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.

  • error

    Report an error

Matthew E. White

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. Justin on said:

    Don’t forget (4) merch! Where can I buy a Fight The Big Bull all-over-print T-shirt?!

  2. mattwhite on said:

    dude. im on it. also, I forgot some other things like radio airplay and publishing I realized. my b

  3. Radio airplay? Ha! That type of thing doesn’t happen anymore…

  4. mattwhite on said:

    i know. thats probably why i forgot it.

  5. It’s a very complex issue. So complicated that most musicians try not to deal with it in favor of actually creating music, only to then not be able to pay ANY bills. We just have to find new ways to deal with the same old problems…and about 42 new problems!

  6. Oh yeah, it’s also probably incredibly important to point out how music documentaries are completely over-simplifying the success of the people they cover. This is mostly because if they showed the things that actually happened to make someone a success, it would be mostly really boring.

  7. mattwhite on said:

    scott burton is wise

  8. Pinson on said:

    this is great. i don’t know what to do next, but it’s great.

  9. Scott Burger on said:

    Not to go completely off topic, but how will Toad’s, the National, and the publicly financed Arts Center compete and survive?

  10. I think that it is important for any musician to really evaluate themselves, as to why they are doing what they are doing. While it is nice to make money off of your music, and make a living at something you love so dearly, is that really the reason you are doing what you’re doing? For some, it most certainly is, but I will speak for myself, and many others I presume, to say that creating music is transcendent of monetary value. To me it is more of an essential process. Something very spiritual and emotional, and I would imagine that this is true for many of you as well. Money can come and go, but you can (and should) always create music, whether you’re getting paid for it or not.

  11. RE: Not to go completely off topic, but how will Toad’s, the National, and the publicly financed Arts Center compete and survive?

    2 words: Innovative booking

  12. Scott Burger on said:

    Katz did booking for the Carpenter Center. It was able to survive by booking the occasional pop act in between the S.O.B. (symphony , opera, ballet) stuff.

    But now downtown has the National and Toads competing for the big pop acts.

  13. Eric RT on said:

    maybe payment is not the problem, but how far that payment goes. i bet the twelve guys in count basie’s traveling orchestra didn’t get paid that much, but less money went further in those days (and the days before). also, most career musicians–contrary to the modern propaganda–payed some heavy dues to get to that point. to be twenty-something and complaining about not making enough money playing indie-rock to buy a house is like being mad at kroger for never selling you the winning lottery ticket. the term “starving artist” has been around for a long, long time.

  14. Immy Ture on said:

    Henry David Thoreau didnt like music, he said it was too hynotizing. U.S. Grant also did not like music. Music is a strange commodity.

  15. Burger wrote: Not to go completely off topic, but how will Toad’s, the National, and the publicly financed Arts Center compete and survive?

    Bopst replied: 2 words: Innovative booking

    My take: 4 words — innovative booking and booze.

    I’m wordy.

  16. You want to make money playing music? I’ll solve your problem right here and now.

    But first, a few preparatory questions to make sure your capable of making the big money:

    1. Do you have any eyeliner?

    2. How many different color Gibson SGs do you own?

    3. How would you rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, your music’s accessibility to 14 year old girls?

    4. Would you be willing to have your own line of designer graphic t-shirts in Hot Topic and/or Pac Sun?

  17. mattwhite on said:

    RE: Eric RT – I hope you are well. One thing that maybe I botched in the article but I would like to emphasize here is that I’m not worried about the musician as celebrity. Creating and celebrating celebrity is something that, of course, we have got under our belt. I am concerned mostly, not entirely, but mostly with the musician as a craftsman. The nooks and crannies in our culture that house those jobs – ones that are created and maintained outside the spotlight are the ones that are disappearing the quickest.
    Secondly, I guess I feel that there is quite a difference between complaining and speaking out about a set of data points that present a bleak employment picture for a group of laborers that continue to more or less lose jobs. I would like to think that somewhere, sometime a little bit of grumbling has caused people to at least examine their surroundings a bit more and I will certainly admit that the article is a bit grumbly.
    Finally, Let me say a thing about the “twenty something and playing indie rock” bit. I assume you know a piece of my personal situation, but it is clearly a small piece because if thats the angle you think I am coming from than you just aren’t aware of a handful of things. Of course, that is absolutely fine but it seems (and i will emphasize seems cause i could be wrong) that your taking a personal shot at a set of personal circumstances that you are not fully aware of. With that said, I will also say that I AM a young musician and I AM looking to my future (buying a house, raising a fam etc). And although there are certainly doors that open entirely by chance most of the careers that I would model myself after are not “stars” by any means. They are folks that have been ambitious, opportunistic, talented and wise about planning ahead. There is certainly part of this article that IS a young musician that is trying to plan ahead and sees the opportunities that were there for his mentors disappearing for him.

  18. mattwhite on said:

    I also don’t have any SG’s. I got a fake Les Paul though?

  19. I too have a fake Les Paul–but it’s only got B-strings on it because of this thing I did with one of those ambitious dudes that makes a living with music. This guy here:

  20. Reggie Pace on said:

    I just have a lot of hope…….

  21. Reggie Pace on said:

    And I would sell my T-shirt @ Hot Topic! Why not ? Who cares what stores are selling the shirts…..It’s still your bands shirt.

  22. Gary Longest on said:

    Out of the 4000 years music has been around, only 100 of those years have seen music sold as audio recordings.

    Music will survive.

  23. i got your music industry right here

  24. mattwhite on said:

    I don’t know what that means. Maybe it means “right here” like on the internet – I could believe that.

  25. Gray on said:

    To support musicians is like giving alms to Buddhist monks. Whenever possible, buy their music and attend live shows.

    Regarding live shows: Must the music be turned full volume? My shredded eardrums can’t handle it anymore.

  26. Pingback: The state of the industry v2.0 | RVANews

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with an asterisk (*).

Or report an error instead