"Selling Out" (op ed)
I was just perusing various pages on last.fm and reading some of the comments under certain songs. One of the things that I found common was the sentiment that bands sell out when they become successful. Or more directly, if they license their music to an advertisement. Now we've had a modest amount of money come in from licensing our songs to television shows so far and personally I would appreciate the opportunity to have a song used in a cool ad (provided it was for a product we actually might use, or at least didn't despise). I can assure you we haven't sold out, sold in, or sold through anything.
In the 2000's it's quite challenging to make a living from composing and performing music. The old paradyms have changed, the old business model really doesn't exist anymore. Gone are the days where a band might be discovered, signed to a deal with a major label, given the opportunity to record an album's worth of material in a high end studio and then spend a year touring it. Corporate radio is all but a closed door to the indie bands, unless they can provide some revenue to the station by purchasing an ad, or perhaps they have a mysterious benefactor (exception being made here to a few local stations who are playing very cool music from our scene here in Vancouver. I hope the same can be said elsewhere). So what recourse is left for the underground artist to be discovered? Record stores are all but gone (though I have nothing but respect for the ones that are still here - they are a great resource and usually filled with knowledgable staff who actually love music), radio had lost it's importance to most younger listeners, magazines tend to need some cash to get things in print, and music television is so marginalized that it only serves the top 10 videos which all seem to pander to a teenage viewership (one exception is The Wedge on Much Music, possibly the most enjoyable hour of television nearly every week - thank you to the programmers!).
So where are bands to earn their living? I've harped on this issue before, but let's reiterate. We are in a strange time where a couple generations of music listeners have grown accustomed to getting all their music for free. The mp3 is the ultimate cassette tape. Where in the 80's, vinyl albums used to come with stickers inside them stating "home taping is killing music"; I'm sure ALL the labels from that era would give anything to just have to contend with cassettes once again. At least someone had to buy an album for the tape to be made! Now, with digital technology if a band like Coldplay were to have a leak and their album made available online by an unethical engineer, hundreds of thousands of copies could be freely taken in only a matter of a weekend. I know a few of you might think who cares about Coldplay, but replace them with a band you love and then consider the impact it will make on their lives, the lives of their families, the people who work for them, etc...
The accepted adage of our era is that musicians will have to make their living from the live shows. Yes that's true, if you're in the Coldplay status. You can make a phenominal living. But what of the vast majority of us who aren't? Ask a friend who plays in a local band how much she or he made at their last performance. I'll bet most will simply grin sheepishly and tell you "nothing." When you're starting out you play for free. Or very close to that. You are investing your day job's money into your art. You buy an instrument and then spend years learning to play it. You pay for rehearsal spaces (in Vancouver it seems the going rate is about $60 for a three hour block - how much do you think gets done in three hours?) Your guitars cost anywhere from $100 for some used piece o' crap to several thousands for a high quality one. Drum kits can cost the price of a small car, plus there is constant upkeep. The expenditures are massive, the income is small. If, after a year of playing, you end up with a decent following you may end up getting a couple hundred bucks for a show. That's nice, but in reality if that band has an album out they've probably paid anywhere from $5000 to $20000 to record and press their indie release. It's going to take a helluva lot more than three hundred bucks to offset those costs.
Bands do sell CD's and vinyl at their shows, and I've been seeing an increase in download cards appearing at the merch booths (which personally I'm into as they reduce the waste of a CD, and fit nicely in your wallet!) but perhaps you've noticed they rarely sell out.
Where are we to make our living from then? Is it now to be that all musicians have to hold two or three jobs and try to fit their art into the spare time? Can anyone become excellent in a situation like that? Obviously a band will have to be good to succeed: that will never change. But now even good bands are struggling to make a living. Bands that were once on major labels who have been dropped due to financial worries at said label. The belts have been tightened all over the world, but for the musicians that started in 1999 not 2008, th emp3 and Napster changed everything. Unfortunately most of us didn't see that. And then we can see the result of a profit driven society, it hasn't been too friendly to the arts.
So, is it really surprising that The Dandy Warhols licensed one of their best songs to a Citreon ad? Or Moby licensed almost every song off his Play album back in the day? These artists were looking for exposure. And while the internet is a fantastic resource for the indie muso and the music fan, its vastness and choice are also what make it so difficult for us to find what we want. Strangely, commercial television has become the harbinger for new music. Shows like Grey's Anatomy, The OC, I don't know... they have broken several acts wide open to the North American audience. TV commercials have made overnight stars of obscure electronic artists who were unheard of only weeks before. And these people are all probably very happy to be paid.
I guess I will alway marvel at the misconception some people have about the riches of the music industry: millionaire rock stars, private jets, and flashy sports cars. The truth is almost everyone who creates, performs, and records music for a living makes a very modest income from it. Very modest. Please don't begrudge them getting a few thousand bucks for a television ad, it might be their sole income that year!
Alright, all done, the soap box shall be put away for the weekend. Thanks for reading and understanding. Have a great summer, and if you're in the mood, please buy some music or go to a show: or go to a show and buy some music: hope you enjoy it too!
p.s. oh yes, and we'd like to offer our respects to Michael Jackson, r.i.p.