Last week, the incomparable and incredibly brilliant Quincy Jones gave an interview to The National where he commented “Honey, we have no music industry.” As a musician, this would be a very troubling thing to hear, were I not already observing it first hand. Mr. Jones pointed out how virulent music piracy was, how little impact streaming has on the musicians in question, and how impossible it is sell records now a days. All of these things I have observed and agree with.
So things look a little dire right now. Considering that the big solution from within the music industry is to make another streaming service designed by artists – even though I have a strong gut feeling that streaming will neither fill the gap left by record sales nor replace terrestrial radio in it’s function – I suspect we’re in for a bumpy, downhill ride.
But it may be for the best. Maybe we shouldn’t have a music industry
I know, it sounds crazy that as a musician I’m saying we shouldn’t have a music industry. Why would I openly express relief at the possible death of my livelihood?
Am I just really into shooting myself in the foot?
As the industry stands, it’s not much of a livelihood for many if not most musicians. The select few that either tour constantly (and usually as solo acts, because people don’t like to pay much more for a band, even if they’re getting more music) or that top 1 percent of artists that are getting top billing are the only ones who aren’t working day jobs to pay to work. To put it into perspective, it’s like if the only lawyers who could pay rent with their work were Supreme Court Justices and CNN consultants.
There’s no longer a healthy musical middle class; it’s difficult for people to feed their families as musicians. If we evaluated the income strata of the music industry the way we do countries, we’d be a third world nation.
But I’ve said as much before. Why am I ok with the industry that, in theory, I should be striving to climb collapsing into history?
Because it was doomed from the start.
Even though we now consider a cell phone and internet access and electricity and even running water necessities, humans survived without these things (and still, unfortunately, have to in many parts of the world) for thousands and thousands of years. As a species, we’ve spent a hell of a lot more time without these essential services than we have with them. But I can guaran-damn-tee you humans were sitting in their huts singing to their babies 10,000 years ago and never even dreamed of an iPhone.
They would burn your iPhone as a witch.
We are designed for music. It is instinctual and so innate that our brains are structured to work with it – not just sound or language, but specifically music. It affects us unlike any other art form and stretches across cultures. We are so inclined towards pitch and rhythm that actual tone deafness – the inability to hear a melody, not just singing badly on karaoke night – is considered a neurological disorder; it’s known as amusia. It can be a side-effect of brain damage. Basically, music is such a crucial part of our human experience that we consider people with an inability to understand it to have something wrong with them.
Music is in our wiring.
The music business as we know it – this massive multi-billion dollar industry – was only able to exist because technological constraints of the past hundred years allowed us to limit people’s access to both recorded music and live performance. Even 20 years ago, corporations had the ability to control how and when people accessed music and demand payment for it.
Think of it like access to water. As suburbs and towns became more densely populated or expanded to areas without readily available sources of well or river water, cities built water pipes to supply people with the ever necessary agua. Because there was often no other viable source of water, residents had to use city water and utility companies could get away with charging for a substance you used to get for free from the river.
But if you cut off access to water because of an unpaid bill or sheer dickishness (I’m making that a word), people won’t sit in their homes and slowly die of thirst. They find a stream (pun completely intended). Heck, even if you have the option to use city water but your property has access to ground water, you’re probably going to dig your own well because why pay more for something that is not only a biological imperative, but that you can access for free?
20 years ago, the music industry provided a necessary service to people who could not dig a well or find a stream; it served as a melodic utility company. But modern technology has rendered it obsolete. There is a massive river of music running through our world and people would rather fill their bucket in the stream than pay the utility bill. And I can’t blame them.
I used to get really angry about internet piracy. It took taking a psychoacoustics course and seeing first hand how music is part of our biology to make me calm down and really think about why people are stealing. If I could dig a well through the floor of my condo and have fresh, cool water for free instead of paying Metro Water Services, I would do it. Screw resale value, I don’t want to pay for something that’s such a crucial part of my existence that I feel entitled to it.
Responsible home-ownership at its finest.
Entitled to it. People are entitled to music. The public at large deserves access to music that touches our hearts, that makes us want to fall in love, that makes us want to dance and we shouldn’t have to pay to access it. Never in human history have we so adamantly demanded that people pay for every drop of their sonic water the way we have in the last century. It was a great experiment, but it just doesn’t work any more.
Musicians, of course, will still need to get paid, but using the current structure of the industry isn’t the way to do it. If we’re providing a public and national service by giving people their melodic water to drink and creating culture to share with the rest of the world (which I would imagine is a way more effective method of spreading democracy than blowing up people’s homes), we should be compensated as such. Pay us like public school teachers. Pay us like any public servant in this country. Pay us the way we pay ministers for their time devoted to lifting up the masses.
Music was never meant to be a business. Melody arises from passion and talent and genuine creativity, and when you depend purely on capitalism to sustain it, you lose all of those things. When the driving force behind creation is money rather than art, we all lose. It’s how we wind up with very pretty people who can’t sing in tune without the help of a computer making another cookie-cutter pop song that we’re all supposed to pay $1.29 for the “pleasure” of listening to until another prettier person makes another virtually identical song for us to play on repeat.
Even Quincy Jones said that “when you go after the money, God walks out of the room.” This is why we can’t have a music business. Those two words don’t belong next to each other. Business sure as hell doesn’t make music and music isn’t a sustainable business.
So I say good riddance to the music industry. It was great while it lasted but it’s a deeply, deeply flawed system.
But what will we replace it with? We still need professional musicians and – contrary to what many people seem to believe – musicians are not magical beings that don’t have bills or require food; as citizens of this dimension, we have rent to pay and stomachs to fill.
“They eat, like, cigarette butts and whiskey, right?”
This really isn’t that hard a question to answer. A large portion of the rest of the world provides government funded grants to artists. We do some of that in our country, but it’s pretty exclusive. It seems that the vast majority of funding goes to chamber and avante garde music. Yes, these genres need funding and they’re not going to get it from album or ticket sales. But they’re also not really representative of our current cultural music. Maybe I’m completely out of touch, but I don’t think the average American listener spends his Friday night rocking out to Schoenberg as he anxiously awaits the Tuesday release of the next great atonal record. Considering that there are more Country radio stations than anything else and most people identify their favorite genre as Rock, maybe we should be putting our muscle behind the sounds that actually define modern America.
There’s a huge push to fund music programs in schools, but why create the next generation of musician if they are only destined to starve? It’s like teaching someone to become the world’s greatest kayaker and then throwing them into the river without a boat or a paddle.
If we want good music, if we want new music, if we want music that instantly touches us without requiring a degree in jazz to understand it, we need to expand funding beyond orchestras and abstract performance art to the real, current music of the people. If we want to spread democracy and capitalism across the globe in a way that doesn’t result in collateral damage and civilian casualties, we need new music – people’s music; neither bombs nor Miley Cyrus can achieve this. Maybe it’s time for the Culture Czar or Minister of Culture Mr. Jones suggested so many years ago. There are countries without universal access to electricity that have a Minister of Culture or Arts.
Our whole nation is headed for a sea-change. The student loan bubble is going to pop sooner rather than later and while the national average for unemployment is around 5 and half percent, closer to 10 and half percent of people in their early 20’s are unemployed according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. One of Mr. Jones’ comments was that if all the young people pirating music worked for him for two months and then he didn’t pay them at the end, they’d see how unfair it was. Unfortunately for Quincy, that’s a reality that many recent college grads wake up to every day. They would probably be pretty unfazed.
Something’s going to give and things are going to change. I can only hope our national perspective on music is one of those things. There seems to be a perception that musicians are lazy or flaky, but I think the fact of the matter is that artists of all media require different work habits than your average “job.” Because it’s not your average job. It’s not your average business. And the minute we stop trying to make it into that, is the minute we remember why we feel the need to carry 10,000 songs in our pockets at all times.
But what do I know? I’m just a lazy musician.