Too Many Songs, Not Enough Hits: Pop Music Is Struggling to Create New Stars
Muni Long’s “Hrs & Hrs” is giddy and impassioned, a contemporary R&B single built on the sturdy framework of classic soul ballads. Muni Long released the track last year on her own label, Supergiant, and it climbed to No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 at the end of January, giving the singer her first hit and an opportunity to partner with Def Jam.
There’s a sense around the music industry right now — from managers to marketers to A&R executives — that stories like Muni Long’s are few and far between in 2022. “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.
The drought has some managers and label executives worried. “All of my industry peers are having this conversation: What’s next?” Anokute says. Others use more colorful language to describe the current landscape. It’s “abysmal,” according to one A&R executive turned manager. “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.
Insiders have plenty of theories about why the market for new artists has become more difficult. Chief among them: a deluge of new music. It has become so easy for aspiring artists to release tracks that songs are hitting streaming services by the hard drive-full, making it harder for any single tune to stand out amid the glut. “Due to the sheer number of things coming out, songs that were shoo-ins for being hits five to 10 years ago now have to fight to see daylight,” says veteran producer Warren “Oak” Felder (Usher, Demi Lovato). Even the biggest record companies are taking notice — “If there are 80,000 tracks a day being uploaded on major [digital service providers], then [major-label] market share is going to be diluted by default,” Sony Music Group chairman Rob Stringer told investors this summer.
In addition, the reach and influence of once-powerful mediums like radio and late-night TV have also declined. (“A No. 1 radio song doesn’t mean fuck anymore,” laments one longtime A&R executive.) Managers say that even marquee streaming playlists don’t have the commercial oomph they had just a few years ago. (“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.)
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.”
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.”
Some acts are still able to connect on a wide scale. This year, music executives point to Steve Lacy’s bright yet mopey “Bad Habit,” which recently topped the Hot 100, as evidence that the music industry can still create big moments for new artists. (Though 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.) Others brought up the heart-on-sleeve Americana sensation Zach Bryan, whose robust streaming numbers helped drive his triple-album major-label debut to No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart; he has doubled the size of his headlining spots from 6,000- to 15,000-capacity venues since May.
Jonathan Daniel, founder of Crush Management (Sia, Lorde, Panic! at the Disco), believes that characterizing the current music industry as “abysmal” for new artists is “a little crazy.” Still, he acknowledges that “it feels more difficult to break without a true mainstream. Everybody’s feed is siloed, and in a way, that’s awesome — you have unlimited choice. But it makes it harder for something to be mainstream.”
Many of the sources who spoke for this story believe the music business needs to reposition itself to adjust to this new reality. “If you take away stars, major labels have to shift their thing,” Daniel says. “They’ve always been a filter for that. If you remove that — say there are no stars and everyone has their own cult followings — what does the major label do?”
It appears that the majors have already been trying to answer this question. Stephen Cooper, Warner Music Group’s outgoing CEO, told a conference in September that the major had “reduce[d] our dependency on superstars” and instead prioritized building relationships with “artists at the beginning of their career.” Speaking with investors this summer, Stringer emphasized that Sony Music’s purchase of the distributor AWAL in 2021, combined with Sony’s indie powerhouse The Orchard, will help the major enjoy “a bigger proportion of the net that’s being cast for content.” Universal Music Group has spun its distribution and artist services division, Virgin Music Group, into a stand-alone entity.
But major labels are not the only ones that will need to adapt. “The way people measure success across the board is not correct,” argues Connor Lawrence, co-founder/COO of indify, a platform that helps independent artists find investors in return for a portion of their streaming income.
Lawrence points to the 24-year-old Hojean, whose catalog of wistful, R&B-flecked pop songs is earning around 140,000 streams a day; the singer was recently able to sell out 500-capacity rooms around the country on tour. “He’s not an artist that everyone’s going to know,” Lawrence says. But even if Hojean never becomes a household name, he may still be able to enjoy a “sturdy, solid career” through his recordings.
In the future, the definition of “breaking an artist” may have to shift. “It has become so fragmented where and how people discover music and become fans of something,” says Ben Blackburn, who manages girl in red. “The metric needs to change if you’re going to correctly judge success.”