Feature | Adapt Or Die: The Evolution Of The Music Business As We Know It

Industry veteran and tastemaker Nic Harcourt on the everchanging landscape of music consumption and the sink-or-swim tactics required by new artists.

Nic Harcourtby Nic Harcourt
Illustration by  Alex Williamson (Getty).

The music business had its own way from 1975 thru 2000. Cassettes and then the CD drove tremendous sales growth and profits. With digital technology, the labels fucking cleaned up. Those little silver plastic pretend records sold for almost $20 for almost two decades! They made billions as people replaced their old technology and were driven to buy new music to play on their multi-CD players at home, as well as their portables, and don’t forget the cool sound system in the car. If you were there, don’t tell me you didn’t buy in – everyone bought in. We all fed an unseen digital music industry bubble that just kept getting bigger. And you know what happens to bubbles.

Pop culture hadn’t quite fractured yet. There was still a mainstream for music to be heard, driven by radio and MTV. The digital alternatives and streaming services that would shatter that duopoly (foreseen by just a few) were still to come. So things were good, really good! There were TONS of multi-platinum, platinum and gold albums throughout the 90’s. It was insane how much money those fuckers were making. No wonder corporations gobbled up the labels and radio stations. And just as they started taking it all for granted, sailing on an ocean of gravy, they crucially stopped investing in careers, stopped looking anywhere except at that day’s numbers on Wall Street. Then came the sledgehammer pin for the bubble. Timing really is everything.

Boom, along came the MP3, game over! Did it need to go down the way it did? If the majors had recognized what was coming and gotten together to accept and embrace it wholeheartedly – invest in it even – they would no doubt have had a much bigger role in the outcome and what lay ahead. But we know of course that they didn’t; they sued instead. They tried to legislate against change. As they collectively buried their heads in the diminishing bowl of jelly and cream, technology went on without them, and fast. The web was at its tipping point, about to become part of everybody’s life. The teenagers of the early 2000s in particular (btw: that demo is now aged 28-34, think of what’s coming behind them!) embraced “their” technology and the music biz as we’d known it was done. Indeed, a brave, new, unknown world was upon us.

The labels have slimmed down, cut most of the fat, adapted to hang on to what’s left; it’s not a bad chunk. They exist now to sell lowest denominator crap to a numbed out culture that just wants to be fed. If you’re an artist, they are most likely not looking for you. Those who choose to try and make a living as musicians have to be smart, driven and have informed expectations. There are tools that can help target and find the audience, anywhere! Imaging and distribution is in the artists’ hands – that’s huge!

Today it’s about the single, the album is long dead (unless you’re Adele or Beyonce). Music is consumed and disposed of very quickly. Next please. If you’re an artist it’s simple: write great songs and release the music as you make it. Don’t spend two years making an album of 12 songs that will most likely disappear without a trace in a saturated marketplace, leaving you deflated and depressed. In my opinion, you’re better off releasing a new song every 2-3 months. That way you keep yourself out there, maintaining a consistent presence, seeding your fan base, building your catalog one song at time. Own your masters and publishing.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, sheet music providers were freaking out over the advent of Phonograph cylinders. That technology was in turn replaced by flat 78 rpm discs made of Shellac resin. Then vinyl, then cassettes and 8 Track; then CD’s, blah blah. This shit’s been going on a long time, the only constant is change. Ask the Dodo bird, we adapt or die.


Nic Harcourt is a Broadcast Journalist known for his work in radio and television. He has also written for the Los Angles and New York Times and manages L.A. artist Kita Klane. Follow him @nicharcourt.