Selling out

There’s a fascinating discussion on The New Yorker about the future for musicians in a world of widespread piracy and tiny payments from streaming music services.

The working question is not about the life of a band like Wilco but of smaller outfits, where making a living is sometimes not even a question, when a day job is the only option. How do we think of music when the chances of it providing a living salary are incredibly small? What is the positive viable future for marginal (not a bad word) and independent artists?

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot recently as I’ve been writing about the Pirate Bay and going to talks by people like Love and Money’s James Grant, who rightly says that the internet has taken the money out of recorded music. As I wrote on techradar the other day, there is now an entire generation that’s grown up unwilling to pay for music. “Sell t-shirts and tour!” is usually the response to that, or if you’re big you can always get Samsung to sponsor you. But what happens to the artists who don’t have a big enough fanbase to live off merch revenues, the ones whose music has to be made in the short spaces between the day job and sleep?

Even touring isn’t the cash cow it’s often claimed to be. DJ Jace Clayton:

The Internet overvalues newness, and live-show attendance follows suit. The deluge of music in our digital lives means that discovery is sped up alongside digestion—Oh, I streamed their single, saw their video clip, can extrapolate the live show. Scenes become useful insofar as they are patient organisms, interested in slow changes and small differences, less enmeshed in online attention cycles—but you need to reach across them to be able to tour.

I’m not coming at this from the perspective of someone who misses the old days – as I sorta-joked the other day, the £5 I made from the first sale of Good Times, High Times and Hard Times is £5 more profit than I ever made from being in bands – but I do think it’s harder than ever for musicians to get paid for what they do.

Maybe Mick Jagger is right:

When The Rolling Stones started out, we didn’t make any money out of records because record companies wouldn’t pay you! They didn’t pay anyone! Then, there was a small period from 1970 to 1997, where people did get paid, and they got paid very handsomely and everyone made money. But now that period has gone. So if you look at the history of recorded music from 1900 to now, there was a 25 year period where artists did very well, but the rest of the time they didn’t.