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« The only thing wrong with Music 2.0 is your mental model of how it should work. | Main | What does it mean to be a 'professional' musician. »

Please Buy My Record: The Futility Of Flogging Music

This is the rough text of a talk I delivered at Oxford Geek Night, which was held at The Jericho Tavern in Oxford, 27th August 2008. It’s quite long, and despite attempting to use the “excerpt” field when posting this blog, it doesn’t appear to work. Sorry about that. You’ll find the rest of the content on this blog about 3 and a half miles down the page.


I was pondering the other day whether I actually have a field of expertise. I thought for ages, and couldn’t come up with anything, and then in a blinding flash I realised, with a slight sense of despondency, what it might be: being in bands that people have never heard of. I’ve been doing it for years, now, and it’s incredibly easy. You get together with a few mates, write some songs, play some gigs, labour over some half-baked recordings, and fail to achieve any success whatsoever. It’s like falling off a log, seriously, and if you haven’t tried it, you should give it a go.

One thing that nearly all my bands had in common was a complete inability to get people to give us money in exchange for the recordings we’d made. As I’ll explain later, the MP3 revolution – if I’m allowed to call it that – has made that failure even more apparent, and the pain even more acute; it’s just few weeks since I went down to my local tip and recycled approximately 1,500 unsold CD albums in order to make room for my girlfriend’s burgeoning magazine collection. Her tatty copies of Vogue and Elle Decoration are worth more, square foot for square foot, kilo for kilo, than my CDs. I’d always suspected this, but that trip to Wandsworth dump confirmed it.

This talk was going to be called The Futility of Flogging Music. I’ve tweaked this slightly, because I’ve noticed that Columbia Records seem to be effortlessly selling CDs by The Ting Tings. So I changed it to The Futility Of Flogging Your Own Music. Although, actually, it’s probably just possible to flog your records to gullible family and friends, so let’s call it The Futility Of Flogging Your Own Music To People You Don’t Know Very Well.

The last time I was at this venue was, according to my diary, the 12th July 1991. I was in a band called The Keatons; we were rowdy, confrontational, and looked something like this. We were here supporting 14 Iced Bears, and if you’ve never heard of 14 Iced Bears, that might give you an indication of how monumentally insignificant we were. One thing sticks in my head about that evening; our guitarist, Dave, sitting on the steps going down from that side door over there, holding copies of our 12”EP, watching audience members leave at the end of the evening, and him saying “Excuse me. Please buy my record. P-p-please buy one. Or th-th-they’ll send me back THERE.”

Dave’s pathetic pleading had magnificent comedy value – although you obviously had to be there, like so many shithot rock’n’roll anecdotes – but he really meant it. We needed to scrape together the petrol money to get home, and if we didn’t, Dave would spend the next week living off instant mashed potato and milk stolen from next door’s doorstep. And we knew that the best chance to get anyone to part with money in exchange for our records was just after a gig, when people were hot, sweaty, disorientated, ears ringing and, crucially, pissed out of their heads. This is probably still the case. But, more often than not, we failed. Not because we were shit, necessarily – we were good enough for Blur to take us on tour as their support act – but as a result we became cynical about the process of selling records. Other bands that I was in just gave up trying to sell them, and just gave them away to mailing list subscribers instead. People couldn’t get their heads around it, in 1996. They didn’t understand. “What, it’s free?” they’d ask. Of course, at the time, we had no idea quite how prescient this was.

The only other way bands had of flogging records at that time was via an indie distributor. Actually making this happen was a soul-destroying, hellish process. For starters, the distributor would come up with a list of incredibly good reasons why they shouldn’t waste warehouse space on you, let alone try and sell in your music to the shops. Firstly, it was always the “wrong time of year”. Now, there was never a “right time of year”. They’d say to you: “Oh, there’s no point in putting out a record in the run-up to Christmas,” as if records by Bogshed or Shitbucket were somehow competing against sales of waffle irons or trouser presses. Then after Christmas, they’d tell you that no-one releases records right after Christmas, it’s a dead time. So, ok, we can’t release records when everyone else is, or indeed when no-one else is. In the summer, they’d say that there’s no point, the students have run out of money and they’re back at home for the holidays. So in September, or April, when they couldn’t really wield that excuse, they’d move to excuse number two.

“No-one knows who you are”, they’d say. “You need to put together a shithot publicity campaign. We need you to get your photo into magazines. We need you to get your record on radio playlists. We need you to arrange a full UK tour, and become album of the month in influential periodicals.” Now, for a DIY act to get a play on Radio Ceredigion in Aberystwyth is hard enough, so to reach the national media was incredibly difficult. You’d send out hundreds of albums at great expense, with a ridiculously overblown, optimistic press release, virtually all of which would be binned. John Peel was a rare beacon of light in this quagmire of misery – but even his patronage was insufficient to remove the ice from the frozen hearts of the distributors. And they’d inevitably move to reason number 3: You’re shit. These people wielded enormous power over DIY acts; they became embittered and hardened to the pathetic pleas of crap indie dance combos, and were perfectly happy to insult them to their faces.

Very occasionally, they would relent. They’d take 200 copies of your record, hang on to them for a few weeks, you’d then pop around and they’d sneeringly hand every single one of them back to you again, along with sales sheet prominently featuring the digit zero. They had to sell records to survive as a business; we failed to understand that. We thought they owed us the right for our records to be in the shops and, if they were, that this would somehow create demand. We laid the blame for our continued lack of success squarely at their door. We hated them. And they hated us.

But wind forward more than 15 years to 2008, and it’s manifestly obvious that they were right all along. Now that we’re put in touch directly with our audience and that distributors can be completely removed from the equation, and replaced by MP3 aggregators who a) don’t need warehousing space for your MP3s, b) will put them into a range of online stores for a flat fee and, crucially, c) don’t care whether you’re brilliant or whether you’re bloody awful, we have exactly the same problem selling the music as the distributors had. Just because the songs are available to buy, doesn’t mean we can sell them – in the same way that (and excuse the often-used analogy) installing a landline doesn’t mean that the phone is going to ring. And we can’t blame the distributors any more. The only people that are left to blame are ourselves. And that hurts.

It hurts because web technology lets us see exactly how many people are listening to our music. We can see the MySpace hit counters spin round, with the total number of listeners for each track. Our stats pages on our blogs show us how people arrived at our page, which country they’re from, even which web browser they’re using. We’ve got information about the reach of our music that we couldn’t have dreamed of 10 years ago, and it tells us that thousands upon thousands of people have their ears open, and they’re listening. But, by and large, and with a few exceptions, we can’t fucking sell music to them. And we’re starting to obsess about it. We can’t stand the fact that we have 2,739 friends on MySpace, several of whom have posted highly encouraging messages such as “thnx 4 the add”, and yet none of them are prepared to dig in their pocket, or Paypal account, and just send us a few quid – despite the fact that we’ve poured our heart, our soul and our cash into the whole endeavour.

But hang on. these people might be listed as “friends”, but that doesn’t necessarily make them fans, let alone fans who want to give us some money. There’s no way of knowing if they think we’re any good – in fact, they might hate us. But even the ones who love your music know that they wield the power, and that you are very much their bitch. As we all know, net-savvy music fans can download a track they love, for free, by any major label act you care to mention in a couple of minutes flat – so why on earth should we expect them to actually give us money for our tunes? The ease of using BitTorrent, Limewire, Soulseek and all these networks is erasing any guilt complex that music fans might have had over enjoying music that they haven’t paid for. There’s nothing we can do about this, that’s just the way it is. Deep down, I probably still believe that rewarding musicians financially for managing to come up with something that isn’t complete shit is the right thing to do – but filesharing is compulsive, it’s a tool you can’t NOT use once you know about it. What I do find hilarious is when people attempt to morally justify it. They either claim that they’re “sticking it to the man” (as if most musicians are swanning around in limousines, when the vast majority are scraping a living by working part time in Halfords) or “it’s OK, bands can make money by touring, instead”. Which is like casually suggesting to the owner of an off licence, after he’s spotted you nicking a bottle of wine, that he can sell a few crisps to make up for it. And anyway, The Rolling Stones might well gross millions on a world tour, but nearly all bands lose money hand over fist while on the road. People might come out with stats about live music revenues being on a gradual incline, but believe me – having been in bands known and unknown, and done tour budgets for countless others – touring represents a black hole of disappearing cash for musicians. Sound engineers might get paid, promoters ensure that they get their cut, but precious little filters down to the musicians, unless they’re lucky enough to get tour support from the record company. Which is actually an advance. Which means that, er, it’s their money in the first place. But anyway, after you’ve pointed all this out, the filesharer just says “well, bollocks, I’m just going to do it anyway.” And this kind of logic is impossible to argue with.

The morality of filesharing is obviously a huge question, and one that people can, and indeed do, talk about all night – but resistance to it is utterly futile, so it’s essentially a moot point. The difficulty I have with being a musician in a Web 2.0 world is the fact that press articles, blogs and web startups are all trying to persuade us that we should somehow be raking in the cash, that the web is providing us with a unique opportunity to earn decent money from our music. One blog called Music Think Tank is entirely devoted to this very concept. The posts, many of which I fundamentally disagree with, provoke comment threads where you can almost feel the desperation, because this holy grail of being paid for your art has been ratcheted up to a preposterous extent. There’s a recent post about a guy called John Taglieri, who has what he calls an “inner motto”. “I want what I want,” he says, “and you are either going to help me, or get out of my way.” John says that he had to disassociate himself from friends who were holding him back by telling him that there was no way he could make it. To me, this utterly joyless statement completely misses the point of playing music. Jonathan Coulton is another one; he is often cited as the king of online DIY music, because for 18 months he has been making a living by spending 6-8 hours a day vigorously social networking and sending birthday greetings to pre-pubescent girls in Wisconsin in the hope that she’ll send him her pocket money in return. Personally, I can think of nothing more soul destroying. And it’s worth noting that if I hadn’t been told that Taglieri and Coulton were supposedly famous internet successes, I would never have heard of them. David Thomas, from legendary American post-punk band Pere Ubu, has these wise words to say to me on the topic of social networking and music:
It encourages a delusional state in the audience, a warm and cosy feeling that their opinion matters and counts for a hill of beans. That they’re part of a community, in this case a community of creative endeavour, in which, of course, they have not participated… Screw the audience.
This isn’t very helpful if you’re a musician trying to “make it” online in the 21st century, but I’d rather hear that than hear John Taglieri offering advice about “developing income streams”. Form a covers band to play weddings and barmitzvahs, he suggests. Hire out your amateurish music production skills! Buy a CD duplicating machine and charge people to use it! No thanks, John. I mean, sure, I could stay at home and watch my $8 earnings on Google AdSense slowly grow to $8.50; or I could play my heart out, for no money, to a bunch of people in a converted barn in Rhyl who are off their tits on magic mushrooms, have a really shit Welsh pizza for my tea, arrive home at 5am and have to get up for work at 7am. Yes, the latter option may appear stupid, but at least it’s living a little.

The internet has entirely switched the focus from making music to sales and marketing. While some might say that this is just the harsh reality, it’s what you have to do to survive, I say bollocks. I’m not just being romantic about this. There’s a choice: play gigs, experience that peculiar bonding you get with fellow band members, feel that curious mixture of love and antipathy you get from an audience – and make no money. Or obsess about selling mp3s – and make no money. My children, and my children’s children, certainly won’t want to hear about my tedious marketing efforts to secure a song that I wrote 250,000 views on YouTube. (Note that I sold barely 100 MP3s as a result of this colossal and unexpected exposure – which certainly made it an interesting experiment, but also a fairly solitary and unfulfilling one.) What would have made a better story would have been to wangle a gig in a Parisian squat where the electrics are dodgy, suffer a massive electric shock off a mike stand, get carried from the building while everyone cheers loudly, be left rubbing your head while slumped against the side of your van, the promoter takes advantage of the confusion by running off with the mixing desk which he’s holding ransom because he claims that the PA company owe him money, at which point you realise that you’re not going to get paid, and you look at your fellow band members, and then you start to cry. That’s the story I’d rather tell, and frankly it’s the story I’d rather hear. Music’s biggest function, from time immemorial, has never been its capacity to make money. It’s its powerful social glue. Without wishing to get all Oprah on your ass, it may be an expensive hobby, but it brings people together in an utterly unique fashion.

In any case, why pursue this mythical pot of cash, when nearly all bands that come into money are inevitably be torn apart by it? Entire musical genres are propped up by people not being quite able to afford to be involved in them, and people who obsess over clawing back cash from the enterprise are entirely missing the point. Slight poverty is what drives music forward. It only works if you’re in the red. You’ve never felt so alive as when you’ve just maxed out your credit card to get your band on a cross channel ferry for a one-off gig in Antwerp. Seriously. You know, it’s like biographies of bands. The most interesting bit is the first bit, you know, the horror, where they’re playing shit venues to small crowds, and the pointlessness of it all is on the verge of driving them insane. When they get to the bit where they turn up at a plush venue and there’s a dozen Cantaloupes and a melon baller in the dressing room, well, that’s when I stop reading. Their passion has disappeared at that point. It’s just not interesting. Of course, there’s probably a valid question to be asked about whether, if the monetizing of music is eventually revealed to be a pointless battle, whether people will be quite so interested in forming bands. But again, it’s not about money, is it. I don’t go and watch Red Pony Clock or Desalvo and imagine that they’re doing it because there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. They’re doing it because they want to show off. And quite right too.

In the unlikely event of anyone wanting my advice, it would be to stop worrying about selling recordings. Just give them away. Let them go. Put them online for free, and tell people that they’re there. And if, against the odds, you’ve been given some cash, you’ve managed to release an album commercially, and you see that someone has posted it on a blog for readers to download – for god’s sake don’t get angry. Don’t see it as being down £20. See it as being up 20 listeners. Yes, your music might conceivably have been stolen, but there are no police. So get used to it. And now you’re freed of this burden, pursue all the other things that you want from being in a band – writing songs, rehearsing, doing gigs, building relationships with other bands, going on wallet-busting tours, receiving unmemorable blowjobs. Because seriously, you’re almost more likely to get a blowjob after a gig than sell an MP3. And remember – just because music doesn’t make you money, certainly does NOT mean that it’s worth nothing.

Reader Comments (122)

Awesome post.

But but but...I have the same problem with this as I do with idiots like Mike Arrington coming at it from the economist's angle ("Music is free now, just do it as a hobby while you work a soul-crushing day job, that's the reality, deal with it.")

To your comment, "there's probably a valid question to be asked about whether, if the monetizing of music is eventually revealed to be a pointless battle, whether people will be quite so interested in forming bands" - well, hasn't music, and pretty much all art, always been driven by commerce? Is this not the reason why no one paints now (generally speaking), because they know no one's buying paintings anymore? Is music going to go the way of painting then?

(Please note, I don't know the answers to these questions myself... yet...)

Anyway, I'll say it again: awesome post, and good God it was about time someone said it, especially the stuff about the lie of making money from touring.

August 28 | Unregistered CommenterChristian Ward

haha, absolutely brilliant piece - totally spot on!

Great post. Summarises how the majority of musicians are feeling right now. I'm close, so close to just giving my CD away. The year it took me to record doesn't hurt. Seeing the CD's in the draw hurts, and seeing my credit card debt hurts.

If everyone gives away music then how do we make money? Not on touring because everyone will be touring right? Will be right back where we were, just this time consumers will value our music even less.

Damned if you do. Damned if you don't I guess.

August 28 | Unregistered CommenterDave Anderson

Makes me think that there's still a place for label-like agencies that can do these things, for a flat fee or percentage, for the band, so they can continue to be happily electrocuted by mike-stands.

And they don't even have to be faceless marketing companies - your friends sitting in a bedroom with a morbid fascination of copyright and the "concept" of selling music and a fetish for Facebook would do. And if said company takes the "percentage of sales" route (as most distributors do), we can all head off to the poor house together. Joy!

I think another important question arises here: Can artists be businessmen also? More importantly, should they? There are hundreds (ney, thousands) or similarly ill-equipped, inept friends of friends of bands who'd love to try to book a tour, promote music on line and be responsible for writing "thx 4 the add" on a band's myspace. They might make a total balls of it, but it's better to having the band do it to the detriment of their creative soul.

I say: identify what needs to be done with your music to increase people hearing it, things that you don't want to do, and ask a friend to do it. Done and done.

August 28 | Unregistered CommenterNick

THANK YOU for expressing my feelings so cogently -- and humorously!

I once had an idea for a t-shirt: "Abandon All Hope And Be Free". That's really the key to true musical "success": Do what you do, try to do it well, do all you can to find listeners, and put all the rest out of your head.

Focus on the art and forget the business. If you are truly exceptional -- and 99.9999% of us are NOT (I include myself in that) and manage to keep your head on straight, then maybe something will come of it, financially. If not, who cares?

We musicians have been given a gift -- to distract, entertain, enrich, uplift -- and to expect more than that is just greedy and stupid. It's fine to dream, but don't let the dream spoil the great fun of making music.

August 28 | Unregistered CommenterJim Santo

Rhodri - the excerpt function on this blog works for RSS only, and it did work...

Great post. One of the best articles I have read over the last four years. My work (my day job) in the music industry is dedicated to changing the (not sure you described a problem, as much as "universe") universe you described.

The music universe works like shit and it can be changed. I am optimistic. Pre-popularity promotion (there's a reason I say it this way) is a waste of time. Artists should be able to be artists, marketing and promotion should be flushed, and everything should work out.

Stay tuned.


August 28 | Registered CommenterBruce Warila

Thanks for the positive comments.

Christian: you say "well, hasn't music, and pretty much all art, always been driven by commerce?" I don't think that this is true for a second. I think that the vast majority of engaging, thought-provoking, worthwhile art (i.e. not chart-fodder) has been splurged out in an inevitable outpouring of creativity. A lot of people create because they need to create. A greater number of people create because they want to impress – and, conceivably, there could be the dream of riches at the root of that. But most people – and I certainly include myself in this group – just want to show off, they want to get up on a stage, or create a piece of music, then say to people "Bloody hell, would you listen to that?" No-one likes haemorrhaging cash, but 50+ years of rock music has demonstrated that people are more than willing to be out of pocket in order to gyrate provocatively in front of a disinterested crowd of people. No-one paints now, you say? I mean, I have no figures to hand, but I know dozens of people who are creating computer art and sticking it on websites for people to admire. Again, they might hope that some sugar daddy suddenly hoves into view, but what they're actually enjoying is showcasing their talent. Those people who create, aren't finanically rewarded for doing so and then give up aren't... well, I dunno. Aren't true artists, perhaps? Sounds terrible, but I think you know what I'm getting at.

Dave: you say "If everyone gives away music then how do we make money?" Dunno. Becoming a plumber? Retraining as a marriage guidance counsellor? Lots of options. I mean, do people actually pick up a guitar for the first time and really imagine that it's going to be a career? Surely no-one is quite so misguided. I mean, even pro musicians with decades of training don't make a proper living out of being pro musicians.

August 28 | Unregistered CommenterRhodri Marsden

Rhodri, absolutely valid points and of course the rational part of me agrees 100%. But I also think… well, look at Van Gogh, the archetypal “driven” artist, creating because he had to create – but also tortured by his desire to sell his paintings and receive recognition. Or a more relevant example, Daniel Johnston, pouring out music because he was compelled to, but again desperate for fame. Both of them made their art anyway, regardless, but let’s not imagine that desire for money didn’t play its part. Artists will always create, if they are “true artists”, whatever that actually means, but let’s not imagine that a hope for recognition (whether that’s money, or fame, or just the ability to be an artist 24/7 without having to also work in a bank) doesn’t come into it. Yes, people like you and me continue anyway, and like you I’ve been making music for 10 years with only the occasional tangible real-world reward. But take that away completely, and are even the “true artists” going to reach the end of their creative tether too? That’s what makes me wonder when I read another cynical “everything’s free, your art is now just your hobby” post from some blogger who’s never picked up a guitar in his life. And actually, maybe you’re right – are kids these days not picking up guitars, but learning PHP instead, so they can build a start-up and flip it to a major company 2 years down the line for millions? If so, then surely that creative class is moving away from music to the internet for precisely the reason we’re talking about now – money. (And yes, of course there’s a huge majority building open source software, making their web services free, and not looking to make a fast buck, but hopefully you get my meaning).

I’m actually not sure great art (which I would argue we’re rather bereft of right now, across all media) can emerge from a world where creative people are forced to consider their art a hobby, to be subsidised by their day jobs. Used to be, you signed on and made music all day until you were good enough to capture the attention of a record label (see Pulp, Oasis, the list is endless, obviously). Can anyone do that anymore? Or are we going to be in a situation soon where the only people who can actually make music (let alone build an audience and sell it) are rich kids like Joe Lean and Jing Jang fucking Jong? That’s not a world I want to be a part of. Why is it, when music is pumped out of every shop, hairdresser, garage, when CDs line the racks at motorway service stations, where people are spending millions of dollars on music start-ups, where radio DJs are being paid outrageous salaries – why is it that the music makers can’t find any solutions to how they can sustain a situation that allows them to create? I mean, at least in the ‘90s we had the New Deal for musicians, rubbish though it was.

All the above is thinking aloud, and full of intellectual cul-de-sacs and rotten generalisations, I realise, and I’m totally up for being proved wrong on all counts ;)

August 28 | Unregistered CommenterChristian Ward

Great peice. David Thomas always seems to express a certain feeling of contempt and anger that I find fasinating. Heres another one;

"Pere Ubu is not now nor has it ever been a viable commercial venture. We won't sleep on floors, we won't tour endlessly and we're embarrassed by self-promotion. Add to that a laissez-faire attitude to the mechanics of career advancement and a demanding artistic agenda and you've got a recipe for real failure. That has been our one significant success to this date: we are the longest-lasting, most disastrous commercial outfit to ever appear in rock 'n' roll. No one can come close to matching our loss to longevity ratio".

I do think that the discovery aspect of the internet is honing this point; make your art, if it connects, it will. It pretty much obliterates the old complaints of "i would be huge if (label worked the record more, had a better agent, etc).

Anyhow, love to hear more of your thoughts.

August 28 | Unregistered CommenterBill Caperton

I’m actually not sure great art (which I would argue we’re rather bereft of right now, across all media) can emerge from a world where creative people are forced to consider their art a hobby, to be subsidised by their day jobs. Used to be, you signed on and made music all day until you were good enough to capture the attention of a record label (see Pulp, Oasis, the list is endless, obviously). Can anyone do that anymore?

There was certainly a really vibrant independent scene in the UK from around 1982 until about 1992 which hinged entirely on the fact that getting unemployment benefit was piss easy. I really noticed, when they started cracking down in the early 1990s and forcing people to go for job interviews to be, I dunno, a milkman or something, that it just started fizzling out. That may have been a co-incidence, I dunno.

There's no doubt that some great music has been made by people who have been given time, and money, to go away and come with something remarkable. Equally, magnificent music has been made by people on the spur of the moment and with no investment whatsoever. I'd argue that money has virtually no bearing on the quality of a record whatsoever. It's as relevant as the guitarist having athlete's foot. And, obviously, making music isn't the preserve of a moneyed elite, and never has been.

August 28 | Unregistered CommenterRhodri Marsden

Heh heh, yeah ok I'm not suggesting the dole was the sole reason we used to produce good music in this country ;)

And of course great music is made regardless of financial pressures. I think my point was (possibly), even when great art was being created on the dole, or being subsidised by a record company, or a rich parent, or McDonald's wages, there was the glimmer of a hope of making some money from it before the digital age. And that was a motivating factor (though obviously not the only one, and not a factor at all for some). Now, it's a lot harder - and there's no promise you'll make any money at all. And you do need money to make music, even if every wannabe has a laptop and access to Garageband now (soundcards? mics? good speakers? actual time to do it? etc). So it would be a positive thing if there was something like the New Deal which gave musicians time to hone skills and grow.

Ack I dunno, I'm sure you're right utimately. Great music will always be made.

And I hate people in comments who say they've written something on their own blog on a relevant subject but... well, you get the idea: Sorry.

August 28 | Unregistered CommenterChristian Ward

One of the top 3 articles I've read on here.

Personally, though, I view marketing as magic, and promotion as a cultural extension of my art. I've never been just a rapper, I explore whatever media I feel like exploring and working on the creation of events fascinates me. Studying how parasite geniuses like Edward Bernays or Werner Erhard were literally resculpting their own culture, for the highest bidder, fascinates me.

I think the real potential of Teh Internets isn't financial, it's cultural. Local is national is global: my producer lives in Boston and he's inexplicably got a huge following in France right now.

Because Promotion and Publicity and Marketing and Advertising have been practiced for over a century by generally worthless humans using cynical methods to manipulate people for cheap and pointless reasons, it's gotten a bad rap. But it's not a lost cause. Musicians in every genre are figuring out how to fill that role themselves, and be creative and enjoy doing it, and most importantly, not be little pricks about it either.

I realize it's not a fashionable opinion but I personally think "advertising" is just pollution -- I'm big on building useful resources and just branding them. It's been working for me in a lot of different fields.

Anyways, this was an outstanding read and I thank you for writing it, and props to Dubber or whoever made the editorial decision to put this up. Very honest and respectable.

August 28 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

I'll come clean - I encouraged Rhodri to post this here. I've been hounding him to post (and he's been a signed-up contributor) since the beginning of Music Think Tank, and I love his take on things. I especially love his writing.

As for me, I work at trying to help musicians make money despite the apparent hopelessness and futility of it all, because I think that the game is changing and that there are opportunities in a shifting environment. I agree with Rhodri that you should give your recordings away. I don't believe that's the same thing as giving your music away.

But the best music is done because it's important - not because it's a wise financial decision.

Craig Hamilton, who also writes (brilliantly but sporadically) for Music Think Tank runs a label called Commercially Inviable Records, and although there's a self-effacing British humour about that, the name's not ironic. It's a testament to the fact that the music is made because the musician makes music. Sod the money. Sod the audience. This is what I have to say.

That said, popular music (ie: not folk music and not classical) has always existed in a commercial context. There would not be bands and records if there was no music industry.

It's not like the music is this pure thing that the industry comes along and sullies with crass commercialism. With no business there'd be no popular music. Full stop.

But that does not mean that the motivation to perform and compose is necessarily commercially-driven. It's almost always worse when it is.

Why did I remix a Friends of the Stars track and turn it into an 11-minute soundscape that was released on a 25-copies only limited edition handmade CD that sold for £6 per unit? Because that's how I can be involved with music. As Rhodri put it - I was showing off. But I also got a great deal out of the experience. And, incidentally, earned exactly the same amount of money as when I co-wrote and performed on a track on a gold-selling album one time back in my past...

To put it bluntly, Craig and Rhodri are two of the most important voices on the topic of online music on the internet precisely because they're not selling snake oil (and I wish they'd write more here).

Artists are a bit hopeless, they do inexplicable things and often sign their whole financial futures away because they don't want to think about this stuff. These guys identify with that because that's an honest appraisal of themselves and the people they know.

And the reason this resonates with me is because this is precisely where I part company with most online music thinkers around: I believe that, generally speaking, when you're a musician and you manage to make music your job - you've failed. Because that makes music something you HAVE to do, rather than something you GET to do. The goal is not to make money out of being a musician. The goal is to make a living AND be a musician.

I think you can be a complete optimist and plump for a rosy future as a musician in the digital age, and still absolutely subscribe to everything Rhodri's said here.

I'm waiting for the negative responses though. Those usually take a little longer to seep out of the woodwork...

August 28 | Unregistered CommenterDubber

Hey! Way to set up a false dichotomy.

There's more to the equation than either a) being a huge hit as opposed to b) failing miserably.

There's just making a living. But apparently that's not good enough? Because you say,

"Jonathan Coulton is another one; he is often cited as the king of online DIY music, because for 18 months he has been making a living by spending 6-8 hours a day vigorously social networking and sending birthday greetings to pre-pubescent girls in Wisconsin in the hope that she'll send him her pocket money in return. Personally, I can think of nothing more soul destroying."

Can't think of anything more soul destroying? Maybe it's a lack of imagination then. Because spending 6 -8 hours a day working on making a living is pretty much what everybody does. So you think that spending those saying "Would you like fries with that, sir?" and/or mopping the floor is not soul destroying while spending the same time working on marketing your music is?

Not to mention you've obviously not paid any atttention to JoCo's material. His demographic is not "pre-pubescent girls," in Wisconsin or anywhere else. It's mostly 20 - 30-something geek boys (and girls).

Coulton sold out the Triple Door for two shows last time he was in Seattle. That's at $20 a head.

He may not be traveling in private jets or limos (filled with cocaine and groupies no doubt) but he is making a living at it.

A little sour grapes here, perchance?

August 28 | Unregistered CommenterHowlin' Hobbit

I expected the sour grapes accusation at some point – but I'm phenomenally lucky to earn a living doing stuff I enjoy. Obviously we'd all revel in playing our music to sell out crowds, but I wouldn't want to take the route that Coulton has taken. (And obviously the Wisconsin line was a light-hearted throwaway line in the context of the talk – I know that JC isn't a teenypopidol.)

Anyway, I don't think the piece reads like the bitter rantings of someone who has failed to "make it", whatever that might mean; if anything, I'm saying embrace and revel in the fact that you're making music, performing it, writing it, recording it. I'm saying don't be bitter, forget the sour grapes, because this is the best chance any band has ever had to get their music heard by a shitload of people.

And I'm also saying that the dream has changed. It used to be a dream of getting signed, a dream of getting a huge advance, blowing it on plush hotel rooms, booze and expensive instruments, and living some kind of cliched rock-star lifestyle for a bit. As we know, that dream was only ever been realised by an infinitessimally small percentage of people who ever wrote a song or stepped on a stage. By contrast, the stories of bands who reached a certain level of success but found themselves hamstrung by shit management, appalling record deals and oppressive record companies are incredibly common. The dream was never really attainable.

And all I'm saying about Coulton and Taglieri is that their stories show that the dream that's dangled in front of us now – that it's a piece of piss to make money as a DIY act online – just isn't true. Because it's not easy. They've shown that it's incredibly hard work. It requires almost superhuman levels of dedication and commitment. And you have to make a decision as a musician whether to follow their example and risk your funtastic hobby possibly turning into hideous drudgery, or just accept the facts as they always have been: that making money as a rock musician is almost impossible. Not quite, but very nearly. Take it on board, don't believe all the hype, and concentrate on making music and enjoying everything that comes with it. Or not – I mean, I'm obviously not setting myself up as some kind of ludicrous, balding DIY guru. It's just an opinion.

August 28 | Unregistered CommenterRhodri Marsden


I've been saying it for a while (and I know I am not the first) but the era of the Rock Star is dead. One thing that you didn't really hit on though is that overheads for recording your music are dropping by the day. Anyone can sit in there room and pop off a few tunes now for virtually nil. In the end it's all about the desire to create and receive acknowledgment for your creativity. We all do this because deep down we want some to get as equally excited about it as we do. And for the record I still buy albums, perhaps to many of them. Hell. I bought all of your albums and the Schema MP3's but I know I am of a dying breed.

August 28 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

Haha.. Mate, that was brilliant. Loved it from start to finish. Actually laughed out loud at a few points.

August 28 | Unregistered CommenterDylan Galletly

I saw the talk at the Oxford Geek Night, and it's a shame Rhodri hasn't posted the slides. Especially the 1991 video clip of him playing at the Jericho. Class.

This is definitely the most eloquently written version of the cynical camp's argument, and there's almost nothing in it I disagree with. I put my music out for free and have no delusions about the scale of my potential success. But I think that the (sometimes sickeningly) positive attitude of a lot of DIY music bloggers (myself included) is a good thing. When you pretty much have to make friends with somebody before they will even consider listening to your music it helps not to be a grumpy bastard.

I know loads of really talented, driven, intelligent and creative artists, musicians, playwrights and writers who only have a tiny audience of relatives and loved ones because they are cynical and grumpy about the state of whatever, and nobody wants to be friends with them.

Having said that, Rhodri's miserable, witty cynicism somehow comes off as charming and likeable. Maybe that's the secret to his success. ;o)

August 29 | Unregistered CommenterBen Walker

Absolutely bloody brilliant - although I suspect that bands trying to sell their music at shows will continue for some time - after all it's better to sell it if you can - than not bother at all?

That's the mindset of many bands I know anyway - I would personally offer it up for free to anyone who wants it.

Selling merch at shows is a lot easier - you can't download it and it's cheaper to get it right there and then as you can avoid the postage costs. It's definitely not going to make you a living - but if I can sell 40 shirts I'll break even on them - and that'd make me very happy indeed.

August 29 | Unregistered CommenterI Have Clones

This is a most excellent piece of work, Rhodri.

In light of it - anyone who reads this and wants a free 7" of my latest single - please email me with your address and I'll send it out asap.

You can hear it here: (Spit it out)


August 29 | Unregistered CommenterAsh

Great post, man. I played in bands for over fifteen years, trying to "make it" in the commercial world. It was a like a huge rollercoaster ride right into a big pile of poo at the end. Lost half of my life trying to do what others told me to do. Felt like shit about myself for years because I wasn't able to sell a few thousand copies of my music. Was told I was shit for not being able to do so.

Then along came the Internet... and now you have all of these people telling you, "there are great opportunities here to make a go of it again". BS. It's just another waste of time. I maintain to this day, the Internet is good for emailing your friends and looking at free porn. Oh, and for finding parts for your car or dishwasher that isn't being made anymore...

There is a book called "The Gift," written by Lewis Hyde over twenty years ago. It explains how art began as a way of sharing gifts in communities (in other words, giving away something for free) so that people felt bonded, invested and connected in some way. It gives examples of how tribes that still exist today circulate these gifts as wedding presents, social staus indicators and essentially expressions of their culture.

Then the book goes on to explain how the commercial world basically took that notion and destroyed it by putting a value on these things that can't be quantized. Art SHOULDN'T be quantized. It should just be.

I concede - if you're going to make music, just make it for the sake of creatng something that is from the heart - and then give it away. It has more value as a gift to people than trying to squeeze a few bucks out of a person for it. Then go get a job doing something remotely fulfilling so you can pay your bills.

August 29 | Unregistered CommenterMarc

I was in a band once, didn't like it much.

August 29 | Unregistered Commentergilchrist

As if the money pit that recording music weren't bad enough along coms the newer versions of Real Player to make everything you post instantly downloadable. Yes, including the songs you had decided to post on myspace as listenable but not downloadable. There is no hope, but we are gleefully playing a show tomorrow with the guy that sent me this link in the first place. Music keept many of us from jumping out a window in our teens so we have to pay it back. Sweat, turn it up to eleven and enjoy yourselves. Who knows, somebody might get up and dance at your show.
You want to talk about soul crushing. Let's talk about those audiences that just stand there, arms crossed almost like a blank canvas daring you to impress them out of their hipster cool coredom faces. To the guy in the first comment up above or below - who knows how this works?- I pint too and love that for the same reason I love playing music. It's totally useless. Every other form of human interaction has been automated so things we do with our hands and sweat have intrinsic value forme.
Yeha! the witch is dead......

August 29 | Unregistered CommenterPhil D

sorry but this is absolutely cycnical and beyond the point. I have been a professional musician since 1975 and made a living off it successfully until 2003. I lived well off royalties and mp3 sales until then. Since I do not anymore it doesnt mean I am going to work for free from now on. I simply moved on to do something else that is fun and pays well....but its not music anymore. The day also film making is being rendered a non existing business where according to this author you are not supposed to earn a living anymore and turn over burger pads instead to pay your living, will come soon.
And then there will be the day, that people want to hear live music for free and there are no more musicians anymore because there are only hobbyists.....ohh thats already the way it is now ? gee ! 99.9 of the music out there simply sux today. I can not listen to it anymore !

August 29 | Unregistered Commenterroflem

The idea that we have to work at horrid day jobs to lose money at music to profit a lot of other people is deplorable.

The main issue is that it simply decreases the quality of music that comes out. Truly great music usually takes a huge amount of work to accomplish - this work is simply impossible to find time for if you have a time-consuming job.

I just finished reading Joe Boyd's excellent "White Bicycles" and he mentions this very issue. He points out that back in the day you could live for next to nothing if you were willing to make do and that this allowed a lot of very talented people to devote an immense amount of time to their music.

August 29 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ritchford

I haven't been commenting much on the various music blogs that I frequent. I was getting so sick and tired of hearing about all the remarkable innovations and techniques for pimping indie music online...and then I happend to read this lengthy post.


A few weeks ago I got so fed up with what I thought was my lack of understanding of how this big internet machine works, this big marketing collosal that is the digital music whOrehouse called Web 2.0

So I decided to leave it alone and make some music. I couldn't be happier about that decision. This post reinforces my happiness, my self satisfaction.

I agree; I am just trying to show off. I have been showing off for many, many years now. As a DJ and playing live gigs...if I managed to get paid then that was just butter. And when it pays it does pay well!...but I think that is dictated by the genre of electronic music. In the height of my DJ career (circa 90's) I could pull in anywhere from $150 to $300 for an hour set...unfortunately most rock bands are lucky to have to split that much between 3 to 5 members!

Bottom line: I like creating musical things and I do not DEPEND on it to make a living. I currently give away all my music and will continue to do so. I found a way to make some money from music via soundtrack, scores & cues work but I don't make enough from it to even fill out a tax return on it. I continue to push out music because I love to do it. I never got into any of this because I thought I was going to be rich from it. I make music because I can't stop. The same reason I draw pictures and write silly bits of verse collected in countless stacks of notebooks.

I thought for about two years recently, that I needed to figure out how to market and sell my music. I don't think that way anymore. I just do what I do and maybe someone besides me likes it. Screw the money, screw the audience.

Thanks Rhordi! This was a golden post.


August 29 | Unregistered CommenterMilton

quoted from above:"I concede - if you're going to make music, just make it for the sake of creatng something that is from the heart - and then give it away. It has more value as a gift to people than trying to squeeze a few bucks out of a person for it. Then go get a job doing something remotely fulfilling so you can pay your bills."

oh boy....tell that to a violinist in the philharmonic orchestra of boston.....:-) luckily there is still some talent out there......but wait until there are no more musicians who can perform JSBach anymore...or Beethoven....rock music ? who needs it ? no wonder music has no value anymore: the doped out performers suck and the whole disney industry behind it sucked out the leftover brains of millions of zombies.

The shamans who performed the music you talk about were highly regarded in their societies and did not have to turn over burger pads at McVomit to make a living! Their music had a spiritual purpose and they were retributed by their community. They did not have to go hunt or fish! They were given a share of what the others earned/collected.

August 29 | Unregistered Commenterroflem

thanks for the intelligent post of Tom Richford. I totally agree!!!

August 29 | Unregistered Commenterroflem

Having re-read some of the comments here, there are a scarce few here who seem to have "entitlement issues". The idea that you are owed for your talent is disgusting. It is a whiny piss-ant stance to take and reminds me of children bitching about how unfair life is. Of course life isn't fair! And no one ever said it would be.

If making music is "hard work" and takes so much out of you then you might not be in it for the right reasons. Making music should be a pleasure and not a chore and those who view it as a chore should gain some perspective. Even if it pains you at times to perform certain musical tasks, I don't think it should ever be viewed as anything but a pleasure to create.

Screw the "poor me" musicians out there right along with the audience.


PS - if you are stuck flipping burgers then maybe you should have stayed in school a bit longer.

August 29 | Unregistered CommenterMilton

ahhhh it seems we have a lot of professional musicians like Milton posting here :-) maybe he can share a sample of his quality :-)

August 29 | Unregistered Commenterroflem

The idea that we have to work at horrid day jobs to lose money at music to profit a lot of other people is deplorable.

Yes! Put down your spanners and graphics tablets, everyone, there are bass guitars to be played. I can't guarantee you'll get paid, but if you shut your eyes and wish really, really hard, it's bound to happen. Let's go!

The main issue is that it simply decreases the quality of music that comes out.

No it doesn't.

Truly great music usually takes a huge amount of work to accomplish - this work is simply impossible to find time for if you have a time-consuming job.

And lo, with a flourish of a USB keyboard, the debut albums of virtually every single rock & pop artiste were consigned to the shitheap, along with every record put out on an independent label, and every song written by anyone in their spare time. Magnificent work.

August 29 | Unregistered CommenterRhodri Marsden

Just had a thought: Was this the last Music Think Tank post ever? Or is one of us going to try and follow that...?

August 29 | Unregistered CommenterDubber

Rhodri - is this you: ?

August 29 | Unregistered Commenterjohn mostyn

Yes, the idea that we have to kill ourselves at horrid day jobs is terrible, but there is also the option of having a nice enjoyable day job and still arranging your time so that you can make music.

I can't believe how often people mention "flipping burgers" as the the only alternative to killing yourself trying to make it in the music biz. People seem more reconciled with the idea of seeing a musician become a relentless salesman of their own music -even if this will surely make the quality of the music suffer as "closing sales" becomes his focus, rather than making songs- than to see that same musician have a decent, non music related job and make his music on the side, which would very probably earn him a higher degree of independence when making musical decisions.

August 29 | Unregistered CommenteraMolina


Did you miss the part about "screw the audience"? I never claimed I was a professional musician or that I even make music anyone would enjoy. I make music for me and not for you or anyone else. If you like it great! If you don't well that's great too because I don't care. Do you get my point yet?

aMolina makes a great point about having a day job that you enjoy. I have one of those. I also make music and believe it or not I manage to do both without feeling jaded. I am entitled to nothing because of my ability to make noises that some might call music. I am entitled to nothing even after being a well paid DJ for 15 years.

You may sift through the shitheap if you want to find my "professional" quality music. I am not looking for any specific approval or acknowledgment of my "talent".

And for those truly gifted individuals who have real talent and skill with an instrument there is the idea of session work. Look at Steely Dan for an example of truly talented musicians being hired and paid well for their work. It is there for those who want it. You may not have the spotlight that Becker and Fagen got but they will pay you well enough if you have the talent.

August 29 | Unregistered CommenterMilton

John: Yes. that video is indeed an example of the anti-careerist stupidity that The Keatons indulged in. Sadly I was on "holiday", so I don't appear on screen.

August 30 | Unregistered CommenterRhodri Marsden

"And all I'm saying about Coulton and Taglieri is that their stories show that the dream that's dangled in front of us now – that it's a piece of piss to make money as a DIY act online – just isn't true."

Hey guys, John Taglieri here. Rhodri, man, I dig your passion man. I disagree with your above statement, but I agree with a LOT of what you do say. I've played to empty clubs, sweated, sat on the side of the road frustrated and broke after a gig and loved every second of it. I've blown my knee on stage twice, played with a broken hand, been on stage puking my guts out from the flu and you couldnt drag me off that stage...I've been through most of what you talk about, so I get where you are coming from and totally respect you POV.

The ONLY part of the whole thing i disagree with is the making a living part. I've worked every job imaginable from office jobs to warehouse gigs to shit retail jobs to make the ends try and meet while I spent all my money on gear, travel, gas and strings. I've been so in debt that I went bankrupt...literally. So I get it. The only difference now is that I make my money with musical things instead of shit jobs that I hated and sat at dreaming of what i COULD be doing if i wasnt there. Well, I dont have to dream of those "whats" anymore...

First off, gotta point out...I dont do weddings, bar mitvahs and the such as you thanks. My standards may be low, but i still have some!! LOL... Yeah, I pick up cover gigs, and all the other things in the post you referred to. But to me, they simply are the means to the end. They arent hard and it's never work. PLaying guitar and singing will never be work to me. I do those things so that i can sit at home all day and work on my music...because thats what i LOVE to do. Instead of going to some 9-5 job and staring at a clock hating where I am to get my bills paid, i get to sit at home in my studio and work my ass off on my music because thats where my heart and soul is. Whether people like it or not is not why i do it. I LOVE what I get to do and did it for a LONG time for nothing and to empty clubs. If i never sell another CD and just get to write and record, then I'd be fine with it. it's just cool to know I dont answer to anyone and get to do what I love everyday. So, i have to go to a bar, play some tunes and get paid to be where everyone else is paying to keeps my rent paid, i get to eat and lets me sit and do what I love all day...truly, WHAT is so bad about that? And on top of it, it helps keep my chops honed...something sitting at a dsk job cant do for me.

And for those who made some statements about peoples ambitions, I never cared for fame and never got into this to be famous. I know a lot of famous people and they are generally pretty screwed up. lol. I just always wanted to make a living doing what i love and not have to answer to someone that had no idea what passion meant.

LIke I said man, I agree with a lot of what you say and point out. Touring is hard. Try filling my tour van with todays gas prices and expect to make money. Selling CDs is a bitch. I'm about to release a new EP and am really thinking about how to get the most out of it. I've given away a TON of tracks online and never have a problem with it. I disagree with you saying you cant make a living. I am proof you can. I do all the other things I do to make money so that I can go on the road and lose money and still know that my rent is paid and my wife doesnt have to worry about that.

One thing that confused me in your whole post was your statement..."You know, it's like biographies of bands. The most interesting bit is the first bit, you know, the horror, where they're playing shit venues to small crowds, and the pointlessness of it all is on the verge of driving them insane. When they get to the bit where they turn up at a plush venue and there's a dozen Cantaloupes and a melon baller in the dressing room, well, that's when I stop reading." I just dont get why you like someone when they suffer but not when they succeed...why is it ok to suffer but if your siffering leads to something good, then you are a sellout or no longer worthy?? Thats the only part of your post i truly dont understand. So are you ever really a fan of a band or just a fan of the ones that never make it?

Man, I eat, live, and breath my music. It's my love and my passion. Been playing since I'm five and am like a crack addict on a fix if you take it away from me for too long. I dont know what life means without music. I have as much passion for it as anyone does. To say that you are only true to your passion as long as you cant make a living at it is a little short sighted IMHO...and I say this for a simple that I've tasted how to NOT have to go to work and get to play music all day, i'm hungrier then i've ever been just to keep it up so I NEVER have to work for someone else or at a shitty job again. I dont ever go to WORK now...i play music...that will NEVER be work.

Good dialogue man. There are always two sides to the coin and both sides will always have some valid points. No matter what man, I think if you do it because it's in your heart and soul, then no matter how the day goes, it ends with you being able to look yourself in the mirror and be good with who you are.

Good luck with what ever you do man...I'll be touring in the UK next year, so maybe we can meet up for a drink and say hey in person.

Thanks for letting me drop my opinion on this topic.

August 30 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Taglieri

hello John - great that you've contributed to the thread.

I just dont get why you like someone when they suffer but not when they succeed...why is it ok to suffer but if your siffering leads to something good, then you are a sellout or no longer worthy?? Thats the only part of your post i truly dont understand. So are you ever really a fan of a band or just a fan of the ones that never make it?

Of course not, no. I'm happy to fork out 50 quid to go and see Steely Dan or Todd Rundgren, although Rundgren is usually bloody terrible, so I'm not sure why – but anyway, as I say earlier up the thread, the amount of money behind a band has virtually no bearing on the quality of the music they write...

I suppose what it boils down to is my irritation at bands never being remotely satisfied. At the lowest rung of the ladder, that's obviously an admirable trait, because hey, we're all on the lowest rung of the ladder, and for god's sake, who wants to be on the lowest rung of the ladder? New bands who are struggling to make themselves heard are usually more driven, have more passion, have more fire, it's like they're striving for the unattainable. Their need to be heard, their need to stand on a stage and say "fuckin hell, will you look at us" just makes for a more thrilling spectacle. In my opinion.

But once bands start creeping up that ladder, their dissatisfaction with their "careers" (for want of a better word) just becomes embarrassing. I mean, when are bands ever satisfied? If they've started rehearsing, they want to record. Fine. If they're recording, they want a record to be released. OK. If they've released a record, they want it to be on the radio. Understandable. If it's on the radio, they want to be in the press. If they're in the press, they want an agent. If they've got an agent, they want to be supporting a big act. If they're supporting a big act, they want to be headlining. And so it goes on, until they eventually split up in a swirling miasma of bad feeling. And then what? What mark have they made? All they have left is the music that they've produced. Which is, of course, what they should be doing it for in the first place.

August 30 | Unregistered CommenterRhodri Marsden

One of the best music posts I've ever read. I'm learning that length doesn't matter as long as it's interesting.

Personally, I've always been very good at expressing myself creatively but very bad at promoting and marketing. I agree with Rhodri that we may be getting so caught up with self-marketing and making money that we forget about making music for music's sake.

At the same time, with the amount of access we have to technology, information and direct contact to our potential fanbase, it seems we owe it to our art to learn whatever we can about marketing our music.

I agree with something else Rhodri hinted at. While we need to make money, it's important to stay away from things that are 'soul draining". I've worked at Soul Draining corporate jobs and I've had soul draining music gigs. And sometimes, online marketing and trolling myspace for fans can be soul draining. It's a conundrum.

Maybe I'm just spoiled but I ultimately want to create the art that I want to create. And if that doesn't bring in income right away then I need to find a way to bring in income that doesn't take away from creating my art. I'm still trying to find that right combination.

Thanks again to Rhodri (and Dubber for posting)

August 30 | Unregistered CommenterEric Campbell

And lo, with a flourish of a USB keyboard, the debut albums of virtually every single rock & pop artiste artiste were consigned to the shitheap,

Now, now, no need to get snarky. Certainly, when you're young, you don't have a family, you can live off very little, you can pull this things off - but if you continue to lose money doing this, it's going to be hard to keep it up.

And frankly, I don't believe your claim at all. I'd claim the reverse - that even for debut albums that result in success, most of the time most of the players are full-time musicians.

This isn't just sour grapes here. I've been a musician for 25 years with a day job. I'm pretty damn good by now, I work at it, I think I'm one of the most exciting instrumentalists in New York City (I play an electronic wind instrument), but what does that get me? How much finished work can I get out when I'm constantly having to work 50++ hours on demanding work that's nothing to do with music and generally get two weeks' vacation a year? In practice I play out a lot and record very little of my own material - I've been saving to quit my job so I can live cheaply and record and tour more (I'm actually there now, and hope to do this next summer).

But you'd better believe that if I'd started a family, none of that would be happening. And I'm very lucky that my other skill pays well enough that I can afford even to do that. Most musicians won't be so lucky.

I go to a ton of live music. I've seen some amazing bands in the last few years, strange, brilliant acts from the heartland like Melted Men or Friends Forever, weird one-offs locally, and a few big bands too. But the sad part is that in the last 15 years or so I've only seen one act that I followed early go anywhere, DJ Spooky, and everyone else has struggled and vanished. It didn't used to be that way, if you went to some random CBGB shows you were pretty well guaranteed to see someone who'd later be making a living in the industry.

I go to even more stuff now than I went to in the day, and frankly, aside from the hip-hop acts, I think a lot of the music is better today - but they all vanish and stop doing music because you cannot go on doing music if you always lose a lot of money on it.

Blah blah mp3s. I know I'm talking about live music but the same thing's true to a less dramatic extent of mp3s. The currency here has simply been debased, everyone has thousands of tracks now, I'm pretty careful about paying for mp3s and yet I keep having things pop up in my itunes that I know I never paid for, this never happened with LPs (well, rarely anyway).

(And if anyone needs a thrilling and versatile electronic wind instrument player in New York City, I'm Tom Swirly.)

August 30 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ritchford

"And frankly, I don't believe your claim at all. I'd claim the reverse - that even for debut albums that result in success, most of the time most of the players are full-time musicians."

I wouldn't be surprised if, for albums being released "today," this claim were wrong. I was thinking "throughout pop music."

August 30 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ritchford

Or to boil it down to classics: "We'll always have the Are You Experienceds, what we're losing is the Electric Ladylands."

August 30 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ritchford

"I suppose what it boils down to is my irritation at bands never being remotely satisfied."

I get ya man, but in life, isnt that sort of the point?? I think that the words "satisfied" and "comfortable" are bad words. When you get either of them, you usually stop trying, stop creating with passion, stop wanting the very things that got you started doing this crazy shit in the first place...

Think about this...we work harder than most people, travel more, sweat more, suffer more, take abuse from club owners, agents, managers, other band members and do it all virtually for nothing. At any regular job, most of us would tell them to go screw and find another job, but we happily take the abuse because our passions drive us. WHY ON EARTH would I want to get comfortable or satisfied?? If i did, i'd wind up getting so annoyed I'd stop playing music. The fact that I dont get satisfied and comfy and i'm still hungry and chasing the things i've wanted since I was a kid is exactly what keeps me here. I've had some success I guess. I mean, you knew who i was, so i'm doing something right, but I honestly dont know that I'll ever be satisfied. There will always be that "ONE SONG" that I need to write that I know I havent yet, ya know what I mean??

Hey man, we are all different and I do know what you mean about some bands turning corporate or selling out. But there are plenty who were successful that never did and stayed hungry to the end. I guess it really comes down to passion...did the sellouts want it for passion or for fame...two very different agendas.

Ok, i gotta get some recording done and the wife wants to go to Bed, Bath & Beyond...and I have a gig tonight! So gotta jet...


August 30 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Taglieri

Hate to break up your back-slapping festival of futility, but, as you brits would say, bollocks. There are ways to make money, most of them involve having paid management, and yes, you have to work your ass off to do it, and you can't just sit around the house getting stoned and then expect to sell your music. If you don't like that reality, fine, give it all away, but don't present this as some sort of breakthrough philosophy, please...

August 30 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Pasek

There are ways to make money, most of them involve having paid management,

Yes, *some* people make money. The point is that vanishingly few of them do, fewer every year, and paid management is absolutely no guarantee of success - and even worse, that there seems increasingly less correlation between the quality of your material and chances of success (I note you didn't even mention "perfecting your material" as a way to make money.)

but we happily take the abuse because our passions drive us. WHY ON EARTH would I want to get comfortable or satisfied?

Did someone mention "Stockholm Syndrome"?

August 30 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ritchford

Oops, sorry about the loose italics there. The first and third paragraphs are quoted from other people.

August 30 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ritchford

Excellent post, and at such an interesting time in my life. I recently, just within the past week, decided to start asking for donations for my music, and I did so because I found out i've got a kid on the way. Previous to that, since 1998, I have been giving away my music for free, and now my sixth album just came out. Back in the heyday of I pretty much saw the writing on the wall and realised, "from now on, there's no money in music, except for those few who are already established with the big labels." For 10 years I have not received a dime for anything that I've recorded. I managed to get my stuff played on the radio a little. But I never played live so essentially it came down to a hobby. I didn't mind, I was a early adopter on my things, including mastering recording software which I downloaded illegally (and justified stealing it by giving away my music), so the recording process was pretty much cost-free too so I figured it was just evening out anyhow. When I said I never made any money. I did manage to get a check from for $137 during that brief time in history when they were actually paying people for plays, just right before they bankrupted themselves and sold themselves to universal and deleted everyone's accounts. The only way I managed that was by doing A LOT of promoting on online boards and what not.

I found your post shocking for some reason, I can't decide why. Maybe I suppose because I had deluded myself in to thinking people really would pay for my music if given the option, but not forced to actually do so. After releasing sixth albums and not getting any money for it, but more importantly not getting any real recognition for it, that's what sucks the most. It seems like everyone who comes across the the musician who doesn't charge for his music, well that music must just suck. I can't give it away it seems. I'm pretty sure it doesn't suck, though. It's difficult for mp3 blogs to review it, music magazines are way out of my league it seems, never a response from them.

Will music survive the mp3 revolution? Without a doubt. But the only people who will be left are people like me, who are doing it just for the pure joy of doing it. The process itself is what interests me. Like I said, I never played live, never had much desire to do so. I have considered doing it recently, ever since I found out I can sing (my first five albums were instrumental music only.) So maybe I'll expand my joy to doing gigs, but I don't expect much money from it.

So since the new album came out, I've been ramping up my efforts to get the word out. Any and all social networking site, i've joined it. Any website where you can play music at, I've joined it and uploaded my music if I can, or written those who run the website. I'm still waiting for a response on my itunes application. One thing I've done is talked to my fellow friends who do music, but who aren't really active online. I've "signed" them to my "label" and told them i'll take care of all the online stuff for tehm, for half the profits. we'll see how that pans out.

So anyway, I can't go without taking a moment to pimp my own stuff. So check out my band, 76, at or or If you wanna help me out you can donate at that first link. You won't have the honor of being the first to donate, but you might be the second!!!! Lets see if I can get that revenue stream up to double digits finally ;)

I've had some success I guess. I mean, you knew who i was, so i'm doing something right, but I honestly dont know that I'll ever be satisfied. There will always be that "ONE SONG" that I need to write that I know I havent yet, ya know what I mean??

Of course I do. But that motiviation is musical, rather than being persuaded by umpteen startups that the motivation is financial.

There are ways to make money, most of them involve having paid management, and yes, you have to work your ass off to do it, and you can't just sit around the house getting stoned and then expect to sell your music. If you don't like that reality, fine, give it all away

Yep. Exactly what I said.

but don't present this as some sort of breakthrough philosophy, please...

I wasn't.

August 30 | Unregistered CommenterRhodri Marsden

@ dubber

It is a tricky post for anyone to follow. Brevity is such an underused artistic concept, especially in the online world, and if you want the blog to go out in a blaze then there's your post for doing it.

Couldn't not link this after saying that - - especially given the 14 Iced Bears reference.

August 31 | Unregistered Commenterdunc

Great article. I particularly enjoyed David Thomas' quote. I also write about music and musicians endeavours in the new world of 'free.' You can read my thoughts here Pampelmoose and on Social Media here Social Cache.

best, Dave Allen, Gang of Four.

August 31 | Unregistered CommenterDave Allen

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