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Lefsetz Letter » Blog Archive » The Billboard Article


“Too Many Songs, Not Enough Hits: Pop Music Is Struggling to Create New Stars – Execs say that a deluge of new music — and the difficulty of influencing TikTok’s algorithm — has made building an audience harder than ever for new acts.”: https://bit.ly/3CCHSEz

You know it’s the truth when the mainstream press locks on to the story.

In every walk of life, the boomer-owned institutions profess the inaccurate claim that we live in one homogenous society upon which they exert control. But we live in an era of chaos. And today it’s nearly impossible to gain traction, which really means an audience. You can get noticed, but for a day. Yesterday’s meme is sophomoric today, if you employ it you look bad. Culture moves incredibly quickly, and almost nothing sticks. But the powers-that-be keep telling us they can make it stick, when they cannot.

Want an example? Beyonce’s new album. It was hosannas all around. Queen Bey has come down from her throne with her miraculous creations which all the “tastemakers” have frothed at the mouth over. This is what we’ve been waiting for, a glorified superstar firing on all cylinders.

Check the Spotify Top 50, there’s not a SINGLE Beyonce song! Not one!

Now in the old paradigm they would have sold millions of albums immediately, based on the mania, but today that paradigm is dead. Today it’s all about streaming longevity, and there is none with Beyonce.

As for the “Billboard” album chart, ignore it completely, It doesn’t reflect reality. Streams are king and on that chart physical and files mean more, but even worse, acts release vinyl to bump their numbers and everywhere you see they’re number one, but not in the eyes (and ears) of the public.

And then there’s that fiction that terrestrial radio still counts. That was the majors’ domain, they controlled it.

“‘A No. 1 radio song doesn’t mean fuck anymore,’ laments one longtime A&R executive.”

Whew, when the labels are saying it you know it must be true. This is their ace in the hole. The head of promotion made more money than everybody at the label other than the president. But now he or she has no effectiveness.

Let’s start with the statistics, tracks, where the chart is much more reliable:

“‘It’s a bigger and more level playing field, and everything is getting lost,’ says Chris Anokute, who co-manages Muni Long. ‘Everyone’s an artist, but almost nobody’s breaking.”

“There are many ways to judge — and argue over — what ‘breaking’ means today; label executives tend to use streaming numbers as a barometer, while most managers prefer to look at ticket sales. But the number of new acts vaulting into the top 10 of the Hot 100 has declined precipitously in the last few years. From 2001 to 2004, over 30 first-timers cracked the top 10 annually. In 2019, however, only 15 first-timers reached the top 10, and 2021 had the lowest number of new entrants this millennium: just 13.”

You can’t reach the top of the heap unless you’ve already established a beachhead, and as we’ve seen with Beyonce above, that’s no guarantee.

Acts like Coldplay and Dave Matthews Band benefit from breaking in the last era wherein music television meant something, they were all over MTV and especially VH1. That avenue is now dead. You can post a video to YouTube for free, but that doesn’t mean you’ll gain a mass of eyeballs, odds are no one will see it other than you and your friends!

And even acts like the Weeknd. He broke when insider buzz still mattered and there were fewer acts out there and streaming was not yet established. If Abel comes out today, he’s got much less mass, no matter how good the records are. Furthermore, that which is made for the mainstream, with the usual suspects following the established formulas, tends not to succeed, the public is looking for something new.

Like Zach Bryan. Who has got the #6 song in the U.S. Spotify Top 50.

This guy was unheard of, with no traction, and he sounds more like a singer-songwriter of the seventies than the dreck played on country radio. The public is looking for authenticity, Bryan delivers it. And quality songs, that are recognizable as songs.

The Morgan Wallen kerfuffle has superseded the music itself in the conversation. But if you listen to Wallen’s double album it’s fantastic, a step above. You can pooh-pooh its success, but that just means you’re turned off by a southern accent and biased against those in the south and…

“Dangerous” is #3 this week and I’ll quote from the “New York Times”: 

“‘Dangerous,’ released at the beginning of 2021, has now spent 90 weeks in the Top 10, matching ‘South Pacific’ — the soundtrack to a 1958 film whose songs go back to a 1949 Broadway production. In the 66-year history of the Billboard 200, the magazine’s flagship album chart, only five other releases have logged more weeks in the Top 10, all soundtracks and cast albums from the 1950s and ’60s.”

And Bad Bunny is the biggest act in the world and he’s Latin and Sam Smith might have a number one track right now with Kim Petras, but Sam also broke before the chaos became extreme.

Music is a business. People like to think of it as art, but that’s not how the major labels see it. They look for an edge, just like the people spamming you with e-mails and texts. They employ leverage, trade on their size and catalogs, but in today’s world, everything they bring to the table isn’t working:

“‘The market’s dry as fuck,’ declares a veteran major-label A&R executive who requested anonymity to speak candidly. ‘There’s less and less shit working. The front-line label business, signing new artists, is in trouble.’ ‘I can honestly say right now that nobody — nobody — knows what’s going on,’ another longtime major-label A&R says.”

As for the fiction that streaming playlists are everything:

“‘Now, just because you’re in a top 10 slot on a big Spotify playlist, it doesn’t mean your audience is growing,’ one manager says.

As for the old formula:

“Taken together, all these factors mean that seizing — and then holding — the attention of the music-loving masses is that much more challenging. ‘It used to be that you released an album, got Rolling Stone to review it, got on tour, got on late-night TV, and that was how you broke,’ says one senior executive at a major label. Even if luck was a factor, the path was clear. ‘It was four or five things. Now you need four or five things a week, or at least a month, or else your streams don’t go up.’”

As for the power of TikTok: 

“The rise of TikTok has complicated matters, too. The platform has become a hit-maker — helping Em Beihold’s ‘Numb Little Bug’ and Nicky Youre’s ‘Sunroof’ climb the charts, for example — but it’s an unpredictable marketing tool, less susceptible to manipulation and less responsive to star power than other platforms. Engineering a viral moment is akin to walking into a corner store and emerging with a winning lottery ticket. ‘There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to what breaks there,’ says Justin Lehmann, who manages Aminé and Khai Dreams, among others. ‘And without breaking there, it’s difficult to say what else can cause a big moment to happen for anybody.’”

The lunatics have taken over the asylum. It’s a free-for-all. The supposed gatekeepers, the keepers of the flame, the manipulators, have been stopped dead in their tracks. You can do the same old thing, but you’re not going to get the old result, chances are you’re going to get almost nothing.

So the playing field is being leveled.

And the dream is dying.

You remember the dream, where you start out humble and end up world famous, known by everybody, and rich? Nearly impossible today. You can shoot someone, but you’ll only be famous for a day. Come on, we shrug our shoulders at school shootings now. And if you fight to be in the public eye all the time, it backfires. Elon Musk’s image has taken a huge hit. And the more Kanye and Trump talk, the crazier they look. So if you think you can just spam your way to a career by posting 24/7, buying followers…you can end up with statistics but no career, maybe not even any traction at all. And sure, today’s youth don’t mind you pitching yourself, but that’s if you’re a nobody, an influencer. But it’s different if you’re not a member of the rank and file, if you think you’re better than those on TikTok or other platforms, those are owned by the users, not you, the more you press, the worse you look. And then there’s desperation… No one wants to be close to the desperate.


Today’s paradigm is you’re not a star. If you want to create myth and mystique, if you want to hold back your identity, if you want to do all the crap that worked from the fifties to yesterday, you’re screwed. Your only option is to get into the pit, reveal your warts and predilections, and say you’re no better than anybody else, but this is what you do, create music.

And in order for it to grow, you’ll need the public to adopt it. And you cannot push it, it doesn’t work. Believe me, the labels are in bed with TikTok, TikTok pushes priorities to big time users, but even if they make a video with the song…it does not mean it will be picked up by others and will become a phenomenon. First it must have that je ne sais quoi. AND, the creator/influencer has to add their own spin, so the concoction becomes MORE than just your song. This is anathema to the oldsters who were so afraid that their work tapes would become available on Napster. God, you’re dying to have your work tapes released, you’re dying for ANYBODY TO LISTEN TO THEM!

That’s the hardest challenge.

So we’ve got dinosaurs and…

Everybody else.

Everybody else must adjust their outlook.

Let’s start with the festivals. Coachella is bigger than any act, Coachella has the power, as do Lollapalooza, ACL and Outside Lands. Didn’t used to be this way. But after the festival books a headliner or three, which is harder than ever to do, the slots are precious. It’s the only way to expose yourself to a mass audience live. And the traditional ladder has lost its bottom rungs. The club scene is minimal and sure, arena business is good, but getting from here to there?

And the acts keep complaining, looking for culprits, pointing the finger at streaming services. But the truth is, if you’re not making much from Spotify, YOU’RE NOT BEING LISTENED TO MUCH! And no one mentions that Spotify killed piracy and turned recorded music revenues around. No, there must be a return to the past, where almost no one got a deal, you lived off the advance and there was much less, MUCH LESS, competition.

Do I think it’s going to formalize, turn around?


The internet has the power to reach everybody, nearly instantly. But we’ve found out that there’s so much stuff that it’s hard to reach anybody. Adele had her big moment when CDs still counted. The albums after that, despite the hoopla, did nowhere near as well. And the younger audience…doesn’t care about her, not much anyway.

And in truth most people cut off huge swaths of media. They haven’t heard or seen or read it and it does not bother them at all. They’ve found what appeals to them and that’s enough. And it’s always visceral and human. That’s the essence of TikTok, which the same boomers living in the past refuse to explore. TikTok is where the PEOPLE are, where the INNOVATION is. And Netflix doesn’t have to worry about HBO Max or Disney+, it has to worry about TikTok, that’s where all the viewing hours of the young are spent.

Music was the canary in the coal mine for digital disruption. And for a long time, the powers-that-be thought they could kill Napster, et al, through sheer will. And then the legal system. Nothing worked until the iTunes store and Spotify. You have to deliver it the way the public wants it. And if you want to enrapture the public, you’ve got to GET AHEAD OF IT!

Yes, now is the worst time for me-too, to be playing it safe. Now is the time to experiment, to be different, to be great, because innovation always sparks a reaction. Then again, the old model of hipsters gravitating to the outside act and then it becoming mainstream is gone too, once again, there’s just too much in the channel.

And no one cares.

You think you’re better than me? I don’t care about this, I don’t know that, I came late to the product… WE’RE ALL LATE! Assuming we see any need to go outside our own little satisfying purview. And they’re not making more time. I want to choose wisely, I don’t want to waste twelve hours on a mediocre series.

As for music, listening to the whole album… You’re lucky if you get people to listen to ONE SONG! Stop the blowback, that’s just how precious people’s time is. If you want our attention you must deserve it. And you do it through being truly great and special, and that’s no guarantee of stardom, it’s just the start of traction, which could die out.

Is it depressing?

Absolutely. But that does not mean it’s not reality.

The professionals are throwing up their hands, they don’t know how to manipulate the market, crack it.

The acts are complaining that they can’t be rich and famous like they used to be.

But the public? It’s overfed and overwhelmed, so it chooses its experiences wisely, wasting time is taboo.

You make your own schedule. Just like you choose your own wallpaper on your laptop and smartphone.

And you can’t trust pollsters, you can’t trust anybody telling you the way it is, THEY DON’T KNOW! You only know for yourself.

Becoming a brand? There needs to be a foundation. People were so focused on becoming a corporation that they ignored the underlying product. They don’t want to put that much effort in, they don’t want to be poor, they want it to be fast and easy…

Steve Lacy may have made it to number one, but:

“Lacy’s career began seven years ago, with The Internet, and his first solo album in 2019 had already earned him a Grammy Award nomination.”

He’s been around for years! That’s how long it takes. You want to succeed now or go to graduate school? Short circuit the whole process, just go to graduate school. Your ten year old sings and you believe they have talent and deserve a spot on the hit parade? Then they must drop out of school, work hard for ten years and probably still won’t hit. Better to at least get an education, which will ultimately pay dividends, which a failed career will not.

But the silver lining is the world has been flattened, and the monoliths of old are in the same boat as the pipsqueak in their basement.

And everybody can play. Put their songs online. Market the hell of out themselves, NEARLY FOR FREE!

The new world is definitely not like the old world.

It’s a longer road than ever to the top if you wanna rock ‘n roll.

But the audience still desires music. There’s still a marketplace. It just does not resemble the pyramid of old.


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