A Future In Music (in times of trouble)
If you are reading this you are interested in music, just like about 95% of Earth’s population, give or take a few radicals who miss out on a lot of fun. Of all the art forms music is the most accessible one, especially with the abundance of technology, both on the producer’s side as on the consumer’s side. As technology evolved it became easier for everybody to make music and listen to music. As such we now take music for granted, because it is simply there when, how and where we want it to be.
This has brought on many challenges for all people on the producing side of music. If you want to know more about all this I suggest you check out the book ‘How Music Works’ by David Byrne.
Today I will focus on the one in the middle of all this: the person or persons who actually create the music.
For the sake of argument please be aware that I am talking about all people doing music professionally or semi-professionally. And yes, I know these are also difficult times for everybody working with and for artists. From promoters, clubs, festivals to bookers, bookers’ book keepers, etc. But like I said, I will focus on the one in the middle of all this.
Some 25 years ago the person creating the music was simply called the artist. Nowadays a better name would be artist/producer/performer/distributor/promoter/marketeer/accountant. Because unless you are among the elite ranks of stardom (for which I congratulate you) you need to be able to cover all aspects of the music business in order to get to the point where you can actually be a professional artist.
As a DJ/producer/label owner I still have a hard time calling myself an artist, but I can safely call myself a music professional after some 15 years of making a decent living from music. If I look back on those 15 years I can only be happy with what I have done so far. Sure, I always wanted more challenging gigs artistically and more time to spend in my studio making music, but the gigs kept coming in and they allowed me to earn good money and buy all the records I wanted, which was and basically still is what I always dreamed about. So all in all I did not think too much about it. I was happy, living the good life and kept on trucking and playing.
Enter Corona/Covid-19. From one week to the next there were no more gigs and there are no more gigs in sight for the next months, at least not in the form we have always known them. On top of that the negative effects of this might go on for years even. After the initial disbelief and the nagging ‘what am I going to do’-doubts I decided to take a closer look at my situation and my possibilities. To get a good overview of what I have actually been doing these last 15 years I decided to take a look at how I made a living and more specifically what part of what I do represents what in the equation. This is the result calculated over the period of 2017 till 2019:
- Gigs 80%
- Neighbouring Rights & Mechanicals 15%
- Royalties & music sales 5%
For those of you not familiar with these terms, here is a simple explanation: neighbouring rights & mechanicals are what you get when your music is released by labels or played on the radio and at parties, depending on you being registered with author societies (i.e. Sabam in Belgium), publishing and neighbouring rights organisations. Royalties are what you get from labels or streaming/download platforms when they sell your music. This is a complicated world in its own right, but I urge every single artist to look into this, because it is a nice extra if you take the right steps. Good to know is that in these past 15 years I have been involved in a number of underground hits, so my royalties are benefitting greatly because of that. It is also VERY important to take into account that a big chunk of neighbouring rights and mechanicals depends on you playing or your music being played at parties or festivals. So it is very clear that when the gigs are not happening, that part of your income will suffer as well.
So where does all that leave us in the current situation? Well, it leaves us with virtually nothing and no means of making a living whatsoever from our music for the rest of the year and possibly beyond, unless we can find new ways of finding revenue. Undoubtedly new ways will surface and people will try them, but the success of any existing or any new way will ultimately depend on one thing only: the consumer.
Regardless of what you offer as an artist, it is the consumer that will decide if he or she wants to spend money on it. This was of course already the case in the past, but the consumer’s options were a lot more limited and as such he or she needed to spend money to buy the music he or she liked. We also need to face the following fact: buying a ticket for a party or festival is rarely done with the artist’s income in mind, whereas if you buy music from any artist on any platform you do have the feeling that you are supporting the artist.
So the consumer can still buy the artist’s music and that artist can then continue to be an artist right? True, but buying music – if at all - has evolved from paying 10-20 euro or more for a physical copy of the music (vinyl or CD) to paying 0,99 euro for an iTunes download of a single track to paying 10 euro every month for unlimited Spotify streaming of the work of thousands and thousands of artists. With any and all of these methods of buying music the artist is the one at the very bottom of the money chain and left with very little. Very little is not enough to survive. The platform Bandcamp is an exception to this, with some 90% of what you spend going directly from the buyer to the artist (or label), but few people will use Bandcamp as their main means to find and buy music.
This all leads me to the conclusion that if the big majority of professional artists are to have any chance to keep on doing what they are doing in these increasingly difficult times we will need to find new ways to make people pay for our music and/or we will need to convince people to pay (more) correct prices for the music buying formats that are available at the moment, in which Bandcamp leads the way at present. In other words, we as artists need to create awareness and remind ourselves and the people that listen to and enjoy our work that good and honest art deserves a good and honest reward. On the performance side of things the challenge is even bigger, because at present performing as we know it seems to be impossible. I myself do not believe in streaming or virtual clubs and festivals as viable means to perform in the future. The big kink in that being the massive free possibilities for the consumer and the fact that the people actually making the music are left with their work being used without them seeing any money from it. It may benefit some bigger names for which consumers might be willing to pay a viewing fee, but I think the novelty will wear out. The streaming experience is way too far removed from what a performance should be, both for the performer as for the audience, to become a real substitute for performance. If the situation allows it I think we will need to take the place of performance to the people, instead of asking the people to come to the venue. This could lead to intimate experiences and a very personal exchange between audience and artist and I do believe this is a possible way forward.
For my own peace of mind it is important that I stress that music is my passion and that it will always be my passion, even if there is a chance that I will no longer be able to do it for a living. My career is not just music, but for now music is still my career and I would love for it to stay that way for a long time. I can safely say that my music and performances benefit greatly from me being able to spend all my time on music. From that angle the consumer should know that if he or she supports artists in such a way that the artists can be professional artists, the music will be better for it.
If you agree with all or some of the above and you would like to help create more awareness, please share away and send this to all your favourite artists and friends so we can spread the word that we are in need of help. But most of all: let us all keep on making, playing, enjoying and dancing to music!