The state of the industry

How will musicians make money in the 21st century?

Author’s note: What follows might be read as a pretty neggie outlook on the music industry. SORRY! There are up weeks and down ones with these things, and although this might not be my take this week, it is my take some of the time and represents my negative attitude fairly well. Anyhow, read in the sunshine with a nice caipirinha, a smiling baby, and a golden retriever and you should be just fine.

Ok. This ones a toughie cause it gets a bit personal with me and myself and my friends and my money. Here’s the deal – the music industry is either in a state of renewal or maybe in fluctuation or maybe just a wreck. It could also be somewhere in between those somewhere, but let’s just say it is changing. The Internet has done wonders for allowing artists to disseminate music on their own, without the help of stodgy, money-grubbing labels, and it has also done catastrophic damage to the actual hustle and flow of real live dollars – dollars that do things like pay rent and bills and shit. Before I beat around the bush too much I’ll get to the point: Often I sit and wonder how the hell will musicians make money in the United States in the upcoming century?

Back to beating the bush. Traditionally musicians have made money a handful of ways…

1. live performance
2. selling records
3. commission/grants

Now, I would like for anyone to look me in the eye and say that there is a bright future for any of the above.

BUT BUT BUT BUT before we get too dark, let’s look at some positives, some beacons of hope. Musicians have always figured it out, right? I mean people are still playing music today for money and shit right? Things have come up in the past , the dawn of the recording industry comes to mind, and it’s always worked out right?

Here’s a data point – just a data point. Although it was a wonderful thing, the dawn of the recording age caused a sea of change in the industry that we have yet to quite grok. To assume that there has been stability and just recently that boat has been rocked is just plain incorrect. Bands used to be big, and songs used to be long. The “classical’ musical craft was celebrated, and sight singing was taught to young children. Thousands more musicians were employed by Hollywood. Live music venues around the country were significantly more existent, regional music scenes were financially viable, and there were hundreds of 17+ piece big bands touring the country. This isn’t currently happening.

Our musical values have shifted, our aesthetic preferences have changed, and the constant shift between complexity and primitivism that has marked the entire aesthetic history of mankind has been readily apparent. Certainly, things like the Depression, and lots of wars, and maybe even the explosion of rock and roll have had an effect on things, but the point is that the amount of musicians getting paid those real dollars, the ones that pay bills, is decreasing mightily. Until relatively recently, the decrease seems to have been slight. The symptom that has been the appearance of DJ’s instead of live bands is a blip on the screen that is masked by the fabulous contributions to society that DJ culture has given us. But that symptom has blossomed into a full blown congregation of machines that have taken away jobs left and right from folks that play the instruments that those machines imitate.

Most recently of course is the ever present issue of downloading. Downloading blah blah blah. Let me say this: I am on a small independent label. This is what a label executive said to me about downloading: “Seven years ago I could sell 10,000 of your CD’s. Now I can sell maybe 1500.” Let me tell you where this hits people. It hits people when they need their car repaired or when they need to pay their Internet bill. It hits people when musicians decide that they might just need to take that nine to five.

When I was growing up I worked at restaurant that my best friend’s dad owned. Outside of work he was and still is the nicest man ever and a mentor and model to me for my life. During work however, he was the meanest, bitchiest dude you have ever seen. It hasn’t been until recently that I’ve come to appreciate the full-blown paranoia that quickly comes with owning your own business. It’s been the case for every entrepreneurial boss I have ever had, and I have watched it grow in myself as I run my own bands, teach my own lessons, and essentially employ myself entirely. That’s to say that my doomsday attitude must be taken with many grains of salt. However, watching the last vestiges of the framework that has housed the careers of two thousand years of musicians crumble in the last 10 has not helped my growing sense of over protection.

I see my job over here at RVANews as a documenter of the very unique and thoroughly special musical environment that I have found myself apart of here in Richmond. If anyone has read a handful of things I’ve written it is very obvious that there are a group of folks I talk a lot about. Not because we’re “boys” and in a display of regional nepotism I’m handing out press quotes and articles to my friends. It is because there are a group of individual musicians as well as bands here that I believe are as wonderful as anywhere in the world. In the past I’ve spoken in their favor, and currently I am speaking in their defense. I can personally see in individual’s lives where the crumbling economical structure is affecting bills being paid and careers from flourishing. Truly, my fear is that my best friends, some of the best musicians I’ve ever seen will have to stop doing what they love and something that makes our world more livable because we have let progress boil us like frogs in water.

Fortunately, in the course of human events there have been unforeseen solutions to problems, economic, social, etc., that have arisen from far outside the gaze of squawky fortune tellers like me. This is fantastic news because currently there seems to be, in short, a dwindling economy for a group of craftsmen that are near and dear to my heart. Go see live music, don’t get pissed when you have to pay a cover, and maybe try and do the unthinkable and buy some music occasionally. Try not to play for free, promote your shows, and create an economy for yourself and for your city.

*This article is mostly about those that wish to play music for a real living. Like a living that can pay for health insurance, and maybe buy a house, and help raise kids, etc.

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Matthew E. White

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