My son is a musician. At 13, he lives and breathes music, and shows every indication of pursuing music as a career. He’s explicitly stated as much. I should be thrilled, and a big part of me certainly is. He was raised an only child in a home where music is everywhere – both of the recorded and the “live-and-in-person” variety. He could hold a guitar almost as soon as he could walk. He grew up viewing professional musicians rehearsing in the basement studio as no big deal, nothing unusual. Music is the family business, and he appears poised to carry that business forward, and just as poised to leave his old man in the dust, musically speaking, by the time he heads off to college.
It cannot be denied that, lately, there is some trepidation working its way into my take on all of this. A musician’s life has always been one where the potential for disappointment and disillusionment is remarkably high. But these days, it’s also becoming one where it’s close to impossible to earn a living wage.
On April 6, the revered Diva Bette Midler dropped a tweet that should really have surprised no one who has been paying attention to the music business since streaming became the most popular form of music dissemination. And yet, seeing these facts in digital black-and-white still feels like a fist to the face.
Midler’s tweet reads: “@Spotify and @Pandora have made it impossible for songwriters to earn a living: three months streaming on Pandora, 4,175,149 plays = $144.11.”
That’s right. Midler’s music was streamed more than 4 million times and she earned less than 150 bucks.
One needn’t feel sorry for Midler, necessarily – she is surely financially secure. But consider the implications for an artist attempting to “make it” today, from ground zero. Not offering your music to streaming sites is an option, but it’s one that few hungry artists decide to exercise. If you planned on earning money from songwriting royalties – which is where most of the musicians among the richest of the rich made most of their money – you are facing an uphill battle.
Under the heading “I’m a Grammy-nominated artist. Want to see my royalty statements?,” composer Armen Chakmakian shared similarly disturbing facts a few days prior to Midler’s tweet, as reported by Digitalmusicnews.com. According to Chakmakian, “14,227 performances of music (almost every track 100% owned by me) generated $4.20.” These “performances” included digital streaming plays, naturally.
Aside from streaming sites, the second most popular means of accessing music for consumers is YouTube. And guess what? Musicians are losing out in a major way there, too. A new paper published by R. Scott Hiller of Fairfield University and Jin-Hyuk Kim of the University of Colorado at Boulder examines “the impact of online content availability on music sales,” beneath the heading “Online Music, Sales Displacement, and Internet Search: Evidence from YouTube.” It’s fascinating, but it’s dry and data-filled too, which means that few outside of the scholarly community which produced it will read the thing. Here’s the Cliffs Notes version: YouTube is helping to kill music sales in a rather dramatic way.
What other options are available to musicians? Increasingly, live performance is viewed as the predominant avenue toward income, at least for musicians who are in formative stages of their careers, or are simply career musicians who remain successful only on a regional basis. However, if we use Buffalo as an example, it’s clear that live gigging is not likely to make you well-off. Most musicians I know would consider a gig that paid $150 “per man” for, say, three hours of music, to be on the more positive side of acceptable. Following this general formula, if you’re lucky enough to have five bookings a week, or 160 a year, you’re making $24,000 annually. According to Ask.com, managers of fast-food restaurants earn an average of $36,755 a year, by way of comparison.
Any musician who gets into the game with the sole purpose of getting rich is a musician of questionable depth. But earning a living wage, for a musician who has put in the time and effort and been disciplined enough to be considered professional, should be an attainable reality.
Ease of use, accessibility, and low, if any, cost form the obvious appeal of streaming music. But ponder the above the next time you use a streaming site. If you find something you like, consider purchasing it. Record Store Day is Saturday. Now’s your chance.