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Saturday, September 10, 2011

99 Cents or Nuthin'

It has been a rather strange summer.  First of all, it (summer) didn't show up until about August.  Before that, it was cool, grey and sometimes rainy all the way through the spring and into July.  And although I took the month of August off from teaching, I worked all the way through it trying to come up with a new music theme for CHEK Television.  I'm very happy to have the work, but it certainly kept summer at a distance for me.  My studio is in the basement of my home, and it is dark and kind of secluded, so although I took breaks by going out into the backyard and going for walks, I was locked up in there working for hours at a time.  Next week, many of my students are returning and that's the end of that "break"!

I consider myself very fortunate to do what I love to do for a living, but the truth of it is that it often isn't enough of an actual living and if I was on my own without a spouse who supports me, I'd probably not be able to do what I love as much as I have.  Young people who are just starting out as musicians or in bands and who want to make a living at it, have a long road ahead of them.  The simple truth is that the general public does not want to pay for music.  Every time you see artists out there performing, 90% of the time they are either making very little in terms what the venue pays them, or they are making nothing at all!  If they have a CD to sell, they'd be lucky to sell a handful at any one performance.  It's almost impossible to get on traditional radio unless you're either Lady Gaga or an oldies band from the 50's to the 70's, and if you try to sell your music through iTunes or other digital services, you have to pay for your songs to be there and normally see very little return on actual sales.

I lost a lot of money as a performer.  I spent thousands on the recording and manufacturing of my CDs and traveled quite a bit to the mainland and here on the island to try to sell them, but not nearly enough to break even.  I could have worked harder at it, I could have joined other groups or had longer road trips but I would have been a female on my own out there and that didn't appeal to me, especially with a young family at home at the time.  But that's just my own story.

As a whole, the music "business" has struggled terribly in the last few years.  A lot of record labels and publishers went under in the past 10 years for many reasons, including the fact that many of them had lived high off the hog for many years on the backs of their artists, and suddenly traditional CD sales tumbled.  They didn't figure out how to embrace new technology (ie, internet downloading) before it overcame them.  If you give people the opportunity to have something for free, or to pay for it, what do you think most people will do?  Instead of using the technology to their benefit, record labels and conglomerates were reactionary, simply suing people like single parents with teenagers who did a lot of downloading, for millions of dollars, hoping to discourage the activity.  This made them out to be bullies and didn't scare anybody.  Not great publicity.

There is now a whole generation of people, my adult children included, who know how to download music on their iPods and other devices, and who have not paid a cent for any of it.   Most of them believe that all music should be free, not because they hold a grudge against the business of it, but because for their generation it has always been that way.  All of this leaves bands and artists at a huge disadvantage.

While we all thought that the internet was going to provide an even playing field for artists and bands, in that anyone in the world could find us and become a fan of our music, instead we have become lost in our sheer numbers.  We got sucked into the idea that "millions of people" would hear our music, which wasn't anywhere near the truth.  Millions of people were overwhelmed at the amount of music on the web and had no idea how to find something that they liked.  This is what record labels used to be good at (other than just make big money off their artists);  they were a kind of conduit for good music, giving the cream of the crop an opportunity to rise.  Radio stations are also to blame for abandoning the original intent of "just playing good music";  a lot of them became a part of a huge conglomerate (think Clear Channel in the US), where some executive far away decided what music would be played instead of it being the decision of the local radio station's music director.  This made it nearly impossible for artists or bands in a community to be heard on their local radio stations.  Besides that, instead of radio stations playing a variety of music, their playlists became narrower and narrower as they hired consultants to tell them what kind of music would bring in the big bucks from their advertisers.

Some social media websites have tried to become "the place" to find new music, and iTunes and Pandora have come up with technology that takes your choice in music and tries to find other artists or bands that might appeal to you.  But those artists and bands have to pay money to be there and many of them simply can't afford it, or have no idea where to start.  YouTube is a place to freely share your music in the hopes of getting some attention and even some sales, but the majority of these viral musical acts are 10-year-old phenoms who can sing like Rhianna or Justin Bieber, himself a result of millions of YouTube hits, and again, the artist or band gets lost in the cacophony.

I don't think the future is so bleak that music will disappear, of course.  People LOVE music and they love all kinds of it!  We just haven't found a model yet that will make it feasible for more new artists to earn a decent living at it.  I admit, I downloaded a lot of music in the "free" way until I finally realized that I was really just defeating my own purpose.  Now I pay the 99 cents or, more often these days, $1.29 for every song that I desire to own.  And even though I know most of that money is only going to iTunes, at least I know I am morally supporting the artist or band who wrote and recorded that song and spent money out of their own pockets to do so.  In these difficult economic times, the arts are the first to have any kind of government funding pulled, so it's even more important to support artists on an individual basis.

And that's my appeal to any of you out there reading this blog...do your favourite artists a favour and pay for their music so they can continue to produce it!

Off the soapbox now :-)....and back to the studio for me...

IJ