Is poverty a foregone conclusion in today’s music industry?
I find myself asking this question a lot these days. With the Pomplamoose tour figures story circulating on social media and the grim news that only Taylor Swift went platinum this year, it might be easy to wallow in the inevitability that your chosen field is a downward spiral of hopelessness and pauperhood. There’s no question that the music industry as we knew it in the 90s is dead. The body still writhes in its death throes, head separated neatly by the pirate’s rusty sword, with the faithful still gathered kneeling ’round the corpse hoping that maybe it’s just resting, but dead nonetheless.
And I say good riddance. For a time, I mourned the loss of the booming record business, feeling as though I’d been tricked, like the dream of having my band signed to a “massive” record label and therefore attaining rock godhood could never come to be in this lawless new desert. How would I ever become the next Iron Maiden and bang hordes of eager groupies and never have a real job?
Well, shooting for the stars is a given, but for every Iron Maiden, ‘N Sync, and Madonna who thrived in the old industry, there were 425872452345572 who crashed and burned just as hard. People whose lives and careers were ruined by record labels signing them and then dropping them with albums unreleased, and almost worse, ones who were made into stars and still wound up broke. And for them, there was no recourse. There was one way to make it, and when that didn’t work, it was curtains.
In his keynote address at the Face the Music conference this year, Steve Albini made the case that we are far better off now than we were, and I agree with him. The old way was fraught with scumbags, and there was no way to directly reach your audience, so you had no choice but to go through the aforementioned scumbags to reach them. With the internet, direct access is not just possible, it’s assumed. This means direct sales, and therefore a better profit margin.
Forget the $1 mp3. How about a $1 album?
I came across this video just as I was writing this article, and I can’t think of a more perfect way to illustrate the new model:
Now, whether or not these guys (Canadian metal band Exes for Eyes) reach their sales goal of selling a million albums, they’ve hit the nail right on the head and driven it all the way in. It doesn’t cost that much to record and release an album digitally because if you’re an entirely independent band, you’ve got no one else to pay. More importantly, you’ve got no one else who is contractually in line ahead of you for a cut of your money. It costs about a dollar to manufacture a physical CD, so if you only sold it for a dollar, you’re not making anything already, but a dollar for a digital download is perfect. Every single dollar will go directly into their pocket (less PayPal fees) and Exes for Eyes wins the internet.
They recorded the entire album themselves (a feat becoming increasingly more and more common since the home recording revolution) and you can too. Or you can at least do it cheaply and pay for it yourself instead of almost giving it away to a label for a small loan. Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, and Patreon are rapidly replacing record labels as ways to fund your music-making endeavors honestly, and if you can get the subscribers, YouTube can turn a profit as well. Making great looking videos is no longer out of reach for the average band either,
The record industry is now a cottage industry.
This is a perfect example of how the new industry model is going to work. Direct-to-consumer sales are ALWAYS best FOR EVERYONE involved – it’s cheaper for the consumer and the artist, and everyone feels a lot better about the transaction. If I buy a CD from a music store, think of how much money is being lost in transit – the manufacturing costs, the transportation costs, the retail store who takes a cut for putting it on a shelf and then charging someone for it (really it’s hazard pay – retail is a nightmare!). All that money is essentially being taken from the artist and the consumer – no wonder nobody feels bad about pirating music!
The cost of an album was absurd, and the reason for it being absurd was absurd in itself, and now that reason is GONE. Let that sink in for a minute. The actual value of the music was only a dollar all along, it was the 10 other peoples’ salaries you were paying for. Now the consumer can pay you directly, and the proper business relationship is restored, no middleman necessary (aside from Bandcamp, ReverbNation, or whatever digital distribution platform you use). A lot of strong words were said about piracy ripping artists off, but really it was all those middlemen who were losing out. The artists are the ones who deserved to get paid, and they lost the hardest because they had the smallest margin, but it doesn’t have to be that way anymore.
It’s better this way. Not only can it be more profitable for artists, it requires them to be more creative, like YouTube supah stah Rob Scallon:
The home recording revolution and the internet have put the final nail in the big fat coffin of the bloated corpse of the vestigial and decaying old way. If you try and take the traditional path of what the music industry used to be, signing with a label before you have enough negotiating power to have it go well in your favor, you could very well be taking a vow of poverty – a legally binding one that will strip you of your potential profits and make you work harder and get paid less and later than anyone else in the record label machine (see this Anatomy of a Record Contract if you don’t believe me). This is not to say that record labels don’t have their place – but they’re essentially a bank loan, and I’m here to tell you that you probably don’t need that, at least not yet.
Welcome to the future!
So now the answer to the question I posed – NO! No, no, no, no! You don’t have to be poor – you can make a living doing what you love, and it might not be snort-coke-off-a-stripper-through-$100-bills money, but it’ll be YOURS.
This band posted their response to the Pomplamoose fiasco, showing how some thriftiness made it possible for them to tour without losing money in today’s market. Periphery was a band that existed only on the internet for the first few years of its existence, building an enormous amount of steam until they finally signed a deal on their terms with a label that came to them. Ola Englund started off making gear demos in his home studio, and now he’s in The Haunted and has a signature amplifier from Randall and a line of signature guitars from Washburn. Everywhere musicians are thinking critically and creatively to find new revenue streams such as sponsorships, lessons on tour, selling ridiculous memorabilia, crowdfunding, and most importantly, TAKING FULL CONTROL OF THEIR OWN DESTINY.
Doesn’t that sound better?