Even for Jimi Hendrix, the guitarist who used feedback and distortion to build sounds the world had never heard before, it wasn't easy to break into the music business. He joined his first band in 1958 and spent years as a touring and backup musician before releasing his first hit record in 1966. By the late 1960s Hendrix was headlining top music festivals such as Woodstock, where he earned more than any other performer. He died in 1970, but by then he had blazed a path to stardom and wealth that other pop artists would follow for three decades.
Next came the Napster Apocalypse. U.S. music revenues peaked at $15 billion in 1999 and then contracted as peer-to-peer sharing of MP3s undercut the need to buy music. The bleeding slowed, beginning in 2003, when Apple introduced the iTunes Store, and streaming services such as Spotify, Apple Music and Pandora finally stopped it in 2016. But today, unless your name is Drake or Beyoncé, you have to make do with literal micropayments for your music. Drummer Damon Krukowski (of the bands Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi) has written that “it would take songwriting royalties for roughly 312,000 plays on Pandora to earn us the profit of one—one—LP sale.”
If there was ever a path to business success in music, it would seem that technology has closed it off. But here's the thing: technology is always roiling the music world. At the end of the 19th century, publishers worried that the phonograph would slash sales of sheet music, and it eventually did. But music flourished anyway, as the phonograph itself helped give birth to new genres, such as jazz. Today changes in the technology of music production and distribution are once again forcing musicians to find new ways to make money. But they're not impeding music creation—just the opposite.
I saw that at Mmmmaven, an electronic music academy in my hometown of Cambridge, Mass. When I visited this year, students were abuzz over recent upgrades to a popular sequencer program called Ableton Live. It was born in the early 2000s as a tool for live looping, or repeating a sampled section of music during a live performance. But today, in combination with its chessboardlike Push controller, it's changing what it means to write, record and perform music. DJs use Ableton to orchestrate all-night sets of electronic dance music, or EDM. And producers such as Jon Hopkins use it to synthesize haunting new sounds and assemble them into full songs. Hopkins's 2018 release “Luminous Beings” opens with “a kind of psychedelic feedback experience..., bounced down and pitched and distorted” in Ableton, he told the podcast Song Exploder.
What really had Mmmmaven students “freaking out,” according to the academy's co-founder, David Day, was a collaboration feature called Link. “You can work on the same piece of music at the same time, in real time,” from different computers, Day explained. “So if I'm working with another user, and they up the tempo, it ups my tempo. If they add a bass line, it adds it to my bass line. That is your future of music, right there. Everyone's a musician. All we hear is new music, and it's from us.”
Thanks to these user-friendly digital tools, there's more new music to sample than ever. The EDM club scene is booming in cities around the world. And the emergence of online platforms such as SoundCloud, Beatport, YouTube and Bandcamp is helping more independent music producers find fans, who then buy digital tracks, merchandise and tickets to live gigs. Bandcamp alone reports that 600,000 artists have sold tunes through its site.
In the big picture, it's true, album sales are still dropping. The producer lifestyle, with its incessant travel and long club nights, is punishing. The studio session and concert backup jobs that used to help many musicians pay the rent are going away, Krukowski told me, as top stars realize that they can use computers to record and perform without bands. Concerts, merchandise sales and crowdfunding can bring in revenue, but they may never replace the losses from the recording industry's implosion.
As always, music is a precarious career. But what's encouraging is that digital technology is drawing in a new generation of music makers, who are using it to create their own brands of psychedelic feedback. The spirit of Hendrix lives.