Thursday 18 July 2019

Rockonomics: A lesson in the Superstar Effect and how it's impacting the music industry

Music: Rockonomics

Alan B Krueger

John Murray, hardback, 336 pages, €21

Running the world: Krueger argues that what’s happening in the music world mirrors what’s happening in tech
Running the world: Krueger argues that what’s happening in the music world mirrors what’s happening in tech

There are several moments in this hard-nosed book on the music business that will make you stop and read back just to make sure you haven't been imagining things. And one, in particular, staggered me. In the first half of 2018, Drake accounted for 1.7pc of all songs streamed in the world. Think about that for a moment - almost one in every 50 streams was from the same artist.

So, while there are innumerable young bands getting little more than the price of a pint for thousands of streams, the Canadian rapper is hoovering up the cash thanks to billions of listens: Spotify, Apple Music and the rest are certainly working for him.

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Or how about this? Today, pop and rock's top 1pc take in more revenue than the bottom 99pc combined, while the median annual income of a US musician is just $20,000.

They are stark figures and, in truth, they shouldn't be that surprising. Over the past decade it is rare to read an interview with an Irish musician - usually someone very well-known to music lovers here - who doesn't, at some point, mention how much they fret about how long they can afford to keep making music. The fiscal returns have become so minuscule when it comes to album sales (physical or otherwise) that they rely almost entirely on live performance to pay the bills - but there's only so many times one can keep playing the local Irish circuit before the ticket-buying public get jaded.

Rockonomics has been published just months after its author died by suicide. Alan B Krueger was President Obama's chief economist and had something of a pop-star following himself thanks to his innovative ways of thinking about money and the world.

His central thesis in this highly readable book is that the music industry is mirroring much of what is happening elsewhere in business, namely that the gap between the giants and the rest is getting wider all the time. He calls this the Superstar Effect and he argues that digital technology has helped make the Taylor Swifts and Beyoncés of this world especially huge, just as it has facilitated the vast wealth of tech titans like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg.

Such findings will not be news for seasoned music industry observers, but it is Krueger's meticulous attention to detail that makes his work so compelling.

It wasn't always that way, he writes. In 1982, the top 1pc accounted for 28pc of the revenue, unlike today's 60pc - and far more musicians were able to make a living.

But even for that elite, touring has become more paramount for ever, with the likes of Paul McCartney now deriving 93pc of his income from live performances rather than royalties.

The example of Billy Joel is even starker. Still a marquee live draw, in 2016, he earned $212.4m from touring and less than $1m from record sales and streaming.

It's not all economics - and no harm, either as the number-crunching can be a struggle to keep up with. In one of the most interesting chapters, Krueger looks at how luck continues to play a huge part in why some musicians make it and others don't. He tells the story of how Elton John - then known by his birth name, Reginald Dwight - came into contact with his songwriting partner of 30 years, Bernie Taupin, purely by chance.

And Krueger also shows that even when the industry throws huge money at a new artist, luck remains important. He writes about the Dublin singer-songwriter Carly Hennessy who signed a huge record deal with MCA when she was just 18, but her debut album, Ultimate High, bombed on release, despite her label spending more than $2m on production and promotion. It had the misfortune of being released shortly after 9/11 and few radio-playlisters were interested in upbeat, throwaway pop songs.

There are also plenty of intriguing observations, such as his examination of the Garth Brooks business model and how the country star continues to mop up enormous revenue while helping his sizeable fanbase feel as if they are getting good value.

He is good, too, on the outliers such as the Grateful Dead who successfully managed to cut out the middleman and sell direct to fans.

And as so much of the book is concerned with music's top 1pc, there's little surprise that U2 get a look-in. And there's an anecdote that hints at why the Dublin quartet have managed to stay on top for so long.

Krueger recalls meeting Bono at the White House a few years ago and mentioning to him that he had seen U2 play New York's Madison Square Garden in 2005. The author was stunned that Bono could recall the gig in incredible detail and he apologised for what he felt was an under-par performance from the band. Memory of the show still hurt him.

"Of all the shows he has performed," he writes, "I was amazed he could recall this one so clearly. Here was a true professional."

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