Will the 2019 Grammys be better than last year? That remains to be seen, even as this weekend's ceremony nears. As the upper echelon of the music industry celebrates itself, it's a good time to take stock of the past year in music. You take the good (on-demand streams grew 42 percent, per BuzzAngle Music), you take the bad (consumers subsequently spending half a billion dollars less on music versus 2017, as Rolling Stone projected), and there you have a snapshot of a system seeking a new path forward.
In the spirit of highlighting the pros and cons of the industry, we’ve assembled our own list of trends for 2019. Some, we think, are crucial to ensuring the health of music going forward. Others are better left in history’s refuse bin. Read on, and let's all hope this year's awards go to the right people.
Leave Behind: Pop Music Takes a Bow
The hopelessness of 2018 didn’t just permeate politics or global climate policies — it affected pop as well. Per the annual industry report compiled by BuzzAngle, the most consumed songs were either 1. rap or 2. released in 2017, with USA Today lamenting a truly terrible year for pop. On the one hand, the data demonstrates just how much 2018 was a banner year for rap (the genre comprised 20.9 percent of all consumed songs), and that growth is important for all sorts of sociocultural reasons. But that lack of big pop hits is damaging. Great pop songs help define and perpetuate a culture, and their absence can be devastating in building a shared cultural experience/language. At least we’ll always have “Call Me Maybe.”
While some pop artists missed out on No.1 hits, many made waves with an overt turn toward political subject matter. In 2018, the likes of Logic ("1-800-273-8255"), Childish Gambino ("This is America"), Janelle Monae ("Americans"), and Beyoncé and Jay-Z (Everything Is Love) tackled everything from gun control and race relations to identity politics. It’s hard to discern if these tunes were simply in service of #resistance or if they had an actual impact. If you were looking to explain the 13 percent increase in voters ages 18 to 29 during the 2018 midterms, per ABC exit polls, the latter theory holds some weight. But even without all that to their credit, it’s clear that these musicians are doing more to perpetuate the genre and provide new parameters to engage and entertain eager audiences.
Leave Behind: A Streaming-Only Mentality
Streaming platforms have undoubtedly democratized music consumption. But they’re far from perfect: Liz Pelly has written extensively about the problems with Spotify — lackluster artist pay, the downsides of playlist-centric consumption, and so on. Unlimited access to music means fewer people are buying physical music, with 75 percent of industry revenue emanating from streaming (per the RIAA). Customers eschewed variety for familiarity, and in 2017, 99 percent of streams were from a meager 10 percent of available music. In 2019 and beyond, listeners should utilize the wealth of resources we all pay a mere $10 to access, fully exploring the vast niches of songs and LPs. We don’t all have to all buy vinyl, but active participation is the key to an industry interested in far more than your debit card number.
Keep It Up: Cut the Surprises
In this writer’s past efforts to explore the album cycle, one thread’s remained certain: Artists and labels are clueless in engaging modern audiences. However, an excellent piece in Vulture provided hope by revealing that surprise albums may be on the way out. Though boundlessly exciting, these out-of-the-blue drops routinely backfire on artists hoping to generate buzz. Even those successful campaigns don't last long in the chaos of modern streaming. As the surprise model becomes less reliable, the industry is forced to lean on other tactics to succeed. If the Vulture piece is any indication, it could mean building up artists in the long-term, not banking on single LPs, or even finding new ways to develop and disseminate better music. All that translates to happy listeners.
Phoenix’s own Commiserate have already picked up on one essential truth shared by other bands in recent convos: Because promoters need to generate the most traffic at shows, only those acts capable of drawing get booked. Commiserate’s Tommy Lake noted that more promoters should book with intention, which brings to mind AJJ’s annual Desert Trash mini fest. Beyond entertainment, the celebration expertly utilizes big bands to prop up and generate interest for a diverse lineup of undercard acts. There are also the recent benefit concerts for The Lunchbox, which assisted an important agent for unsung indie bands. It may also be that as the Phoenix scene continues to grow, more DIY spaces emerge to further level the playing field.
Keep It Up: Phoenix Bands Hit the Road
Phoenix’s many diverse bands could spend their whole careers playing the Valley exclusively. However, for 2019, Jordan White of Jane N' The Jungle says that more bands will leave the confines of Phoenix to play elsewhere. Based on responses from the 10 Phoenix-area bands to watch in 2019, several groups will play the West Coast, Northeast, South, and beyond. Local fans may miss out on their favorites, but the Valley's scene will be all the richer. More exposure for individual bands only bolsters the scene’s credibility among larger touring acts and big-name festivals/events. Similarly, bands will learn from jamming in other markets, which will make them more savvy when it comes to booking shows and releasing music. No scene is ever a perfect marketplace, and the growth of added national touring by Phoenix bands is a huge deal in the city’s continued image as something more than a place for sweet cacti.
Some music critics called 2018 the year of the uber-long LP, and rightly so. Drake’s Scorpion ran 90 minutes and 25 tracks; Migos’ Culture II boasts 24 tracks and a 106-minute runtime; and Nicki Minaj delivered Queen via 19 tracks over 67 minutes. Per Rolling Stone, longer albums are better suited for success via streaming platforms, but 2018 was also the year of extra-short records, with Nas’ Nasir, Kanye West’s Ye, and Pusha T’s DAYTONA all running seven tracks and 20-ish minutes. But both approaches miss the point, because we’ve already had the perfect album length for years: 10 tracks and roughly 36 minutes in length, just enough to fill an LP’s worth of music. This gives enough time/content to deliver a message or emote without boring an audience or getting lost in a sea of ideas.
In reporting the Lost Lake piece from last fall, the words of Playboy Manbaby’s Robbie Pfeffer rung perpetually relevant. Phoenix is as much a scene as it is a coalescing pool of dozens of micro-scenes, each one blending and breaking apart in real-time, all sans the ego of other cultural hubs. Noise artist Lav Andula recently echoed similar thoughts, explaining that Phoenix is a collaborative bubble. There is no singular, driving Phoenix sound or ethos, and that very open-endedness is what makes Phoenix stand-out among other destinations. That lack of a discernible identity is very much an identity itself — a sense of freedom and resulting weirdness that makes creativity and collaboration seem like this unhinged journey into a melted desertscape. There’s something worth celebrating and preserving in a place where there are no rules or signposts, a throwback to the Southwest’s pioneer spirit (only less dysentery). May Phoenix bands let their freak flags fly forever high.
Leave Behind: Lackluster Audiences Galore
Members of several Phoenix bands didn’t just point fingers at promoters; fans, too, play a sizable role in the booking process. These acts are keenly aware of the disconnect among audience members and the larger scene, with fans more interested in making appearances over meaningful engagement. On the one hand, that’s a concern everywhere, and fans have the right to behave as they see fit when they “vote” with their money. But the Phoenix faithful are in a unique position: With the city’s culture and recent, sustained growth, folks can exert their influence in a way to shape the scene as they see fit. People should never forget they’re not hapless consumers, but often the very foundation of great local music. To paraphrase Field of Dreams, if you build a scene, they will come.