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Open Channel: The Vast Wasteland of Artist Development

What if streaming services were to develop new, exciting artists who took advantage of immersive music's power?

Craig Anderton
Craig Anderton

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, where the Internet had not been invented, there were entities called Record Companies. They made money only if they produced music that consumers wanted to buy, so they had A&R departments that sought out talent, and they invested money in artist development.

Choices were often made based on gut feelings, not focus groups. John Hammond, who signed Bob Dylan instead of Joan Baez over the protest of company executives, is quoted as saying, “They called Bobby ‘Hammond’s Folly.’ He hadn’t written many songs, and he didn’t play guitar or harmonica very well. But there was a mystique about the kid; that’s all I can tell you, there was.”

Dylan’s first album sold 5,000 copies.

Yet, Columbia persevered. Dylan became a cultural force whose songs were recorded by other artists, and their records sold in the millions. Hammond did okay by signing Bruce Springsteen, too.

Record labels also once bankrolled promising artists, with recoupable investment money. That money wasn’t always returned, but the record companies ate the costs, because it took only one Led Zeppelin to wipe out a whole lotta losses.


In today’s world, Apple TV+ reportedly spent around $2 to $3 billion dollars on original content in 2021, and a similar spend is likely for 2022. So, I was thrilled to hear that going forward, Apple will commit 3 percent of its original content spend to developing new musical acts for Apple Music. The company said that if its immersive music initiative was going to succeed, it needed to develop new, exciting artists who could make ground-breaking music that took advantage of Atmos’ power.

Oooops…sorry, that was a fever dream from getting my Covid booster shot yesterday. No music streaming company—Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, Deezer, YouTube Music, Pandora, et al—has committed to creating original content.

You could say it’s not their responsibility, because they’re just glorified record distributors. They don’t need to find exciting new music; Spotify gets a zillion uploads every minute anyway.

But hold that thought. Netflix spent almost $200 million on the Gray Man movie—just one piece of original content. Although it’s hard to separate original content and total content spends, Netflix is reportedly on track to shell out around $2 billion on original content this year. Granted, intensifying competition from other services has cut back ownership somewhat in favor of licensing. Then again, that competition comes from streaming services that also offer original content.

The motivation for offering original content is simple. Think of the Disney+ subscriptions from people who’d heard the buzz about The Mandalorian…and weren’t disappointed. So, Disney+ stepped on the gas for more original content based on its Star Wars universe. Apple TV+ roped in new subscribers with Ted Lasso. Hulu had the brilliant 8 Days a Week documentary on the Beatles. Original content is the hook that generates a buzz and acquires subscribers.


Back to Apple. The company believes that music’s future is immersive. According to a press release announcing Apple’s involvement with Dolby and lossless audio, “Apple Music is working with artists and labels to add new releases and the best catalog tracks, as more artists begin to create music specifically for the Spatial Audio experience. Together, Apple Music and Dolby are making it easy for musicians, producers and mix engineers to create songs in Dolby Atmos.”

But the sentence I wanted to see was: “Furthermore, Apple Music is actively pursuing artist development, to find artists who are committed to taking immersive audio to levels never before achieved. Offering original and inventive content unique to Apple Music follows the lead set by Apple TV+. Apple has always stood for innovation, and our goal is to bring that sense of innovation and excitement to creating the ‘next big thing’ in music.”

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Of course, to stay competitive, other streaming services would need to create compelling, original musical content. Besides, content created by stakeholder companies is different from random artist uploads. One traditional record company function has been to act as a filter—not release an album for everyone who submitted a demo tape. If Apple Music announced that it had signed 10 acts, that imprimatur would generate interest.

Original content is one factor in the explosion of streaming video services. Sure, there’s crowd-pleasing popcorn material, and that’s fine. But then you have Netflix shows like Bridgerton, which despite being a historical drama, became one of the service’s most popular original series… or The Witcher, which failed in attempts to translate it to the big screen, but went on to find a massive audience on Netflix. Or a surprise left-field hit, like Indian Matchmaking.

Original, sometimes even quirky, content has worked in the chaotic world of video streaming companies. Why wouldn’t it work for music streaming companies? That’s a real question, not a rhetorical one, because I can only assume I must be missing something.

Or maybe I’m not.