There’s a whole philosophy about ‘the pointlessness of…’ life/love/complaining…whatever.
The history of art has progressed along with the history of commerce. Successful artists have always struggled to find ways to make a living with their art. From Beethoven to the Beatles, you see the same story over and over: the artist works like a dog performing; all the while plotting on how to stop performing and concentrate on creation. At some point, every artist needs to stop being a trained monkey and start getting paid for the tune.
I’ve railed here a bunch of times on the huge shift brought about by the internet. The main thing, in my view, has been the radical shift in how musicians are viewed. We’ve spent the last 500 years trying to free ourselves from patronage and performance and actually get paid for the music. And in the past ten years it’s all gone down the pan.
This is not sour grapes. When an artist can only make a living doing shows or selling t-shirts, it turns the music into nothing more than a vehicle to get people to a show or to click a Buy Now button. It is the razor, given away freely, in order to sell the disposable blades.
There has been no end of discussion on how the record companies screwed themselves, missed the shift and now fight so hard to prevent the inevitable death of CDs. That’s silly—well part of it anyway. The truth is, the remaining record companies are no longer record companies. They are media companies with well-defined strategies. They just needed a chance to catch their breath and change the model.
That model is DirecTV, AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Netflix: monthly service fees. No such thing as ‘ownership’. Since these corporations are so ‘unhip’, the heavy lifting is being done by small companies like Spotify, a ‘Web20’ that seems ‘hip’ and ‘fresh’ and ‘young’. But it’s the same deal as Comcast or, dare I say it? The banks.
It Was Thirty Years Ago Today…
Remember back when debit cards came out? (No? Well, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth…) They were free. Yes, gratis. Really. Why? The banks were happy to tell you why: because they cost almost nothing to run, so they passed the savings onto customers. Most people were very skeptical. It took many years for them to really catch on. But the banks were patient. And once they did catch on, then the fees began. Now, none of us can imagine a bank without transaction fees. Streaming music will be the same. It will eventually be doled out like cable TV, with significant monthly fees, and that will be that. So what’s the problem?
Read page 2 of that New York Mag article. Note how much (little) one gets paid from Spotify. The thing about the evil record companies is that the pricing model made it possible to make a living on content. Yeah, $16.95 for a CD was extortionate, but it meant that an independent guy such as meself could sell the same CD for ten bucks and still keep $8. I could sell a 4-5,000 a year and have enough dosh to keep working on the material and tour to promote the work. But the rates that Spotify—and all other streaming services—pay is so miniscule that it means that the only way one can make a living is to either a) tour constantly or b) hook up with some corporate sponsorship deal. In both cases, the model shifts back to exactly where artists do not want to be: making their living as performers.
By comparison, TV and movie performers have fared much better in the new order. Being an actor can, if anything else, more humiliating, than being a musician, but at least when one does a commercial, or even the lowliest of indy movies, their are accepted rates for residuals.
I Coulda Joined The Tea Party
I started this article by pointing out the pointlessness. There seems to be no societal concern these days beyond convenience. As with debit cards thirty years ago, there seems to be a sense that these changes (like so much else that’s wrong with the world) are inevitable. Or there are so much more immediate problems (JOBS! JOBS! JOBS!) But see this is about jobs.
When the whole ‘Tea Party’ thing in America started, there was a lot of populist talk about ‘taking back America’. Ya know? I woulda joined up in a heartbeat if I’d a thought they were intellectually honest. I woulda sacrificed women’s rights, gay rights, latino rights, your rights, my rights, the environment and just about every other lefty issue if they had really been serious about slowing down the whole ‘corporate’ thing. It seemed then (and does now) that slowing down the corporatization of music was the issue. If that one box could be checked off, most everything else would take care of itself. But of course, it was really a front for just pushing a conservative agenda which equates the ‘freedom’ of Comcast with the ‘freedom’ of JC Harris.
But regardless of whether it’s pointless or not, fair is fair. Musicians have spent centuries trying to get paid a fair wage for their work. The shift to an internet service pipeline, controlled by a few mega-media companies makes that impossible. As impossible as any other freedom when a sector of life is essentially a monopoly.
Music is going through a rough patch right now. Frankly, a lot of it stinks, which makes many people shrug who would otherwise be supportive (sort of like when yer hometown team is mediocre.) But take it from me, if the Lions and Tigers can make a comeback, music can too. To make that comeback, there has to be a system of payment that affords musicians the same respect and financial freedom afforded by other professions. Without a Union or some other mechanism to counter-balance the industry’s move towards paying almost nothing for content, I confess I’m not smart enough to figure out how that would happen. But like they say, ‘you get what you pay for.’ If people are willing to pay $200 for a ticket to a show, but an artist can’t get ninety nine cents for selling a song? Well, Econ 101 tells you that you’re probably gonna get a fabulous looking live show. And a whole bunch of pretty crappy songs.