From 2010 to 2019, both the business and culture of music went through an unprecedented revolution. Here are the biggest, craziest moments to remember
It was the best of times, and it was the most chaotic of times. Over the course of the last decade, the music industry went through a transformation like never before. Startups tore down old hierarchies, fresh ideas and iconoclasts soared to the forefront, artists gained a whole new degree of power over their music, technology companies reinvented decades of industry strategy, and the business of music as a whole finally started to bring in money again, just to name a few of the revolutions that took place over the past ten years.
Dynamics between musicians, fans, and industry executives will never be the same, thanks to this decade of upheaval, and the next few years of music will inevitably take cues from it. Here, in chronological order, are the 50 key events to remember.
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Ticketmaster and Live Nation become a live events giant
January 2010 — The U.S. Justice Department approves a controversial merger between the two biggest players in the $4.4 billion global live music business, in what high-powered music manager Irving Azoff calls “a great win for fans.” (Concert-goers, over the next decade, may not share that sentiment.)SunChips Original Flavor100% Whole grain with the perfect sprinkling of salt.Ad by SunChips See More
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The Beatles finally put their music on iTunes
November 2010 — After holding out for years, the Beatles end their digital boycott and drop their catalog on Apple’s iTunes at long last. The lucrative deal is as much a win for Beatles lovers as it is a sign of digital music stores’ inescapability — at least for the time being.
March 2011 — An innocuous song recorded by 13-year-old Rebecca Black becomes a months-long viral phenomenon. Part of the song’s allure is that Black presents “a peculiar tonality that inadvertently highlights the absurdity of boilerplate pop lyrics,” writes Matthew Perpetua in Rolling Stone‘s review.
U2’s 360° tour sets a new standard for concertgoing
June 2011 — From 2009 to 2011, U2 drag around a metallic, spaceship-like “Claw” to accompany its global concert tour. The towering structure, coupled with LED light spasms and an elaborately choreographed two-hour show, helps the band break attendance records at more than 60 venues at a time of dwindling music sales — leading to an explosion of copycat strategies and soaring ticket prices.
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Spotify lands in the U.S.
July 2011 — Spotify makes its U.S. debut, leading initially to the publication of headlines like “What’s this Spotify thing about?” But the streaming service will go on to become one of the country’s most popular music platforms and amass 248 million global users by the end of 2019, with an aggressive growth plan for the next decade.
‘Call Me Maybe’ goes viral again, and again, and again
Spring 2012 — Canadian artist Carly Rae Jepsen’s pop earworm “Call Me Maybe” accomplishes the trifecta of music success: making it big on the charts, garnering critical praise from other artists, and sparking a global fan movement. The song’s made-for-karaoke vibe manages to coax covers out of everyone from Justin Bieber and Katy Perry to James Franco and Harvard University’s baseball team, taking Jepsen into the coveted echelon of generation-spanning celebrity.
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Coachella’s Tupac hologram sets off an entire cottage industry
April 2012 — A hologram of Tupac Shakur “performs” at Coachella alongside Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. The special effect, with a reported cost of $100,000 and $400,000, will serve as a template for the introduction of other hologram tours featuring late artists like Roy Orbison and Whitney Houston — although several of those plans have yet to come to fruition.
‘Gangnam Style’ opens a door to the world stage
Winter 2012 — There is popular, there is viral, and then there is Psy’s all-occasion smash hit “Gangnam Style,” which exposes hundreds of millions of people to the Korean pop music scene via a music video and global dance craze. “When we made this choreography, we called it ‘horse dance,’” Psy tells Rolling Stone. “I told [the director], ‘Hey, this is horse dance, so let’s find some horse place.’ In that way, it can be more cheesy. It can be more ridiculous. So we did that.”
The ‘Harlem Shake’ meme takes EDM mainstream
February 2013 — Immediately following “Gangnam Style” to the apex of internet fame is the jittery dance track “Harlem Shake.” After DJ Bauuer records it in May 2012, a series of YouTube videos in February 2013 help explode into a viral smash. The unexpected success of the track, which Bauuer’s label manager calls “a bit strange and new and confounding,” lures celebrities like Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon into participating and marks one of the first triumphs of the so-called novelty song.
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Disney’s unshakable, Oscar-winning song about snow
Winter 2013 — Soundtrack sales in 2013 are largely, in music executives’ own words, reminders “of a bygone era,” but the soundtrack of Disney’s animated flick Frozen manages to smash all expectations when it grosses more than a million album sales and hundreds of millions of streams in a matter of months, not to mention an Oscar win for its title track “Let It Go.” Disney Music Group president Ken Bunt tells Rolling Stone that while the company never planned for Frozen‘s songs to be “a phenomenon,” it knew it had a “special film with incredible music that was emotional” on its hands.
A Beyoncé album takes the world by surprise
December 2013 — Without warning, Beyoncé drops 14 new songs and 17 videos in what she calls a “visual album,” titled Beyoncé and boasting collaborators like husband Jay-Z and two-year-old daughter Blue Ivy. The record — which a press release describes as a “non-linear journey through the thoughts and visions of Beyoncé” that is “designed to be consumed as a comprehensive audio/visual piece from top to bottom” — incites a wave of surprise album drops in the next few years (see: Solange’s A Seat at the Table in 2016, Rihanna’s Anti in 2016, and Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN in 2017) as artists realize that surprise releases can have just as much impact as months of build-up in the digital streaming era.
Macklemore, Kendrick Lamar, and the Grammy that isn’t
January 2014 — Nearly overshadowing Macklemore’s four Grammy awards is his text to fellow nominee Kendrick Lamar, hours later, telling Lamar that “you got robbed” for best rap album and “I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and it sucks that I robbed you.” Writing to fans in a social-media post, Macklemore alleges that Lamar “deserved best rap album,” in an episode that is emblematic of both the growing power of artists over media discourse and the diminishing influence of awards ceremonies’ actual outcomes.
Shawn Mendes becomes a global superstar from six-second covers
Summer 2014 — Canadian teenager Shawn Mendes draws half a billion views on social-media app Vine with six-second covers of Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran songs, which gets him discovered by an artist manager in 2013 and catapults him to superstardom within the next few years.
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U2 bestow its album upon 500 million unknowing fans
September 2014 — What could be the downside of half a billion people receiving unsolicited downloads of U2’s Songs of Innocence on their iTunes accounts all at once? Apple’s expensive PR stunt, besieged by technical glitches as well as public blowback calling the move “worse than spam,” forces the company to release instructions on how to delete the album within a week. But as Jimmy Iovine later explains, the gimmick has a message behind it: “There’s not much rock in the zeitgeist, so what the band were trying to do is defy gravity. And whatever tools you can use to do that, you should use.”
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The Kesha-Dr. Luke case challenges the industry’s dynamics
2014 to present — In 2014, singer Kesha sues her producer Dr. Luke, claiming he “sexually, physically, verbally, and emotionally abused” her to the point where she “nearly lost her life,” which Dr. Luke denies. The bitter case will proceed for years not just in courtrooms but also in the public sphere, where fellow artists such as Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry weigh in on the matter; it will also linger in the background of any discussion about gender and power dynamics in the music industry.
Taylor Swift goes to war with music streaming
November 2014 — Taylor Swift abruptly pulls her entire catalog from Spotify, in a protest against the streaming service’s free tier. She writes a message to the world: “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.” The star will return to Spotify in 2017, but her temporary absence prompts the industry to take a step back and realize how much power artists in the streaming-led era can truly wield.
A hip-hop dynasty drama becomes the TV hit of the year
February 2015 — That a television series about family, money, and rap takes one of top cultural spots of the year says a lot about the new symbiosis of music and entertainment. FOX’s Empire is “a gloriously preposterous full-court cheese blast, combining a hip-hop sensibility á la Hustle & Flow with an old-school sense of prime-time soap corn,” writes Rolling Stone‘s Rob Sheffield.
The ‘Blurred Lines’ lawsuit makes music copyright blurry indeed
March 2015 — A Los Angeles jury decides in a shock ruling that Robin Thicke noticeably ripped off Marvin Gaye‘s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up” when he wrote the smash hit “Blurred Lines” with Pharrell Williams and T.I., ordering a multi-million dollar payout to Gaye’s estate. The music business warns of a ripple effect from the “Blurred Lines” lawsuit that could result in dozens of new copyright lawsuit filings — which more or less comes true.
James Corden and Mariah Carey debut a music show in a car
March 2015 — Mariah agrees to pioneer the new segment on The Late Late Show with James Corden after Corden shows her a clip of him singing with George Michael in a car. The minutes-long “Carpool Karaoke” series becomes a runaway hit — and, in 2016, is snatched up by Apple Music in an exclusive first-window licensing agreement — that suggests a promising future for music in unconventional new forms of media.
Introducing Apple’s Spotify
June 2015 — Apple unveils its long-in-the-works new project Apple Music, a subscription music-streaming service that does… exactly the same thing as Spotify, tech critics point out. Most underwhelmed of all is Daniel Ek, founder of Spotify, who tweets: “Oh ok.” But Apple’s rival will prove a sleeper hit, as the company savvily combines its hardware and software offerings for users and also signals to the world that the streaming industry can be a two-player game.
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Discover Weekly and the advent of playlistomania
July 2015 — Billed as a personalized mixtape, Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlist is part algorithmic curation, part hand-picked radio à la your favorite AM/FM station. The amorphous playlist becomes so popular that it becomes an industry standard, with other streaming services debuting discovery features of their own and personalized playlisting becoming synonymous with music streaming itself.
Album releases move to Friday to cash in on your paycheck
July 2015 — The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry shifts all global music releases to Fridays in an effort to reduce piracy around the world, allow artists to focus their social-media campaigns, and “reignite excitement and a sense of occasion around the release of new music,” citing consumer research that suggests fans are most interested in buying new music as they head into the weekend. (Did it also take a cue from Rebecca Black?)
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Terror attacks forever alter the approach to concert safety
November 2015 — A terrorist attack at an Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan in Paris results in the death of nearly 100 people; two years later, a bomb kills 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert in London, and a shooter at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas opens fire on the crowd, killing 58. As a result, concert venues begin testing extreme security tactics like vapor-sniffing dogs and anti-drone technology — because while security used to be all about crowd control, that industry now has to safeguard against violent attack as well.
A musical about Alexander Hamilton makes a record-breaking chart debut
Winter 2015 — It turns out the success of Frozen‘s “Let It Go” was not a one-off moment for soundtracks. The soundtrack to Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s stunningly popular Broadway play, debuts at Number 12 on the Billboard 200 chart, an unprecedented number for a cast recording. “This album, created with help from the Roots, pulls off something even more impressive [than the musical]: It proves that a cast soundtrack LP can work as a powerful, cohesive, exhilarating pop experience in the 21st century,” writes Rolling Stone‘s Brittany Spanos.
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All hail the classic rock reunion tour
2016 to present — There’s perhaps no better metaphorical emblem of the rock reunion mania of the mid-2010s than Guns N’ Roses’ Las Vegas show, in which Axl Rose performs with a literal broken leg from a warm-up gig a few days earlier. (“I see how you could get used to this,” Rose says, limping from crutches offstage to climb up onto Dave Grohl’s throne.) As the live music becomes one of the most lucrative revenue streams for musicians, rock bands reemerge for reunion shows one after another, cashing in on loyal fans who are now at a time in their lives when they have cash to burn.
‘Ima fix wolves,’ Kanye West promises (and does)
February 2016 — Just hours after the release of his new LP The Life of Pablo, Kanye West declares that he isn’t actually finished with the album: One track, “Wolves,” will get an update. A month later, West actually goes beyond that by updating a full 12 songs on the record, mostly with production and vocal tweaks — but demonstrating that the concept of album finalization may be outdated in the streaming era. Or is it the concept of the album itself?
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Prince’s death leaves behind a legal tangle over his music
April 2016 — The death of Prince at the hands of opioid overdose shocks fans worldwide. It also suddenly puts the thousands of hours of locked-away music in his Paisley Park vault in jeopardy; without a will, the question of the control of his estate — worth hundreds of millions of dollars — also becomes a matter of dispute. While Sony’s Legacy Records will reach a deal with Prince’s estate in 2018 to be the exclusive distribution partner for 35 previously released albums, the vault’s music will remain, for now, entirely unheard.
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Streaming is welcomed into the sanctum sanctorum
June 2016 — The Recording Academy announces that it will begin allowing streaming-only albums into eligibility for its nomination categories, allowing records like Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book to make Grammy history the following year when it becomes the first Grammy-winning record to not sell physical copies. “Fame or perceived success, it all comes from groupthink,” Chance tells Rolling Stone about his personal mindset — a philosophy that applies to the Grammys Awards’ set of rules as well.
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Taylor, Kim, and Kanye battle it out in apps
July 2019 — What begins as a light feud between Taylor Swift and Kanye West turns into an all-out war when West’s wife Kim Kardashian posts a video to Snapchat of a phone conversation between the rapper and the pop star in which Swift, contrary to public comments, appears to approve of West using lyrics about her in his song “Famous.” (Swift denies that this is the whole truth, and responds on Instagram with the now-infamous line “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative.”) The entire they-said-she-said saga takes place via social media, which lets fans soak up every new development in real-time.
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Frank Ocean’s one-two punch makes labels very nervous
August 2016 — Frank Ocean releases his new album Endless, which debuts as an exclusive on Apple Music and fulfills his contractual obligation to Universal Music Group. A day later, he turns around and releases a second album, Blonde, which critics generally laud as the better, “real” album, and yields Ocean a far bigger chunk of royalties due to the lack of label involvement. Universal chairman and CEO Lucian Grainge reacts by immediately “outlawing” streaming exclusives at the music company — killing a strategy that labels had been keen on for most of the past year.
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Desert Trip proves exactly how much nostalgia pays
October 2016 — “Coachella for old people” proves the doubters wrong by putting on a killer festival with formidable performances from the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Roger Waters, Bob Dylan, and the Who. Its unprecedented financial scale — three-day tickets run as high as $1,599 a pop — yields record-breaking gross of $160 million, which soars well above the $94 million that Coachella brings in.
‘Despacito’ sweeps the globe without a word of English
January 2017 — Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s sultry “Despacito” defies gravity, exploding into the music stratosphere even before Justin Bieber lends his star power to a remix. The song’s myriad achievements include becoming the first YouTube video to receive five billion views, the most-streamed track around the globe, and so on and so forth — but its greatest accomplishment is its shattering of the language barrier for pop hits in the U.S., showing audiences that music doesn’t have to be fully understood to be beloved.
Drake releases a 22-track record that is not a record
March 2017 — What is More Life? Drake is adamant that it is neither an album, nor a mixtape; instead, it is a playlist, meant to serve as “a collection of songs that become the soundtrack to your life.” The 82-minute not-record takes listeners from Caribbean dancehall to South African house, and its self-billing as a collaborative effort seems to underscore that. “When you get right down to it, Aubrey Graham is a playlist — a true pop visionary who’s always a fan at heart, an omnivore with a raging appetite for his next favorite sound,” writes Rob Sheffield.
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Future unseats his own Number One with another Number One
March 2017 — What’s better than a single Number One debut album? Future’s answer: Two of them, back to back. The rapper’s record HNDRXX accomplishes the unprecedented by knocking his other record Future out of the top spot on the Billboard 200, demonstrating just how wacky things can get in the era of cheap and instantaneous music distribution and access. The double feature may be a sales trick, but it’s also a reflection of audience behavior: Fans will devour new music from major artists as fast as they can release it.
Streaming takes over as the revenue leader of the U.S. music industry
2017 — Streaming’s naysayers have to admit some level of defeat when the Recording Industry Association of America releases figures showing that the format, in the previous year, generated more money for the U.S. music business than all other forms of distribution, for the first time ever. The new balance of power causes a lot of hand-wrangling among traditional music companies at first — but most of them begin redistributing their efforts and budgets accordingly.
The Fyre that will burn forever
April 2017 — Is Billy McFarland a genius or a madman? Is there a universe in which Fyre Festival could’ve gone off smoothly? What offers more schadenfreude: the metaphorical reckoning of the festival’s wealthy would-be attendees or the dueling documentaries responding to the island debacle? Some questions may never be answered.
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‘Gucci Gang’ and the conquest of SoundCloud
July 2017 — Lil Pump’s two-minute tune “Gucci Gang,” which references its titular designer no fewer than 51 times, manages to strike the perfect balance between innocence and irreverence. By appealing to everyone from trap fans to Dave Grohl, “Gucci Gang” takes Pump from a self-releasing SoundCloud rapper to a major-label artist with a reported $8 million deal — within a matter of months. It’s as much a testament to the success of DIY platform SoundCloud as to the industry’s gold-rush mania for new rap talent.
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The Vegas residency is the new stadium tour
December 2017 to present — In a deal reportedly worth $100 million, Lady Gaga takes up a temporary residency at Las Vegas’s MGM Park Theater, becoming one of several artists to trade in tour gear for a Sin City hotel suite. Drake will ink a multi-year deal with XS Nightclub shortly thereafter, and DJ Marshmello will settle in at the Palms’ KAOS Nightclub — though his high fee will actually contribute to the shuttering of the venue itself in late 2019, suggesting the residency bubble may not remain as such for long.
Kendrick Lamar wins a Pulitzer
April 2018 — For his album DAMN, Lamar is the first non-classical and non-jazz artist to ever receive the Pulitzer Prize in Music. The Pulitzer board praises the “vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism” of DAMN in particular. “The initial goal was to make a hybrid of my first two commercial albums,” Lamar tells Rolling Stone about the record. “That was our total focus, how to do that sonically, lyrically, through melody — and it came out exactly how I heard it in my head. … It’s all pieces of me. My musicality has been driving me since I was four years old. It’s just pieces of me, man, and how I execute it is the ultimate challenge.”
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Beyoncé and J Balvin remake Coachella for themselves
April 2018 — In what may forever be known as “Beyoncé’s Coachella,” the 2018 iteration of the music bacchanal in the California desert features the superstar marching on stage with a hundred-member crew, a host of multi-genre friends and family members, and a dramatically new vision for what the traditionally rock-oriented music festival can be. Beyoncé’s surprise guest J Balvin makes history by performing Spanish-language song “Mi Gente,” which also sets the stage — physically and metaphorically — for his full set at the next year’s Coachella featuring Rosalía, Sean Paul, and some gargantuan, dancing papier-mâché bobbleheads.
What to do with R. Kelly and XXXTentacion?
June 2018 — Spotify tries to show its good intentions by instituting a “hateful content and conduct” policy that bars R. Kelly and XXXTentacion artists from appearing in playlists — but the music-streaming service is quickly served its own judgment for acting as moral police, and it has to walk back the policy after a few weeks of backlash. The company learns a lesson, but the conversation around supporting artist misconduct remains murky as ever.
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Drake admits he has a secret son, thanks to Pusha T
June 2018 — The internet flares up when Pusha T releases a no-holds-barred diss track, “The Story of Adidon,” accusing Drake of fathering a son and keeping his existence secret. On his new double album Scorpion a month later, Drake actually admits it — although the producers involved in the record dispute that it’s a direct reply to Pusha’s song. Some say the information may’ve come to Pusha via Kanye West, who Drake previously visited in Wyoming. Whatever the case, the rap beef playing out entirely on record means both artists get to rake in a nice chunk of royalties from it.
Cardi B is the first female rapper to score two Number One hits
July 2018 — “I Like It” rises to the top of single charts, joining “Bodak Yellow” in that hallowed sphere and making Cardi B the first female rapper to claim two Number Ones. The self-described “strip-club Mariah Carey” is also the first female artist since Lady Gaga to land two top hits off a debut album. Cardi tells Rolling Stone that she is determined to defy haters “expecting me to drop something trash”: “It just made me, like, ‘Aha, I gotta study these other rappers,’” she says. “Study how to do something different from them. You know all these female rappers, they talking about they money, they talking about they cars, so it’s like, what’s something that I enjoy? I enjoy fights!”
Drake emerges as streaming’s dependable superstar
July 2018 — Landing as a double (read: super-long) album in the crest of music-streaming popularity, Drake’s Scorpion crosses a milestone that is as admirable as it is expected: The record becomes the first to hit 1 billion streams in a single week. Drake is also the first artist to cross 50 billion total streams, according to his record company. But what do these metrics actually mean?
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Rap’s never-ending police saga
November 2018 — The arrest of Brooklyn rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine, whose burst from the homegrown SoundCloud scene is complicated by alleged gang involvement, joins Bobby Shmurda’s sentencing and Meek Mill’s imprisonment as yet another high-profile clash between musicians and the law; but as rap holds steady as the most popular genre of music in America, the tussles seem to only be picking up steam. (In 2019, Rolling Loud will remove five rappers from its lineup after receiving a note about “public safety concerns” from the NYPD, and Donald Trump will weigh in on A$AP Rocky’s detainment in Sweden.)
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TikTok is not a fad
January 2019 — With 1 billion downloads of the app in 2018, TikTok proves itself more than a blip on the radar for the music industry. (Instagram only received half as many downloads in the same year.) The social app in which users make 15-second videos set to music is big enough that everyone from amateur artists to major labels wants to crack its code. Whereas other platforms require popularity to be built up by metrics like follower count and share ratios, TikTok’s algorithm geared toward fast new discoveries makes it so that “if you can get famous easily, you’re gonna do it,” one viral TikTok user tells Rolling Stone.
A cartoon fish (doo doo doo dooo) reunites America
Throughout 2019 — No one is really sure where the original “Baby Shark” tune comes from, but South Korean educational brand Pinkfong manages to transform it into a deliciously karaoke-able all-ages Top 40 pot of gold. The song will go re-viral when it becomes, of all things, the de facto battle cry of the Washington Nationals baseball team; it’ll continue its trajectory in a live tour, which probably means it’ll rival the Star Wars franchise in size by the end of 2020.
Old Town Road to where?
March 2019 — Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” is the perfect balance of viral video sensation and sunny-day radio hit — if only the music industry can make up its mind about the genre to which it belongs. The song’s (temporary) removal from Billboard’s country chart only fuels its insanely quick rise to the top, and a cleverly-timed remix from country stalwart Billy Ray Cyrus is all it needs to spark a global discussion about whether genres really matter anymore.
BTS blow up ‘Good Morning America’
May 2019 — For anyone still doubting whether K-pop really has a foothold in America, this is it: BTS is chosen as the act to kick off Good Morning America‘s summer concert series, a spot that every aspiring pop act in the States would kill to have. In addition to being the first Korean group to go on a sold-out U.S. stadium tour, BTS also makes it onto Saturday Night Live, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and the lineup of the Billboard Music Awards. Notes Rolling Stone‘s Elias Leight: “Since major labels have largely abandoned artist development in favor of amplifying acts that are already buzzing, BTS and other like-minded K-Pop groups have an open freeway: As they play with the sound and acrobatic showmanship of big-budget R&B and pop from 20 years ago, they can be confident that few American artists will even attempt to compete.”
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Who owns Taylor Swift?
July 2019 to present — The answer: She does, no matter what any legal documents or contracts say. Swift first alleges that she was not consulted about the sale of her master recordings to Scooter Braun; then, in a months-later reprise, she accuses both Braun and her former label boss Scott Borchetta of shackling her to unfair terms. While Braun and Borchetta vehemently contest both sets of claims, the actual facts of the situation may not matter — as Swift is using every tool she’s got, including pleading directly to a zealous fanbase for help, to establish herself as a self-made artist who calls her own shots. If there’s any kind of ideal energy to ride into the new decade, it’s that.