This Business of Music
In Sunday’s Chicago Tribune, Mark Caro offers a terrific analysis of today’s music business that has artists and labels scrambling to tap into on-line sources of income. Far too often, these sources offer a pittance, calling into question whether artists can continue to create albums and make a living.
That the big labels screwed up and screwed up big in the late 90s when they fought tooth and nail the reality of the Internet goes without saying (and it’s eerily similar to the ongoing battles between Time Warner and local network affiliates – will cable even exist ten years from now?), but it’s doubtful that anyone could have predicted that online streaming would become the primary way people listen to music.
The very idea of owning one’s music is becoming anachronistic. Sure, there continues to be a “vinyl revival,” with LP sales increasing almost 6-fold since 2007 (a trend that couldn’t make me happier), but on the whole album sales have reached historic lows, and digital albums aren’t exactly booming either, growing a measly 1.9% in the second quarter of 2013, and possibly declining this quarter.
Which leaves streaming: YouTube. Pandora. Spotify. iHeartRadio. Slacker. SomaFM. For now, these services aren’t providing musicians with the income that physical sales offer. Rates vary, but according the article, one would need to listen to a song 200 times for an artist to earn $1 on Pandora vs. earning, say, a dollar with a few sales on iTunes. The argument goes that once these streaming services grow, they’ll be able to pay more to artists (as Spotify has in Sweden), but that remains to be seen.
(for a positively fascinating breakdown of how one artist makes money, check out Zoe Keating's self-reported income as a musician)
More likely, to me, is that music is simply going to become disposable, worth nothing or close to nothing. In David Byrne’s terrific book, How Music Works, the former Talking Head’s member remarks how music, in a way, has come full circle. Over a hundred years ago, the only time people enjoyed music was while it was being played. There was no “owning” music. You heard it at a performance, and then it disappeared. At the time, recorded music was something to be feared. John Philips Sousa warned us against recorded music, saying that it would not only devalue live performance, but impede the yearning to master an instrument:
The child becomes indifferent to practice, for when music can be heard in the homes without the labor of study and close application, and without the slow process of acquiring a technique,…the tide of amateurism cannot but recede, until there will be left only the mechanical device and the professional executant…
Today, both of Sousa’s concerns appear to have been mollified. Virtuosos are alive and well in every conceivable genre at every possible instrument. And live performance is the one thing keeping musicians fed and audiences interested. Performing used to be an artist’s cash cow, a necessary ingredient to spur physical sales. Today, when access to musical recordings is ubiquitous, live performing is what’s keeping music fresh, immediate and inspiring, and audiences are willing to shell out serious cash to experience it.
In David Byrne's book, he devotes a chapter to revealing the budgets and income of two of his recent recordings. It's enlightening, but ultimately not indicative of the average musician, since Byrne is still benefitting from the music business's past paradigm. Things have shifted, and independent artists today aren't reeping the benefits of the 1970s business model.
Perhaps one day the vinyl revival will really kick it into gear, and life will return to the glorious past yet again, whereby people gather in front of a turntable and take turns listening to the latest releases. But in the meantime, an artist's bread and butter appears to be performing. And perhaps that's the way it should have been all along.