Hour” program during his interview segment simply to inquire about social issues they are passionate about and in which they encourage fan interaction with them. It may also result in new material, perhaps in collaboration with fans, about their shared cause. This is a tremendous opportunity for groundbreaking tying of Music-Social Causes-Fans-Brands-AI-NFT (perhaps royalty fractionalization, subject to likely financial regulation) for reciprocal benefit. Most importantly, this illustration of purpose capitalizes upon the MIDiA-Soundcloud research paper conclusion that “superfan fragmentation,” engaging user-centric and artist-centric financial models, may provide solutions to the current streaming problem of royalty dilution from indistinguishable uploads that result in the same pro-rata payments to sounds of rainfall and major stars’ recordings. Elton can not only introduce emerging talent, but set a basis of superfan engagement for a particular cause that will generate increased revenue for the artist (and cause) within a Fan-Powered-Royalty DSP (vs Pro-Rata) system.
Our goal with this essay is to construct a heavily meaningful piece that will gain traction, spark discussion, and hopefully sway people across the industry. The mission is not only to address some of the most significant music industry quandaries, but to illuminate how, when they are seen as parts of a whole and interconnected, solutions begin to present themselves. In the process, we hope to provide inspiration to get on board developing and marketing music that has something important to say, that evokes a visceral response in the context of new, unheard, intensely invigorating and irresistible music styles influenced from around the world; i.e. music that speaks to (or for) potential superfans as it holds and pumps hearts with intensely relatable emotion.
Ultimately, the takeaway from this discussion is that an emphasis on thematic purpose will essentially prophylactically help curtail and/or isolate a continued inundation of dubious quality about nothing uploads to DSP’s and other music outlets.
The music industry is in the throes of a historical transition unlike any it has undergone previously. There are unlimited creative and entrepreneurial opportunities for those who are imaginative and unafraid to scale new ideas worldwide, at a time of an unparalleled paradigm shift in the creator economy. This sea change includes the potential diminishing relevance to artists and songwriters of the traditional major labels and publishers, unless they act with the purposeful vision and agility that we are witnessing in the spate of independent companies who are being built for this new dynamic.
Socially Driven Music’s push to parlay its strategic connect-the-dots consultancy is one such entity, poised for global implementation of its catalytic functionality through expanded purpose of publishers/sub-publishers who it contends will become proportionately inversely important to labels’ decline (“isn’t it time to update that publisher misnomer to something like ‘Music Facilitator’?).
Again, our purpose with this two-part essay is to educate about and motivate a return to meaningful music that will provide diverse and lucrative incomes for those who respect the craft as it evolves and aspire to achieve the profound power of its influence for social good. Given that these co-authors combine their highly regarded music industry insight and foresight – with the Socially Driven Music founder’s experience having worked with John and Yoko – it won’t surprise that this work was designed in large part in homage to The Lennons’ messages of social good advocacy. We want you to “Imagine” how John would be leading the music industry today as such a seminal figure and now as an octogenarian, and for you to ask yourselves whether the industry would still be pushing back.