The VMAs and the Royal Family

AUGUST 29TH, 2016 — POST 238

Madison Square Garden in New York City last night hosted the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards. For a year in popular music that has been so dominated by visual-albums and memeified music videos, the 2016 VMAs might be the most appropriate venue in which popular artists are recognised this year. But the space to be entered in order to be up for recognition feels now smaller than ever.

I was on the “white” carpet last night, shooting video to add to my reel. Between Chance the Rapper, Amber Rose, and Puff Daddy, there were only a handful of people anyone in the press pit wanted to see. You probably could name them yourself:

  • Beyoncé (and Jay Z by extension)
  • Kanye West (and Kim Kardashian by extension)
  • Rihanna
  • Drake
  • Taylor Swift

There are a few other names that float close — Nicki Minaj, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Future, Adele, and Britney Spears (because of her “comeback” last night) — but for the most part the music industry lays at the feet of these top five artists: pop music’s Royal Family.

I could be wrong here but this seems a small pool when compared to pop music’s history. For one, groups have almost entirely disappeared from the highest tier. In 2006, groups like Fall Out Boy, Panic! At The Disco (who did receive one nomination last night), Gnarls Barkley, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and The Black Eyed Peas were all forces to be reckoned with, Panic! even taking the 2006 VMA for Best Video. Only 3 of the 17 categories last night were won by groups, compared to 10 of 23 in 2006.

It’s worth pointing out that in 2006, YouTube was only a year old. Even though music — specifically the discovery of rare live recordings — was quickly proving to be the platform’s central value proposition, it hadn’t become the clinically pure business for pop music’s top artists that it is today. Before the time of VEVO, the music business at large — and most poignantly MTV — hadn’t yet picked up the characteristic cartoon whistle of a bomb dropping from a great height. Right onto their heads.

This period in the intersection of internet and music saw an indie rock resurgence — led by bands like The White Stripes, The Libertines, and Arctic Monkeys — that saw bands get cult-like followings on platforms like MySpace. The democratisation of music distribution flooded the market with, at least from the perspective of music industry executives, a whole bunch of noise. It’s trite to highlight at this point but it needs to be stated: these bands were proving you didn’t need the weight of record label behind you to be anything. If you were Arctic Monkeys, you could burn demos onto CDs on your own computer, chuck them out at gigs for free, and watch your fans upload them online on your behalf.

So suddenly, the noise level of the industry was higher overnight, an has only continued to increase. There is now more than ever just so much music that exists across YouTube, Bandcamp, and SoundCloud that is not label supported. With an such an noisy industry, the key to success is producing the purest signal. A single artist is a pure signal — their own identity easily identifiable across time. But more than anything, any promotional apparatus has its best shot at pay off when funnelled behind a single target. When the ocean rises, only the tallest (or those that have built/are building the highest) will stay above water.

There’s a narrative that exists across so many industries about “the death of the middle class”. The middle class of the App Store is dying. YouTube’s middle class is waning. And the actual, economic middle class is shrinking. The music industry is clearly no different. The Royal Family is as much a product of the music industry working out technology as it is of the rising tide of noise that we’re all immersed in. I don’t think I’m alone when I feel that I crave curation, crave an indication of how best to spend my short life when there is so much I could (and should) be doing. And as such, I and clearly others relish the Royal Family for being beacons of pure signal — producing the year’s only must listens/watches.

There are so few that matter because there’s only so much we can take.


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