It’s no secret that the music industry is currently in a state of disarray. This is in most part due to the evolution of technology and the way that people consume music. But if you think this is the first time this has been the case, think again.

The decline of the music business in the 21st century started with piracy platforms like Napster as confirmed by several music industry executives such as Jimmy Iovine (if you haven’t seen the new HBO documentary The Defiant Ones, go see it ASAP. It’s a must see for industry professionals and fans of music in general). But although piracy is now under better control and many illegal download websites have been shut down, piracy websites were just the beginning. The internet gave life to streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, and Soundcloud (all of which are still evolving). As a result, record labels no longer have power over the sale of music because they don’t control manufacturing, distribution, and promotion as much as they used to. Smaller companies and artists’ now have increased control over content creation and distribution, increased power of distributors, and data-driven marketing.

So, the music industry is undoubtedly facing some challenges today. However, in the past few years, this business has managed to survive by reinvention and coming up with solutions to market challenges. Here are 3 other times in history that the music business has faced challenges and bounced back:

PLEASE NOTE: The facts stated below were cited from the MIT Press book publication ‘Streaming, Sharing, Stealing: Big Data and the Future of Entertainment.’


In 1920, with World War I in the past, almost 150 million records were sold in the United States. The path ahead seemed clear, until 1923, when broadcast radio emerged. Record sales declined for a few years after that, but electric recording and playback emerged during the same period and their superior sound quality helped record sales bounce back.

The 1950s and early 60s:

In the 1950s, another challenge arrived in the form of Rock ‘n’ roll. At first, the big companies didn’t take the genre seriously. The big record labels felt that it was just a fad that only appealed to teenagers. They were also concerned about alienating their main audience and scaring their reputations. Most executives wanted to stick with what was working at the time: making music for the adult market.

Even Frank Sinatra spoke negatively about Rock ‘n’ roll:

Rock ‘n’ roll smells phony and false,” he told a Paris magazine. “It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons, and by means of its almost imbecilic reiteration, and sly, lewd, in plain fact, dirty lyrics…it manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth.

Of course, this was a huge miscalculation. Rock ‘n’ roll exploded. Small independent record labels that were getting turned down for major deals stepped up. In the second half of the 1950s, 101 of the 147 records that made it into the Top Ten came from independent record labels. By 1962, 42 different labels had songs on the charts. Yep, the majors temporarily lost control during the 1950s and 1960s. But they won it back. Big companies were simply better equipped than their smaller competitors for long-term survival in the music business. One of their resolutions was signing this guy named Elvis Presley.

The 1990s:

In the 90s, the music business was booming. There were a lot of inventions that allowed the business to grow revenue. For instance; cassette tapes, which improved portability and made unlicensed copying easy; MTV, a new channel of promotion; and CDs, which replaced records and tapes partly because they were cheaper to make.

This was all great, but this industry needed to stay in control of two things to continue to rule: managing the cost and risk of bringing new content to market and maintaining tight control over the downstream end of the supply chain (things like promotion, and distribution). However, their control over the latter was threatened in the 90s.

It was threatened by two things:

1. Limited retail shelf space in a pre-internet/digital era (distribution): Most neighborhood stores carried small inventories, no more than 5,000 albums. Even the large superstores stocked only 5,000 to 15,000 albums.

2. Limited air play (promotion): The labels were putting out about 135 singles and 96 albums a week! (a lot of new artists were being signed back then because of big budgets. According to a 2014 report from the IFPI, record labels were spending $500K to $2 Million to “break” newly signed artists and $300K to promote and market a new album). But the issue was that radio stations were only adding three or four new songs to their playlists per week (these playlists are sent every week to Broadcast Data Systems, then they’re used to determine what records make it onto the charts–I remember having to pick these BDS reports up for my supervisor while I was an intern at Sony Music).

Once again, record companies found a solution to these challenges. To convince store managers to take the risk of giving scarce shelf space to new music, they leveraged the clout of their big artists by offering in-store fan meet and greets, advance copies of albums, free merchandise, etc. For more air play, it was and still is a lot of similar things. For instance, providing radio stations more access to established stars in the form of concert tickets, backstage passes, and on-air interviews. The trade off was playing more songs from new artists signed to the major labels.

Even though the technological changes at work in the creative industries today are fundamentally different from those that came before them, decision makers in the music industry and their counterparts continue to adapt and survive by coming up with a new set of processes for delivering value, as well as, new business models for capturing this value. As a result of this, we are seeing record labels in 2017 take advantage of streaming by partnering with the Spotify’s of the world to promote and distribute their songs, etc.

As it pertains to marketing, marketers also go through dramatic transformation brought about by technology, globalization, and shifting economics. With marketing, you must seek to deliver value in a business world increasingly defined by social media, mobility, analytics, “big data,” and return-on-investment. As a result, your marketing must adapt to the times to survive, as well as, push the envelope to try and stay ahead. For instance, the use of stop motion animation and GIF’s today.