Aside from the opinions and tutorials I give here at AskAudio, I spend a lot of time teaching young musicians. One of the things that keeps me young (at least at heart) is constantly working with younger bands and artists and watching them begin their careers as musicians. As a keyboardist and technophile, I’m also often in the position of working with veteran touring acts and helping them get the ‘ghosts out of the machine’ when transitioning to newer gear and technological methods.
The convergence of these two worlds has given me a unique perspective on the state of the music industry that I was inspired to share by a Facebook post making the rounds this weekend.
Bassist Steve Lawson recently shared an interview with Stevie Nicks (originally from Rolling Stone, featured on SocietyOfRock.com) where she indicated that she doesn’t plan to do another record with Fleetwood Mac. This, in itself, isn’t very controversial. After all, Stevie turned 70 recently, she’s entitled to kick back and enjoy retirement! It was her reasoning, however, that drew a line in the sand between my friends in the music biz. “I don’t think there’s any reason to spend a year and an amazing amount of money on a record like that, even if it has great things, it isn’t going to sell… I don’t think we’ll do another record. If the music business were different, I might feel different.”
This polarized a lot of comment and debate on everyone’s most/least favorite social network, and I thought I’d share the perspective from both sides of the equation.
There’s no doubt about it, things have changed. Record companies are not dropping advances like they were before. Royalty rates may be similar, but 15% of millions of dollars less than before is… well… a lot less. Making a living as a musician is quite a different picture these days than was painted decades ago. Blame Napster, Spotify, Apple, or whomever, but streaming and the accompanying low rates per stream are not going anywhere anytime soon. The market decided that on-demand is what it wants, and the people also resoundingly decided what recorded music was worth to them.
If you look at that small slice of things, it’s not pretty. Writing a hit song is no longer a guarantee of income for years and years to come, and having a million people listen to your music certainly does not guarantee food on your table for an entire year. The days of a handful of superstars raking in truckloads of money simply from writing songs and selling CDs are certainly behind us. For many musicians, the days of making a considerable amount of money as a ‘session player’ are also gone. Playing for studio sessions will often net you a fraction of what you might have made 15 years ago, and in an age where the cost of just about everything is going up, that doesn’t make much sense to a lot of folks - myself included!
Many successful young musicians realize that being a musician today has become a more complex sea to navigate. There’s money to be made, for sure, but it’s in a lot of different places than it once was. One of the first arguments against Stevie Nicks’s insinuation that the album is dead is that it no longer takes an amazing amount of money to record an album. Heck, the Gorillaz recorded the entire album ‘The Fall’ on an iPad over 32 days on tour!
The days of million dollar royalty payouts may be dwindling, but alongside that slow death is the nearly overnight death of the $15 seat to a concert. I can remember the days where a $200 seat to a show was what you paid from a scalper, most likely the night before the concert, and you didn’t even get a good seat. These days, live shows are revenue-generating machines between VIP seats, swag, merch, and meet and greets. So while royalty payouts may be shrinking, live performance revenue is soaring to the tune of billions of dollars in growth over the last decade (according to a PWC study, Billboard, and the UNESCO).
Many young musicians realize that while there may be fewer superstars living the ‘rock star life’, there are now more opportunities than ever for your music to be heard. From video game composers to music for TV, opportunities that were unthinkable (or at least considered cheesy) decades ago now seem cherished and embraced by a younger generation of artists. Back in the 80’s, most bands caught a TON of flack if they sold rights to their song to a company making a commercial. Today, having your song play during a segment of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ can bring thousands of new fans to your social media home, and hopefully to your next live show.
Here at AskAudio, we’ve always tried to empower music makers. When I review a piece of gear, I truly hope it’s helping someone who was looking to purchase that one missing piece they needed to jump start their creative process. I always tell folks that all of this cool stuff with blinking lights and knobs is fun, but don’t ever let it fool you into thinking you can’t make music without it. Some of the best music around today is made by bands and artists that didn’t care what their mechanical license fee would generate - they just wanted to make something great that brought joy to people. They wanted to make music as a means of expressing feelings.
What technology can do that wasn’t there before is level the playing field. If there’s one thing you can take away from what we’re trying to do here, it’s that you don’t need to ‘spend a year and an amazing amount of money’ to make something creative. You don't need a multimillion dollar studio and a million dollar marketing budget to make good music. You need time, heart, and knowledge.
Now get out there and write some music! It may make a million dollars, or it may not; but if it's good it will bring someone joy - and that's good enough for us!