It was a tough year to be a music fan. Every month seemed to bring more bad news. David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Glenn Frey of the Eagles, Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, Maurice White of Earth Wind & Fire, Keith Emerson of ELP – and many more besides – all shuffled off the stage, leaving behind an inescapable sense that an era was ending.
There have never been more famous people in the world than there are right now. In the second half of the 20th century, the rise of the baby boom generation and simultaneous proliferation of mass media allowed youth culture to run rampant. Pop became the new lingua franca, and even one-hit wonders could achieve a meaningful connection with listeners that far outstripped any artistic merit, becoming a shared soundtrack of our times.
But age is no respecter of fame, and the original stars of that pop explosion are slowly, inevitably, fading away. There was a poignant sense of valediction to an extraordinary festival staged at Coachella in October that brought together an unparalleled line-up of rock legends: the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan shared a bill for the first time, with Neil Young, the Who and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters. They aren’t gone yet, but you have to wonder whether we’ll ever see their likes again.
David Bowie’s Blackstar, released in January just two days before he died from cancer aged 69, was an extraordinary final gesture. Like Leonard Cohen’s resigned, elegiac final album, You Want it Darker, released two weeks before his death last month at the age of 82, Blackstar offered a balm for people’s grief, a sense of completion.
No such solace accompanied the passing of Prince. The extravagantly gifted funk-soul-rock maestro was still in full creative flow, and arguably even enjoying a renaissance when, in April, he died aged 57 of an accidental overdose. Of all the musicians lost in 2016, Prince’s influence on the next generation has been the most tangible.
Music is changing: how it sounds, how it is presented, how it is consumed and why it matters to fans. In 2016, chart music has taken a markedly downbeat, underground turn, away from the kind of fizzily escapist American EDM (electronic dance music) that has dominated for the past decade. A new wave of electronic R’n’B favours subtler, more warped grooves and weird layers of auto-tuned harmonies.
The British ambient dubstep experimenter James Blake, electro-folk shape-shifter Bon Iver and narcoleptic soul man Frank Ocean – whose lush, sensuous, meandering album Blonde was greeted like the second coming of Stevie Wonder – all exerted an influence. They operate in a musical landscape that is fragile and introverted, with a deep soul-searching quality. Drake and Kanye West, the reigning superstars, add something more charismatically demonstrative but share that air of introspection, as if they are making music to please themselves rather than anyone else.
Drake ruled the airwaves. This most slyly amusing and supremely self-aware rapper has perfected the viral art of the internet meme as a form of marketing. His gauzily insubstantial One Dance was number one for 15 weeks over the summer, an unobtrusive, mid-tempo groove you could stick on loop and recycle endlessly.
The Weeknd, a Drake collaborator and one of the prime architects of this textured futuristic R’n’B, also made inroads into the pop mainstream with Starboy, while that most alert of pop stars Rihanna certainly sensed a change in the weather, shifting sideways with her maverick album Anti (which included her ubiquitous Drake duet, Work).
At first received as a brave artistic disaster, Anti turned into one of the year’s most enduring albums, spawning hit after hit. There is something about the understated slow burn of this futuristic R’n’B that suits the repetitive playlist listening habits of the streaming generation. You know the underground is going overground when established teen idols like Justin Bieber and One Direction’s Zayn Malik adopt its mannerisms.
Digital music distribution was also pushed into new realms. Album of the year was surely Beyoncé’s masterful Lemonade, which arrived in two radically different versions. Twelve tracks of emotionally forthright R’n’B were chopped up, switched around and reformatted with poetic interludes and documentary footage as a tour-de-force visual remix.
These days, such albums are invariably dropped online, often without warning, piped direct to fans, bypassing old critical and media filters. Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo redefined the album as a living work-in-progress, with new tracks and mixes added even after it was released online. It does not exist in a physical form, either on CD or vinyl, so there is effectively no definitive version.
The biggest-selling album of 2016 was actually released in time for Christmas last year: Adele’s 25. Adele is a very old-fashioned popstar, pumping out her power ballads, and in many ways her whole operation seems like a throwback to another time. She held her album back from streaming services until June, and CDs made up an astonishing 96 per cent of total sales.
But when it comes to earnings, Adele was beaten by another rival who released no music whatsoever in 2016. According to the business magazine Forbes, Taylor Swift’s status as the highest-earning musician of the year was based on touring and product endorsements, which brought in $170 million. She hasn’t released an album since 2014; her last hit single came back in May 2015.
For most of 2016, Swift was effectively absent yet somehow permanently present in a succession of storm-in-a-teacup social media controversies like her #Hiddleswift romance with Tom Hiddleston. Adele came third in the Forbes financial rankings, after One Direction, although, as the magazine noted, she is “one of the few acts still making more on recorded music than anything else”.
There was a time when the metrics of pop were very simple. The arena of competition was the charts, and success was measured in record sales. In the age of the internet, the most important new metric is visibility: website clicks, digital numbers, audience reach.
Making records is a complicated and expensive business, involving writers, producers, studios and musicians, a huge outlay for something that even among its greatest practitioners is often hit or miss. By contrast, on July 4, Swift threw a swimwear party with some pretty friends, posted pictures online and instantly notched up a million social media hits.
How long can it be before the music business doesn’t actually involve any music at all?