THE STATE OF THE MUSIC BUSINESS
There’s a saying, goes like this. “You can make a killing in music, but you can’t make a living.” No less a financial luminary than billionaire, Mark Cuban, of SHARK TANK, has said there is no tougher business to have success in than the music business.
Who am I to argue?
Today’s technology has made it possible for anyone to make a record. (Yes, many of us still call them records. Records are holy. Digital downloads are not.) And so everyone does. Same thing with books. Businesses that used to be run by hard-nosed bottom-line money guys, producers and publishers, have gone belly-up to the “great leveler”; internet sales platforms, and digital distribution. Losing the stranglehold that the old paradigm had on us is not necessarily a bad thing. But neither is the thing that replaced it.
Now that everyone is making records and writing books the chances of being heard, or read, is, if anything, even worse. The sheer glut of “content” available on countless outlets and formats, swallows any single artist in the miasma, the black-hole, of the volume of what’s available for consumption. Unless one is willing to dedicate one’s life to shameless self-promotion on social media, one’s hardcopy media is destined to be a “million seller.” That is, a million copies in your cellar.
To date, I’ve made four records under my own name, all but one, original material sprung to life from my fertile brain. Add to that, one novel, and one musical; book, music, and lyrics, by yours truly. It’s not as prodigious an output as Bach, or Hemingway, or Sondheim. But it does cross genres and all of it is good; really good. Though I am self-produced, I’ve strived to make everything I make something to behold; something I can be proud of and something that is nice for you to hold, to read, to listen to. I’ve spared no expense. As best I’m able to, I’ve used real studios, real musicians, real designers, real printers, and real pressers. No spindles of blank CDs from Radio Shack with labels stuck on by hand. No books run off on a copier machine, for me, or you, no sirree, no way. This is all stuff that’s professional, each detail lovingly tended to every step of the way. And to date, after years of this, I cannot say for certain that any one of my love labours have turned a profit.
This is because we live in a world where everything is expected to be free. People expect to pay, well, nothing, or next to nothing for what I create. That’d be fine in a utopian society; one in which car mechanics, and grocery stores, and doctors, and yes, even the internet, accepted product or services in kind. The underground barter system is alive in some small pockets of society, but by and large, there is a reason multiple CDs worth of music I’ve written are languishing in shoeboxes of notes and sketches, waiting to be recorded. I just can’t keep making stuff no one buys.
My friend and fellow artist, Brendan Taaffe, has written eloquently in a recent posting to his friends and fans. I’ve included it here; followed by something written by Jaymie Stone, appended by Brendan to the end of his own thoughts. Read it, take it to heart, and for our sake buy our stuff. For the price of a designer cocktail or two you can take us home and enjoy us in perpetuity. And we just might, might, be able to continue to eke out a life to the end of our days, while coaxing my twenty year-old car with 350,000 miles on it to not give up the ghost.
Take it away, Brendan.
“If you've made it this far, I wanted to share a few thoughts on the economy of being a musician and why your support is so necessary and deeply appreciated.
As we all know, our tech is changing all the time, and these changes have had a huge impact on how people engage with/ listen to/ consume music. Which then has a huge impact on how independent musicians figure out how to survive. The short story is to say that every step of recent technological changes—from CDs to downloads to streaming—has made things worse for musicians and better for the people who manufacture smart phones.
I'm super efficient at making records, so I come in on the very low end of what it costs to make one at about $5,000. Each time I sell a physical CD, I recoup about $10 of that. Each time somebody downloads the whole album I get $8 (Bandcamp) or $6 (iTunes). Each time somebody streams a track on Spotify I get $.03. Of course, Spotify loses millions every year, so it seems like the only people doing well out of these deal are the folks who make the hardware. Folks will spend a grand on a new iPhone, but then all the content is essentially free. It's why you see so many crowd-funding projects to help musicians put the pieces together. As the balances have shifted to be more in Apple's favor, we've had to figure out other ways to survive. I say all this not to be bitter, but to pull back the curtain a little bit. I love knowing how things work, and this is how things work for lots of the music, and musicians, that you love.”
And now, similar thoughts from Brendan’s friend, Jaymie Stone, banjo player extraordinaire.
"To me, an album is an elegant art form—like a sonnet or a symphony. I've loved them since before I was old enough to drop the needle myself. I still pore over a record's liner notes and immerse myself in its artwork while soaking in its sounds. I believe deeply in the medium: the overarching concept, the unfolding of the sequence, the beauty of each song's interconnectedness.
If so, I invite you to support this project. You will be doing much more than ordering an album: you will be participating in its creation, sustaining its makers, and bucking a system that believes artists should work for nothing while Silicon Valley gets the spoils. Will you join us?
It's no secret that the music industry has undergone a sea change. While it's easy to celebrate the way in which technology now allows artists to reach audiences worldwide, distribute music instantly, and become more independent, the current state of the recording industry is financially treacherous for us.
Paying a living wage to musicians, producers, engineers, studio owners, illustrators and designers means making an album like this costs in the neighborhood of $25,000. Meanwhile, the masterminds at Apple, Google and Spotify have convinced millions of people that music should be (practically) free. A willingness to withstand a little advertising or shell out $9.99 a month is enough to beam the entire history of recorded music to your stereo or smartphone.
Have you ever stopped to wonder whether this model is sustainable for artists?
It's not. It's like the issue of fair trade coffee: once we understand the reality of invisible laborers being paid a pittance to cultivate our coffee (or pick our blackberries or sew our clothes), some of us can no longer go along with an unsustainable system. We want to support what nourishes us. Get back to our roots and water them. Keep the music flowing."
And now, it’s me, Alki, again.
I had a kid once tell me that he’d enjoyed my CD so much that he’d burned “a bunch” of copies to give to “all” of his friends. I was delighted that a young hip kid responded so favorably to my music, and at the same time appalled that this kid who wore nice clothes, and smoked designer weed, and generally enjoyed the toys and bells and whistles of today’s kids would think nothing of throwing down piles of cash for video games and iPhones, but not think to ask his friends to pony up $15 so I could continue to do what I do. What I love. While we’re reversing global-warming, let’s please, reverse this thinking that indie-artists exist in a bubble; one where it’s not necessary to pay us for our life’s labour.
A friend of mine once asked Miles Davis for his autograph. Below his name, Miles wrote, “Buy my records.” What’s good for Miles is good for the rest of us.
Thanks for reading, and thanks for thinking about your choices. We indie artists, Brendan, and Jaymie, and I, will keep doing our part. You do yours.
May 29, 2018