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Artists Are Opting Out of the Content Machine

Artists Are Opting Out of the Content Machine Image
  • Posted on 16th Jun, 2022 14:15 PM

Instead of churning out “content,” young female musicians are slowing down, indulging in other passions—and igniting their creativity in new ways.

Singer-songwriter Margo Price’s memoir Maybe We’ll Make It will be released this fall.
Bobbi Rich

This summer, Regina Spektor is doing something she hasn’t done in six years: releasing a new album. When Home, before and after comes out this June, it will be her first LP since 2016, a gasp-worthy gap in a playlisted, TikToked music industry increasingly obsessed with the need to stay current. It’s “all new, all the time”: A single a week. A post an hour. But while many artists are gravitating toward that kind of around-the-clock content, Spektor is part of an emerging group of women who are following a mantra she once chanted in her opening song for Orange Is the New Black: “You’ve got time.”

“If you stay away from the game of being relevant, and stay a bit quiet, you can gain time to ruminate and brew and build in secret, and get to interesting places artistically,” says Spektor, whose last album was Remember Us to Life.

It wasn’t like Spektor vanished completely from public life—she appeared in a Broadway residency and released a few songs here and there. But she did resist the increasingly popular tendency to constantly flood the marketplace with her music, a pressure that’s only become heightened as streaming becomes the norm, social media dominates, and attention spans diminish. And she isn’t alone: Many female artists have made space for themselves in a world outside the hamster wheel of constant content creation this year. They’ve been taking back their time, and how they use it, one minute and one project at a time.

“Why give a band a budget of $250K when there’s no guarantee it’s even going to hit, when you can spend $50K on a couple of singles?”

—Linda Perry, producer and songwriter

Artists like Spektor, Adele, Lorde, and Fiona Apple have taken years between new records, without constantly dropping a surprise single to make sure that they remain buzzy. Fans are still patiently waiting for new projects from Rihanna, Lizzo, and Beyoncé, all hopefully out soon. Others have made time for pursuits outside of music altogether: Margo Price wrote a memoir, Maybe We’ll Make It, due in the fall. Phoebe Bridgers launched her own label, Saddest Factory Records. Dua Lipa began a newsletter, Service95. Sharon Van Etten has been working toward her undergraduate degree and hopes to study mental health counseling next, while Selena Gomez has honed her baking skills on her cooking show, Selena + Chef.

“The single-driven marketing approach got started simply because it’s a cheaper way for the label to run their business,” says producer and songwriter Linda Perry, a staunch supporter of the art of the album. “Why give a band a budget of $250K when there’s no guarantee it’s even going to hit, when you can spend $50K on a couple of singles?” Albums used to be preceded by one single before release—now it can be as many as five or six. And if those singles don’t succeed on streaming or radio, it can mean entire projects get shelved. It’s a sad reality that’s the exact opposite of creative fertile ground, and artists are pushing back.

Regina Spektor’s album home, Before and After, out this month, is her first LP since 2016.
Shervin Lainez

“Personally, I’m so tired of being inundated with too much music, too much news, too many posts, even from the artists I love,” says Van Etten, whose new LP, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, came out in May. “I chose not to release any singles from my new album, because I believe strongly in this album as an entire piece. I want to give fans the opportunity to listen to it the way I intended, start to finish, not in pieces and not what the new norm has perpetuated in consumption.”

With artists moving in this direction, it’s no wonder that a clip of Maggie Rogers in conversation with Tavi Gevinson from October 2019 went viral. “I want something that takes time,” Rogers said. “Because I want something that is going to last.” Like many new artists with critically and commercially successful albums, Rogers, on the heels of her superb debut LP, Heard It in a Past Life, had already been getting questions about what was next: a next single, a next LP, a next Instagram post, a next bit of content. Rogers wasn’t buying it then or now. “I don’t think we spend enough time having reverence for the process,” she told Gevinson.

“You have to take your time and make sure it is something you’re completely proud of.”

—Priya Ragu, singer-songwriter

Rogers didn’t just take time for her process, finishing her sophomore album, Surrender, this past February, three years after her first. (It will drop in July.) She also enrolled at Harvard for graduate studies, the kind of thing that could be considered career suicide by someone who sees dollar signs first, not personal fulfillment. “You can’t really force creativity,” concurs singer-songwriter Priya Ragu, who released her debut mixtape, damnshestamil, named for her Tamil heritage, this past fall. “You have to take your time and make sure it is something you’re completely proud of.”

This kind of freedom has even found its way into the music itself. Courtney Barnett named her new record Things Take Time, Take Time. And Maren Morris’s Humble Quest ruminated on the very idea of constantly achieving and reaching for the next best thing, when those things are sometimes right in front of our faces. “There is constant pressure to chase,” says Charity Rose Thielen of The Head and the Heart, “but being quiet and building anticipation is important. It’s learning the balance.” As a member of a collective, she sees time off as a crucial building block in her own process—and a way to make room for things like gardening and, most of all for her, motherhood.

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Following passions outside of just recording music, whether academically, personally, or artistically, can also play an important role in unlocking new creativity for an artist. “I love being able to silently step away and get lost in poetry, painting, and writing,” Price says. “Working on my memoir over these last few years gave me something to work toward while I couldn’t tour. And honestly, it was amazing to have the time and introspection to do something different. I have always wanted to truly prove myself as a writer, not just a singer. I have already been scheming an idea for a work of fiction.”

Of course, sometimes posting copious stories to Instagram, writing something just for TikTok, or dropping a new song a week can feel fulfilling, too—and it can be necessary for some women, especially women of color, who don’t get a guaranteed embrace from an industry that still largely prioritizes whiteness. At the end of the day, as Spektor points out, it’s all about operating from a personal truth. “The only advice I would give anyone working on art is to try to be honest with themselves about the community they want to build or reach,” she says. “I would say there is enough room for any and all of it, as long as it’s true to you. You only get this lifetime, so make your choices from an honest place, and you’ll love who you’re surrounded by.”

This article appears in the June/July 2022 issue of ELLE.

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