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The Future of Music Coalition Looks to the Past to Understand How Musicians Make Money [Part I, Interview]

Whether or not you’re a musician, over the past ten years or so there have been incredible shifts in the music industry.  It wasn’t very long ago that you probably didn’t buy your music over the Internet, or have the ability to listen to any song you wanted to hear with a couple touches of the button, or if you were a musician have an incredible range of tools to promote and record yourself that weren’t ridiculously expensive.  All these changes have been welcomed thus giving greater opportunities to musicians and their fans alike to create and consume music.

While it seems these opportunities are being taken advantage of, how do we know these opportunities are leading musicians to a fruitful life of creating and living off of their art?  In music circles, we often hear about the “middle class musician” and how much easier it is to be a musician today than it was 15 or more years ago.  Yet, most of the evidence backing these claims in anecdotal and does not give a complete picture to the changing landscape in the music industry.

The Future of Music Coalition (FMC), a Washington, DC based non-profit organization, providing information and tools to musicians on issues directly affecting them at the intersection of music, technology, policy and law, just may be able to answer these big questions.  The Artist Revenue Streams (ARS) project at FMC is an ambitious effort to survey individuals who derive the majority of their income from music.  The survey seeks to pinpoint the different types of income different musicians can derive their earnings from (FMC has identified 29 types of music income) as well as how ones income has changed in the last ten years.  The survey was implemented this September and concludes this Friday, October 28th.

Kristin Thompson of The Future of Music Coalition is the Co-Manager of The ARS project and took the time to speak with Thinking Aloud about the survey and why it’s critical musician’s be a part of their effort.

Thinking Aloud: What is the back story on how this survey came into development?

Kristen Thompson: Back in 2009, we published a blog post on the Future of Music Coalition site called The 29 Streams.  It was our first attempt to itemize all the possible revenue streams for US-based musicians and composers.  But this blog post was just the tip of an iceberg.

Since our inception, FMC’s mission has been to ensure that musicians are fairly compensated for their work. With ten years of technological development, 2010 seemed like the right time to ask the question: what percentage of musicians income comes from each possible revenue source? Has the ratio changed over time and, if so, why?

The Money from Music survey is one component of a multi-method research project called Artist Revenue Streams (ARS) that we started in fall 2010 to examine if and how musicians’ revenue streams are changing.  Surveys, in general, are a good way to collect data from a wide range of people but, for our purposes, we knew that just one method wouldn’t be sufficient in addressing the complexity of the question at hand. That’s why we have also been doing in-person interviews with a small but diverse set of musicians and composers, as well as financial case studies.  Through the interview process, we’ve gathered rich information from about 70 different full-time musicians, from Grammy winning Nashville songwriters to hard rock bands that play 200 shows a year.

When we report findings, we will be drawing on all three sources of data to tell the story.

Thinking Aloud: Why do this survey now? What makes it significant for the music industry?

Kristin Thompson: Clearly, there have been profound changes in the music landscape in the past ten years.  There are now a multitude of new platforms and services that make it possible for music fans to discover and purchase music, and it’s increasingly easy for musicians to have a presence in these online outlets.

While I think it’s fair to say that musicians’ access to the marketplace has improved in the past ten years, there has been no systematic attempt to understand if and how artists ability to generate revenue based on their creative work has changed in this new environment.

There are a lot of assumptions made, like “bands don’t sell records any more”, or “bands make all their money touring”.  There are two big problems with this.

First, it lumps all musicians into the “touring band” category.  What about the songwriter who doesn’t tour or play live? What about the
orchestral player who doesn’t compose? They are clearly part of the musical landscape, but they’re completely left out of the conversation. What’s their life like now?

Second, and more obvious, the assumptions are largely based on anecdotes and singular instances. Perhaps this is very true for some segments of the US musician community, but we are sorely lacking empirical evidence to verify or disprove anything.

In order to truly understand how musicians are earning a living based on their compositions, performances, recordings or brand, we needed to really dive in and do this work. Which is why we started the Artist Revenue Streams project.

Another point on the question of “why now?” I think we’ve reached a point of maturation in the marketplace. There’s been just enough time that we’re able to ask questions about money from iTunes sales, or YouTube plays, or SoundExchange royalties and have it make sense for most musicians. It’s been ten years since the iPod arrived. Now that we have some perspective on the changes, we can start to measure the change.

Thinking Aloud: What can you tell a musician about the importance of doing this survey if they are uncomfortable about providing music revenue and other data or don’t feel like filling it out?

Kristin Thompson: We know that answering questions about money is a sensitive topic…for all of us! But we’ve put a number of safeguards in place to make our participants feel comfortable.

First, participation is voluntary and anonymous. We don’t collect names, emails, or any other identifying information in the survey itself. If you
want to be entered to win the iPad 2s or the gift certificates, you’re redirected to a different data set that’s not connected at all with your
survey responses.

Second, the vast majority of the questions on the survey involve percents, ratios and reasons for change, not hard numbers.

Third, all the data will be aggregated with the answers from thousands of other musicians, so we’re not looking at specific submissions to tell the

Thinking Aloud: So, I have taken the survey and noticed after some initial questions, there are actually three separate surveys to complete–long, medium, and short versions.  What is the reason for this and how does it affect the results we will eventually see?

Kristin Thompson: We provide survey takers with three paths — essentially a short, medium, and long path that are about 10, 20 and 30 minutes. We built it this way to make it possible for as many musicians and composers to complete it. We know that musicians have different amounts of time to give, and different levels of knowledge about their revenue streams. By building it this way, the busy musician can spend 10 minutes and provide us with topline data. But the musician or composer who has a complex income picture, or who plays many roles, can spend 30 minutes and really dig into detailed questions about their participation in a range of revenue streams.

Once the survey closes, we plan to develop a demographic snapshot of those who chose particular paths to perhaps understand why they took certain paths, which may be an interesting data point of its own! But the questions on the medium and long path are identical — the only difference is the number of questions a survey taker is presented with. So the data should be compatible.

Part II of Thinking Aloud’s interview with Kristin Thompson of The Future of Music Coalition’s ARS project focuses on what happens after the survey is finished will be up shortly. You can take FMC’s Artist Revenue Stream survey HERE.

Thinking Aloud thanks The Future of Music Coalition and Kristin Thompson for their time in doing this interview.

Brian Franke is a Washington, DC based folk rock singer/songwriter who writes the Thinking Aloud blog.

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