The New Music Industry: Transformations, Challenges, and Opportunities

During the past two decades the music industry has experimented deep transformations as a result of the massive adoption of digital technologies and the evolution of the networked communication environment. The spread of Internet connectivity and peer-to-peer networks, the emergence of dynamic Web platforms and services, the availability of cheaper audio equipment and free/open software formats (e.g. MP3), and the development of new sociocultural practices by fans/consumers/audiences and musicians, have disrupted the structure and dynamics of the music industry. As a result, a new music economy is emerging. (Baym 2010; Lyshon 2014; Wikstrom 2009) In this new economy, the musical networks of creativity, reproduction, distribution, and consumption, are being reshaped, becoming more interconnected and overlapped. (Lyshon 2014) Given the high level of connectivity among actors within networks, and the digitization of the musical products, former major music companies have lost control over the flow of information, and services have become more valuable that physical goods. (Wikstrom 2009) Further, relationships between art, audience and artists have changed as digital technology and practices have lowered the barriers to entry to the music networks and have blurred the boundaries between amateur and professional work. (Baym 2010; Lyshon 2014; Wikstrom 2009)

In such context of dramatic and rapid transformations the majors have struggled to adapt to the sociocultural and economic reconfigurations and have not been able to completely understand the different logics of exchange and the alternative system of values that are being developed by highly connected fans/audiences/consumers and artists. In the new music economy, gift exchange and commodity exchange coexist. (Baym 2010; Lyshon 2014) As Baym has explained, “if the relationships among industries, artists, and audiences are neither economic nor social but a hybrid between market and gift economies, the incentive to pay for music is increasingly motivated by ethical and moral feelings of relational obligation rather than economic and legal contracts and constraints.” (Baym 2010) Hence, in the current transformations, social relationships between fans/audiences/consumers and artists have become more important not only for developing music careers and fan bases, but also for creating new business models. Social media platforms and services that combine SNSs, media-sharing, and streaming capabilities (e.g. myspace,, spotify, pandora, soundcloud) have been designed to support the activities of a networked audience, the managament of artists-fans relationships, and the distribution of digital content.

Digital networked technologies and practices create challenges and opportunities for music artists. Both, the ones who operate in the independent music circuit, and the ones who have signed contracts with major labels, confront the changing dynamics of a new economy in where ICTs have become the main tools for production and distribution, for managing social, cultural, and economic relationships, and for acquiring various forms of capital. In what follows, I review some of the most recent studies conducted by researchers from the fields of communication, sociology, musicology, and management, that try to understand how digital and social media are transforming musicians labor, creative careers, and sociocultural practices.

Music Promotion and Distribution

Researchers have started to analyze the real impact of social media in music distribution, artist promotion, and cultivation of an audience and a fan base. Qualitative studies have found that online platforms and services are offering new opportunities for music circulation, promotion, and social relationships. (Baym 2010, 2012; Engelmann et al. 2012; La Rocca 2014; McLean et al. 2010; Oliver 2010; Sargent 2009) At the same time, researchers have found that social media and the new practices are creating challenges for artists in relation to managing their online presence and developing closer interactions with their audience (Baym 2012; Wikstrom 2013), as well as in relation to the increase of “noise” in the marketplace (Thomson & Cook 2011; Leyshon 2014; Wikstrom 2013). Moreover, researchers have found that although social media and the internet are empowering musicians, especially the independent ones, record labels and other intermediaries are still important for developing professional careers. (La Rocca 2014; Leyshon 2014; Sargent 2009) Other scholars, have tried to demonstrate that the opportunities of empowerment by independent musicians using ICT are part of a myth and that music distribution and promotion are still controlled by the major record labels (McLean et al. 2010).

In her study of Canadian musicians and music business personnel from the Hamilton and Greater Toronto regions, La Rocca found that multiple online technologies (e.g. SNSs, websites, media-sharing sites) are being used by independent musicians (those who do not hold a record deal with any major record label) to promote and disseminate their music and network with fans and other artists. She observed that musicians used the different networked tools with different frequencies according to their specific needs and considered them bennefitial for their careers. For instance, all of the indie musicians had an online presence in SNSs that was dynamic and where information was constantly updated. Among all the SNSs, Facebook was popular among all the participants of the study. All musicians (twenty two) had Facebook pages and used the different tools of the platform for managing their audience (, user demographics, etc) and mantaining their online presence. Youtube was also seen as important by the musicians and they uploaded videos to their channels even though they were not music videos perse but instead just audio of their songs with an still image. La Rocca found that musicians created strategies for managing their social media interactions and building a primary fan base. According to her, those strategies included “maintaining a consistent personality contests/asking questions, posting visuals (images, videos), and regular scheduling of posts.”

Using a critical social theory approach McLean, Oliver and Wainwright (2010) argued that although ICTs (blogs, websites, and SNSs) have allowed independent musicians to communicate with fans, network with fellow artists, promote their “brand image” and distribute their creative works, they have not been truely empowered them. According tho these authors, “economic power, surveillance, censorship and control continue to impact on independent, or DIY, musicians to restrict and ultimately prevent the ideal speech situation that is necessary to empower musicians and promote greater independence and control over art and career.” McLean et al. ellaborated vignettes of two UK artists (Sandi Thom, Laura Victoria) and a global music streaming service (Spotify) analyzing official and unofficial web sites, media reports and interviews. Although their critical analysis demonstrates that ICT has not levelled up the playing field nor given full control to the independent musicians, their argument has limitatitions since it overlooks the practices and interactions developed by the DIY artists in their specific contexts of action. Instead, these researchers tend to overestimate the power of corporations, the majors, and the macro structures of capitalism. As they said, “we are still a long way off music fans and independent artists having a powerful enough voice to organise against the commercial power of the majors and media conglomerates (Apple, Sony) (…) the ultimate power remains in mass media and broadcast rather than “narrowcast”.”

Musicians as Entrepreneurs: DIY practices

As a result of the transformation process of the music industry and the new challenges created by the new economy, some researchers have started to identify the specific entrepreneural and DIY practices that artists are developing with ICT while pursuing their careers. In a qualitative study exploring several UK local music scenes Oliver (2010) interviewed fifteen DIY artists, managers, and promoters. According to him, “the independent (DIY) artist that inhabits a local music scene has a strong ethic that relates back to the punk ideals of being creative and having fun whilst at the same time being self-sustainable.” Hence, the motivations of independent artists are related to be able to develop projects and to pursue their creative ideas by themselves, and not necessarily related to monetary compensation. Such values shape particular kinds of local music scenes that nurture talent, foster creativity, and encourage having fun. Oliver (2010) argues that in order to be sustainable and stay loyal to the DIY ethic in the contemporary music economy, independent artists need to develop artistic and managerial processes through the implementation of information systems (use of ICTs). For illustrating his argument Oliver (2010) elaborated a “DIY musicology model” in where he identifies a first level of creative activities (live performance, song writing or recording); a second level of information systems (databases, social networking sites, collection societies, education and training information, communities, use of communication tools); and a third level of managerial process (knowledge and esperience in finnance, ability to manage networking and collaboration). According to Oliver (2010) DIY artists can only achieve self-sufficiency and independnce if they are able to acquire the managerial skills of the third level.

Likewise, Engelmann, Grünewald and Heinrich (2012) argued that professional musicians need to become “artrepreneurs” (artists + entrepreneurs) in order to thrive in the new networked economy and achieve “normative goals of security, health, satisfaction and value creation.” That is, they need to act not only based on aesthetics logics but also adopt entrepreneurial logics of economic, cultural, and social capital exchange. As they explained, the new artrepreneur “is not only skilled as a musician but he/she will incorporate and learn various other skills to provide value for his/her network” (Engelmann et al. 2012). According to Engelmann et al., in the current new economy, creativity is more a social process than a natural ability, and acquiring various capitals, and “working with others with whom they (artists) never have been creative before” are essential abilities for developing a career. Analyzing interviews from a sample of thirty experts and professional artists from the Berlin classical music sector, these researchers found out that artists’ productivity increases when they are able to manage the acquisition, exchange, share, and trasnformation of various forms of capital. The artrepreneurs “are able to invest into different kinds of capital that can be shared, and can increase their connectivity and value for networks that reach out to the entire fan community” (Engelmann et al. 2012). Such creative social procesesses of connectivity are taken place both in urban physical spaces and through digital network-media. As Engelmann et al. found out, by performing in physical venues, using ICT, collaborating with other artists and producers (from different genres), and, in general, broadering the scope of action of their activities (“whatever is possible”), classical musicians in Berlin are building networks with diverse kinds of players that lead in the long‐term to a further creation of value.

Evolving Fans-Artists Relationships and Cultivation of Social Capitals

Using a qualtitative approach Baym (2012) developed a study with a group of thirty-six professional musicians from North America and Europe with the objective of understanding how they perceived their interactions with audiences online. She found that, on the one hand, new platforms and services have made communication between musicians and their audience more personal and faster. Social media have also oppened opportunities for social support, and validation of artists’ music. On the other, the closer fan-artists relationships have also become challenging because interactions through social media tend to blur the boundaries between fandom and friendship, and the public and private spheres. As Baym (2012) explained, musicians have to negotiate “the interpersonal benefits and tensions between approaching fans as fans and as friends and how they strategically manage the challenges these uncertain boundaries create.”

Baym (2012) explained that the majority of international musicians that participated in her study experienced bennefits (especially as creative and social beigns) from their mediated interaction with fans such as “opportunity to create new personal relationships, to build on those that begin on tour, and to receive social support through instantaneous feedback and hearing how they have supported others in times of crisis.” According to Baym, the relationships between musicians and audience members change with social media as intimacy, affect, and emotion are not only experienced by fans as in the older celebrity “rock star” model but also by artists. As she explained, “social-media enabled connections involve creative, social people as prone to experiencing human emotion as anyone” (Baym 2012).

Independent musicians also experiment important bennefits from the cultivation of closer relationships with their fans through social digital media. However, given their independence from the majors and fewer economic resources, networking with their audience is even more important and instrumental for advancing their careers. In a qualitative study of independent musicians from two small college towns in the U.S (Richmond and Charlottesville), Sargent (2009) found that artists actively leveraged social media platforms and services for cultivating different kinds of social capital. Using a sample of 60 musicians ages of 18-36 and from three different genres (rock, hip-hop, and experimental noise), Sargent observed that musicians used ICT with two major purposes. On the one hand, they built networks of mutual support “or bonding social capital, among local musicians and friends, distant friends and translocal niche groups.” On the other, they also seeked to bridge their support networks to wider audiences of people beyond their local scene and to connect to more formalized institutions. While bonding social capital was actively cultivated with certain degree of success by indie musicians using ICT, bridging was way more diffficult to acquire. As Sargent explained, “having a much wider reach among disparate social groups and places, is more difficult than may be expected” and independent musicians had to rely in strategies such as hiring professional Internet promotional services, engaging in on-line cold calls, and entering on-line commercial contests.

In her analysis, Sargent used a model of three types of bonding social capital in order to explain the disparities in musicians’ networking resources and the variety of outcomes in the uses of ICT. The three different types were: (1) social capital of the local scene, (2) maintained social capital (a term borrowed from Ellison et al. 2007), and (3) subcultural social capital. Indie musicians, independently of their genre and level of education, succesfully cultivated the social capital of the local scene using ICTs such as websites and SNS profiles. According to Sargent, these tools fostered the creation of a compelling self-representation of the local community, the acquisition of strong ties, and cultivation of “dense networks of musicians, entrepreneurs and supporters based on relationships of community and exchange.” However, as Sargent explained, this kind of social capital created networks that were “too easily exhausted or broken.” The second kind of resource, mantained social capital, was cultivated as artists connected with supporters beyond the local scene and depended more directly on the use of SNS since these platforms allowed “users to keep up with loose and fleeting ties developed in highly mobile lifestyles.” Sargent observed this kind of social capital was not acquired evenly but depended on the background and lifestyles of the musicians. Those who had attended to college and moved from their hometowns and were “savvy about the logic of hyper linking media information on the web,” were more likely to gain maintanance social capital and mobilized it for producing translocal identities as they connected their scenes to other places. Finally, subcultural social capital was used and developed by connecting to artists and fans “interested in a particular (usually socially or musically marginalized) genre.” As Sargent explained, file sharing and SNSs allowed experimental noise and hip hop artists to cultivate an audience beyond their local scenes, gain national visibility, find collaborators, and even travel when their economic circumstances allowed them to do so.


As recent studies on the practices developed by music artists and fans/audiences/consumers in the context of the new music economy demonstrate, creative labor has become more complex than it was thought in previous eras of the music industry. Social relationships have become a critical part of the creative work developed by both musicians and networked audiences. Using digital social media for cultivating and managing these relationships is a well established practice among signed mainstream artists and independent musicians. For the latter, these mediated practices have become an essential part of their DIY repertoire and have become crucial for developing their careers, gaining visibility, and fostering the local music scenes where they belong. Interestingly, there is a gap in the literature in relation to the DIY practices and innovations that have been part of the hip hop movement. As a matter of fact, only one of the studies reviewed (Sargenter 2009) analyzed the use of digital social media by hip hop artists and did not make any reference to the long tradition of innovation that has been developed by practitioners of this genre. There is also a void in the literature in relation to the use of hybrid platforms such as SoundCloud that combine the features of SNSs, media-sharing, and streaming. Although all researchers have found that the use of SNSs is an standard practice, there is little knowledge about how the services of media-sharing and music streaming are being leveraged by musicians and embedded in their creative work.


Baym, N. K. (2010). Rethinking the Music Industry. Popular Communication, Special Issue on the Recession. 8 (3) 177-180.

Baym, N. K. (2012). Fans or Friends: Seeing Social Media Audiences as Musicians Do. Participations 9(2).

Engelmann, M., Grünewald L, and Heinrich, J. (2012) The New Artrepreneur – How Artists Can Thrive on a Networked Music Business. International Journal of Music Business Research, Oct. 2012, vol. 1 no. 2 pp. 31-45.

Gaffney, M. & Rafferty, P. (2009). Making the Long Tail Visible: social networking sites and independent music discovery. Program:$ electronic$ library$ and$ information$systems, 43(4): 375 – 391.

La Rocca, L. (2014). Has the Independent Musician Been Empowered? Analyzing the Use of Internet Technologies for Music Promotion. In A. Buckland & C. Caron (Ed.), TEM 2014: Proceedings of the technology and emerging media track of the Canadian Communication Association. Canada.

Leyshon, A. (2014) Reformatted: code, networks, and the transformation of the music industry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McLean, R. Oliver, P. and Wainwright D, (2010),”The myths of empowerment through
information communication technologies”, Management Decision, Vol. 48 Iss 9 pp. 1365 – 1377

Oliver, P. (2010),”The DIY artist: issues of sustainability within local music scenes”, Management
Decision, Vol. 48 Iss 9 pp. 1422 – 1432

Panay, P. (2011) The Future of Making Money as a Performing Musician. In Rethinking Music: A Briefing Book. Berkman Center for Internet and Society. April 24, 2011

Thomson, K. & Cook, J. (2011) Artist Revenue Streams: A multi-method Research Project Examining Changes in Musicians’ sources of income. In Rethinking Music: A Briefing Book. Berkman Center for Internet and Society. April 24, 2011

Wikstrom, P. (2013) The Music Industry: Music in the Clud. Cambridge : Polity.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *