Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Getting Paid to Play Music: Why I Can’t Seem to Make Up My Mind.

I am prone to dark hyperbole.  If I had a dollar for every time I heard myself say “If it was not for music, I would have been dead long ago,” I would be a rich person. It might be true. I depend on music for my daily happiness.  I can’t remember the last time I went 24 hours without hearing music of my own choosing.  The point is --  I love music. I consider myself in the 99th percentile of music-loving.  I love music way more than the average human does.  (Disclaimer: I don’t even know what a percentile is and everything I say should probably be taken with a whole container of Morton’s Salt)

The moral conundrum I seem to find myself running into quite often (especially recently with the advent of Spotify) is “how much is that love worth to me?”

On one hand, not only do I revere the musical artists who make me happy and think they are well-deserving of all the money I already give them, I also want to make sure they have even more money to continue to buy gear and make new awesome music to keep me satiated.

On the other hand, music is really an amorphous currency.  Bear with me on this example because I understand an obscure band is difficult to grasp if you have never heard them or understand why I love them.  I, Lauren, love Acid Mothers Temple.  I will see them play every time they come to town.  I will buy their records (even though they don’t compare to the live show).  I will proclaim my love to anyone who feels like listening.  I have no actual statistics but I can say with reasonable certainty that roughly .01% of Earth’s population shares this love of Acid Mothers Temple with me.  Conversely, it seems like everyone and their actual mom loves bands like Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers, while I find myself using every opportunity to scathingly refer to these bands and their fans and gesticulate wildly like a curmudgeonly old man, “what’s wrong with these kids today!? They don’t know how to appreciate anything that’s worth anything!?”  Obviously, these two examples are like apples and oranges, but I’m sure you understand what I am venturing to explain – we all have different tastes.  Even the many people who share my love of Acid Mothers Temple will not understand my subsequent love of Smog, Little Dragon, Chapterhouse or Bonnie Raitt. Nothing makes sense, we all like what we like. Life is subjective as a rule (hence, my username for everything everywhere).

Why even think about it? Why not just go through live liking weirdo electro like Pantha Du Prince, side by side with the intangible nostalgia of the Doobie Brothers?

The reason is that I’m confused by the current state of music and the way artists are paid in much the same way I’m confused by any industry and the way people are paid for their time and efforts.  Since music happens to be the industry that is such a large part of my life, it occupies my consciousness regularly.

Here’s the problem. Musical artists as a population of people are relying on a product that is doesn’t actually exist.  Yes, they spent two years in the studio hammering out 12 songs that they feel proud of and finally gathered the label support or independent support to secure the physical dollars needed to put those 12 songs on CD or release them as digital files for purchase by all potential listeners.  Now, with the advent of streaming services such as Spotify, there’s a whole other revenue stream that is difficult to quantify.  The payers are a fractured group.  The money spent to advertise your music or tour with your music is now cutting into your bottom line. My ten dollars I spent to see you play at the nearest tiny music venue is now barely covering your cup of tea after a long night of singing.  That money is going to print ads, youtube ads, last.fm banner ads, etc. 

The system is broken.  To explain how to fix things, I always like to examine the empirical nature of things.  I recently tried to search engine (that’s a verb! ©Tobin & Mike) “who was the first person to get paid from doing music” and I really couldn’t come up with anything.  At what point did music become a commodity? When did music start, why is it valuable to humans? Remember? Music started before we even wore clothes or knew what fire was? Music has been made and enjoyed prior to the advent of recorded history.  So, who said musicians one day would be paid? Like any talent, you pay someone who can do something for you that you cannot do yourself.  It makes sense to pay them.  So why is it so difficult to get paid nowadays for all your hard work.

It’s really so simple:  too many people are making music. Too many fans of music don’t know what the ___ they’re talking about. Advertisers and media conglomerates glom on to anything that sells and making money in music almost becomes a game of chance rather then a profession where skill and expertise is rewarded with a premium payment.

How to remedy the situation? I read an article recently (http://www.vulture.com/2012/09/grizzly-bear-shields.html) where Travis Morrison, former frontman of the Dismemberment Plan, summed up my thoughts on the subject, saying, “you know how some people say, ‘I would really like to make a middle-class living doing the arts; I feel like I deserve that’? Honestly, I never felt that. I never felt like artists deserved a living. I feel like getting a million dollars for my songs is just about the same as getting it from playing a card at 7-Eleven.”

As defeatist as that sounds to some, especially those who toil day in and day out trying to make a living with their music, it’s what I believe to be true.  If you’re compromising your creations at all to make a buck (and you can argue the line at which that compromise starts to happen), then everything is really rendered useless.  

“He’s in it for the money, not the science!” –quote from the movie, Twister

I’m not saying every musician is a money-grubbing greedy person, they only want to be paid for their efforts just as any other person might want to be paid to make spreadsheets or get coffee for their bosses or operate on hearts or do brain surgery.  

I would hope one day the playing field will level, but it won’t.  In the meantime, love music to your heart’s desire, buy the records of artists you love, listen to that ad-supported radio, go see bands that you want to see.  If Joe Schmo recording artist has to close up shop because he’s not making enough money, that’s really too bad, but I have faith that most artists that are deserving of continuing their careers will get the chance to do so even in this broken system.

Welp, this one really derailed at the end. Apologies - the train is always teetering off the tracks on a regular basis.

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