The Music Industry Is Full Of Desperate, Slutty Teens [and Other Misleading, Offensive Analogies]

In my last blog post, I indicted us all as consumers for not valuing and respecting musicians and their craft enough to invest money into it.  Today I’m calling out those of us in the music industry for being desperate, desperate sluts.

Honesty time: how many of you who are musicians have played for free or what winds up being less than the federal minimum hourly wage?  How many of you give CDs out for free?  All of you should have your hands up.  How many non-musicians have done this [excluding internships – musicians also do those and we’re even less likely to get paid for them than the rest of you]?  Would you do someone’s taxes for free?  Give their kid a set of braces?  Serve them a gourmet meal you went to culinary school to learn to make?

This is what a plate full of passion looks like.  We need to start getting compensated in cash, not

This is what a plate full of passion looks like. We need to start getting compensated in cash, not “exposure.”

Consumers don’t value our product, but how can they when we don’t seem to either?  The listener – whether that’s the public, a record label, a manager, or a publisher – is the senior quarterback.  His name’s Joey, he’s super hot and, like, everybody knows he never dates freshmen but we totally can’t stop thinking about him.  We – the musicians, labels, managers, or publishers – are the desperate freshman girl (or guy; there’s no right kind of love, even in a crass analogy).  We’re going to be called Becky.  We’re not super confident and way inexperienced, but so desperate for Joey’s sweet quarterback loving that we’ll gladly cash in our V-card on the delusional off-chance that sex will make him love us back.  If we had our head on straight, we’d recognize that that first time is very special and not something we can get back once it’s gone.  Also, Joey’s been making out with Tina behind the bleachers and she totally has his letterman jacket and everyone knows they’re going to end up together but he’s also a teenage boy of a rather lower moral caliber so he’s not going to turn down sex if we offer it.

Before we know it, we’ve given ourselves to Joey and he’s already hooking up with Tina again and isn’t even getting our name right when he sees us in the hallway between classes – if he acknowledges us at all.

“He called me Betsy!”

This is the music industry.  This situation is what happens every time we give our music out for free or sign a shitty deal with a publisher/manager/label because we’re so happy that they actually acknowledged us.

It’s time to get a grip, Becky.  Joey’s got zero emotional interest in you; he’s just in it for the cheap, awkward sex.

We give the public our music for free in the hopes that they’ll notice us, but they’ve moved on to the next desperate band trying to get followers before we can blink and you’ve made zero dollars or leverage-able connections in the process.  We sign a deal with a publisher that is going to leave us completely screwed in two years because we’re so excited that someone is acknowledging our talent we don’t bother to make sure they actually appreciate it as well.  A label makes their entire catalogue available free on streaming services – including smaller artists who can’t rely on an invested fanbase to cover the loss – because peer pressure, am I right, guys?

If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?

Stole that joke from my mom.

Stole that joke from my mom.

I’m not saying that no music should be free.  Sometimes, giving it away is the best way to get your foot in the door.  But we’re not doing it intelligently anymore.  Everything is free.  We went from just trying to get Joey’s attention to doing the whole damn football team and it’s not very becoming.  We need revenue streams and we need to say what our art is worth and stick to our damn guns.  Remember, you’ve invested thousands of hours and dollars into your craft.  It’s worth something.

People are consuming more than ever.  Clearly music has importance to them.  We have a certain amount of power to say that that importance has a monetary parallel.

But that’s not an easy path to tread.  That V-Card is nonrefundable.  We may have put too much out there already.  The free nature of music and the ease of access has become this unwieldy Frankenstein’s monster that now seems to be controlling us rather than the other way around.

Take back the power, Becky!  You’re better than this!

Part of the issue is that we out-slut each other.  Case in point: Almost all of the bands on Broadway in downtown Nashville (and at plenty of venues around the country) are playing for tips and nothing else.  This isn’t always a bad thing; they have the potential to make hundreds a night in tips at certain spots on certain days.  But even waitstaff know that they’re at least getting a few bucks an hour, even if it’s a slow day or there’s a raging asshole convention in town that night and no one leaves a gratuity.  If those musicians don’t get any tips, they lose money at the end of the night.  But if one of these bands demands to get paid an hourly fee by the venue, the venue will just call up another band from the seemingly endless pool of desperate acts looking for a coveted spot on LoBro.

We’ve given into the every whim of the consumers, which in some ways is awesome and in other ways is fucking stupid.  Mostly stupid.  When everything is free, nothing has value.  It’s hard to manage the toddler-level temper tantrum that is digital piracy, but now the kid’s smearing shit on the walls and we’re complimenting him on his creativity.

Even the cheapest prostitute isn’t free.  Hookers don’t give away freebies to get “exposure.”  Guys, hookers have a better understanding of their value than many young (and not-so-young) musicians.

These ladies have better business acumen than many musicians.

These ladies have better business acumen than many musicians.

Music is incredible.  If you have a musical gift, you have one of the closest things to a super-power most of us will ever see.  You possess a special kind of magic.  It’s freaking amazing!  Remind people of that.  Maybe throw in that great fact I found for the last post about how you’ve spent more time on your craft than someone who’s just receiving their commercial pilot’s license has spent in an airplane (enjoy your friends’ and families’ sudden fear of flying).  When someone asks if you charge to play say “yes,” loudly and clearly and know what you charge.  Give some things away for free but make sure you’re getting something in exchange for every interaction – whether it’s money through a tip or a merch sale or an email address for a mailing list (a vague promise that they’ll like you on Facebook does not count; dignity, Becky, dignity).

This industry, unlike almost any other industry, has the most unforgiving “entry level” you can imagine.  “Entry level” in the music industry means either working in another industry while you attempt to launch your career or bleeding money, and it can take years to get past this point.  This has become the accepted norm, but we have the potential to change this.  For a true sea-change we’ll likely need a change in how our culture treats musicians, but we can be part of that process.

Let’s start by having business practices at least as good as those of your average hooker and move forward from there.

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What’s Actually Wrong With The Music Industry: You

There are all kinds of things wrong with the music industry right now: faltering sales, a streaming market we’re unsure how to monetize, illegal downloading, unpaid musicians, copyright laws that haven’t been thoroughly overhauled since before CDs (which will likely be virtually obsolete by the time they are updated).  The list could go on forever.  Like most issues, there’s not just one root to the problem(s) nor one solution.  But as far as I can see there is an underlying factor that is contributing to all of these issues:

You.

you've ruined everything

And me.  Us.  Really, our society and how we place little to no value on music and musicians.

The first argument I get when I say something along these lines is that people worship their favorite musicians.  “There’s so much respect there!”  But it’s not enough to invest money in their favorite artist.  Yeah, there are super fans that will drop thousands to see every concert, own every album, wear every T-shirt, but they’re not the norm nor is this a viable income source for all musicians.  Not everyone is Taylor Swift – nor should you need to be Taylor Swift to feed yourself and your family.  Not every doctor has to be Sanjay Gupta on CNN to make a living and not every lawyer winds up a Supreme Court justice, but we expect that’s what musicians should need to do to get paid – and even the one’s who reach that level of stardom usually aren’t making as much money as you think they’re making.

Except for TSwift.

Except for TSwift.

So let’s start the conversation with some awareness: there are artists with multiple number one hits who can’t afford rent.  There are writers with number one hits who work blue-collar day jobs because they have to.  Very few people are making the amount of money much of society associates with stardom.

We as the listening public are truly the employers in the music industry.  We generate the paychecks.  No one – from the biggest executive to the lowliest piano player in a small town bar – is going to get paid unless we pay them.  And we don’t.  Somehow, we don’t feel music is worth investing in.  Yet we buy phones designed to hold thousands of hours of songs and stream an infinite amount of music free from the internet.  We’ll drop $500 on a device that can stream digital music from a cell tower and pay lord knows how much in data fees for it, but we won’t tip a musician at a show.  We invest in the access, but not the product.

Maybe it’s because people don’t understand how much goes into the music we listen to.  You can be licensed as a commercial pilot with as little as 150 hours of flight time and a private pilot’s license only takes 40 hours.  Chances are the musicians who played at your wedding spent 20 times that with their instruments.  They may have even played until their fingers bled to reach their level of proficiency (it sounds rock and roll, but even I’ve experienced this).  But you likely just enjoyed their talents without really thinking about it.

You can be trusted to navigate this in less time than it takes you to learn to successfully operate a guitar.

You can be trusted to navigate this in less time than it takes you to learn to successfully operate a guitar.

The song playing through your car stereo cost thousands of dollars and dozens of hours to record, but you’re enjoying it for free.  That’s how radio has always worked.  When you buy a song for $0.99, that’s only 1/10,000th of the cost just of recording (if it was an independent record with a moderate budget; increase that number to six figures for a major label release).  This doesn’t include rehearsal space, instruments, getting CDs actually made, and promotion.  And chances are, most of your $0.99 isn’t going directly to the person making the music; some of it goes to the songwriter, some to the producer, the engineer, the publishers, the label, the digital distributor…  When you stream, even less money heads towards the people responsible for creating what you’re enjoying.

So part of the problem is that we’ve made music so accessible it’s hard to understand how much work and money goes into making it.  That’s something that we as an industry need to address.

As a society and a culture, however, we need to look at the value we place on what musicians do.  We expect musicians to have day jobs or treat it as a hobby.  Would you go to a dentist who just did it as a hobby?

“Yeah, normally I pave driveways but on weekends I like to mess around with dentistry.  I’ll pull that tooth for you.  Watched a YouTube video on it last night.”

"Did it myself!"

“Did it myself!”

No one in their right mind would do that.  If you want professional quality, you need people who have devoted themselves to a craft.  This applies to music as well.  Remember the pilots license comparison I made earlier?  It takes as much if not more time to hone your craft as a musician as it does to learn any other field.  But we as a society don’t acknowledge this.  Yeah, people are more likely to do music because they love it and are passionate about it, but we still need to eat and pay our bills.  Passion alone can’t sustain us.  We don’t expect doctors to hand out complimentary surgeries so they can “get exposure” but we ask musicians to do this on a regular basis.  If we want exceptionally good music, we need to to pay people for it the way we do every other service.

Australia and many other countries provides arts subsidies so that people can hone their skills and create their music the way that is really required to get a great product without starving to death in the process.  Other countries tax the parts of computers used to burn discs or copy music and distribute this to musicians in an effort to compensate for the revenue lost to piracy.  They recognize that centuries from now, cultures will be remembered for the art they leave behind.  They invest in a legacy, in the history of their nation.  The books we study from in school are filled with images of the centuries old paintings and instruments and beautiful architecture, not their test scores in STEM fields.

Here in the United States, we’re more likely to audit you if you call yourself a musician when you file your taxes.

In America this is how we say "Thank you for contributing to the culture we broadcast to the world; we appreciate you."

In America this is how we say “Thank you for contributing to the culture we broadcast to the world; we appreciate you.”

At some point, we’re going to hit a wall and there will be a paradigm shift.  At some point we will realize as a society that the cumulative product of 7 million casual hobbyists recording into their laptop microphones is not equivalent to the work of even one professional who has devoted his or her life to an art form.

Imagine if your only option for dentists was one of seven million hobbyists from a few paragraphs ago.

Imagine if your only option for dentists was one of seven million hobbyists from a few paragraphs ago.

There have been professional musicians for thousands of years.  Music is an essential part of the human experience and musicians have been part of most societies since time immemorial.  By comparison, doctoring has been a respected profession for about the past century.  Electrical engineering wasn’t really a thing until the 19th century.  When someone takes up the mantle of a musician, they are taking up the charge of a millennia old craft, something that has been considered precious within societies across continents for nearly as long as humanity has existed.  It is a sacred art.

But we look at musicians as deadbeats and slackers.  There’s no respect.  We tip our waiters (as we should) but we can’t be bothered to throw a few bucks towards the guy who played and sang for us all through our meal – even though it’s taken more time and talent and financial investment for him to become a musician than it took your waiter to learn to wait tables.  Both are valuable skills and both take blood, sweat, and tears to develop so why not tip them both.

Unless you're this guy.  I don't think I want your $0.09.

Unless you’re this guy. I don’t think I want your $0.09.

The music industry has some work to do, but we have our problems to address as music consumers.  I want to make a suggestion to you: spend 48 hours with no music in your life.  It’ll be harder than you think.  You’ll have to mute the TV, you can’t go out to the movies, any kind of shopping is out of the question since there’s a constant stream of music playing.  No YouTube, really nothing where there might be advertising.  No radio, since even talk radio has music in the transitions and ads.  Make sure your phone’s set to vibrate.  No video games, since those have background scoring.  And stay the hell away from coffee shops, bars, and restaurants.  You might even accidentally hear music coming from someone’s car if you’re walking down the street, so maybe just stay inside the whole time.

Basically, sit in your house in silence two days.  I hope you have a book you really like.

This'll keep you busy.

This’ll keep you busy.

Then tip the next musician you enjoy.  Buy a song if you find you keep listening to it on Spotify.  Invest in your cultural legacy, because you are the only one who can.