A few weeks ago I read an article in the Huffington post by columnist Jeff Pollack called Music in Free Fall. In it he argues against illegal downloading of music and that artists and labels should be compensated for their risk and financial investment. He also argues that by downloading music illegally, fans “rob the artists and those who work with them”. While the article is well intentioned, Pollacks argument is outdated and fundamentally flawed. Music is not in free fall, more people are listening to more music than ever before. What is falling is the Industries ability to exert control over the musicians themselves. Moreover his article is indicative of the Music Industries inability to recognize its true role as service providers to artists and their fans.
Simply put, the role of the emerging music industry is to find innovative ways to connect music to the local and global community. Like the rest of us, you are becoming a service worker.
Artists and The Industry
There has never been a symbiotic relationship between those that work in the music industry and musicians who write, record, and perform the music. There are a thousand stories of famous and unknown musicians who have been shafted by promoters, booking agents, and labels. On the flip side, musicians have never been a very reliable bunch, especially when they are propped up as heroes. The music industry has spent the past generation creating idols out of a group of often mediocre musicians because of their perceived “marketability”. We’ve gone so far as to create reality shows that intentionally create Idols instead of giving musicians what they really need, an ability to make a living wage.
Pollacks argument groups musicians and labels in the same boat, which is a mistake. As a musician who ran a record label for ten years, I learned that record labels are basically third rate loan companies that operate in the same ethical world as a backwoods used car dealership. Throughout my 25 years as a professional performing musician it has become clear that the music industry has been one of the dirtiest, least ethical industries that exist. In a classic Industry argument, Pollock writes:
“If it sounds like I’m taking sides with the artists and the labels… I am. Those who take creative and financial risks deserve the rewards.”
This statement would make sense if artists actually received the rewards. Even at the height of the CD industry in the late 1990’s only 8% of major label artists saw a royalty from their album. At the time the prevailing major label approach was to throw recording money at ten bands, watch to see which one hit, and then dump the other nine.
Making A Living The Old Fashioned Way
Working musicians make a living today the same way we always have - gigging, teaching, studio work, church gigs, doing sound, and playing on the street. The difference is that today, we have access to affordable tools that put the power in our own hands. Social networking for building an audience, project studios for recording, Chinese Telecaster guitars for $300 that sound pretty freaking good.
I remember when we started our record label we spent $2000 to have our website built, and then $40/month to have it updated. Now I hire a designer friend to get it started and then update it myself FROM MY PHONE!
Time is Tough
Few musicians will argue that the early 2000’s were rough. I started a record label the year Napster hit, that was ugly. But live gig rates slipped as well, well before downloading took its toll. My dad was getting paid $75 a gig in the late 1970’s, many local musicians work for less today. It is my belief that we have been contributing to the demise of the record industry through 30 years of corrupt industry practices as well as a generation of poor music education in schools and at home. Downloading didn’t kill the industry, we killed it ourselves distorting the role and meaning of music and then exporting that garbage to the rest of the world.
The way forward
Most people focus on gigging & touring as the major way a musician makes a living. We tend to think that the only game for a musician is to tour your ass off for 10 years and hope to get signed by someone of influence. But the truth is touring musicians make up a small proportion of the working musicians out there. Most working musicians make a living teaching, doing studio work, writing books, and playing in and around their community. If you are a mono-directional touring musician, once you break over the age of 35 you better have something other than a touring schedule in your books or you are in for a lonely ride.
And for people who are not musicians and want to work in the “Music Industry”, you need to do what people have always done, be innovative and create services and opportunities that are helpful to the artist and their fans. Artists make them dance, you sell them a cloth to wipe their face and a trinket to take home.
This is a service industry, that’s what we do and what we have always done, serve.
Ben Senterfit is a musician and music educator who occasionally writes about music. He live in The Hudson Valley, NY where he runs the Community Music Space and a Production company/label called Cuebro