I remember back in 1999 when the big news that a website called mp3.com was about to launch something called “Pay for Play (aka P4P).” The idea was simple. Upload your music to their website and get paid when people listen to your tracks. Surely those who would take this road would find their fortune in music! Articles were written in music magazines and beyond about how mp3.com would “change music forever.” I find it ironic that people said and still say something will “change music” when what they actually mean is “change the music business.” Of course I understand the argument that changes in technology may shape the way we create music or why we create it but that’s a different blog.
Opinions from famous and not-so-famous musicians on both sides of the argument were plentiful. Some loved the idea and some didn’t. From the position of successful recording artists I would simplify their argument against digitally shared music as “If people can easily and illegally share my music I will be losing money.” Let’s remember that in 1999 the internet, iTunes, iPods, iPads, and whatever other methods of ubiquitous music were either not yet available or as far integrated into our lives as they are now. Keeping that in mind, this was a fair position (albeit an unrealistic one) by the successful artists at that time. These artists must have conveniently forgotten the role the cassette tape had played in pop culture by 1999 as music had been shared amongst friends and acquaintances for approximately two decades. Dare I mention that self-absorbed symbol of ”true friendship” the mix tape? Why self-absorbed? Who cares what songs make you think of rainy Tuesdays, kittens, or anything else for that matter?
It is now almost 2013. Mp3.com has long since faded into oblivion (more or less) and there is a surprising shortage of millionaire independent artists who found their fortunes in P4P. But the concept behind mp3.com and the growing role that technology has played in our lives has certainly expanded and drastically changed the way we listen to music and the access that we have to recorded music. We now have sites like Pandora, and the maligned Spotify, that to varying degrees, allow listeners to pick, choose, and listen to music for free. The independent artists on these sites get not much beyond exposure when people listen to their music. The biggest acts in music? They don’t make much from these sites either. According to numerous published sources Lady Gaga earned approximately $167 dollars in exchange for one million plays of her song “Poker Face.” And this is where I will begin to make the intended point of this blog.
Independent artists everywhere are up in arms about what this means to their earnings. What many claim to be “unfair” or even that barnyard cry of foul “bullsh-t” is actually not a relevant problem to most. Let’s start with the Lady Gaga example from the last paragraph.
One million plays of a song. The list of musicians who have had one million plays of their music in comparison to those who have not is obviously beyond lopsided. One million of anything is not easy to achieve. Dollars, kisses, hugs, staples, friends, neighbors, pets, colorful pieces of clothing. Chances are that most of us will never have one million of any one thing. Although one million plays of a song or albums/downloads sold is a “small” or modest number to the biggest artists in the music business it is quite an accomplishment to be in such company. The visibility that would come as a result of sales like this would surely grant professional gratification to an artist. My point? If you were an artist at the one million anything level you would most certainly know it. Therefore, the argument against Spotify’s low payout for Lady Gaga doesn’t really make sense for most artists. You’re not going to have one million plays so don’t worry about that $167 you’re not making from Spotify.
On my level (local independent artist in Boston) I look at the concerts I give as my chances to make some money. 10 CDs sold at $15 would give me $150. Me complaining about the unfairness of what Spotify does or doesn’t pay is NOT today’s reason why I’m not earning a living as a performer and frankly there’s not much chance it will be tomorrow’s reason either.
The musicians and fans of music I know who do use Spotify, Pandora, etc., use it in a “responsible” way. They often hear something they like and then seek out the musician’s website so they can buy the album. Your friends don’t do that? Maybe your friends are in high school. Either that or maybe your friends don’t enjoy music or value music the way that you do. You should be used to that by now though.
It is understandable that performing artists would like to make a living from their art. I’d be the first to raise my hand and say I would too. However, I suggest that there is a very good reason more people don’t make a living from only being a performer or from selling their music. The reason is that it’s actually quite challenging to do so. If it were easy then every kid with a music degree (or two or three) would be earning a living trying to play like a second-rate Coltrane, singing like a second-rate diva, or by playing that atonal “composition” that they pretend not to understand why the general public doesn’t like. By the way, the public doesn’t like it because it’s atonal. Everything is not for everybody. Sometimes people tell me that jazz is boring. You know what? A lot of times it is.
I do not deserve an audience, a living, or even someone’s attention simply because I enjoy playing music and chose to go to school for it. Neither do you. Many “trained musicians” want to make sure that they are separate or “above” the layman at all times until it comes to giving a performance. Then they seem to expect that music they have been “educated to appreciate” should reach the ears of the “hopeless, artless masses” in the same way that it reaches them. It doesn’t work that way though. As a fan of music I have paid for tickets to see and hear the big names in jazz, classical, metal, hip hop, rock, and more. These performers without fail perform a program of music that’s both fun for them (from enjoyment to challenging) and accessible to the audience. Take a hint from your favorites and don’t forget the audience. The audience will buy more tickets to enjoy your music than those folks who would come to critique your diction.
I was fortunate to go to college with a handful of classmates who have gone on to achieve varying levels of big music business success. Despite the pointless arguments that may come and go in the public my friends all have something in common:
They ALL keep working.
Regardless of how many people come to their site, buy their CDs, download their music, by band merch, whatever, they keep getting out in front of as many audiences as possible because that is where the purest communication occurs between artists and their audience. That is where they make their living.
There are those who believe that somewhere right now there is a random person scouring the internet in search of independently produced music and that the internet is the path to a musician’s success and financial independence. There are plenty of people searching the web for plenty of things right now and jazz is probably not high on the list.
If I have to choose between those that love what they do and work hard to share it in person or those that choose to complain about what they don’t have and do little to improve it I guess I’ll try to be like the first group. You should too.