Music is a business. It hurts just to say it. This is a hard truth, for those of us who love music, and who are inspired by the passion of the artists who make it. But anyone wishing to share their music with the world must be involved, in some way, with the commerce and economics of “the music business.” On top of this, music is an enormously unstable business. In the past, it at least seemed to repeat predictable cycles, but with the advent of the digital revolution, everything changed, and that cycle went off the rails. Independent artists saw the playing field begin to level, as the ability to reach masses of people quickly became available to anyone savvy enough to take advantage. Of course, this only used to mean knowing how to use email. Now there’s much more to it. Some artists have the knack for navigating the many minefields of the current DIY music biz. But they are the lucky few. Many more are discouraged, and frankly disabled, in the face of having to act as a manager, an accountant, a marketer, a fundraiser, a graphic designer, and an IT specialist. Some musicians reading this just glazed over. But with new opportunity comes new challenges. Artists can now get their music out there more easily, but how the hell can they make a living? Or even afford to make bumper stickers?
As major labels grow increasingly irrelevant for many artists, the debate still rages around alternative outlets like music streaming services, which arguably pay a pittance for the use of artists’ work. Established artists might be able to work with this system, but newer acts who may even see their music flourish online also see a miniscule financial return for it. In any case, Pandora is not going back into the box. Neither will Spotify, Rdio, eMusic, or whatever the next evolution is. The future of the business, as never before, is completely unpredictable.
There are still simple ways of getting music for free. However, those of us who are really inspired by the music, who really care about continuing to hear great music, are wising up.
Music fans face a dilemma of their own. Artists are gaining more digital control over their work, but the smash-and-grab days of music consumption are not over yet. There are still simple ways of getting music for free. However, those of us who are really inspired by the music, who really care about continuing to hear great music, are wising up. We know that we can’t shoplift from the store en masse and expect the store to stay open. This is the artist’s living.
Imagine an average, independent rock band. Let’s call them The Cat Wranglers. They’re a good band, made some waves in their hometown, released an EP and a full-length and are now in the middle of making their second record. Here is what it costs them, conservatively:
They’ve been doing well with their gear, so we won’t rack up those costs, but one of their amps is broken now, and the bass guitar was always crap anyway. There goes around $1,500, because they want the record to sound good and they need to up their live game, too.
The Cat Wranglers live just outside the city to keep expenses down, but it’s not like they can afford a house with a big basement (and no neighbors), so they still have to pay for rehearsal space. They share a small space with two other bands in the city for $200 a month. They’ve decided to do a lot of the recording for this new record in that space, so they picked up a couple of nice mics, headphones, and some ‘outboard’ gear to record through. Let’s say they had some of the stuff they needed already, but they still had to drop $1,500 to do it right.
These guys have already had some experience recording and know enough to realize they can’t do it all on their own. To make a professional-sounding record, they wanted to track the drums, plus some of the lead vocals and some other tracks, in a studio. Not a very fancy place, but it had really good gear and a great engineer. This time cost them about $2,000. The guitarist is a good enough engineer to handle the home recording, but The Cat Wranglers are going to have to pay for both mixing and mastering of their album. Their studio friend will mix for $200 per song and will master it for $1,000. This is going to come to $3,200.
The band wants to do a vinyl release, but has decided that’s too much money, and a digital-only release just doesn’t seem right for them, so they’re dropping $1,000 on CDs.
They’re planning the promotional push for the album now, too. The songs on this thing are they best they’ve ever done and they want it to have a chance at getting some national interest. So they’re going to hire a publicist, who will do a two-month PR campaign for $4,000.
Finally, they have to hit the road in order to make the PR campaign worthwhile, and to really make some inroads outside of their hometown. They’re going to do two weeks, plus a couple of long weekends, and with gas, food, and a few strategically booked motels for four people, offset by the total $800 they expect to earn, The Cat Wranglers are coming home from that tour at least $3,500 poorer.
All told, this record is costing the band nearly $17,000. And they did it on the cheap.
As fans, we all want to see our favorite artists succeed; yet we know that, unless there are literally millions of us who want to support The Cat Wranglers, music sales might not be the ticket to prosperity for them. And some younger fans have literally never known a world in which paying for music is what you have to do to get it. Yet they are the most passionate fans. They trade ticket and t-shirt sales for their unauthorized downloads. They share the files, but bring friends to the shows.
But to condemn this behavior is to buy into the broken music business model. This generation is unknowingly pioneering a new music economy, one in which albums and tracks are not the product. Instead, the art, in all its forms, is the product. Artists can in fact create a cottage industry around themselves and their music. In contrast with microfinancing platforms like Kickstarter, fans won’t have to pony up for a project, and artists won’t have to meet a funding goal. Music fans will simply be dedicating some small amount toward the art they enjoy. They will truly be patrons of an artist’s career. The artist can put those funds toward the costs of creation, as well as toward the business aspect of promoting and managing their career. In return, the fan can enjoy the creative output they helped enable. The fan becomes part of the process, and part of the artistic experience.