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The Realities of Making a Living with Music in 2011

Warning: The following rant will ruffle some feathers and just might upset your comfort zone. Read with caution!

John McCrea, lead singer of the band Cake, stirred up a reaction when he told NPR’s Melissa Block that he is skeptical about the future of music as a vocation.

I see music as a really great hobby for most people in five or 10 years,” he remarked.

Keep in mind this was part of a segment about Cake’s historic new album, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts in January. It was historic because the album earned the coveted ranking by selling just 44,000 copies — the lowest amount for a No. 1 in the 20-year history of calculating record sales.

I’ve been seeing a lot of articles and blog posts lately about the doom and gloom of the music biz — including depressing news about the state of independent music. There have been references to the failure of direct-to-fan as a business model, and the harsh realities that aspiring musicians, managers, and promoters face.

Really? Give me a break!

Sure, I agree that things have drastically changed. The “traditional music industry” has crumbled. All the new, accessible promotion tools have created a crowded and noisy world where millions of DIY artists are clamoring for attention. Things are in flux. Nothing is predictable. There’s no sure path to success.

So tell me …

How is this so radically different from the good old days?

When exactly was there a sure path to making a good living as an artist? What year or decade did a healthy percentage of musicians prosper in the Golden Age of Music? And in what era was the pursuit of the almighty record deal an accessible and fair arrangement for all concerned?

Wake up and smell the gigabytes! Please!

The truth is … This Golden Age never existed. There’s never been a time when musical self-sufficiency was guaranteed. It’s always been the case — and always will be — that a majority of people pursue music as a part-time hobby.

Only a small percentage of artists make a living. That isn’t a consequence of the Internet or piracy or consumer apathy or limitless entertainment choices. It’s just the nature of humanity, regardless what business model is in place.

If you find yourself complaining about the current state of music, it’s probably because you feel lost not knowing what direction to go or what “rules” to follow. I get that. At least — prior to the Napster and iTunes era — many people agreed on the steps you needed to take: get a record deal and/or get radio airplay, retail placement, media exposure, tour, build a business team, etc.

Now it seems nobody knows what the sure path is. As flawed as the old system was, at least you had some kind of map, right?

Here’s another cold dose of reality … That system sucked just as much as, if not more than, the current one!

Many musicians struggled then … and they struggle now. Artists fought for attention then … and they fight for it now. Self-promoters were confused about marketing and sales then … and they are just as confused now.

And, back in “the day,” there was never a set path to a record deal either. Nearly 20 years ago I organized a lot of music education events in St. Louis with local artists who had been signed to label deals. Each had to forge their own path to get noticed and get signed. No two stories were alike.

However, the one theme that many of them shared years later was the bitterness they felt after having gone through the corporate record company process. Hmm … I guess that wasn’t the Golden Age after all.

Honestly … Do you really prefer the old system of having to impress a gatekeeper before you are deemed worthy of a music career? Do you prefer the stability of needing commercial radio airplay, retail space, and MTV video exposure to “make it”?

I think not! So …

Please stop lamenting the good ole bygone days (that never existed to begin with). Please stop complaining about the hardships of social networking and all the work required to get noticed and engage with fans. Cry me a river!

Success in music has always required talent, desire, a quest for mastery, and consistent action. That was true years ago, and it’s just as true today.

The modern-day whiners all focus on what’s missing and what’s difficult. Meanwhile, empowered indie artists such as Jason Parker, David Nevue, Rob Michael, John Taglieri, and many more see opportunities, embrace this new era and … heaven forbid … are actually making a decent living doing it.

So … are you a victimized complainer … or an empowered doer?

More on this topic coming soon … In the meantime, I welcome your comments.

-Bob Baker

P.S. This piece was inspired by this post on Hypebot and this story on NPR.

References (1)

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  • Response
    Response: Laura Glading
    The Realities of Making a Living with Music in 2011 - MTT - Music Think Tank

Reader Comments (54)

The music industry, with the internet, has undoubtely changed from day to night. Go to Soundcloud. More than thousands trying to make it with music alone... Impossible. Today, there are fewer full time musicians and they earn less. Not only because of LEGAL systems to listen to music for free with the internet (here in Spain Spotify is sweet, free and legal), but because people are consuming more scattered music from the myriad of musicians there are. In the future, as today, music will be free. I don't think this is better or worse, it's just different. The same to photography, as it has been said on another comment and worse, information. I even think that movies and TV are on their way.

May 30 | Unregistered CommenterPiwilin

I agree with the post in some ways (coming from someone who does, in fact, make a living through my music full time), but one major thing to realize is its harder now to make that living with only one skill or market angle. Cd sales? Touring? Not one will do you justice, it's a combination of many put together, let alone becoming a jack of all trades in the industry to be alright in making ends meet. And, funny thing I have to mention, at the end when you said the artists that are doing well in music, I have never heard of any of them, which is typical these days. Saturation and people all being famous to 15 people, in which those 15 are also famous to their own 15 fans, it easy to never hear of an artist that may still be doing their thing. Trick is, the more you find it as a hobby, it has made it become more of a career in the long run.. You worry about "making it" you'll find nothing more than jealousy or bitching about those that truly are making it. Money is far and few except tours and publishing/multimedia syncs... That, is the future of music industry in terms of it becoming a career path.

July 9 | Unregistered CommenterGood post

Ever try booking a tour from the road with nothing but a copy of BYOFL, a pager and coins for the pay phone? I'd say if anything, it's gotten easier to self market, promote and book your own f'n life than it has ever been. Anybody that disagrees has never surfed couches across the country before the dawn of social media and the "evils" of Internet piracy. Steal my tunes, please. Just repost the news about tonight's living room gig on Twitter and buy a shirt when you get there. Peace.

July 18 | Unregistered CommenterKebin

I couldn't continue reading this much beyond the bold black type.

Now some REALITY.

I was once a fairly successful and world known artist in one of the dance music scenes. Now for record producers (NOT DJs), this is a studio exercise. There isn't a live show market etc and not much call for it, DJs have had it sown up for a long time. 'Become a DJ then', sorry but producing and DJing aren't the same thing.

Now, the scene as a whole was reliant on small self owned indie labels, labels (plus some blanket distributor P&D affairs where scamming was rife, I won't go there) and small subsidiaries of larger labels.

Now it has always been difficult to sell records but a good seller generally would do 1000 to 5000 units plus any on sales if you were lucky to get licensed to a compilation and any (usually EXTREMELY small ) royalties from radio/club/PRS etc.

It was NEVER a living but, if you were self releasing you could via distributing yourself or using a distributor (and this was key in getting the larger sales and getting in HMV and international sales etc) break even on a vinyl release at around 500 units - not taking into account studio costs.

Sales of 1000 and up and you were making a nice bit. If you hit paydirt and got a measly (in the scheme of the whole industry) few £000 quid. NOT enough to live on but enough to help, help with bills, improve the studio, become more professional etc. We had to invest 10s of thousands in hardware back then, always has been an expensive hobby.

There was a financial risk to putting music into the market place, so even indie labels had quality controls and A&R filters, and the music had to be damn good to sell and for an artist to have any longevity they had to SELL, even in that tin-pot corner of the industry. £1000 loss on a bad release was a big loss and could mean the end of a label. All that's gone, there's no risk to a small label to upload something (that is literally ALL they do). This should be great right? WRONG.

Fast forward to now. Production standards have gone up, what was acceptable back then is not acceptable now, this requires much more skill and knowledge of sound engineering. On the plus side the learning curve has got quicker and the costs of producing music have come down significantly with software.

For the same type of music almost across the board for most artists there are NO, and I mean NO sales. In certain scenes a record can hit number 1 on a major download site by selling around 40 copies. Now that's 40 copies at £1, less the 50% the site will take, £0.50p per unit to the label, then if it's not the artist direct but a label, the artist on a 50% split gets £0.25.
Contracts will specify a £50 minimum on payment. The 'label' basically makes nothing on a single release and the artist makes absolutely nothing.

So we now have small indie labels and download sites using a volume model who survive by the sheer bulk of what they put out - hundreds of releases per week, it adds up for them. But the artists make nothing. You tell me this is sustainable? It's just a method of selling storage space.

Now this might be great for new up and coming artists, it's easier than ever to get their stuff out there. OK. To what end? They are never going to be able to make anything sustainable, they will always remain part time hobbyists.

What of those who were pro or semi pro? With decades of experience? Is that not worth anything? Zilch, nothing. You can flip burgers for a living m8.

Some of us scrat by running small studios, engineering for the new up and comers. A lot of them don't actually write ANY of their own music - we ghost write it for them so the can have a 'career' as a DJ as it has now become de-rigeur for DJs to have to produce their own stuff. Most of them can manage the sync button, they know diddly about producing music. BUT, there's no budget. And this is why people now bemoan that the music isn't what it was, why the clubs are closing and the scene is dying. Where once we used to maybe take a week to produce a track, a young kid will come into the studio with a VERY small budget (I'm talking £75 to £100 per day to hire a properly constructed studio with professional engineer) and expect to have a tune ghost written, in whatever genre they choose (who cares about what you produce or are known for producing right? It;s all just music, all the same stuff isn't it??) produced, engineered, arranged AND mastered for them in that 1 day session. And they still won't see any money back in sales - they just hope to get gigs off the back of them playing their 'own' original music, that they've paid someone else to create for them.

How can there be ANY original, creative music created in those circumstances. All that is being made is template, thrown together crap either to feed the small label machine, or the aspiring DJ machine. Punters are not stupid.


Now bemoan the lack of originality, quality etc etc etc


December 22 | Unregistered CommenterD Janes

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