A Brief History of Artists’ Control of Their Product by Jonathan Segel

by Jonathan Segel
(re-posted by permission, copyright in the author)

I would like to start out by saying that I am writing in a completely subjective voice—this is opinion!— with annotation from other similar voices. This isn’t an academic paper, but I will try to cite others ideas – hoping that I can remember where they came from!

I’m writing here about the current situation that musicians find themselves in with respect to economic and the ability to sustain any sort of career as a musician. There are, of course, numerous ways in which people who are musicians can make money or have a career doing such. The ones that interest me are the type that are based in the creative process of composing or performing one’s own music, including making recordings thereof. I am not so interested presently in discussing the economics of performing other people’s compositions (as classical musicians do, as jazz “standards” players do for, for instance, hotel lounges, nor as cover or wedding bands do), but I would like to touch on this briefly later. I am mostly interested in how a composer or writer can make a living, and in this variety of musician I do include all live improvisers and performers of their own music.

It seems that historically, composers have had about a 200 year stretch of time in which they were able to control their own economy, based on a salable item that was a representation of the music. Of course, one cannot sell the music itself, it exists in real time: “when you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone in the air, you can never capture it again” as Eric Dolphy said. Prior to around 1800, professional composers in general relied on either a royal or church patronage to pay them for composing. It is unlikely that prior to, say, 1400, composers were kept alive by the royalty to write music—with the exception of perhaps court jesters or griots as part of a royal entourage. However, with the age of reason and the restructuring of many governments, opportunities opened up for the composers to be in control of the licensing of their works themselves. While Mozart wanted freedom from his employer (the Archbishop Colleredo) to be able to receive performance fees, when he was finally “fired” in 1781, though his fame continued to spread, he only made money when he himself was performing, despite writing some of his greatest pieces in this time (and most musically intense, apparently difficult for audience and players), so he went back to a part time gig from a royal employer, Joseph II in 1786. Despite this, he never made enough money to get out of debt, even with rich admirers pledging yearly amounts. It is thought that he made *some* money from the sales of sheet music that he had written for Joseph II, but nobody knows the exact deal. He died, in debt, in 1791.

A landmark in this history is available to us in the form of a receipt from Ludwig Van Beethoven in 1805, where he is promising several piano pieces to be written for a London based publisher for an advance of 5 pounds. I say this is a landmark, as this is the first instance I have heard of where a composer is directly selling representations of their compositions (in the form of sheet music) and doing so in advance of their having been written!

To run through this quickly, the 19th century managed to upgrade composers’  abilities to market a product themselves (or with the aid of agents and management, that is to say, not necessarily with the aid of royal patronage) by means of selling scores of their works for people to play at home or in concerts, or by performing or conducting their own pieces. A side effect of this in the art music world meant that large scale pieces were simpler and more crowd-pleasing, while the pieces performed in small salons were the ones that were more adventurous in terms of developing the musical language.

The 19th century also gave us industrialism and thus a population moving toward urbanization. By the late 1880s people had developed an analog means for reproducing actual sound waves, it didn’t take long for this to become commercialized. The commercialization of recording music produced vast changes in the musical horizons of most people in the western world, and had major effects on the music itself. By the start of the 20th century there were three major differences: 1) composers and performers could sell their recordings (to record companies, of course, if not directly to listeners), 2) people in general could have music anywhere they had the device to play back a recording, and 3) the technology of recording limited the length and dynamic range of the music being recorded.

The music that became popular initially was loud and short, in general. Prior to World War I, many brass band pieces were produced on recorded media, and many of these were military style, which had two lasting cultural effects: 1) some sort of militarism and patriotism was common in urban environments enabling the US to easily conscript people for war when the US joined the World War fray, and 2) John Philip Sousa himself demanded payment for being the composer of the pieces on the recordings, and being so important a patriot he actually petitioned congress to enact laws regarding “royalty payments” to composers for recorded media.

Here begins the great story of recorded media. It goes through many changes over the course of the century, wax cylinders, 78rpm shellac records, 33 and 45rpm vinyl records, tape, multitrack tape, cassette tape, digital tape, compact discs, and finally the digital information freed from the physical media and stored and passed back and forth between peoples’ hard drives.

So. Let’s talk then about the value exchange. What is the value that is being translated into a monetary currency here, when composers sell music? Since a person can’t actually “own” music itself, I understand that the value is in the hearing of it. Music, indeed art in general, has an intrinsic value that gives an audience some form of pleasure or meaning when it is being heard or viewed. The performer of music can sometimes charge people money to hear them play. The composer of music had more limited options, unless they themselves performed it, until the rise of physical media, which gave them a physical object that could serve as the currency for the value exchange (albeit additionally laden with the ideas of mechanical and artistic royalties to enable this.) I would like to point out as well that with the development of the recording arts themselves, a huge compositional aspect to recorded music came to exist within the recording itself, perhaps more akin to sculpting sound. The final product, the “sculpture” would then be the final mastered version of the piece.

So here is where our current problem arises. When the recorded piece of music is made, the information is now able to be digitized and copied with no degradation from the source media (from a compact disc—a vinyl record can be copied when played, but as it is played it plays an analog representation of the piece, and a copy is degraded by another generation.) Of course, when a digitized file is made, it can be copied into other digital file formats that may degrade the original (e.g. MP3 or AAC+ file formats, which purposefully lose some of the information.) Regardless, the inherent value of a piece of music is in the listening, and that value does not disappear.

Adherents of what we now call “Media Piracy” claim that “Copying is not theft. Stealing a thing leaves one less left. Copying it makes one thing more”. What is happening here seems to be a willful ignorance that the inherent value is still there, not being paid for in the distribution of additional copies. These same individuals would certainly make the claim that they are copying the music in order to listen to it, (though there have been studies that suggest that the hard drives of the biggest illegal downloaders are full of unviewed or unheard media!) but are refusing to admit the relevance of the social contract that says that that inherent value is what is used in the exchange rate with monetary currency. I see this as a hypocrisy: either music has no value at all, (in which case why copy it to begin with?), or it has value and the copiers are refusing to admit that it does, simply because it is a copy. There is no way that a piece of art can have value and exact copies of it cannot. There is no way that anything can both have a value and not have a value at the same time (in our physical universe.)

I also see this as the main problem with the Creative Commons licensing formula. The strictest license allows anybody to “download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.” The idea here is that there would be no economic exploitation. This, however, ignores the fact that the value is there so any copying whatsoever is in fact economic exploitation.

I think that this sort of breaking of the social contract of value exchange is becoming more and more common. However, we don’t have people breaking the social contract of paper currency’s value as often, simply because there are extremely restrictive laws regarding counterfeiting.

Similarly, paper currency (and coinage to a large extent) is really only worth the cost of the paper and part of our societal systems allow it to represent value by means of a social contract. Listening to a copy of a piece of music would be like taking somebody’s currency and then claiming that it is only paper and therefore valueless, …and then spending it!

A willing disbelief of any inherent value of anything can lead to the acceptance of the idea that a copy of a piece of art has no value (even when the same person is utilizing the cultural value of this copy.) The morality that allows this hypocrisy is one that sees such conflicts as anachronistic. Jennifer Egan’s latest novel, “A Visit from the Goon Squad” has some very funny chapters set in the near future involving children who have grown up in the current media environment who refer to this sort of moral dilemma as a form of “Atavistic Purism” (though, the use of atavism in social sciences should refer to an actual previous state and there is no morally pure previous state of society. Perhaps it should be “Atavistic Puritanism”.)

Indeed, more and more younger people becoming adults (in the legal sense) are seemingly oblivious to any morality involving copying others’ intellectual property. See, for example, this New York Times article on plagiarism. Many believe that things available on the web are fair game and “authorless”. One German teenage apparently even plagiarized most of her novel and when caught, said: “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”

Additionally, many people in the “sharing culture” believe that artists and musicians are either overpaid to begin with or are somehow untrustworthy enough to pay for what they do, or that the creative class’ output has little value to being with—all the while benefiting from this same output. See this Salon article. Or, they somehow believe that supporting intellectual property rights is somehow opposing free speech! As if supporting workers rights were somehow different.

It’s easy to see this same mindset in much of the popular music of today—a lot of it is made out of other music. I recently watched a video interview with a famous DJ, (Theo Parrish ) who claimed that he favored “artistry over convenience” in his milieu, denigrating the use of computers in favor of playing vinyl records on turntables, even going so far as to compare the “artistry” of finding old records and playing them as a DJ versus using a computer playlist to painting with oil paint and brushes versus using photoshop. I was incredibly taken aback by the narrowness of this focus, where he was willfully ignoring the basic fact of this essentially bourgeois use of the labor of others by making music from other peoples’ recordings of music! In essence a selector DJ is the very paradigm of capitalist use of the labor of others, where one is paid for their taste, the choices they have made of in others’ music being their talent. But this view of intellectual property or ownership of music is clearly not even part of the mindset of such an individual.

I would even go so far as to say: perhaps it is no longer OK to use samples of other peoples’ music to make music that you claim is your own, or represents you. This is an unpopular viewpoint, I know, and one that has been fermenting in me for a long time. I admit freely that when “sampling” started in Hip Hop in the 1980s, and was then used as parts in so many other musical genres, even so far as plunderphonics, I believed in the idea that when a sample of one music is taken from its initial context and used in an entirely different context, it bore an almost surrealist element of juxtaposition, which made, to my mind, interesting forms of semiotics, unintended meaning made by the juxtaposition of contexts.

Unfortunately, this has developed into a culture of music making where the idea of juxtaposition is no longer in use, where the context of the sample is the same context of the music it is used within. It is not only no longer interesting, it has nothing to say. When Apple made Garageband, an application that by their very advertising tagline needs “no musical talent” to make “music”, I think it basically ended the game. Yes, those loops are lacking any rights other than the one Apple sold you with the software, equivalently McDonalds is selling food with no nutritional value.

The Pirate Parties that are infiltrating government in Europe are additionally opposed to copyright, basing their argument on some economic model of “blockbuster” entertainment releases (e.g., “The Avengers” opened with a $200 million weekend, therefore after a year, it should be free,) completely ignoring the facts that 1) most artists are dependent on the “long tail”, that is to say that the project either will never recoup its investment or may make it back if sold over a great length of time, and 2) somehow it is alright for people in other professions to save money to provide for their children but when that savings is in the form of intellectual property it is somehow unreasonable.

If an author writes a book and it sells well, what argument can you possibly make that she isn’t doing it to provide for her children or grandchildren, that it should be free after the first five years in print?

The entire Pirate Party basically comes off as a bunch of self-centered teenage boys in their views on what they want and why and their severe lack of human empathy.

This is not a pretty picture of the future. If you combine these ideas with the veneration of popular idols who do nothing, (“What does a Kardashian do?” “Kardashes…?” ) we become a society that is easily manipulated by media and thus easily controlled. In western culture, even into the 1970s, people were interested in intelligent and artistic people in society. As education in America began to suffer in the Reagan era, and continued a 30 year slide toward a population of people who are convinced by the pyramid scheme of Republicanism, we have found ourselves in a society that produces more vacuous media than any other, at the expense of the minds of the audience, enabling the current generation controlling the thrust of pop culture to be willfully ignorant of any political or cultural history that came before them.

Many people think that the music industry also started its artistic decline in the 1980s even as it began an economic upswing into the 1990s. I have heard anecdotes that say that the reason was of course the wholesale introduction of organized crime who saw the 13 million copy sales of “Frampton Comes Alive” and made some quick calculations. Of course, we’ve been fed crap for years, but in the past decade, or decade and a half, a huge percentage of media made is either directly using older media (i.e. sampling, so-called, though entire pieces are lifted piece by piece) or referring older media or authors, not merely as quotation but as if a particular album or artist was a genre unto itself that newer artists could be part of. (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m tired of indie-pop bands who just discovered “Pet Sounds” and think that they can be part of it as if it were a genre.) The idea of venerating a DJ based on their expression of “who they are” is as intensely bourgeois as veneration of a king because of their choice of composer for their court dances.

Some people have written that this is simply a market demanded “supply versus demand” situation, where music is now devalued and seen as overpriced. I somehow don’t doubt that it is devalued in the minds of the consumer (why pay when we can get something for free?) but I don’t believe this changes any inherent value. I think the perceived value is lowered due to ubiquity, that is to say, music is everywhere and with the advent of personal listening devices has become almost obligatory background information. This leads to a new problem of perception of music, let alone the value of music: most people are constantly “hearing” music. How many are listening? The iPod has changed our culture, there are even sociology courses in these changes that make us “alone, together”, and we all know the “why, when I was a kid…” stories of listening to LPs and looking at the album cover in a dedicated session, something that compares to dedicated classical music audiences (those that aren’t sleeping) listening quietly and intently to the music in a small auditorium or salon. I offer this comparison to bring me back to the idea of the development of the western musical language over the course of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. “Listening” allowed a forward momentum. “Hearing” seems to have allowed a stagnancy in development. (Though in this article the author believes that people are indeed listening, and that this is an modern urban attempt to control personal space in crowded environments. I would tend to think that the intention is listening, I certainly use headphones for critical listening myself, but I still bet that for most people it’s just background music for their current endeavors.)

So, it’s 2012. We now have a culture that has been distrustful of intellectuals since before eggheads won the war with their atom bombs and cryptography, a culture gradually educated less and less, taught to worship “cool” by a media culture that sells it to us, taught to idolize the rich by the rich themselves, a culture where media necrophilia is the norm (why remake movies that were good to begin with, anyway?), where new and creative art is made less and less, where an artist cannot survive economically due to these factors combined with the lack of control of the currency exchange of their art.

Combine this with our current economic and political situation, the wars based on control of energy production and fueled by religious positions (don’t even get me started on this!) Where can this end up if not a culture that falls, as did Rome?

Ok, that’s sort of a bummer.So where can we go? Can we rebuild some sort of society that values art and music? It’s unknown. Can we ever make a way for artists and musicians to gain some sort of value for their work? This could be possible, but it will be difficult. For one thing, there is no such thing as “sustenance level capitalism”, only growth-oriented capitalism.

The pundits who claim that the internet “leveled the playing field” for musicians got just that: a level field. A whole lot of mediocrity (yay, we won the DIY revolution!) Unfortunately, the modern fan-based patronage hasn’t panned out the same way the old Royalty-based patronage did, it’s still a situation where the rich (corporations, usually) pay and everybody else listens for free—to those who get the production paid for by advertising!

For most artists it’s a case where they pay for their own production costs themselves and then a few people buy the music and everyone else listens for free. There are of course a few lottery winners in the fan-based patronage, touted as examples by tech writers in various blogs of course, but there are as many of these as actual lottery winners—and certainly those are the ones to garnish the media attention, why wouldn’t they be?

We can try to educate people, not only in the realities of being a musician/composer/artist/dancer/whatever, but also in general. I do believe that more education in general is necessary for the world at large. It can only help. I’ve been a teacher of music for several years, and while of course I am teaching musicians, I always do try to include, for example, social relevance into music history and mathematical relevance into music theory as a way to get people to think. I can see that it works, to some extent, to get students thinking around the present idea instead of trying to memorize.

Economically and technologically, I’ve heard a few decent ideas. The best of which so far seems to me to be Paul McGuiness’ article in GQ where he points out that the ISPs are the ones making the money here, and how it should not be difficult, in fact is possible, to know exactly which bits have been downloaded by whom when. It’s pretty easy. Oh no, you say, I don’t want anybody spying on me! Well, tough, it’s already happening.

If you’re on the internet, your privacy is compromised. In fact, as Jaron Lanier points out repeatedly in his excellent book “You Are Not a Gadget”, the anonymization of one’s presence on the internet has only worked out for the worst, bringing out the troll in everybody. If we all had to be ourselves publicly, we might have to back up our various statements in real life, idiotic or not.

It occurred to me recently while trying to find a decent mobile phone plan (I recently moved to Sweden) that the real winners in the entire streaming radio/cloud based collection services are your phone companies as much or more than the ISPs. Apple, Google and Amazon are all chomping at the bit to get everybody’s music collection’s uploaded, and Spotify, Pandora, MOG, etc, are all deep into mobile app development. (note: I worked for Pandora for 3 years, until April 2012, so it’s iffy what I can actually talk about w/r/t the company in a legal sense. Leave it at: we had a bad breakup.)

Recently, for example, Verizon removed the unlimited data plans, to the glee of the wall street pundits. The more you stream, the more money they will make. I know how much Pandora pays in royalties, and I know somewhat how little Spotify does (very confusing, when they have made individual deals with major labels) but as all the spreadsheets show, that means zillions of plays per before a composer earns U.S. minimum wage! As Paul McGuiness noted, it’s certainly an easy matter of digital bookkeeping to know what’s being played. Why not have the phone companies chip in with their immense data charges? I mean, they even charge people for sending SMS texts… that must cost them absolutely nothing. I’m betting the data usage is near a 1000% markup.

Other possibilities have included the more idealistic ideas presented in forums, such as caps on value for music, wherein once that cap is paid it become freely accessible (this in response to my musings that potentially value can be calculated by the number of listens to a song: if you bought a CD and listened once, would the tracks then inherently be more valuable than if listened multiple times, as each listen spreads out the cost of the CD…?) Or ultimately the idea that there will be no more professional artists or musicians and the art forms will lapse to the era of folk music or folk art.

Personally, I like recording music, manufacturing music in the studio. As long as I have a job that can keep me alive (which I do not at the moment…) I will continue to do so, regardless of the ability to “sell” the music. As a solo artist, I’ve basically been priced out of performing with a band: I can’t afford to pay other musicians nor even rehearsal time if the band isn’t popular enough to earn more than $400 for a gig, and that just doesn’t happen.

So I’ll see you on my front porch in a few years?

41 thoughts on “A Brief History of Artists’ Control of Their Product by Jonathan Segel

  1. A good article. To be honest I’ve been waiting a while for someone to put this whole debate into a historical context.

    The 70s/80s/90s were a 30 year “boom” period where the rise of mass-produced monetized artefacts like vinyl and then CD provided a real sweet spot for Artists. An unprecedented amount of people got to live the dream, tour the world and make a living from something as ephemeral as playing their own music.

    I agree completely that the “pirate” faction come off as a bunch of spoilt kids from a generation who have grown up knowing no different. It’s incredibly frustrating and almost impossible to have a sensible debate with them.

    However, it seems to me as an independent observer that the other side of the argument (as posted frequently here on Trichordist) too often appear to be a bunch of musicians approaching middle-age, aggrieved that they can no longer make a living as a musician as they did during their halcyon days/aforesaid sweet spot.

    Would anyone in the Trichordist camp dare to admit this. The sense of entitlement to be able to earn enough as a musician to do it full time, is as bogus as the pirate’s sense of entitlement to having everything for free. Both viewpoints are based on a relatively short period of time in musical history and polarised thus.

    Your history lesson is good because it paints the bigger, less biased picture. Music will not go away and there will always be a struggle for artists to earn money from their work as society, culture and technology progress. There will be peaks and troughs, it’s only natural. We’re out of a peak and in a pretty big trough right now but there are glimmers. I don’t think you give enough credit to the Kickstarter model. Are the success stories really “lottery winners”? What is a lottery about a musician connecting directly and financially with their fans online? Surely that is the purest measure of “success”. I get that thousands of people try and fail with that model, but that’s called “not having enough people who like your music enough to be willing to invest in you”. Same as it ever was – you either gots the patronage or you don’ts…

    1. Ha! Nice. Well, I’d love to admit that I can “no longer” make a living a musician, because that would imply that I had! The truth is that despite making a ton of records and being in some somewhat-respected bands, the only times in my life when I actually made a living as a musician were few and far between, about 3 or 4 years out of ~27, and two of these were paid by major labels (1988 when CVB was on Virgin and 1998-99 when I was a hired musician in Sparklehorse.) Beyond that, I had a good year in I think 2004? Anyway, I work and spend all my money on making more music. Same as always.
      As for lottery winners, unless you believe that commercial success defines the quality of the music, then most successful artists are essentially lottery winners! I certainly see more people in the crowd-sourcing world that “hit” like a youtube video hits, due to some black swan quirk of timing and societal whim more than their actual value musically – except of course those that have the money to advertise, which is a different story. I really, really feel the EPK sites that charge money so you can try for gigs or the companies that charge a fee to shotgun a bunch of their “clients” at possible licensing gigs are essentially slot machines making their money off of the eternal hope that a musician/gambler has that they will somehow make that break. It’s sort of creepy to me.

    2. To Ludwig. I’m not approaching middle age, I’m there. I don’t think I have a sense of entitlement, more a sense of injustice. I just googled my Keith Urban hit, “Your Everything” followed by “mp3 download”, and at least 8 our of the top 10 search results were infringing sites. Beemp3, the first one, had AT+T and AJ Madison banner ads on the home page. Someone is making $ from the status quo, and it’s not the creators who’s works drive traffic to these sites. I’m OK with the ‘discipline of the marketplace’ but that’s not what’s going on here. If nobody wants my songs, I’m done, end of story. But, they are everywhere on the Internet. There, it’s a black market ‘cybersomalia’ and lots of parasitic businesses like it that way. I wish there were lots of younger, prettier messengers, but the fact is, it takes some years and some real world experience to realize how your getting ripped off and by whom.

    3. So who should speak for the artists? When the record company executives speak, they are scorned that they screwed some artist along the way. When the aspiring musician speaks, they are met with derision for the non-commercial quality of their music and told they will never be successful. When the currently successful musician speaks, they are told they are greedy because they already earn enough money. When the previously successful musician speaks, they are chided for being over the hill and try to live off their earlier successes. By the time you get through neatly compartmentilizing the various people that attempt to speak up, you’ve neatly made a self-rationalization for ignoring anybody that tries to make a go of it in the music business.

      It really shouldn’t matter who is making the case, if that case is valid. Ad hominem is not suited to a discussion of the larger issues. It only serves as a distraction.

      1. Chris Rathman, you have in a nutshell identified the “learned helplessness” that some academics, the tech blogosphere, and mainstream media has nurtured every day for a decade. The psychological condition of “learned helplessness” is the basic tool of bullies–make the target feel that they have no where to escape and the best thing they can do is sit silently while the bully does his or her work. It’s possible to induce helplessness by training a mouse that whereever they jump in a cage they will get the electrical shock–and eventually the mouse stops jumping.

        This is what they want, and we can’t let them win. And guess what? They are doing the same thing with privacy that they did with copyright because it worked so well. “The Age of Privacy is Over”, right? And Facebook and Google will spend whatever it takes to make sure that’s true.

      2. You really shouldn’t get me started on privacy Jonathan uses the example of currency and the social contract to dispel the notion that copying data does not reduce value. The common argument being that it’s not theft because you still have your copy. The corollary in privacy would be: If I make a copy of your bank statement, I have not stolen anything from you. You still have your bank statement. And since I now have my own copy, I can post that on a publicly accessible network and you are no worse off because you have retained possession of your data. And there ain’t a damn thing you can do about.

        And that’s what disturbs me more than what’s going on specifically with the artists. The implicit assumption is that if someone makes a copy of your data, you no longer have control of that data… either for matters of commerce or privacy. Since the attempt is to destroy the notion of Intellectual Property, I can’t own my personal data any more than I can own a recording. Anyone can use data for anything they want with impunity once it comes into the possession of someone other than myself. If you can’t control data when money’s involved, what chance is there when the only stakes are the privacy and dignity of an individual?

        As an aside, from a historical perspective I think the closest we have in terms of a parallel in recent history was the lack of international agreements on copyright in the late nineteenth century. Eventually there will be agreements put in place to protect copyright on the internet. It just may take some time as it did back then. Hopefully we don’t have to starve all the artists before we get to that point. (dislikes those who attempt to romanticize starving the artists).

      3. I realize that the privacy theft may resonate with you (and many others) more than the IP theft, but I think you state exactly how the big tech companies have suckered the public into the mindset of accepting the status quo when the “commons” comes for their bank statements, medical records, childrens viewing preferences, and so on (remember “learned helplessness”)? I don’t know if any of us will ever know just how premeditated it was, but I think it’s pretty obvious that a generation that has devoted themselves in large numbers to robbing the life’s work of artists (or the version of otherness favored by Lessig, YCombinator and Google, “Hollywood”), may be less inclined to object when pretty much the exact same argument is run against them and, eventually, their children. This in the never-ending quest by Google especially for data with which to serve ever more expensive ads on the Internet, or, as I like to call it since I loathe advertising, Room 101.

  2. Very, well written Jonathan. I’ve been following David’s posts, daily, and have been moved by the passion of getting the musicians paid for their work.I like waking up with coffee, and a nice read, to get me motivated. I also, write music, in my humble home studio, with not enough funds, to get my drummer here, to record his parts. I purchased a Cajon, just for the time being, to get some sort of rhythm tracks going.
    I am concerned, for the future of music, and the current state, reminds me of the 60’s, when all the real America Bluesman, were exploited for their works. I can’t see a bright future yet, but am willing to do what I can, to make people aware, of how important it is, to support the artists they love, by going to shows, and buying directly from them, when possible. I am the proud owner of a few thousand CD’s. I have been recording, and taking pics, of Camper Van, and Cracker for years. Now I’m not sure if posting my Videos on Youtube is a good thing. I have stopped for the time being. My intentions were to promote the bands I love, so people would go see them play, but now I feel, with the Youtube, to MP3 sites, popping up all over, this may not really be helping.
    Good luck to you and your family, in your new home, and let me know if I can do anything to help, with this struggle.

  3. On your porch? What a great way to lower travel expenses.

    Something I think contributes to this situation is that a lot of music fans equate recognition with compensation. Because your band [played shows with_____/ got love from pitchfork/ etc], you must be making good money. You can’t survive on Good Vibes, kids. You still gotta eat.

    Good luck in Sweden. I took a group of high school kids to their embassy in DC once, and they showed us an awesome, completely trippy tourism video.

  4. I enjoyed this piece tremendously as well as Mr. Lowery’s piece to Emily White. My thoughts run in the same stream. I’m thinking the whole culture can be summed up as being caught up in this lottery mentality where we all invest huge amounts of time and money in some vague hope of becoming a winner. The economy depends on it (you purchase the tools of your intended winning trade/art and work shitty jobs because it funds that art), the political system depends on it (the distraction is essential and the hope of being one of the lucky ones helps propel the corporate/wealthy agenda). I think the issues of value and devaluation and the end of culture (high culture, not folk culture as you say) are worth further investigation. I think what you’ve done here is to take David’s essential point about value and begin to contextualize it. I believe the contextual, social issues are actually extremely telling about the state of culture and politics.

    1. The economy of the periphery of music is sincerely depending on this! Apparently musical instruments and recording gear sales are up, more people are spending their money on gear and computers and CD replication, to say nothing of musicians paying services to spew their tracks at music coordinators for film and TV, or sites like sonic bids and reverbnation (i actually have a reverbnation account still) who charge to “submit” them to possible gigs, in hopes of being “the chosen one” and being discovered and making it big.

      1. Personally, I like the idea that a partner who is telling me how much they’re going to do for me only gets paid when I get paid, i.e., the revenue share model (or distribution fee). I find it rather suspect that anyone wants me to pay them up front to cover their risk in a flat fee distribution model (or pitching or anything else) when what I am really doing is renting their distribution pipe. To me, that means that I guarantee someone else their overhead but they just became part of mine as opposed to placing the same bet on a successful outcome as I do. There’s also an argument that the owner of the distribution pipe wants to have their costs covered and is willing to waive the upside. For example, if a band pays $10x for a distribution pipe that sells tracks for $y, then recoupment of the distribution costs is at z where $10x/$y = z units. If I project selling 10z units, then I will probably always take that flat fee deal as opposed to paying a distribution fee on all z units as long as the aggregate distribution fee on z units is more than $10x. I think I will sell fewer than z units, then I will always take the percentage.

        If I’m the distributor, I will prefer to focus on the part of the tail that includes artists selling fewer than z units if I can charge them a flat fee as I will maximize my revenue. Not as sexy as superstars, true, but more profitable on lower transaction costs if nothing else (lower sales to report on, less likelihood of audits, etc.). Some might call it trading on the dreams of amateur artists, but others might say it’s just good business sense.

  5. ‎”For most artists it’s a case where they pay for their own production costs themselves and then a few people buy the music and everyone else listens for free.”

    This is exactly the position of most of my friends in bands (or filmmakers, or visual artists for that matter). I generally try to support them, buy their albums, pay $5-$10 to see them play at a club. help them carry their gear, be an extra in their movie, put out the word when they travel through town on tour. or spend a hundred or two on a painting if i can (rarely). Most of them have to have a day job, whether that day job is delivering pizza, bartending, playing cover songs at bars they wouldn’t otherwise patronize, booking shows or engineering sound at a club, or teaching lessons to the next generation of eager young rock stars. But then, I have a day job too, and I don’t mind it.

    When I had a nonprofit performance space, ASCAP tried to shake me down for a percentage of the door. it wasn’t a huge percentage, but it worked out to something like $150 per month. That was money that wasn’t going to go to the bands that were playing their own original material, but would be given instead to the top performing bands on the radio. When I pointed that out to the ASCAP representative, she helpfully explained that the bands could join ASCAP and then enter a “new band” competition that distributed something like a tenth of a percent of the overall ASCAP annual budget, while the other %99.9 went to Katy Perry and the enormous galas that ASCAP throws for top performing acts.

    This might seem slightly off the topic of piracy and rights management, but i think it’s a clear depiction of the trickle-up economics effect that happens in entertainment, just like it does with hedge funds and insurance corporations. It seems to me we have an entertainment/artistic equivalent to the 1%, where the majority of people who do spend entertainment dollars spend them in ways that they end up in the portfolios of Jay-z, Michael Jackson, Brad Pitt, Tyler Perry, James Patterson, Jerry Bruckheimer, etc. That’s the public’s right, there’s no accounting for taste, and those artists’ works are generally run through a series of financial formulas, test screenings and focus groups to ensure that they perform well, so it makes sense that they would be popular. These funds then get churned into hedge funds, branding efforts, PR flacks, political campaigns, that reinforce the imbalanced distribution models.

    With my limited entertainment budget I buy used books and records, i buy new cd’s as gifts, but mostly I buy tickets to live local shows and If i have extra, I’ll put it towards anything i can get at the merch booth. I occasionally buy digital downloads directly from artists websites. But I don’t buy new cd’s or music from iTunes for the same reason i won’t shop at walmart. I believe that form of capitalism is self-consuming. Once in a while I’ll pay more than $20 to see a bigger touring show, maybe a few times a year. and I’m usually disappointed. even if the technology is fantastic, they really put their all into the performance, etc. it typically feels so detached, impersonal, its like a trip to the mall somehow. According to Forbes magazine, the top fifteen earning dead celebrities made a combined $366 million between October 2010 and October 2011. I think that says something. If there were no more Beatles, no more U2s, no more Celine Dions and no more Eagles, I would not mourn. In fact i would think that the local and independent bands that i do currently and earnestly support would then be in a better position to develop some modest and sustainable success from a wider public audience.

    I’d also like to put in something about my friend from denmark who receives financial support from the government for touring and recording, and how a socialist model might really better support artists and creativity than growth based capitalism. Oh, and how a dismissal of the DIY music scene as inherently mediocre is a pretty reactionary and outmoded apprehension of the creative process. but i dunno how to fit all of that in.

    thanks for the interesting read, though!

    1. I completely agree with you that the distribution of money in the arts is a reflection of the distribution in the US as a whole, i.e., 1% have the bulk and where there was a thriving middle class, what is happening is that this middle sphere is all becoming essentially poor. I think this is a reflection on the culture at large, a representation of how the money flows. Record companies/advertisers had already stopped being “patrons of the arts” years ago, and were dropping acts that didn’t reap incredible benefits rather than hosting multiple acts that brought smaller incomes (as if selling, say 10-50k units was not worth it!) With this sort of presence in the music marketplace, the public is presented with these 1% over and over until they accept them as valid (ever listen to middle of the dial radio in the US? it’s icky, to say the least.)
      This same situation makes it much more difficult to navigate the remaining 99% of the music, let alone finding what you want! Am I being reactionary in saying that a great deal of it is mediocre? We’ve basically mixed all of the DIY at all levels of expertise up in a huge muddle now. I haven’t been listening to new music for a couple months (since I left Pandora) but for the past few years was certainly hearing an AWFUL (so to speak) lot of music that was either played, written or produced badly (I also had been one of the people listening to independent submissions!). Even popular bands in SF can’t play well, in my opinion, and I was getting really tired of hearing so much “form over function”, that is to say, bands that thought that, for example, they could emulate the reverb and echo and be cool and psych, while the songs sucked, they could barely play or sing. Yes, ok then, I’m being reactionary. I just prefer some musical talent.
      As for the socialist model, I will personally see! I live in Sweden now. It’s a small country, but seems to produce a disproportionate amount of good music for the world, partially due to their educational system actually teaching people. I have registered as a “culture worker”. We’ll see if I can get work, or if the small pond doesn’t want any more fish!

      1. Oh, and regarding ASCAP/BMI and their sample-list technique of payouts, man, I could rage at this for a full evening of pints. They’ve been doing this forever. (remember college radio in the 80s? they took one playlist a month!)
        When BMI sends me their “magazine” about the rich 1% it drives me nuts. Do you know that they pay more to the high spins? Like when a song plays it gets $0.09 on radio til it hits a million then it gets an additional half cent or something! The rich get more, the poor get less.
        Oh, and streaming radio (Pandora, etc) pay “a percentage of their monthly net” to BMI/ASCAP… anybody know what that number is? I read a newspaper article say it was 5%, I don’t know if it’s true or not, it’s millions, and while radio (mostly automated anyway) and certainly streaming web radio know *exactly* which songs played when and how many times, BMI and ASCAP STILL use their sampled playlist technique, while SoundExchange is getting accurate figures from the same stations!
        I saw it work out well for one indie artist once: they wrote to find out why the discrepancy between SoundExchange and ASCAP, and I researched it to find that SoundExchange had it correctly (900 plays) while ASCAP had sampled some specific day and had them for 400, 000!

  6. at ludwig. can you show me where i said that i think artists are entitled to a living? because I don’t agree with that statement either? I find it strange i would make such a statement. I need to correct it if i did. I do think if artists choose to sell their music, and you want their music you should pay for it. It’s part of the social contract of being decent human beings. Also if others want to profit from exploiting artists work, they should 1) have consent of the artist. 2) they should share profits with the artist.

    I believe we agree. yet you are arguing with me. in the van we call that a “dumb off”. conversely if we think we are agreeing yet we are saying different things that is usually called a “sub-genius moment”. both usually occur while drunk.

    1. David,

      Your line “…part of the social contract of being decent human beings” intrigues me. I would very much like to have you as a guest on our TV/internet show that is geared in part towards evolving this very conversation. The show’s home is Charlottesville but we can come to you.

      My comment on this post of Mr. Segel’s speaks to my complementary perspective on the Opportunities available to aspiring musicians in an evolving world.

      It would be great to hear from you! Thanks for your consideration.

      Best of Now, always,

      Greg Allen Morgoglione

  7. Interestingly the one seemingly obvious option that no one seems to even be aware of is for musicians to first practice the desired values, and then preach them to others. I speak of fairness, and being treated equally and with respect and such. Allowing morality and ethics to come into play. Rights.

    I spent more than a decade asking musicians to Look Again at audience thru the lens of Equality and Fairness that they cry out for; to be the change they sing of seeing in their world.

    In the office of the non-profit I founded is a donated Baldwin piano, autographed by Billy Joel to support this vision of Making Music More Accessible. And a custom painted washboard autographed by Dolly Parton to support us.

    But you know what’s missing? Musicians who simply want to play music without judgment. Musicians creative enough to find a way to play music for attentive, appreciative enthusiastic audiences – regardless of how they look or where they live.

    What’s missing are musicians willing to practice Audience Inclusion.

    Musicians who understand that, as Dr. Karl Paulnack said, we have nothing to sell. We do not dispense products. Musicians who understand that we are healers. If the world is going to be “fixed up”, it will be we – the showmen/shaman – who initiate the process.

    Musicians who understand the nature of Soul Currency – that it is what we truly work for, and that it can be transformed into anything we need. This is what’s missing.

    And musicians who respond to the current reality of an aging population with increasing disabilities; an economy where wealth is concentrating into fewer hands. Musicians who see the Opportunity in the non-profit structure. Here Now. We’re missing them too.

    “Musicians who see that when we point our fingers cause our plan fell thru we got three more fingers pointing back at you”, to quote Mark Knopfler.

    I could go on and on, but no one seems to be listening…

    1. Hi, I’m not sure what you mean exactly by “practicing audience inclusion”? I assume you don’t mean literally breaking the “4th wall” and including the audience in your show…
      I think almost all performing musicians at salon-to-nightclub levels can’t help but include their audience at a show, they’re in your face, and the feedback loop between the audience and performer is very visceral.

      1. Greetings Jonathan,

        When I began asking musicians in our area to be more inclusive of potential audience in our community I quickly learned that most musicians have a strong aversion to performing for seniors, disabled folks, in hospitals, and etc.

        “Audience Inclusion” is the fashion that I have chosen to address the issue of audience discrimination by musicians.

        I’m not asking anyone to switch careers. I am asking musicians to be the change they sing of seeing in their world.

        And so, over the course of almost two decades of building this effort I have been supported by the likes of REM/Athens, Billy Joel, and Dolly Parton. Musicians such as David Wilcox, Paul Rishell & Annie Raines, Dave Crossland, Slaid Cleaves and others who travel the country and the globe have stopped by a senior home to do a 45 minute show before they played the traditional venue that night in Charlottesville.

        And so we have this piano and this washboard and we could use them to raise money and create paid performance opportunities for musicians. We could radically affect our world.

        But I cannot do it by myself – the fundraising. My dream is to build an organization of musicians for musicians… I’ve got the “for musicians” part pretty well set up. Now I need the “of”…

        Thanks for reading my note Jonathan and asking for clarification.

        Best of Now, always,

        Greg Allen Morgoglione

      2. Jonathan,

        Perhaps this is a good time to share this link to a speech given by Dr. Karl Paulnack, Director of the Music Division at Boston Conservatory.

        In it he speaks at length about the most important concert he ever played in his life – at a nursing home. He talks about the presence and importance of music in the concentration camps of WWII, and after the attacks of September 11th. He talks about how music works, and how artists are the hope for the world, if there is a hope at all.

        Anyway, his story of the nursing home is a story of Audience Inclusion, among other things.



      3. http://www.bostonconservatory.edu/music/karl-paulnack-welcome-address


        Perhaps this is a good time to share this link to a speech given by Dr. Karl Paulnack, Director of the Music Division at Boston Conservatory.

        In it he speaks at length about the most important concert he ever played in his life – at a nursing home. He talks about the presence and importance of music in the concentration camps of WWII, and after the attacks of September 11th. He talks about how music works, and how artists are the hope for the world, if there is a hope at all.

        Anyway, his story of the nursing home is a story of Audience Inclusion, among other things.



      4. I think Greg Allen Morgoglione’s statement, which I at least partially agree with, is that true musicians are compelled to create and share, regardless of the financial outcome of their “work”, and that we should be OK with that. I put work in quotes intentionally to hopefully initiate or rekindle an internal discussion with ourselves as creative individuals.

        I personally believe that music should be free to experience.

        When all is said and done, what is the difference between listening to a purchased album alone through headphones, and listening to it on loudspeakers in a room full of people? Should all of those people have to pay something for the music on the album since they are also experiencing it? You certainly can’t un-hear it.

        I’m a musician, and I always will be, and I will also always expect to LOSE money making it, regardless of its quality. That doesn’t bother me, and in some weird, idealistic world, it won’t bother anyone someday…. you could say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…….. please pay Mr. Lennon his royalties for that quote, as I’m sure the melody is now stuck in your head. 😉

  8. Dear Johnathan;
    I’m sorry…your article is a bunch of hogwash, the parts of it that aren’t obvious to everyone. Let’s go back into history for a moment:
    We start with the composer…who, it was very quickly realized by someone not driven by art but by commerce…could benefit from someone looking after his business affairs. Enter the Agent/Manager/Publisher, and that started the food chain that continues thru today…with record companies, ASCAP/BMI, Telecom companies, Apple Computer…you name it.

    None of these entities ever wrote or performed 4 bars of music in their life (or would know what a downbeat is)…but all of them are heavily invested in raking in the revenue stream that rightly belongs to the creator. At the instant that the publisher was created and signed his first deal with Ludwig van…the next pay period, Ludwig got a short count. “Well, that Sonata, you know, the one about Moonlight or something…we sold some in Vienna but we had a lot of returns from Paris….the French felt it didn’t go well with the Beaujolais…”.

    That’s how it works, that’s how it always worked, that’s how it’s always going to work.

    Today, technology has given the creator an entirely new and profound method of not relying on people who, at heart, are thieves. And you are bitching that the same technology allows people access to one’s music without payment, while the SAME technology allows you complete, total control over that music, how you sell it, market it, promote it, etc. There is a short 2 part answer to this…

    Part One: Make great music. Make music that is so profoundly great that lots of people “steal” it and turn their friends onto it…because some of those people WILL pay for it and instead of making 12 cents a record, you can make (and keep) 5 or 6 dollars a record. I was on Youtube the other day and saw that Leonard Cohen had over 5 million hits on one song. You think he might have sold 100,000 CD’s based on that? Do the math…figure what a record company would have paid him if they were running the show.

    Part Two: If you are REALLY worried about online piracy, release your music on Vinyl. Only make music with such great audio fidelity that there is a noticeable difference…because people will pay for that difference. Anyone who presses Vinyl in this country (and probably the world, but I don’t know for sure), that person has their pressing plant working 24/7 and simply can’t keep up with the demand. So there is a whole industry happening under the radar while the “Music biz” talking heads bitch about file-sharing. Place the blame for this squarely where it really lies…with record companies that were so greedy that they could not refrain from trying to sell us the same music on many different formats…Vinyl, Cassette, 8-Track tape, CD, MP3, the list is long and they will keep doing it, or trying to do it because they are not people who give a rat’s ass about music…so they devalue it, and teach the public to do the same.

    The real problem is that most “artists” want it both ways. They want to “create” while someone else does the sales and the very hard work of promotion. Attention artists – your “talent” does not give you a free pass anymore. You now have to do the hard work yourself in order to make a living from your music…and it’s a lot of hours…and it’s tedious…and most people want to play in the garage and drink beers with their friends.

    And while we’re at it, maybe someone can explain to me why a patent on a life-saving cancer drug is good for only 17 years, but Mickey Mouse (and all of that Tin Pan Alley catalog) isn’t in Public Domain…but that’s a whole other conversation…

    1. Uh-huh. Yup. Yes, it’s awful that artists don’t want to have to also be marketeers. Yes, it’s the fault of their product. Yup, no composer ever really valued the development of their art over making money from it. Yup.
      I don’t really think it’s worth it for me to respond to your points one by one, as it’s all hogwash on my part, but I think you are very out of touch with human culture.
      And why a drug patent is a different time period than a copyright? I think the words “life-saving” should pretty much explain that, though I certainly can’t defend the extensions given to big business owners of copyright.

      1. By the way, Johnathan…you are the one who seems to be out of touch with Human Nature…I have no idea what “Human Culture” really is anyway…the human race has many cultures, all with somewhat different values. But Human Nature? That can be summed up in about 4 words…”I’m gonna get mine”. If you are a composer and you are afraid of getting ripped off…you have a choice…don’t compose. If you are compelled to make music (most of us are built that way), make music for the reason that you love to do it. Van Gogh didn’t sell one painting while he was alive…it didn’t stop him.

    2. Well, before you get into that conversation about Drugs and Mickey Mouse. One is covered by patent law. The other by copyright law. They are totally different subjects. It’s equivalent to asking the question: “Why does Trademark have no expiration but patents and copyright do?”

    3. Actually, if someone wanted to be in promotion, they would be a promoter. If someone wanted to have palletes of CDs in their living room, they would have been a distributor. Artists become artists because they are artists. If an artist wanted to be a distributor they would have. There’s nothing diva-ish about the division of labor. And that, too, will always be true. (In fact–what is Amanda Palmer doing with the funds she raised through Kickstarter? She’s making her record, but she’s also able to hire people to market, distribute, promote, etc. Those functions are called a record label.) And the only reason that Amanda Palmer will make big bucks on a per-unit basis is because (a) someone already invested in making her famous long before she found Kickstarter (which is the real job of a record company, frankly), and (b) she was given money she doesn’t have to pay back to make and as importantly to market her record.

      There is not good data on the ability to convert social media or YouTube views into sales, but anecdotally, most marketers I know say that the conversion ratio is similar to direct mail–about 1%. That’s not the artist’s “fault”, it’s actually not anyone’s fault it’s the nature of the channel at least at the moment. NPD has data that shows that terrestrial broadcast radio is still the biggest factor by a huge amount in converting introductions into sales. Pandora is a close second. Social (and I include YouTube in that) is, if I remember, 2nd from the bottom with about a 2% or so penetration. The social media consultants don’t want you to think about these statistics too much, but unless you’re prepared to spend Target-level money on a marketing campaign (which even the major labels don’t do or don’t do anymore), it’s very hard to mine social media.

      So your exmaple of big views on YouTube converting into sales is just not borne out by the data as yet. The example of big views on YouTube for someone who is already famous–and Leonard Cohen was famous as an author before he ever made a record back in the 1970s so both Cohen and his publishers and labels have all made that marketing investment–is of questionable repeatability in my view. Maybe there will be data that proves the point one day, but not yet. And yes an artist will in theory gross more on a per unit basis if they don’t have to pay a record company or if they get Amanda Palmer-style free money, but they will still have marketing expenses that the artist has to front in the form of risk capital. And if there were ever very many artists who had that risk capital, especially new artists who have not had the kind of prior investment in fame enjoyed by Leonard Cohen, Amanda Palmer, etc., my sense is that there are far, far fewer of them today.

      1. Thanks, Chris, for bringing in some facts. Mr Berger’s arguments just made me tired. I’m very tired of America’s “personal responsibility” Rand-style activists. Being part of the human race demands social responsibility and integration of individual talents (yes, I know that sounds vaguely Marxist, sorry.)

        The statements like “that’s how it works, that’s how it always worked” make me wonder if you actually read the article. I was describing a relatively short period in western history, and regarding only what we consider to be “very popular” music. Other musicians and composers lived and made livings during this time. You can read this stuff yourself, it’s in books! (Do we trust books?) I suggest a really interesting book by Jaques Attali from 1985 (I wish he would update it!) who is a French economist and was cultural minister or advisor called “Noise: a political economy of music.” Very interesting.

        Mr Berger, also please read Chris Castle’s response above to Chris Rathman regarding learned helplessness in these sorts of arguments. (I’d like to point out that this is very ingrained in our culture from infancy – the “cry-it-out” method trains children that no help will come from an early age!)

    4. Richard – Jonathan and Chris have responded to the general tenor of your argument, so I won’t rehash that. Clearly, you’ve never worked in any business, because pretty much every business relies on other people to help them do what they do. (Just because you are a good plumber, it doesn’t mean you have the time or ability to be a good accountant or manager or advertiser, which is why you hire people to do those jobs.) The internet may make certain aspects of business easier, but it doesn’t mean that is easier for one person to perform all those aspects.

      Your specific points (1 & 2) are also based on false premises. Making great music doesn’t guarantee anything if no one ever hears it. (And if, as you suggest, a musician should also be recording engineer, distributor, promoter, booking agent, graphic designer, accountant, etc., there isn’t a whole lot of time left over for making great music, particularly if one also has a day job.) Anyone can get their music on iTunes now, but without promotion, which requires labor and money, no one will every be able to distinguish it from the thousands of other unknown records being released. Furthermore, you completely ignore the ethical component of the argument by assuming that it’s quite alright to illegally download the work of other people because, you assume, some tiny percentage may decide to pay for it which will totally make up for the money that wasn’t made on the other 95%.

      Secondly, releasing something on vinyl will delay file-sharing by very little; anyone can hook up their turntable to their computer and have FLAC files online within the hour. You should also be aware that the record industry had nothing to do with the development of the MP3, and no one ever forced anyone to buy any recording in more than one format, or any format, for that matter.

  9. well we will see, if the good folks are willing to help those looking for salutions, instead of policing and blogging about it, there are ways to deal with this, but we’re just going about it the wrong way. just because you may not copy anything…. doesn’t mean your not sharing anything, the majority of the time a artist/content creator gets any cred for their work, is when they see it, and acknowledge how it was used and either except it or reject it. most are flattered, others are not, they want to know was a profit made, most are pleased to see there work getting attention it goes on and on. question is will you support ideas that will help facilitate, “fair use” across the board, and not just patent troll?

  10. Actually, I read everything. It just all sounds like whining. I’ve been in the business a very long time. Some of the hats I’ve worn over the years have been: Arranger, Orchestrator, Pianist, Music Director, Recording Engineer, Studio Owner…I could go on, but what for. I’ve scored about 15 movies, supervised soundtracks…Produced new artists and tried to open the eyes/ears of A & R people who wouldn’t know a hit or a great sounding band if it bit them in the ass. Music is the one business that belies the paradigm that the movie business attracts the worst people in the world…because in the music business, you get the same kind of people with the proviso that they needn’t even be literate because they don’t actually have to read a script.

    I love music. I love it so much that being in the business almost ruined it for me.

    If I have everything wrong about the state of the current business today, possibly one of you oh-so-very-smart people can explain to me why some musicians are doing better than they ever did when they were at a record label? Some people are making more money, with less stress, more control, more artistic integrity than they ever knew from the old business model.

    The very first record deal I ever signed (in the 60’s – I’m dating myself), I sat across from some suits who told me, “You know, you really shouldn’t expect to make money from record sales…it’s mainly a promotional tool to support your tour.” They were broken-nose crooks, but they weren’t completely wrong…The contract I signed didn’t let me make a dime from the label, but I did make money on the road.

    Cut to 2012 and I’m not sure what’s changed….

    Right now, the pipeline isn’t really big enough for people to QUICKLY download high fidelity music…so yes, you can grab FLAC’s, but it’s kind of annoying that it takes so long. And you, PJ are basically saying the same as me…no one is forcing anyone to do anything anymore…so if you are intent on stealing music, you can do it…but you know what? A lot of people are kind of honest. They recognize that the artist put a lot of time and effort into what they did and will give their financial support in some way. Maybe not exactly the way you may want, but more than anything, the music business is an endurance contest…you have to stick around long enough for people to get to know you…and most people pack it in way before that happens….because what they REALLY want is quick fame.

    As far as Mr. Castle…he’s painting me with the wrong brush…I’m far from a Randite, but I do recognize (having been in business so very many years) that the real bottom line is that one needs to run at a profit in order to survive. That really comes down to one individual doing whatever needs to be done in order to keep the business going. So if you have the luxury of hiring someone to do your marketing and promotion, great…if not, YOU need to get on the phone and start making the calls yourself. And just by the way…if you as an artist have someone doing that stuff for you…and you don’t understand every aspect of their job…the odds that you will get ripped off by those people you hired just went WAY up.

    So, I don’t know how the business will play out in the next years…the best outcome would be a number of artist collectives that will share marketing and promo, sales and distribution, manufacture and licensing…but my gut tells me that there are too many huge egos involved for that to work. What is more likely is that more people will make less money in some aspect of the music business. The pie will be bigger, but there will be more mouths at the table…because one thing that is definitely lacking is the “gatekeeper”…and what that evil record label DID do was to keep the riff-raff out. You had to have some talent to get in the door. That’s no longer the case. In our new world of self-esteem and political correctness, everyone is equal when it comes to touting how great you are…the real difference comes from stuff like those YouTube hits…where people vote by showing their interest…right this minute, we’re trying to figure out how to monetize that, and right…it isn’t perfect, and people are still learning those ropes…guess what…My money is on those people who are working on those things right now, because in my very humble opinion, the future belongs to them.

    1. Hi,
      I get where you’re coming from, but that makes me not understand exactly why you think this article is whining…? I’m sort of outlining a period in history that has apparently run its course, and yes it’s not awesome, but there may be ways we can move away from the current situation. I see what you are saying by “human nature”, but I disagree that this is the human imperative. I have travelled in so-called “communist” countries (both soviet and not) and seen the extant that that human condition simply does not tolerate their neighbor to have more than them, and it breeds incredible black markets. The whole “gonna get mine” mentality isn’t necessarily human nature, it’s a product of paucity and poor conditions. As it is in an arts market where there is less and less money for fewer and fewer people.

      “Human Nature” is actually more than this, it includes the ability to actually use our forebrains to see a better world and find a way out of messes like this, but this requires education and open minds; like parachutes, as Frank Zappa said, open to function correctly. Human Culture, which I mostly was writing about, is an ever expanding spiral of our art, science, knowledge and ventures, it builds on itself (hence a spiral, i’m not trying to be new-age here) and refers to itself unless wiped out so that it has to start over.

      To get to a pot/kettle/black point here, your experience sounds depressing and somewhat more whining than the article. Have you read Mr Lowery’s posts here, for example the New Boss/Old Boss article? Record companies/gatekeepers weren’t all that bad an idea, nor as bad as made out by the current freehadists in their argument that taking artists have it better now. True, again to go back to Mr Zappa, they started a decline when the A&R men grew ponytails, i.e. thought they could predetermine what was cool and salable rather than just throwing a bunch of records at the wall of listeners to see what stuck. Not to be a major label apologist, but as i pointed out earlier, I only really ever made a living when paid by majors, only ever lost money running my own label. I’m betting most recording studios can say the same!
      As far as making money on record sales, that’s just math… how much spent on recording, marketing, etc, (tour support?), versus number needed to recoup for the company or musician’s outlay before net. I suppose you could have asked the mobsters what the break point actually was! For me on a personal level, I spend more recording than I could ever recoup by sales to my 100 or so fans, and don’t know how to effectively market or publicize beyond them. That ain’t stopping me, it’s the reason I have worked as a teacher or for Pandora or a bookstore or whatever, so that I can continue. I don’t believe that the market need be a capitalist “growth oriented” one despite the idea that that is exactly what exists in our current market economy. I’m more into a sustenance level market economy, if people could stay alive and healthy by doing what work they do. (insert humorous anecdote about 70s black power pseudo maoists driving cadillacs and wearing expensive clothes because “the people should be able to drive cadillacs and wear expensive clothes!”)

      One last note: your assessment of the music business attracting the worst people in the world is summed up in that Hunter S Thompson quote about it, the Long Plastic Hallway. Camper wrote a song about that.

    2. I don’t think we disagree at all, the business of hits, especially the first hit, has always been a marathon not a sprint. The worst thing that ever happened to record companies was becoming (through IPO or acquisition) a public company. Public companies are inherently the wrong structure for a record company that is a developer of talent. Atlantic, A&M, Bearsville, Island, Motown, Stax, none of these companies would ever have become the brands they were if anyone had cared about their quarter, which became their month, which became their week–OVER how many artists did we break this year? How are we going to get the best performance out of star x, or how are we going to get that tour for new artist y? That to me is the real problem with record companies, not this perjorative myth of the “fat cat middleman”. The tech piracy boom just compounds and amplifies that problem.

      If Proctor & Gamble launched 200 new brands a year, spent a fixed amount of money on marketing each and lost interest if the brand didn’t find an audience in 6 weeks, does anyone think that P&G would be successful? It’s not irresponsible to throw the P/L out the window for new artists, it’s probably irresponsible not to. A major label finance officer once said to me with a straight face that he made his marketing people allocate their resource to the top 10 weekly sellers. I asked him how the bottom 10 sellers got to be in the top 10? Luck? Begging? Busking? What? No answer.

      And while I recognize the interest in counting views on YouTube, the A&R who I respected the most, the John Hammond types, were never the guys chasing the trends. They were signing the best they could find and took on the responsibility of making it happen. The first time I ever called John Hammond he answered his own phone. Tells you something.

      1. Oh, IPOs are also the bane of being a cool streaming radio/internet company… (is that breaking my severance contract by saying that?)

  11. OK…call it what you will. I think it’s just going over old ground. We all know what happened in the digital age…the question, as you both seem to be saying, is…”How can we make a living from our music?” In my opinion, it’s a whole lot harder now, and it’s a lot more work, and I’ve known musicians all my life…90% of them (you guys can pick your own number) are lazy. Maybe 98%…Almost everyone in this business of composing/writing/playing is trying to just their music to a level where someone can come in, take it over, give them a bunch of money, produce the record, wipe their asses for them when they go on the road, do their bookkeeping…sure, not EVERYONE is that way…

    Where are the John Hammonds, the Ahmet Erteguns of today? They are just about non-existent as far as I can see. Things move much faster…Acts are dropped pretty quick if they don’t catch on. If an act wants to slowly build from a local following to national…the odds are that no one will invest any money in them until they have that national following. Is this bad for music? Absolutely. What it implies is that the act must do it for themselves, and that takes time, and effort, and sacrifice that goes way, way beyond the ordinary…in fact, way beyond the extraordinary…

    Back in the bad old days, if you were lucky enough to be offered a record deal, you were basically assured of getting screwed. The ONE saving grace of it was that suddenly you were playing in the major leagues…and that meant something. You had access to the best studios, the best producers, sidemen, songwriters…that label that just screwed you was serious about you becoming a success because that meant that they made your money. It is very different today…artists are far more attuned to the nuances of publishing deals, 360 deals…even their college buddies who want to manage the band…no one wants to give up anything, and even if you wait for a label deal, you’ve seen a ton of bands get left by the roadside because those labels (that used to employ MUSIC people) are now run by people who are clueless in terms of how to market and promote.

    Frank Zappa, by the way, knew how to do everyone’s job better than they did…he made sure that he owned his own masters, he made sure he controlled his own product…even after he’s dead, his estate (which I guess are his kids and his wife) has made a deal with a watermarking company so if you download his music, you get a nice letter in the mail asking you to pay “X” dollars for the download. It isn’t a lot of money and people respond to it in a way that I believe that a threat could not generate. Frank knew how to promote, market, publish…the only guy that ever got up on him was his first manger (Herb Cohen – his brother Mutt was my attorney until he died – another story…) and Frank learned from that experience and that’s why he was a success on his own terms…

    Unlike you guys (or maybe not…this is kind of a confusing thread), I think that it’s OK for music to go through a weeding-out process…get rid of the no-talents and slackers, and let the worker bees have the future. In my first post I mentioned the idea of artists collectives, and I think that’s the way to go…except for that whole ego thing…but the concept is sound and you are right about that Johnathan…people can cooperate when it suits them, but i still believe that at heart, the vast majority of us are greedy bastards…

    1. I do think that some weeding out process happens and should happen, and that’s sort of my point about the “level field”… but to say that those that hustle are or should be the winners means you end up having only music by hustlers! I doubt that will provide the “cream rises to the top” so much as “shit floats” outcome!
      In my experience playing and talking with musicians over the past 30+ years, I wouldn’t say at all that the majority are greedy bastards, in fact quite the opposite. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of society as a whole, I imagine.

      1. Yes, Jonathan, it probably cannot be said of society as a whole, but it definitely cannot be said of the venture capital firms that put money into business models they know are based on misuse or outright theft of other peoples property be it personal information or copyrights.

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