Better in the Old Days? Steve Lukather’s Thoughts on the Music Industry

Steve Lukather has released a passionate critique of the state of the modern music industry. His main concerns are,

  • Low aImage-SteveLukatherrtist earnings (particularly from streaming)
  • Saturation of the market with low quality
  • Lack of investment in artist by labels
  • Death of the album

It might seem easy to dismiss this as the bitter cavilling of an old man (he jokes about being, “108 this year”) he is 58, but Lukather has been recording for 40 years and has played guitar on many several seminal pop and rock records. He is perhaps best known as part of the yacht-rock combo Toto. In addition to this he has performed on over 1,500 recordings by other artists. He embodies the expert behind the scenes musician as well as anybody I can think of.

He also cares about musical culture this is clear from his message. It is worth considering what he has to say, but perhaps filtering it through an understanding of his specific viewpoint.

Streaming Doesn’t Pay for Artists

Lukather says he is not making any money from streaming royalties. Given his output that is shocking. If streaming is the future then it doesn’t seem to benefit artists with huge back catalogues. This is a big problem. By most measures Lukather is one of the most successful musicians around. He has earned the respect of his peers and is in some ways the ultimate industry insider (as a musician). Yet he is not benefiting from the streaming revenue model.

Some of the problem is just in how streaming has been set up, royalty rates are low, and some of the problem as Lukather says is in the old chestnut of record label accounting. Artists signed to labels get even less as the label takes their (significant) cut.
Streaming looks like it will be good for the companies operating the streams, Apple, Spotify, etc., and perhaps for publishing/record companies that control massive catalogues of music. If 40 years of active work doesn’t get you a meaningful slice of the pie what hope do emerging artists have?

The Kids are Crap

Lukather says, “TOO many people can make records. Period. No catalog artists are made these days. One hit wonders galore. Sad really.”

I think there are two issues here, how much music is being made and how musicians are treated as disposable by labels. I suspect that Lukather is speaking in terms of label artists rather than people crafting their careers without label investment. Taken as a whole he comes across as very much supporting the skilled musician developing their art.

I think his key point is that many artists are flash in the pan in terms of their impact on the industry. Labels can sit back and cherry pick people who make an impact on social media release and promote their popular single. He may be thinking of artists like Rebecca Black who gained significant attention with the video for her 2011 song Friday. In that case over 160 million views translated to number 58 in the Billboard charts. Since then Black has released five singles.

Lack of Label Development

As part of Toto, Lukather worked with Columbia records for nearly 30 years releasing 11 studio albums and three live albums. Not all of these albums were significant in terms of sales. Their fourth album, Toto IV, sold the best going triple platinum in the US. The label continued to support them for over 20 years.

It is the lack of this long-term vision Lukather seems to be railing against. He talks about the lack of budgets for recording and the quick dumping of artists as prime examples of this.

Major labels are losing market share and revenues, but they still dominate the field. Despite the collapse of EMI major labels share of the US market only fell from 68% to 65% from 2011 − 2014. Over the same period total revenues fell from 9.1 billion dollars to 8 billion dollars. While this is a decrease this is an industry coming to terms with the end of the format replacement bonus. The somewhat panicked reaction and shift to tougher treatment of artists seems radical.

Attention Deficit

Many of the problems Lukather identifies boil down to patience and attention. This is not just from some kind of godly force manifesting as record labels or the industry. It is also how we music fans are interacting with music. Lukather describes listening to albums with friends in silence, taking time to savour the music and reading the liner notes that came with the album.

Downloading culture has left the album behind for many music fans. It is easy to create an à la carte selection of the music you want based on your discovery process. For many people this is through populist channels. What is missing in this method are the surprise tracks from an album or even better the sleeper tracks. There was a real joy in finding you had come to like a track that you had hated on first listen. For this to happen you had to listen to it many times and this mostly happens if you listen to music in albums rather than tracks.

Is Steve Lukather Right?

Lukather does make some good points, but I think his specific perspective limits the scope of his view.

The good old days were not all that good. There was plenty of awful acts. He calls these “teenage fodder” but the artists he derides today are filling similar roles. There has always been disposable music created to fill a market gap.

He is right that modern technology allows people to make a recording without being able to play the song perfectly from beginning to end. Digital editing including pitch and time correction can be used to make music in a very different way than it used to have to be done. Technology always changes things. Electric guitars changed technique and multitrack recording changed how recordings were made massively. I don’t agree that technology is at fault for people making bad music.

He is also right about the attitude of major labels to artist development. There does seem to be a great deal of pressure on every release and little scope to experiment with an album funded through major labels. In this regard the industry has changed. There are still people making great albums, taking artistic risks and experimenting. The change is they are using the same technology that can be used to make cut and paste make to and mend music to reduce costs and allow them to fund the process themselves.

Where this positive trend is under threat is that it is very hard to make money as a musician. The commoditization of music and the expectation of free or apparently free (via subscription) music puts a big squeeze on artists. This does limit the scope of what can be made and has some very damaging side effects on the industry (more on that in another post).

The other major challenge in the current market is getting heard. Not getting discovered in the sense of having an A&R person sign you but simply in finding an audience to listen to your work. In terms of marketing money still wins and the majors have billions to draw upon. Fans have to work to discover the good stuff and it is hard to know it is even out there sometimes.

To sum up, Lukather is out of touch, but he is also right about several key points. He represents a very specific corner of the music industry, the highly skilled session player, and his relationship to music rightly values the expertise he and others like him have honed. The best thing about his post is that it is clear Steve Lukather cares about the state of musical culture and where it is going.

Published by

Ruben Kenig

I used to play punk, then jazz. Somehow I went to music school to study composition. I wrote music and made sound design for theatre and studied film music. In the interstitial spaces of this I made websites as a content manager and project manager. I sometimes publish articles at rubken.net.