Music Doesn’t Care About the Music Industry
Once upon a time, Chicken Little was hit on the head with an acorn and thought it meant the sky was falling. He managed to whip the town and its king into a frenzy, only to lead them all into the den of a hungry fox. What’s all this have to do with music? More than it should, unfortunately.
Variety recently reported that music sales are at an all-time low, down by 15 percent from this time last year. Back in 2012, the Wire, based on one Instagram caption from Cat Power, felt comfortable publishing the headline “There’s No Money in Indie Music: Cat Power Is Broke.” There are plenty more articles echoing this sentiment, but we’re tired of reading them, so that’s all we’re linking to here.
All of this hand-wringing may seem to foretell the end of popular music as we know it. But there’s one fact that none of these worry-warts ever seem to mention: The vast, and we mean vast, majority of artists making music today do so without any hope of ever making any money. And they do so happily.
Have you ever heard of R. Stevie Moore? There’s a more than decent chance you haven’t. But he’s been putting out albums steadily for almost his entire life, and he’s 62. His catalog is more than 400 albums deep. And he didn’t take his act on tour until 2011. But he managed to keep himself fed and housed somehow while dedicating his life to making music. He did so with some clever innovations, like a cassette subscription club, and by quickly utilizing new technologies as they became available.
Is Moore an anomaly, an exception to the notion that success equals money? In some ways, absolutely. But he embodies the musical spirit that’s in every crusty punk band and experimental electronic duo and bluegrass psych-rock band you’ll never hear. Do you think the crusty punks and their ilk are worried about declining mp3 sales and how the growing trend in streaming music subscription services will impact their bottom line?
For every album Jack White and the Black Keys release, there are a thousand (OK, we made this number up, but you get the idea) albums released by a thousand bands that will never see a dime from album sales. They’re recording these albums on their laptops, on multitrack recorders they found in pawn shops, or they’re playing after-hours in a cut-rate recording studio where their friend with the keys works.
These people will work most of their lives as bartenders, dishwashers, substitute school teachers and telemarketers. There’s a good chance many of them will die in their early 50s from a lifetime of consuming cheap beer and truck-stop sandwiches. But they’ll keep putting out music until they die.
Ever since Black Flag founder Greg Ginn opened the phone book and discovered he could get records pressed without a major label’s blessing, restaurant servers and movie theater ushers have been starting their own labels. These people are running off cassettes and burning CD-Rs and pressing split seven-inch records, funding their ventures with rent and utility bill money. They may be bumming cigarettes for the next couple of years, but they’ll help their friends in a noise-folk trio release an album that would blow your mind, were you to ever hear it. The fact that you and 99.9 percent of the population won’t hear this album doesn’t factor into their decision to release it.
And while the Internet may be hurting the major labels’ bottom lines, it’s making the lives of ambitious musicians easier. Sites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud are making proliferation possible on a scale never seen before. But what if those websites go away or get swallowed up by corporate overlords? What if Google boots all the little guys from YouTube? What if the music industry as we know it collapses in on itself like a black hole?
Well, how bad would it be if we don’t get to hear the next Katy Perry? Will the world feel an existential emptiness if Coldplay don’t put out another record because they don’t think it will go platinum? Would we be consumed with melancholy if the Coachella and Pitchfork music festivals couldn’t find enough big-name artists to justify charging ten bazillion dollars for a weekend pass? We’d probably survive, somehow.
Taylor Swift wrote an eloquently misinformed article on the future of the music industry. She said, “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable.” Maybe Taylor Swift hasn’t been on the Internet before, since she doesn’t seem to understand that the age of scarcity, at least in the realm of music, is over.
Swift goes on to call out musicians who give their music away for free. “Valuable things should be paid for,” she wrote. “It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.”
While we’re not saying that artists shouldn’t try to get paid, we ask Swift to remember this: Music and money are two separate things. While most musicians hope to make enough money to quit waiting tables one day, either way they’ll keep playing for as long as they’re able. If, somehow, it became absolutely certain that no one would ever again make one single cent off of music, people would keep playing just because they love it.