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« Production and Marketing Essentials for Aspiring Music Producers | Main | MusicThinkTank.com Weekly Recap: How To Write A Song If You're Aiming For The Charts »
Monday
Dec162013

“Pay For It, Or Lose Us – The Challenge Facing Independent Musicians

Before I get started on this missive, I’d like to put what I’m about to write into context:  A few months back, I posted a video on my band The Microdance’s Facebook wall, it was shared 60 times and seen by more than 20,000 people. Off the back of this, Right Chord Music have asked me to write a piece on the subject of the video; an offer which, given the gravity of my message and my enjoyment of this site, I thankfully accepted; so here I am!

My aim for that video was to convey the difficulties currently being faced by independent musicians. The word ‘independent’ is ambiguous; so, to clarify, I use it here to refer to acts of a similar stature to The Microdance – i.e., on the periphery of significant renown and either signed to small, independent labels or unsigned.

My choice of the word ‘renown’ rather than ‘success’ here is important because the primary issue that I addressed in the video was the disparity in the perception of success - gleaned from an artist’s healthy online profile, good press etc - and the actuality for the musicians: which is that not many people are buying their music. All of the good press, viral videos, gushing praise and devoted fans in the world do not equate to revenue. And if musicians are not recouping their costs (let alone making a profit) then music is not a viable career for them, as they won’t be able to afford to make it. Let’s eliminate a common misunderstanding and clarify this matter here: It is uncommon for a record label to pay for its artist’s recording these days.

With quantification, my message becomes very clear - and it’s a frightening reality for The Microdance and those in a similar situation to us. Here is a case in point:

I have an American friend who fronts a fantastic band that has (a pretty modest) 300 likes on Facebook. Their last EP was downloaded 20,000 times, for free, illegally in 6 months. In that period, they‘ve sold less than 200 copies for the $3 asking price. This means that they have not recouped even half of the cost of the 6 days spent in the studio recording it.  Yet tens of thousands of people own their music and presumably, lots would prefer it if they made more.

Now, if we assume that Facebook likes are a genuine gauge of popularity and that there is a correlation in the number an artist has and the number of illegal downloads their music generates, then the potential of lost revenue for bands with a greater online profile is significant. This ‘Lost revenue’ is of course impossible to measure - as we should take into account that when people have free music available to them, they will download more than they would have bought had they had to pay. But when we look at my friend’s band and their 1% paid download rate, we can be certain that they have suffered a considerable loss in revenue.

As far as The Microdance is concerned, we have been credited with being ‘the saviours of British guitar music’ - or words to that effect - by a several credible, well-read blogs. Now, I’m conscious that these guys like to use exaggerated language; but still, it’s seems inordinately high praise for a band that is in a monstrous deficit from just existing, let alone recording! It’s also wonderful that these things are being said about a band who has taken around 10% of the time to record their music as their influences did. This is noteworthy because if this industry-wide financial malaise continues, it is unlikely that we’ll see another masterpiece of sophisticated perfection such as Siamese Dream – records like that took months to create and cost record labels hundreds of thousands of pounds. The economies of scale are no longer there to support this.

I think it’s sweet when my friends say to me stuff like ‘So, TMD is really taking over the world’ or ‘You don’t have a day job do you? You’re signed!’ And this common misperception is why I think my message is pertinent, (in spite of the fact that our management is now on my back for being negative after my recent spew of diatribes on the topic!). I don’t consider this a negative angle; I am merely expressing the truth about a situation that has become so critical that there is real a danger that bands like will us cease to exist. Is this a bit dramatic? I don’t think so; our generation of musicians will have a greatly diminished successful return and who, from the next generation, will want to suffer for their art when they see that the only thing making money is Cowell and co’s dross, created to make a quick buck and with no regard for the artists’ longevity (parents don’t tend to illegally download for their kids!).

It could be argued that this is all fair game and nothing but evolution. It is also often said that the music industry is in flux and the money is now available through licensing, publishing, synching and other such means; but those in control of these markets are exploiting the vulnerability of musicians and the rate offered for a song to be licensed and featured in a film or television series is significantly lower than it was 10 years ago and hardly represents a sustainable income.

The top brass in the music industry are guilty for its current predicament because they ignored fair warning from eminent business analysts about the need to adapt to an MP3 market in the late 90s, now this warning goes out to the music consuming public: pay for it - or lose us.

Alex Keevill

Originally published on Right Chord Music

“Pay For It, Or Lose Us – The Challenge Facing Independent Musicians

Reader Comments (8)

I'm so sick of this. The fact that musicians feel entitled to make a living by playing music is the height of arrogance. Pay for it or lose us? Bands that go away because they aren't making enough money should go away. Art should be made for the love it. If you can find a way to make it pay, more power to you, but griping that the old system is gone and you aren't getting paid is ridiculous. The system that you long for was corrupt and broken but you bought into the lie because for a minute some smug pricks like Billy Corgan were getting paid to churn out pompous bullshit. That was an aberration. Art will never die, because artists will continue to create regardless of whether they are paid or not. Those that are in it for the money will go away and I say good riddance.

The musician that wrote the article really misses the point. It is not the 1980's anymore, and you do not have the possibility of preventing downloads. If your product is good enough, you can make money touring, or selling ring-signals, or putting your face on lunch-boxes. I am not gonna go and search for stats to prove my point, but it is obvious to me that more independent artists make more money now than in the "old days". The only thing that has changed is that nobody will go to a store to buy an overpriced piece of plastic with your tunes on it, but even when people did that, the lions share of the revenue went to distribution anyway.

Adapt or die. That is all there is to it. Don't mope.

December 17 | Unregistered CommenterRikitis

This is an important and well written article! Good point also about the licensing rates being lower than ever before.

December 19 | Unregistered CommenterRain San Martin

Some music will still exist ... trustafarian indie.

December 21 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine Hol

This was an awesome article! Thank you Alex for shedding some light. I am an independent recording artist from California and I know exactly what your talking about. I may have thousands of Facebook likes and twitter followers, but it doesn't mean I live a lavish life. Looking forward to hearing more music from your band.

Brodi Nicholas
www.facebook.com/brodinic
@brodinicholas

December 22 | Unregistered CommenterBrodi Nicholas

there's a big step from downloading it just to hear it, to actually liking it...and liking it enough to pay for it.

think of the DL figures as more intense than radio plays, yet less intense than buying a cd.

January 2 | Unregistered Commenterspoh

Alex,

Thanks for the candid look at real-life band finances. Sorry you've got so many free-loaders :(

I wonder if you've looked into the pre-sale (kickstarter, pledgemusic, etc.) funding model. How many pledges would it take to finance an EP if you ask $4 up front for a download, prior to public release, plus a personalized thank-you tweet; or $6 for a physical CD that's been personally signed by the full band?

I supported a few indie artists this way in the last few years - Janet Devlin on PledgeMusic, Rick Elias and Steve Taylor on Kickstarter, Sam Phillips and MarinaV on their own sites... Marina hand-signs and personalizes every physical album she sells direct (more effort, but less $ to middle-men). I support other indies as well, but not all do pre-sale funding.

Do you think this model is worthwhile for a band with a few hundred followers on Facebook/Twitter?

January 3 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Bauserman

Hi Alex
Thankyou for a thoughtful and well-argued piece. I find this an incredibly difficult issue. I follow the plays of my own music on youtube, bandcamp etc. and half of me is delighted that so many people take the trouble to listen while the other half of me complains that so few of them actually convert that into paying for the privilege. On balance, I still prefer my music to be out there and finding an audience - but it's probably easier for a singer-songwriter than for a whole band.
Anyway good luck with it all and I hope we don't lose you and the other bands that make music so rich and varied.
Cheers
John

January 8 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Meed

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