Is The Musical Middle Class On The Verge Of An Uprising?

Over at Hypebot, Bruce Houghton is theorizing about music culture in the post-superstar landscape–a world where the idea of the diamond-certified record (10 million copies sold) will be a memory of the overheated turn of the century, and where most records will barely scrape gold status, let alone platinum. Houghton argues that what we’re going to see, instead, is a rise of the “musical middle class,” where artists will be able to make their own destinies, and live well even though their fanbases may be smaller than the ones enjoyed by TRL mainstays of years gone by:

Slowly but visibly many of these artists are inventing their careers. Not a career fueled by Krystal and delivered in limos, but rather one earned by practicing their craft, listening to their fans and delivering the results live.

The fans may only number from 20-100,000. But without greedy hands in the middle, the profits are enough. And mercifully, the results of this labor are not as ephemeral as in the past. If the artist’s effort continues; fans stay loyal.

There will always be mega-stars and one hit wonders. But how hopeful it is for musicians, fans and for music, that there is finally a place for middle class of musicians proud of their craft and connected to their audience. And what wonderful opportunities await for the middle class of labels and other companies created to serve them.

It sounds almost utopian–too utopian, in fact, which is why I’m tempted to agree more with the analysis provided by Glenn of Coolfer in the post’s comments:

I see what you’re saying, but I’d be more prone to call it a growing lower-middle class. There is an absolute glut of music online. (Great music is indeed being created everywhere, but there’s 1,000 times as much mediocre and terrible music clogging up the channels.) As the audience becomes more fractured, each player’s piece of the pie shrinks.

As for increased loyalty, that will depend on the band’s use of customer relationship tools. I believe success can be as fleeting as ever — look no further than the manner in which bloggers chew up and spit out bands at record rates — but there is definitely potential to keep fans if you do it correctly.

The idea that there is an “absolute glut” of music is one that I (and probably my mailman, too) have been thinking about a lot lately. During the OiNK brouhaha I was thinking about the massive amount of songs and albums downloaded/uploaded by each individual user, and how a lot of times it seems like it would be impossible to listen to all the music I currently own–for example, even though my iTunes library is at 32.5 days and counting, I can’t stop listening to Blackout today–let alone all the music that’s out there. I suspect this is true for most people, even (and maybe especially!) those with terabyte drives of MP3s they’ve pulled down from the Web. Which underscores Glenn’s question: as more of these artists have the ability to access increasingly sophisticated ways to make, distribute, and market their music on their own–which results in said musical “middle class” becoming more populated–is the only way for that class’ standing to go down, simply because of the fact that there are so many artists vying for fans’ attention and only so many hours in a day? It’s a tricky question, and one that I don’t think has an easy answer, but I do think that it goes hand-in-hand with the problems that major labels are having right now, and why whatever form they’ll be around in come, say, 2009 will probably look at least somewhat different from the way they look today.

Rise Of The Musical Middle Class [Hypebot]

  • Ned Raggett

    Glut of music, glut of movies/TV shows, glut of books, glut of video games/online gaming, glut of cultural product period! We are in a period of utter overload and it really is something like nothing before in human history, and if that makes me sound like I should be writing for Wired I don’t care. When you factor in a presumed expectation among people growing up/being born now that this is going to be the standard and not simply something new and still uncomfortable, the next couple of decades are going to be a whirlwind.

  • Chris Molanphy

    I am always suspicious of starry-eyed music fans/prognosticators — ususally white dudes who hate the last two decades of popular music — who claim that the death of the record labels means a nirvana of bands that really know how to play, man.

    Last I checked, the human race hasn’t stopped producing new generations of 12-year-olds. It is 12-year-olds’ God-given right to love cheesy, regrettable music until they reach late high school or college. (It is then those 18-year-olds’ right to like some other kind of more earnest music that might come to seem even more embarrassing someday.)

    The idea that kids will discard their new-era boy bands or dance-craze-rappers or cheerleader-girl pop stars and somehow start loving jam bands and indie rock is naïve in the extreme. Maybe the Disney Channel will provide the cheese in the future instead of Epic Records, but believe me, prepubescent kids will continue to want their own generation of music you and I hate. And God bless them.

  • Lucas Jensen

    @Ned Raggett: The video game glut is insane. And a lot of the games are GOOD. That’s the crazy thing going on right now. I don’t have enough time to play the good games, much less the mediocre ones.

  • Anonymous

    This is one of the things I was trying to get at in my Oink post: I think we might be on the verge of seeing the collapse (or disintegration, really) of the concept of a mass-cultural popular music. I think it might not be too long before the culture fractures so much that the mega-star is a dead concept, at least on the Beatles-Springsteen-Madonna level. And the major label system as it currently exists seems insupportable without those huge cash-cows.

    @LUCAS JENSEN: I’ve virtually had to abandon gaming simply because there’s no way I can fit that amount of quality product into my free time, let alone considering how time-consuming the average game is getting. I look at the holiday/post-holiday release list and just cringe. It’s too good, too much. I don’t even get to listen to nearly as much music as I’d like to, though that has a lot to do with my listening habits.

  • Audif Jackson Winters III

    “Not a career fueled by Krystal”

    That’s kind of an amusing mistake, particularly given the relative decadance between this


    and this


    Although I suppose that depends on one’s appetite for square burgers and “Scramblers.”

  • pinder


  • worldsfair

    As usual, Glenn is pretty much on point.

    and yes music market is way too over-saturated… since when did being in a band have to equate to making a commercial product available? you can be a musician and have your day job and share your music for free or very cheap, thats what being underground and “for the music” meant back in the day. not about whether you have a record that will get reviewed on pitchfork or not!

    (laughs loudly @ Pinder’s comment!)

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the ink and comments. One thing this shows is how little I know about champagne(Krystal vs. Cristal).

    But I still believe the Music Middle Class is emerging/ I see it every day in my work as an agent ( I (try to) further my argument in a new post today on I encourage you all to check it out and welcome your comments there as well.

    Thanks again I…and thanks to your readers!

  • Cam/ron

    The music glut will get bigger as cheap studio software enables more artists to record at home and print CD-Rs there. The pop and indie gluts are nothing compared to the glut of electronic music where micro-genres and nano-genres always pop up. I can’t forsee a stable “middle class” of artists forming – many artists and bands get a lot of press and have decent record sales but they’re still living hand to mouth since very little money is ultimately made from selling records and touring tends to be costly.

  • Trackback

    I wrote on Monday about the emerging Musical Middle Class – a world populated by more artists selling 20-100,00 copies and making a living through direct sales, touring, merch and other streams; and because there are fewer outsiders taking a cut.

  • Vince Neilstein

    This is along the lines of what I’ve been arguing for the past couple of years, though I agree with glen @ coolfer’s take that it more realistically will result in a lower-middle class due to the sheer volume and choice of music out there.

    Musicians will be able to make livings, albeit modest ones — but the age of lots of superstars and big expense accounts for the middlemen (read: labels) are over. Being a musician was never supposed to bring riches, and the superstar rock n’ roll era of the ’50s through ’90s was a relative blip on the map in comparison to how it was before and will be in the future for musicians to make a living.

  • spencercarnage

    It’s all Alvin Toffler’s fault!

  • Anonymous

    I agree with this premise so much that 2 years ago I co-founded an artist owned, artist controlled site called “muzlink”. We are a direct to consumer, multi-platform, music marketing & promotion service online. We have been live for just a few months and are growing. We have community affiliates like BMI, NSAI, CMA and the Folk Alliance. We cater to the middle class music world, local to global, all styles – where the productivity exists without the hype. Check us out and sign up – it’s absolutely free. When we gain enough traction we will be sharing revenue from the ads with our fellow artists. Yes – I agree. Welcome to the music evolution…

  • Trackback

    Is the decline of the record industry and rise of the internet creating a new Musical Middle Class? Below you’ll find what some industry leaders and Hypebot readers had to say. You can read the full text and join the discussion here. quot;I’d be more prone to call it a growing lower-middle class.

  • Anonymous

    I have been in the Rock, Hip-Hop and R&B music business for over 30 years, the past 13 as a major cog in the hit making machinery of the Urban music world. I have broken over 100 No.1 records nationally. I believe I truly understand where the record business has come from, why its current business model is doomed to failure and where it is going in the digital age. Soon, I will be launching a new web 3.0 music discovery website that will help to substantially change the way we are doing music business. At this time, it is difficult to effectively promote a new artist on the Internet because there are so many music sites that need to be serviced. At best marketing campaigns can enhance the sales profile of almost any artist’s album and allow smaller artists to gain enough traction to make a decent living without major label or major indie label involvement. Due to this fragmentation and diversity of music web sites, it is virtually impossible for a new artist to break into what will become the new mainstream. Major genre core artists (i.e., Rock, Urban or Country) have yet to be discovered on the Internet. Most pundits agree that the new digital mainstream will never be as big as the terrestrial mainstream built over the past 50 years and which due to the impact of the digital world is transitioning in some form to the Internet. Major labels, independent labels and unsigned artists must realize that for anyone to breakout out nationally into this new mainstream, everyone must show up to one place to compete and must have access to and the ability to promote in some fashion the same large pool of unique monthly visitors on a web site to influence a critical mass of its users to emotionally an artist and break them nationally. I intend to bring choice and control back to the music selection process and the sooner the industry stops its vicious cycle of greed and stupidity and accepts that they need to find a platform where they can all compete together, the music business of the future can get on a novel track that may not produce the mega platinum stars of the past but that will certainly produce a new generation of increasingly larger core mainstream artists.

  • Anonymous

    Who’s Alvin Toffler? Oh wait. Never mind. []spencercarnage:

  • Anonymous

    Seems to me that everyone commenting has forgotten the core point of the Hypebot post — middle class. Is clear that with or without Internet, small bands without the resources of a label and promoter, can’t stand competing with big names.

    This so called “new model” should not be just about a different way, but also different purpose or end, that is, to be a healthy, sustainable artist/band that can make a living from their music. Not to replace one “old way” with a “new way” to get to the same, glamorous end.

    Also — have you seen how big names and dinosaur artists have had to get out of their marble castles and go touring? This “new model”, or part of that, is taking the music business to where it belongs: the live audience. That should be the goal for all musicians. And the CD, t-shirt and everything else, is to help the promotion of the artist and its gigs — and not the other way around.

    Alvaro Medina
    Escaso Aporte