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How the music industry has shifted since Lorde’s Pure Heroine

Lorde’s debut album, released ten years ago this week, soundtracked youth culture in the 2010s – but today, young artists like her are being robbed of the chance to get their own record deals

When Marianne Faithfull was once asked what the 60s were like, she said she would turn on “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix and exclaim: “They were like that!”. If you wanted to know the 2010s equivalent from someone who was an adolescent at the time, there’s a chance they’d gingerly pass you their headphones and press shuffle on Lorde’s Pure Heroine, their nostalgic sighs merging into the opening of “Ribs”. 

Lorde’s debut was a defining cultural moment of the 2010s. Its crisp, simple production and nonchalant lyricism was an eye roll to the maximalist pop that clogged the radio airwaves at the time. With her rose-tinted portrayal of working-class suburban life, she validated a generation of penniless teenagers living in cities and towns unworthy of postcard status, amid an era of anthems that boasted about being rich and sexy and constantly at the club.

At just 16 years old, she was the antithesis of a burgeoning influencer culture. While the normalisation of Facetune emerged and a slew of girl-boss anthems beleaguered the charts, Lorde departed simple shreds of grounding wisdom in a bewitching cadence that has been imitated countless times since. On Pure Heroine, acne was likened to the moon's deep, mysterious craters and braces became precious jewels adorning the smiles of her friends. It’s a record about being young and broke and scared to grow up – an everlasting sentiment that seems particularly poignant to the first generation raised on the internet.

But although Pure Heroine seemed to cement her status as a household name overnight, Lorde’s ascent to acclaim was actually a slow process. She was 12 when a grainy video of her performing at a school talent show fell into the lap of a New Zealand label exec, and soon after she was placed on an artist development deal that gave her four years to hone her craft. It meant that when her debut landed it was a fully-formed masterpiece – one that garnered the audible equivalent of a double take for most people hearing “Royals” on the radio for the first time. 

These periods of artist development are essential in nurturing talent that will create work to define their generation, but it seems to be a dying practice in an industry struggling to adapt to a fully digitised world. Last month, Billboard reported that label execs are “depressed” at the fact they no longer know how to break artists into the mainstream, thanks to a string of cataclysmic changes to the industry. “A lot of the label-controlled streams that previously held lots of influence over audience behaviour, now have diminishing power of influence,” one major label A&R tells Dazed. “Radio seems to impact consumption far less; music videos and other long-form content views are dropping across the board; press outlets are falling away, and press coverage seems to have less impact.” This, combined with the findings that nearly half of working musicians in the UK earn less than £14,000 a year, paints a bleak portrait for the young artists trying to make it in 2023.

But why is artist development so important? “A lot of musicians, you have to watch them screw up a bunch of times before you can see something good,” a 16-year-old Lorde told Q in 2014. “I’d rather not release anything until it’s the coolest thing I think I can make.” For many young artists today, however, privacy is a privilege they’re not granted. A lack of opportunity to make money (thanks to streaming services’ low royalty payouts) means artists can no longer afford to undergo long periods of development – forcing many to seek quick, viral fame instead.

Artist mentor Damian Morgan says this lack of opportunity to create substance is preventing new artists from establishing any kind of longevity. “I get sent artists that have millions of likes on TikTok and thousands of Instagram followers, but their streaming numbers are pitiful, because there’s little to buy into. No one is really compelled to delve further and listen to the music,” he says. “This is why artist development is so crucial. It’s not just about the verse, chorus and a good press shot, it’s about setting boundaries, managing content, and keeping a part of yourself private. You can [still] be authentic and also give your audience part of you that feels safe to give away.”

And while artists are forced to contend with the algorithm to grasp at crumbs of digital attention, the industry is placing more importance on back catalogues – creating the sense that old music is killing new music. In 2021, 70 per cent of all songs streamed in the US were old releases, and the top 200 most popular new tracks made up only five per cent of all streams. It means new music is no longer, financially, the biggest priority for labels.

“Young people are finding a way. And the kind of resilience, particularly if they’re coming from backgrounds where they haven’t had privilege, is astonishing” – Matt Griffiths, Youth Music CEO

And, when the chance to earn from music is compromised, it’s working-class artists that are forced out first. In the UK, the class divide in the arts has dramatically worsened in the past 40 years. Youth Music, a charity that helps young people to change their lives through music, is now struggling to keep up with the growing need for funding. “Demand is at an all time high, and at present, we can sadly only say yes to 17 per cent of applications,” Youth Music CEO Matt Griffiths says. “If those opportunities are reduced, the industry becomes more monotone and represented by people that can afford to get involved and do the development work to get in.” 

While ten years is a harrowing milestone for an album that captured the fleeting essence of youth, what’s more unsettling is looking ahead and wondering how many more of these generation-defining works of art young people will have the opportunity to create. When Lorde first emerged, David Bowie heralded her as the future of music, but now that future seems uncertain. Upon first listen a decade ago, “Ribs” existed as an anthem for the right now – beautifying the beer-soaked clothes and loneliness of teenage parties; romanticising wasting time all day and riding the bus. Now it is a sombre portrait of all that is long gone – both in our adolescent lives and the industry that allowed Lorde to soundtrack them.

There is, however, a light at the end of the tunnel. “There are aspects of the music industry that are really, really wealthy. And our point is that they should invest back into the grassroots,” Griffiths explains. “If that doesn’t happen, then it all becomes a bit bland. If you look through the various eras of music, artists from working-class and diverse backgrounds have amazing things to say. And that creates scenes, it creates communities, it creates social justice dialogue, and all sorts of interesting things that are really good for creativity.”

This sense of community is particularly prominent when looking back on Pure Heroine – an album imbued with an essence of togetherness as Lorde constantly refers to “we” and “us” rather than “I”.  And, it seems it’s not just the fans that feel it. In a newsletter shared last week, Lorde wrote: “I felt the throb of history that’s under this music now, how each year makes these songs feel more like collectively written and sung pieces.”

And, while those years bait our nostalgia, they also present growing issues in an industry that must evolve to nurture and protect young artists. “Young people are finding a way. And the kind of resilience, particularly if they’re coming from backgrounds where they haven’t had privilege, is astonishing,” Griffiths says. “But the infrastructure needs to grow to back young artists who otherwise will never get the opportunity.”