Musicians are free to become artists

2016 is delivering the best music of a generation. This is why.

Streaming has freed artists from sales pressure

Without the anticipation of a big influx of money from record sales, artists are less constrained to produce hits and broadly appealing music. Without money as the light at the end of the tunnel, there are less stakeholders involved in the creative process. Artists are free to drop 7 track albums/EPs/whatever or can continue to release mixtapes that force the industry to take a long hard look at what it values: music or music sales?

Musicians are making money selling experiences built around their music

Authentic, talented musicians are building authentic followings around their music. And they’re becoming increasingly savvy at monetizing that following. Live performances, pop-up shops, diversification. Chance lets his mixtapes stream for free, but his tour and merch could have sold out 10x over.

Morover, with the rise of social media, artists are able to talk directly to their fans, creating their own hype, and doing things on their own terms, whether it’s Kanye playing with the name of his upcoming release on Twitter, or Frank Ocean using Tumblr.

Authenticity is freeing and necessary for success

Earnest, passionate, dedicated, inspiring. These aren’t words you commonly associate with recording artists. But Kanye’s much derided 4 minute speech at the VMAs this year was achingly sincere and passionate. He’s figuring out his place in history, is deeply introspective, and he’s trying his best to bring us along for the rambling ride.

Everyone was smitten with Chance’s reaction to Queen Bey: he’s consistently humble and human. There’s no hip-hop persona, there’s no ego. The music and the art, and a connection to his fans remove the need for that.

Valuing authenticity and depth of an artist is also allowing intelligence to shine. Listen to the Vince Staples interviews with Zane Lowe. This is a highly intelligent man delivering great music.

Kendrick wrote Alright in response to police brutality, and The Blacker The Berry after hearing of Trayvon Martin’s death. Frank Ocean mentions Trayvon in Nikes:

“RIP Trayvon, that nigga look just like me”

These are complex subjects tackled with care and compassion. They aren’t exploiting a passion point to sell some discs. They needn’t. They’re free to tackle problems that run deep, in the way visual artists have done for centuries.

Musicians are no longer “created”

The folks who would buy pop singles because the tune was catchy are getting their fix for free, again, thanks to ubiquitous free streaming. Without that sales draw, there’s no reason for labels to market in-authentic stars, because the ability to monetize beyond record sales will fall flat.

This is naturally raising the bar with respect to the kinds of music that is being promoted and consumed.

Collaboration reduces risk and creates better music

Chance appears on Life of Pablo, Kanye appears on Coloring Book, Drake and Jay-Z were on Pablo until label problems pulled them. “feat.” is no longer an indication of who is getting a slice of the pie, but rather an acknowledgement of quality collaboration, and mutual respect. If you’re listening to Prima Donna, you should probably check Kilo Kish and A$AP Rocky. Chance talks so fondly and authentically about his collab with Jay Electronica on Coloring Book, it made me lookup more Jay Elec.

Discovery happens through collaboration, recognition of talent by the most talented artists in the industry. Kanye tweeting that Pablo was delayed because Chance was agonizing over the production, and then featuring both in as subject and collaborator on Coloring Book is just wonderful for fans of music (not to mention, Chance had the best bars on Pablo…).

“Kanye’s best prodigy
He ain’t signed me but he proud of me”

The hangup, which is going to be short-lived is that record labels still want to see a cut of record sales for releases their artists feature on. Chance gets to the root of the issue in No Problem, in which he airs his frustration at his friend’s record labels stopping them from appearing on Coloring Book (a free, streaming mixtape through which no money would be made).

The art extends beyond music

Kayne shows at NY Fashion Week. Frank Ocean released Blonde with a visual album called Endless and a ‘Zine. Artists are increasingly free to explore other mediums, and we’re all richer because of it.

N.B. I don’t know what I’m talking about. But I am thoroughly enamored by the state of music right now. ✌️