Rihanna Music Industry header

We all think of different things when we hear the term music industry. But what does that actually mean? What does the music industry actually do?

Rihanna’s recent single “Man Down” was analyzed by NPR’s planet money team, led by Zoe Chace, and what they found is “a hard act to follow… and a hard pill to swallow.” (Maroon 5?)

“Man Down” was born in a room at a two-week music camp hosted by Rihanna’s label, Def Jam. A handful of producers bring in tracks that have a hummed melody and no words. A team of writers then crank out words for these melodies. These demos are presented to Def Jam and Rihanna, and they decide which tracks will move on to actual production.

Session musicians, working with the producers, perform the song, recorded by top-dollar recording engineers. Then—and only then—Rihanna steps into the picture. With vocalist producer/trainer in tow (who costs around 15,000 per session), Rihanna lays her vocal track. All of this work adds up to a total of $78,000, not including Rihanna’s cut. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The real cost is in rollout.

“Rollout” is the music industry term for an album’s push, focused mainly on touring, marketing, and radio play. It typically costs $1,000,000.

So, $1,078,000 later, “Man Down” (written, literally, in 13 minutes) hits the world like a twerk in the face. It didn’t even do very well. The money that goes into this production is a gamble, but record labels win enough to make it worth their time.

Honestly, this is both depressing and encouraging. It’s depressing because it seems like a trivial use of an extraordinary amount of cash. But it’s encouraging, because even with their teams and money and equipment, the music industry is still making bad music. The humble churchmouse can actually do better. Much better.

Time and time again, low budget records have swept the nation because of their message, beauty, and/or sincerity. That’s something that money—even $1,078,000—cannot buy.

The best part about it all is that, even if the churchmouse’s music flops worse than “Man Down,” he has satisfaction in knowing that he has given the world something good. And lovely. And true. Without wasting any money doing it.

So here’s to bad art’s self-destructive scheming! And here’s to truth and beauty, which will certainly win in the end.