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.