Strings to Beats; A Move in Music
by Kasey Mathews | published Oct. 6th, 2020
Music has, for millennia, been achieved through the acoustic sounds of instruments. Yet, as technology has changed, so too have the sounds we listen to. Artists from Dua Lipa to Taylor Swift have made extensive use of electronic beats to provide a consistent, energetic sound to their music. But what fueled this shift from studio instruments to electronic beats?
An Exclusive Club
Historically, music has been an expensive thing to create, produce and successfully market. As such, the music industry tended to be very exclusive. In fact, this was a common theme right up until fairly recently.
“Fifty years ago if you wanted to have a career in music you had to have a band and you had to play instruments, which were expensive to buy,” said Karl Stabnau, visiting lecturer in the Department of Performing Arts and Visual Culture.
"The biggest benefit is accessibility."
He continued by saying, “You had to practice with a number of people around you, somebody had to write a song — and that’s as far as most people’s careers went.”
That was pricey enough as it was, and it got people to a point in their careers in which they could have local or regional acclaim. But as Stabnau pointed out, to go further came with extra costs.
This led to record labels having an iron grip over the music industry, and why securing a record deal was always the biggest goal of any musician. Record labels would sponsor musicians by paying for their time in an expensive recording studio, hiring backup vocalists and securing audio engineers to mix and produce the music professionally. They’d also manage an artist’s image and all marketing and distribution efforts to get their music heard by millions.
Impacts of Technology
As with all things, technology has shaken up this status quo. The tools needed to produce a song — or even a full album — are much more affordable than they’ve been in the past.
This makes music a far more accessible industry than ever before.
“I can buy a digital recording platform and microphone ... for $150 or $200 and be able to produce my own beats and put music out there,” Stabnau said.
This has opened up the production side of music, allowing musicians to create a full sound without having to spend as much time or money on the additional costs that came with traditional music production.
“Now if you produce your own music, you have an advertising outlet for it. You can get it to people really, really easily. There’s no physical costs of CD delivery of vinyl printing,” he explained further.
Spotify and Apple Music have allowed artists to upload their music within a matter of minutes, making it instantly available across the globe.
But why beats?
Well, as Stabnau pointed out, we no longer require a full band and recording session to produce music. These beats are a cheaper alternative to hiring multiple musicians or acquiring multiple instruments; and the lower the costs of producing a song, the more profit that artist can make from it.
As Stabnau mentioned, this trend comes with a lot of benefits.
“The biggest benefit is accessibility,” Stabnau said, “and also data-driven decisions.”
This accessibility comes in two waves: the increased access listeners have to wide varieties of music as well as the access artists and producers have to get their music out there. There’s both a push and pull factor.
“Before you had internet connectivity — especially social media platforms — if you wanted to advertise your music you had to take out radio advertisements ... TV advertisements, print media,” he explained. “All of those traditionally are very, very expensive ways to advertise. You could be relatively certain you’d spend five digits trying to get your music out on a regional level, even in the '90s or '80s.”
With social media, musicians are able to connect directly with their audience, and no longer rely on those traditional forms of advertising. They’re able to market themselves in creative and unique ways that, comparatively, are far less expensive and have far quicker turnaround times.
Through these closer ties between musician and listener, marketers are able to collect more accurate data on trends both at the micro and macro levels. Individual artists can adapt to trends within their own fanbase and produce content — whether that be new music or simply social media content — to cater to these trends.
Yet, so much accessibility has led to some difficulties as well. As with any long-standing industry, it takes time to adjust to foundational changes such as the sudden drop in barriers to entry.
“Historically the record labels decided who it is that you get to hear,” Stabnau said. “Now ... I can connect with people I know in Los Angeles and Chicago and hear what they’re working on, whereas geographic location ... would have been a huge barrier before.”
"I can connect with people I know in Los Angeles and Chicago and hear what they're working on."
Because of this, as Stabnau put it, consumers are “inundated with music.”
In the past, music was a luxury item. You would purchase an album, listen to it and that was your entertainment. Now, it’s faded into background noise. We listen to music while we run, while we study, sometimes while we sleep. It’s become commoditized, and commodities are always less valuable than luxuries.
This is what has led to drops in profit margins. No one wants to pay $10 for an album anymore; instead, we expect $5 per month for limitless musical access. Again, fueling the need for artists to cut costs wherever they can, giving rise to a sound with fewer individual instruments and a higher focus on beats and rhythms.
Overall, accessibility is and will always be a positive factor in any industry. But it often leads to a period of change in ways many might not expect. Sometimes this manifests as changes in communication or ways in which we obtain a certain good or service. Other times, like in the music industry, it comes about in the form of a newly pronounced trend.