News flash: Musicians are poor.

from theroot.com

If you’re a musician, then it probably didn’t take a journalistic investigation to come to the conclusion that musicians are poor.  Not only are most musicians poor, but the ones who aren’t poor are actually poorer than you think they are.  That’s the gist of this article I just read at The Root, but like most LDS musicians, this is information that I definitely already knew.

Attaching yourself or your band to the corporate structure of a record label has historically had its advantages:  promotions, studios, tour management, image, marketing, etc., but all those things come at a price.  When it all boils down to it, the average musician in the band makes about $23.40 for every $1000 of music sold.  Of course, money isn’t the only problem with this sort of arrangement.  Record labels are notoriously wary of music that ventures out of the box at all, or goes against an already money-making formula.  Many artists who are signed to labels soon disconnect from the lives that inspired their music, often resulting in the dreaded Sophomore Syndrome.

Sure, the top 0.001% of musicians make a lot of money.  Paul McCartney’s net worth has been valued at around £387,012,000.  Madonna has been valued at around $110,000,000.  Kurt Cobain just might have made more money dead last year than you’ll ever make in your life.  But these are the exceptions, not the rule.  Telling your parents that you want to be a rock star when you grow up is like saying, “Daddy, I want to win the lottery when I grow up.”  In fact, statistically, your chances might be worse in music than they are with the lottery.  Combine this with high gas prices and an economic downturn, and you have a dire situation for those who want to go on tour.  Now sprinkle in the fact that musicians are selling fewer and fewer albums these days, and a public that seems decreasingly interested in local live music.  It’s looking pretty dire, isn’t it?

In the words of Jeff Zentner in a recent interview he did with us, “a lot of people don’t realize how big a musician has to be before they make enough money to even quit the day job.” The cruel circular joke is, in order to get that big, a band usually has to quit their jobs and hit the road on tour.  It only makes sense then that many Mormon parents are frightened when their children want to grow up to be rock stars, to say nothing about the lascivious lifestyles of many touring musicians.  Mormon teenagers are encouraged to grow up, cut their hair, and get a job that will support a wife and kids.  There are good reasons for this, of course, but on the other hand, this leads to many of our best and brightest musicians leaving the fold and becoming lost, and ending up as 50-year-old burnouts with more regrets than records.  Is there a better way?  A way that we can be true to our musical souls without selling our spiritual ones?  Are all our musicians doomed to either leave the Church and go on tour, or spend the rest of their lives only playing hymns for Elders Quorum and Relief Society?

May I make a few points that might be of some assistance to those of you who with existential struggles between your art and the stability of a family life.

1) Technology is changing the way music is recorded. Fifteen years ago, in order to make a decent enough demo to put in your press kits, a band had to buy studio time, usually around $30-40 an hour at least, then get it mixed and mastered.  Putting out a full album could easily take $10,000, without even including the cost of guitars, basses, drums, and amplifiers.  If a band wanted to record the album themselves, and build their own studio, they could easily double that number.  Breaking even was rare, and that’s why so many artists made the deal with the devil (aka record labels) to try and mitigate their losses.  Now, home recording software continues to decline in price.  Many Linescratchers are able to learn how to mix and engineer their own recordings using home equipment and get a pretty decent sound.  The only real cost is getting the whole thing mastered.  Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean the recording studio is a thing of the past.  Mixing and engineering can turn into a nightmare for those who aren’t technically inclined, and even tech geeks find that it’s sometimes better to rely on a professional engineer for the the technical side of things, to free up more of your creative energy for the music itself.  However, Linescratchers all over the world are finding it easier and easier to record their own music on limited resources.

2) The Internet is changing the way music is promoted and distributed. Napster changed everything in this regard.  The record labels are like the mighty dinosaurs:  big, lumbering, and imposing, with a little tinge of feeling entitled to the world.  However, the dinosaurs gave way to a smaller, more efficient, and more numerous creature:  mammals.  Okay, that was a dumb metaphor.  The point is, there may not necessarily be another band like the Beatles that can command a majority of the young public market in the English-speaking world, but there are now riches in niches.  If Epic Viking Folk-Metal is a money-making genre that is making money online, enough to even have concerts, then pretty much any genre has a chance at finding its place online.  Unfortunately, this has led to about three bazillion horrible Myspace bands online with 45 friends.  So finding an audience is still a difficult venture, and it still requires a fair amount of talent to attract people who might be interested in your music, but the key nowadays seems to be to find your audience.  More on this below.

3) Let’s face it – touring sucks. Sure, as teenagers we all thought of “the road” as this glamorous, ideal life, with a cold rock for a pillow and a guitar in your hands, playing for drinks (Coca-Cola) and change all across the country.  It’s undeniable that the people that speak the most highly of going on tour are those who have never done it.  It’s a terribly inefficient way of making fans, it means lots of sleep deprivation and starvation, and, perhaps worst of all, bands that go on tour for years end up becoming completely disconnected from their lives before they were in a band.  There’s a reason The Beatles completely gave up touring when they realized they didn’t have to.  Now this doesn’t mean that live shows are dead.  Absolutely not.  There is a beauty, elegance, and intimacy in watching your favorite bands play live shows.  However, I’m not convinced that losing hundreds of dollars on tours opening for B-grade acts to crowds of a dozen or less is the future of music.  There must be a better, more efficient, less expensive way for bands to play live shows.  I don’t know what it is yet, but local shows organized by groups like the Feel Good Music Coalition seem like they’re headed in the right direction.  What do you think?

4) The ease of home recording and online distribution has led to artists who don’t have to quit their day jobs, and don’t have to compromise their artistic integrity. This is the main conclusion I think we can take from all of this.  The last half of the 20th century might have meant the death of the village musician, replacing him with international billionaire pop sensations, but I think that the 21st century will be the time for the village musician to return.  In this case, the “villages” are online communities with shared interests, like Linescratchers.  The average musician of the 21st century won’t expect to make enough money to buy Swaziland, but they can expect to find an audience who are sympathetic to their sound, as long as they have the talent to back it up.

So don’t despair, my musical friends, and don’t feel like you need to leave the Church to find something that may not even exist out there.  Succeeding in the music of the future will probably require far more humility than the music of the past.  It means you may not make a living with your music, or buy a private jet, or a mansion in Beverly Hills.  You may not be playing for a stadium full of thousands of screaming people.  But perhaps this means that music might just return more to its pure, primal roots, as an end instead of a means to an end.  As I said before, the trick is to find your village or villages.  Find your community.  May I suggest Linescratchers as one example.

News flash: Musicians are poor.

14 thoughts on “News flash: Musicians are poor.

  1. Hey, Robert Fripp compared the record industry to dinosaurs back in 1980, so you’re in good company with your metaphor.

    This has a lot to do with what I’ve been thinking of lately and what I’d like to write about and I look forward to seeing a conversation develop.

    I’d better look into this Epic Viking Folk-Metal thing . . .

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  2. Great article!

    Being a member of the band Canoe I can agree that it’s nearly impossible to make a living with music these days. In our band, we’re all married, some have kids, and we’re all in school earning degrees in vastly different fields. We’re geologists, anthropologists, pre-meds, and web developers. Music is who we are, but our professions are what we do. It’s an important distinction to make.

    Creating music should be a labor of love – a pure, honest plea to the universe. The instant that fame and money crawl into the picture that’s the instant the music looses its honesty and becomes a drab excuse for art.

    Our credo in Canoe is a line from Rainer Maria Rilke, “A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity.” Each artist needs to define their necessity. If your necessity is money, then you need to get in with Black Eyed Peas or Eminem (because that’s where the only money is). But if creating meaningful art is your necessity, then be wise and don’t put all your eggs into one basket – especially if you have a family to support.

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  3. Thanks for your comment Matt. As you could probably tell from my review of your album The Goldminer, I definitely think that Canoe has not needed to compromise their musical quality in any way.

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  4. It’s exciting also to see how people can send tracks to each other over long distances and build up finished recordings that way. In fact there’s a band called The Postal Service (http://www.postalservicemusic.net/) that takes its name from that process.

    I think Matt’s right (And I love seeing people quote Rilke!): removing music or creativity from money-making tends to purify it in a very real way. Even so, if more and more people express themselves creatively with little or no money reward, it will make it harder for anyone to make any money from selling their music or writing. I know some are worried about a general lowering of quality in literature as fewer are able to afford having writing be their sole occupation and source of income, and more and more people are presuming to write fiction (sniff!). I’m sure there are plenty who feel the same about music.

    But these newer trends seem more in keeping with eternal principles to me. It makes more moral sense to me to ask for money in compensation for services of performance or distribution than for being the creator of something.

    An enduring challenge I see is for lone musicians who want to express themselves on an instrument but might not feel that their best role is that of singer/songwriter. It’s easier to express yourself if you feel comfortable writing complete songs, are good with several instruments, and have some recording equipment. I’m looking at this especially from a drummer’s perspective, but for all I know, there are flute and French horn players out there that find themselves in a situation similar to mine.

    It would be wonderful to see a lot of such musicians use Linescratchers to form collaborations, even if over long distances. It could result in some interesting, um, combinations, round out the sound of a solo performer’s compositions, and give a lot more people a chance to use their talents in a fulfilling way.

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  5. Jake says:

    I LOVED this article. I remember when we got our music on iTunes for the first time, a pal of mine assumed I was just raking in the dough. Despite the more direct line from consumer to producer (unsigned), I realized quite early that just because something is on the internet doesn’t necessarily mean that people will buy it.

    I also really liked what you had to say about the LDS musician. The church is very music oriented. I would love to see some stats on piano players per capita. Our culture dictates that playing music is good but making it your life and not just part of your church service is a different story. Music is a powerful tool in worship, just as it is in life as a whole.

    Anyway, awesome post, thank you.

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  6. You’re welcome Jake! You’re right, music is encouraged in the Church, but I think the Church as a whole is still very suspicious of popular music in general. This is why basically every other Christian church in the country has at least one youth praise band that plays at the church on Wednesday nights or whatever, but we don’t. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Believe it or not, I distinctly recognize the difference between reverent music and non-reverent music, and I cringe even when somebody brings a guitar into the chapel.

    But maybe it would be worthwhile to set aside a time to play other kinds of music, like they do at Portland with the 5th Friday Open Mic. Hey, it could happen.

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  7. Niki says:

    Good points, also by Matt,
    but then,..the next important question becomes: what OTHER “professions” these musicians need to do (or find out), if they’re really 100% passionate & are willing to pour ALL their life into Music?
    Sometimes I do wonder if musicians like your band members, ie: doing geologists, anthropologists, pre-meds, and web developers (ie: “what you DO, not what you are”) does really ENJOY/love your non-music jobs/careers? or it’s just a thing that every musician need to *force* him/herself into doing?
    but how ‘ironic’ that would become,..don’t u think?

    I know that we’re probably going back to that “village musician” type, but then I often wonder what else are the things/jobs that these village musicians could DO, other than music?
    and not least important question is also: HOW to be able to find out for the OTHER ‘money-making’ passion, other than the 100% Love of Music & being a musician?

    If you or any musician here can share any insights on this one, I would be really glad & appreciate it so much. As I’m now 28 yrs old, and also still struggling in this Music .versus. Reality (money) dilemma/issue,..while my mind is constantly 100% filled with Music (compositions ideas, music parts arrangement ideas, etc) & really *nothing* else!

    thank you!

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  8. In my case, I finally found a profession that I liked almost as much as music (and writing). But it took a while. It wasn’t until after I got married that I finally decided on a more practical (though not much more lucrative) career path.

    We recently read a book in our house called _The War of Art_ by Stephen Pressfield that encourages the reader to get serious about creative work. It was tremendously motivating, and yet, it is still written by a guy who seems to get his sole income from writing. Sure, he went through his time of paying dues, but that’s much easier when you’re not supporting a family . . .

    I have an idea: if more people want to comment on this, why not open a thread over on the forum?

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  9. Niki,

    I’ve always found it to be a dangerous thing to pour 100% of yourself into anything, especially with music. That may sound dramatic, but I think it has some merit. For instance: I had a friend who once said, “When I make it big and don’t have to worry about making ends meet, then I’ll be able to write some really meaningful songs and make better art.” I couldn’t disagree more with him. Creating good art requires a wellspring of memories, a pool of sorrow, and ocean of struggle. In a sense, art is a response to adversity. Painting perfection upon corruption, and sowing wildflowers in desert places.

    I feel that I have a 100% passion for music, but I divide it up into sections, each designed to support the gestalt of my existence. I love music so much, and want to write, record, perform and listen to it all day. Because I have this drive it has led me into paths that I otherwise wouldn’t have entered. My band once needed a website, so I learned how to program and design to support my music. We needed recording, so I learned audio engineering. We needed videos, so I learned videography and editing. We needed promotional photos, so I learned photography.

    These days I make my living in web development, I co-own a professional recording studio, and I’m studying photography in school! Without music I may not have found these other strengths that have led me to my current occupation.

    Love for music should be like holding an ink pen to paper. At first it’s just a dot, but it soon spreads through the fibers of the paper to grow in size. Let music take you to places you may have never gone, and you’ll find a way to be financially stable while keeping your integrity as an artist.

    -Matt

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  10. John q frontman says:

    Obviously this was written by one of the MANY mediocre musicians who most likely belongs to some “scene”. Usually in the 25-40 age range when ideals have gone out the window to have a family/status quo existence. It is these kinds of musicians that can only rehearse the standard 1-2x a week that make me cringe. No vision or drive as it has been sucked out by the money men. I have done tours in Europe and America and it does suck, but at the same time it is amazing every night when you get on that stage and the people feel something above the local yokels who are half assing it.
    Something kicks in you that makes all the bullshit worth it. I got hooked on godamn Benzos cause I could not sleep in Europe, it was so hard. That doesn’t mean you rock any less. It is part of sacrifice for the greater of something. Bunch of girly men on here making me puke. This goes out to all you guys letting society and your women/wives put your balls in a jar. And I got some high quality advice for you. JUST QUIT!!!!!!!!!!!! Stop letting your self doubting, failure,anti risk, mentality intervene with us rare, serious, and dedicated folk that take this shit to the grave with us. Call me a martyr,dramatic, d bag (or whatever the fuck else) if you will, but it is much easier with you all out of the picture to find higher quality musicians that want to live it. There is no shame in quitting, but there IS shame in being that dead weight because u cannot commit to ONE project or endeavor and being a music whore with no loyalty to one project. Doing this music shit is no different than a marriage. It takes work and commitment to make it happen. DEAL WITH IT!!!!!!!!!!
    Does anyone honestly think that Led Zeppelin or Hendrix or any number of still highly relevant (and highly gro$$ing) acts got where they were from being lukewarm and not dedicated. They are legends for a reason and the same reason why a 14 year old kid prefers to wear a picture of a dead legend on his shirt opposed to someone like John Fucking Mayer. The prior lived it and unfortunately musicians are lacking this one crucial element as of late. Especially in the local scenes. And this my friends is why no one makes money in the business. You gotta give to receive and when you aren’t dedicated making something the best it can be. You are not going to get a dime back. At least if you don’t have a pop sound/image. If you are a pop band it is certainly easier to suck and still make some bones. There is something to be said over a well rehearsed band with vision,madness and drive in their eyes. Dylan said it and so will I.

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