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Music isn't Falling (But The Industry Is Failing)

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 While the article is well intentioned, Pollacks argument is outdated and fundamentally flawed.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

Reader Comments (3)

The average working musician got paid more in the 1970s, so did the average stone mason. Maybe in both cases it's because of a flood of people willing to do the work for less or because the public doesn't demand the same depth of craft & skill as they once did. To call it a tragedy would be an overstatement, but to call it true would just be accurate.

I think one of the problems there has always been & always will be with music & money is how collaborative the process is. Everyone feels like they are the backbone making the money actually come in. The promo people feel under paid. The booking agent feels underpaid. The label feels under paid for their financial risk. The band feels like they should get 100% of the revenue. The bass player feels like he's as important as the frontman. It develops an us versus them (& even worse, me versus them) attitude that helps foster the idea that musicians (& all people working in the music industry) are spoiled & self-indulgent & undeserving of being paid.

Brian Eno said a while ago that people who were able to make a living off of music in the past 50 years were lucky to be born when they were because it's a hiccup in history. I don't want him to be right, but he well may be.

September 24 | Registered CommenterBrian John Mitchell

Well, amen to the dirty, unethical stuff - that's the music biz. Not as bad as the arms industry, though (although some record companies had a finger in both pies...)

But this idea that there is a kind of vein of musical essence that has been corrupted smells wrong.

Mainly, this site deals with pop music in all its vastly different genres. Pop music has always been as much about personality and looks and presentation as it has been about the music itself. If you don't accept this and take it into account wen you try to work out what's going on then you will always end up in the wrong place.

The reason why there is still an 'industry' exploiting pop music is because it's hard to assault the media with images and ethos without some major money. PR costs. Supporting a band and crew while they tour costs. Some artists find a way around the costs, some artists sleep on floors and pull stunts, but to present anything that doesn't look like an alcoholic busker who happened on to the stage, consistently, takes financial commitment and a certain amount of infrastructure.

The idea that 'this is a service industry' might be true of elements but the egos involved in the hands on parts (A&R/management/agent/stage management/production) are there because this other stuff can sometimes, and needs to, be artistic, too. Presenting pop music well (like, say Chas Chandler did with Jimi hendrix) can make the difference between a talented artist being noticed or ignored.

X Factor and Pop Idol etc are strokes of genius waiting for some brilliant pop music. If you can fault the producer's taste in music and clothes you can't fault their ability to fire up millions of people with excitement. That's part of it.

Believe me, if Miles Davis hadn't worn suits that matched his music, if Jack Kerouac hadn't eulogised the hooded eyes and buddha presence of Charlie Parker, these technically and artistically brilliant musicians would probably have occupied a foot note in some jazz history tome.

Style. Presentation. Production. Image. PR. They are all part of this industry, too. The rare experts at this are the kind of people I would want and hope any artist could end up working with and they deserve respect.

September 24 | Registered CommenterTim London

All Good thoughts. The point of this article was not to lash out as a disgruntled musician at the corrupted industry, (though I've been guilty of that perspective from time to time) but to point out that we are all beholden to those that buy, listen, and love music.

This IS a service industry and when we forget that we create masterful idiots like Axl Rose and Ashley Simpson. Technology and marketing has made it possible to prop up mediocrity and sell it as genius, that doesn't make it a good idea.

If we upped the bar and actually educated young people to speak the language of music, they wouldn't stand for the crap we are shoveling down their throats.

Pop music is not going to disappear, neither are all of the talented people that work hard behind the scene to polish the product and get it out. My hope it that we can keep some integrity in our work so we don't end up polishing a overstuffed, million dollar turd.

September 29 | Registered CommenterBen Senterfit

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