Fifty-one years ago Saturday, Beatlemania began. John, Paul, George and Ringo stepped off a plane at JFK into a whirlwind mob of screaming fans, the ferocity of which the world had never seen. The way that Beatles could hypnotize their fans into such a frenzied state baffled psychologists at the time. And to a similar degree, the band's nearly perfect pop songs still baffle songwriters today.
The Beatles are one of the highest selling, most innovative acts the world has known. They're universally critically acclaimed and beloved to a degree no other band has even come close to achieving. Some people wait for a "new Beatles" like they're waiting on the second coming. But the way the music industry is currently set up, it will never produce a band that has the same levels of popular appeal and groundbreaking artistry as the Beatles.
We got a telling glimpse of the state of the music industry this weekend during the 2015 Grammys. Max Martin won producer of the year for having co-written and produced seven of the year's top 10 tracks, proving how standardized our taste in pop has become. The Beyoncé/Beck album of the year snub drama showed how intractably divided our culture's most popular artists' fan bases have gotten. The music industry is just too scattered, and the listening the public too divided, to support a band able to exercise the reach and creativity the Beatles enjoyed at their peak.
No band today could create the way the Beatles did. It may surprise some who are not tuned into Beatles history, but the band never toured while they were releasing their most experimental and groundbreaking albums. They played their last proper live concert in August 1966, the month they released Revolver. "I never felt people came to hear our show," Ringo Starr said in The Beatles Anthology. "I felt they came to see us. Because from the count on the first number the volume of screams would just drown everything out."
Where today's artists must carefully harness and stoke their fame, the Beatles shunned theirs. Instead, they spent their time in the studio, endlessly tinkering with new recording configurations, songwriting techniques and instruments. The Beatles were among the first to really push the envelope on what could be achieved with tape loops and post-production. According to Tom Daniel of Listverse, The Beatles can be credited as having "pioneered or popularized Artificial Double Tracking (ADT), back masking, tuned feedback, spliced audio loops, distortion, equalization, stereo effects, multi-tracking (overdubbing), compression, phase shifting, and innovative 'microphoning.'" They made their earnings almost entirely off the sales of their relentlessly innovative albums.
You can't make money like they did anymore. The way albums sell these days, it would be virtually impossible for an artist to model their career after the Beatles.
Sales numbers illustrate the point. Taylor Swift's 1989, our current number one album, only sold 71,000 copies last week. That figure makes 1989 "the lowest-selling No. 1 album since Sia's 1000 Forms of Fear hit No. 1 over the summer and sold just 52,000 copies," according to Mic's Kate Beaudoin. In contrast, the Beatles Please Please Me wasn't considered a success until it broke the 250,000 sales mark. Artists instead must tour relentlessly and monetize every possible aspect of their merchandising in order to turn a profit.
"Today there are few, if any, examples of true recording artists left," Rick Carnes, president of the Songwriters Guild of America, wrote in a Huffington Post article comparing the Beatles' legacy to artists of today. "The big recording studios are quickly fading into the past and the studio musicians who were able to devote their lives to improving their sound and their technique are a dying breed, replaced by home recording studios and sample-looping software."
Unless the industry can find a way to improve monetization of albums, there will never be a band that can focus on recording masterpieces with the same diligent abandon as the Beatles — and turn a real profit.
Fan bases just aren't there like they used to be. Even if sales (or streaming) could be appropriately monetized, there will never be another artist who enjoys as peerlessly undivided a fan base as the Fab Four. Thanks to the "availability of home recording options," as Carnes points out, there is simply too much competition from other artists. Streaming music and the "culture of free" have made it easier than ever for artists to manage their own careers and release their own music. But it has also created "an overwhelming amount of music that consumers are now also bombarded by," a fact agreed upon by 64% of musicians surveyed by the Future of Music Coalition. That study also found that artists today can draw their revenue from as many as 42 different sources,with retail sales making up a minuscule sliver of earnings.
There are too many artists, too many channels for distribution, too many endlessly subdividing subgenres (new wave, chillwave, vaporwave). With endless libraries of music at their fingertips, listeners don't engage with a single artist or album to the same degree. Studies have found there's only a 48.6% chance that listeners will make it to the end of a song before skipping on to something else.
In response to this competition, the industry's focus has shifted towards homogeneity instead of innovation. The best way to ensure an album will actually sell is to make sure it sounds like other albums whose success has already been proven. This is why our music is continually loosing timbral and instrumentation variety, or, more specifically, why Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" sounds so much like older hits.
There's no focus on nurturing artists anymore, either. Instead of cultivating the talent of singular artists, the global music industry's strategy seems to be shifting toward breaking large quantities of new artists. Last year, the UK charts saw a total of 14 acts debut at number one. This phenomenon had never happened before 1994, but now it seems to be on its way to becoming standard practice.
The music industry is simply no longer set up to produce and promote a group like the Beatles. The artists granted biggest commercial reach are, by and large, those who can guarantee sales, not those dedicated to innovating artistically. Pop stars work with writer/production teams like those by Max Martin, who produce hits like an assembly line in a factory. The practice of mainstream artists writing and recording all their own songs like Lennon and McCartney did is a vestige of pop machine now long-obsolete.
The only artists who come close are people like Kanye West, who still manages to make headlines, move albums and push his genre. But his attempts to style himself as a creative force on par with Jesus are laughable, while the Beatles' claim that they would be "more popular than Jesus" actually might make some people pause these days. We may never get a band like the Beatles again, but we still have the Beatles — and, thankfully, we always will.