It has never been easy to be a professional musician. These days, it’s only gotten harder.
A look at the news will tell you as much. David Byrne, singer of the Talking Heads and author of How Music Workswas right in Billboard Friday, responding urgently to the proliferation of streaming music sites, “Are we always doing what’s best for the consumer in the short term, or are we thinking longer term about our culture and our quality of life ?”
Meanwhile, more than 700 independent music labels recently joined forces to sign the Fair Digital Deals Declaration, which combats unfair and murky payment practices used by streaming services. Among their legitimate complaints is their disapproval of certain existing practices that leave artists “underpaid and underinformed in the digital marketplace”. And even Congress would agree.
However, it’s not just established artists getting their due. It’s important because independent artists and budding young musicians have no way to support themselves as they grow and explore their art – the art we need to keep music vital and us have to support new voices in music. Here are 11 reasons why it’s nearly impossible to succeed as a freelance musician in today’s music industry.
1. Independent music is threatened by the online platforms it needs.
It’s one thing to pay nothing for your music on the Internet. It’s another to not even be able to stream it online.
Recently, YouTube threatened to remove videos from independent labels and their artists (including the Arctic Monkeys) if the labels did not agree to YouTube’s unfavorable terms. And smaller labels and indie musicians could soon come under fire from the changing net neutrality landscape, which would favor big sites like Amazon that can afford to negotiate expensive deals with internet service providers, giving them thus all the bargaining power when it comes to closing deals with musicians. All of this leaves smaller artists and labels with less and less power over careers and finances.
2. Independent labels don’t have the means to help their artists.
Beggars Group, a collective of UK independent labels including Rough Trade (home to Arcade Fire and the Strokes) and 4AD (Bon Iver, the National) recently announced that they will no longer be splitting streaming royalties 50/50 with their artists.
The main reasons, according to Beggars Group Chairman Martin Mills, were “economic”, as it was becoming difficult to sustain. It is also possible that the rate will be even lower as streaming becomes more popular.
3. Moving to a city with a big, well-established music scene is expensive.
The traditional narrative of “doing” in music usually involves being discovered. Unless your social media game is really top-notch, that means moving to a city with a real music scene — a city where you can play lots of shows and find other bands to pay your bills.
But if you want to follow in the footsteps of the National and jump from Cincinnati to New York to get discovered, you better be prepared to swallow a 110.8% rise in the cost of living.
4. No one wants to spend money on music, let alone something they haven’t heard.
Digital downloads fell 12.5% in the first months of 2014, while streaming rates soared.
“No musician I know makes a living selling music,” explained Nicolas Jaar, an experimental electronic musician whose 2011 debut album was a critical, if not commercial, success.
Even if you can convince people to buy your music, you see a diminishing slice of the pie – iTunes pays 70 cents per song, and that 70 cents can be distributed in a number of ways, depending on whether an artist is on a label or not. . If you go basic and sell through Bandcamp, the site takes a 10-15% cut before PayPal takes a cut as well. Even without a label, there are always intermediaries.
5. Streaming royalties are incredibly low.
Navigating Spotify’s payment process is difficult, and sites make different deals with different labels, but indie artists could earn as little as $0.005 per play. That’s what inspired indie soul band Vulfpeck to encourage fans to play music on loop while they sleep so the band can make a little more money for frivolous things like, you know, touring.
But non-scheming, more established artists are barely making ends meet with the money they make online. As Marc Ribot, a guitarist who played with the Black Keys and Tom Waits, pointed out: “If we can’t make enough money from digital media to pay for the record we just made, then we can’t not make another one.”
6. Even if you land on a major label, your career has no security.
Have you heard of Saint-Vincent? Most likely. She just wrapped up the last season of Saturday Night Liveperformed at the Pitchfork Music Festival and performed Nirvana’s “Lithium” at the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. You’d think she was in the clear.
But her touring partner and collaborator, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, predicts a bleak future for the indie rock superstar and others of his ilk: “A lot of musicians like her, who seem well-established, will eventually have to find a job somewhere else or change what they do to make more money.”
Some professional musicians, like a few members of Grizzly Bear, even lack health care — not to mention non-label musicians.
7. Touring is a big risk for young musicians.
Many freelance artists have day jobs, since, as mentioned earlier, it is really difficult make a living selling music. But live music is increasingly an essential part of success in music. This means that going on tour necessarily means leaving behind a more stable cash flow and praying that the work will still be there when you return. In short, touring is more important for a young band than for an established band, but the risk is much higher.
Yet it’s the one that makes independent music all the more vital. Just listen to Mutual Benefit’s beautiful song The crushing diamond of lovea bold celebration of what happened after the singer quit his job and got into music.
8. Tours are more expensive than ever.
If a freelance artist funds their own tour, that means paying for gas, accommodation, and various other travel expenses. The average gas price hovers around $3.60 a gallon, which adds up if you’re driving across the country. And it really adds up if, like Bear’s Den, you drive cross-country in less fuel-efficient VW vans. Ah, the ’60s – when pickup trucks were sleek and gas was 30 cents a gallon (not adjusted for inflation).
9. There’s already more music than anyone will ever hear.
There are pros and cons in the age of the Internet: it’s now easier than ever for someone to create and distribute music, but it’s much harder to get noticed. Market oversaturation is real, making it hard for consumers to know where to start when it comes to independent artists. Around four million songs on Spotify have never even been touched by users of the service – so many that they have since been collected in an app called Forgotify.
10. It’s just not profitable for labels to sign artists.
Labels that spend money developing artists rarely get their money back, so they take a huge risk every time they sign a new artist.
“Most of the artist signings to labels end up not being profitable,” Darius Van Armen, co-owner of independent labels including Jagjaguwar (which launched Bon Iver) and Secretly Canadian, explained in a recent statement to Congress regarding copyrights. copyright and intellectual property. If that attitude went to its logical extreme under the duress of streaming service royalties, we just might miss the next Bon Iver.
11. Labels don’t develop acts, they only sign popular acts.
Labels are hedging their bets by signing any band and probably won’t make a profit with a new artist.
“In the future, artists will get record deals because they have fans, not the other way around,” Taylor Swift wrote in a recent opinion piece for the the wall street journal.
This creates a cyclical trap for independent artists, who are faced with the problem of having to promote their music on their own in order to attract enough fans to catch the attention of the biggest players in the industry so that they can have fans who pay them nothing.
There is hope, however. Music is too important to keep things this bad. Any scrappy band with real talent can still make it work, and nothing worth doing is ever really easy. With independent labels banding together and Congress investigating copyright, things may soon be looking up. But for now, as always, real art requires a real fight. Perhaps more now than ever.