Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sing For Your Supper

What is a song worth? How much should a consumer expect to pay to listen to a specific song? How much should the artist expect to be paid when the consumer listens to one of their songs? A few years ago, this was a question with an easy answer. You bought a cassette, or a CD, for $15 or $20 dollars. A dozen or so songs, widely varying in quality and even genre, on a flimsy plastic playback platform. Everyone had a sense that this was way too expensive, but the alternative was listening to the radio. Sure, that was free - you had to listen to the commercials, that was part of the deal - but you had no control over what was played, and when.

Then came the 90s, the internet and Napster. Now there was an alternative - not only was music suddenly free, but you could get just the songs you wanted. For the next decade, the record labels fought their customers tooth and nail for the right to make millions from music sales. And eventually, just as the download model killed the CD, streaming services (mostly) killed the download model. Whether subscription based or ad supported, streaming services pay the labels and the artists a great deal less than they made in the days when music consumers had no choice but to buy that $15.00 CD, even if they only liked one song on it.

Artists should definitely be able to make a living making music - the question of whether they would quit making music if they couldn't get paid at some level, as is often suggested, strikes me as the wrong question to ask, and unlikely in any case. But how much should any musician realistically expect to make? Prior to the rise of rock n roll in the late 1950s, musicians made a living. They could devote their lives to making and performing music, and in return they could expect to be paid. It was a blue collar, working class way to get by, but for people who felt the need to make music, it was a perfectly fair deal. Then came Top 40 radio, gold albums and sold out arenas, and at least a subset of artists (and their record label partners) became fabulously wealthy. They were millionaires with their own airplanes and an unlimited supply of drugs and groupies. Even if you weren't in that rarefied company, every rock n roll band knew they were just one number one hit away from paradise.

But is that what music is worth? Does it make sense that a band should make millions? It seems that we've been through an anomalous period in time when the limits of the distribution format allowed music to be artificially priced at irrational and unsustainable levels. Successful bands will always make a lot of money - in a tightly connected world where anything can go viral in 24 hours, the demand for a 'hot' band or performer will provide nearly instant wealth. But the system, the music industry, the streaming sites, the $0.99/song downloads, internet and terrestrial radio - these distribution formats have to work in such a way as to support the vast working class mainstream of musicians, singers and songwriters. The record labels have lost their cash cow, but they were never necessary to the process anyway. They were the parasite, sucking much of the lifeblood out of a relationship between artist and fan. That they should end up with nothing is a particularly satisfying form of justice.

There is a kind of free floating assumption that because musicians have become unimaginably wealthy in recent decades that this is some kind of norm, one that we must find a way to preserve. But that seems almost certainly wrong to me. So let's start with this - median household income in the US stands at a little over $50,000/year. I don't think anyone would begrudge a performer making 50K. Is there some reason that performer should expect to make MORE than that? How much more? More than a welder, a truck driver, a software engineer? Are musicians so much more valuable to society that they should expect to make twice the median income? Four times?

I don't know the answer. My gut tells me a musician with a decent following is going to make at least a hundred grand, and that's very much as it should be. I can't for the life of me understand why a musician should expect to make tens of millions of dollars anymore - the market can no longer generate that much cash. In looking around today, it looks like the whole system is settling into a functional equilibrium. Some viable mix of ad-supported streaming, subscription streaming, paid downloads and live performances, along with the other commercial opportunities available to talented artists, should make it possible for a musician to make a decent living doing what he or she loves to do, and while the era of the millionaire performer might be fading, that's still a pretty good outcome.


  1. Making millions isn't even in the cards. Related:


  2. I have two questions:

    1.) How many millions HAS Iggy made over his career? I suspect you or I would not be in such dire straights

    2.) What lifestyle is Iggy trying to 'live'? If you're not rich (anymore), you can't live as if you are. But that doesn't mean you can't live.

  3. 1. I don't think Iggy has made that much on a year-by-year basis. Based on what I know, it could be said that because you made much money back in the 90s, that you we should have had no concern for you in this decade when you were close to homeless.

    1A. How many millions have YOU made over your career? Total career wages are a false metric that are usually used by for-profit colleges to pretend you are going to be able to pay off your loans...

    2. It's not a matter of lifestyle, it's a matter of living. I see no one claiming that Iggy is living the Lifestyle Of the Rich and Famous, and I think he would prefer not to sell his drug songs to Carnival cruise.

    But I find it a bit revealing that the first thing you want to do is to try and claim that because Iggy is famous, that he has an unreasonable expectation of what a living wage might be. He lived on the street and in drug houses.

  4. finally: If living off music is so easy, YOU pick up a damn guitar and do it.

    1. thunder pants can be a lyricist. He's like a political Morrissey...

  5. I recognize that this post was Pure Zombait. I resisted, but had a couple of Kooba Zombres tonight while listening to a Robot Webinar, and my inhibitions went down like a Kardashian...

  6. **SIGH**

    Take a deep breath now - or whatever the zombie equivalent is. I don't hate Iggy Pop - I'm not a fan, but I'd love for him to live well. I don't think musicians should starve - I'm not, however, in control of that outcome.

    Once again, the point is to consider the future of music as an industry. It doesn't require anyone to get mad or yell at anyone else. It's just an interesting conversation. Do you have anything to contribute? How much do YOU think a song is worth. What is a viable business model in the streaming age?

    Of course, you can always just yell at me some more if you prefer...

  7. Well written piece and intriguing perspective Mikey and I completely agree.
    Given that earning a $100k or more per year puts one in the upper tier of income earners in the U.S. it would seem to me that any musician nowadays that can reach that level is doing better than most. It doesn't have to be MILLIONS in order to be earning a great income doing what ya love.

  8. Came across this article today and made me think of this post of yours:


    I chuckled a little as I read the line about how the artist's music label gets half so Westergren's numbers were misleading.

    Excuse me, misleading? He paid what he paid so how is that misleading or his fault that the artist's label takes half? Who's the real villain in that scenario?

    Anyway, not to get off topic here, the main thing that caught my eye and made me think of this post was the part of 2000 artists getting paid $10,000 - not bad supplemental income! And 200 artists $50,000 that's a liveable income in most of the country!