In case you were on the road or on a bender for the last half of June, there has been a lot of hoopla surrounding a 21-year-old NPR intern named Emily White. She publicly admitted to having more than 11,000 songs on her laptop, yet she said she has only purchased 15 CDs in her lifetime.
A widely circulated response letter by David Lowery, who was a founding member of alt-rock groups Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, chides evil Emily for her lack of integrity. He then provides readers with a heaping helping of misinformation in the hopes of educating her generation about the economics of the music business and presents a plan for making things better. It appears that the composer of “Teen Angst” now wants to guilt trip teenagers into adjusting their moral compass.
It’s a feel-good campaign, and it has as much vision as Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” approach to recreational drugs.
It isn’t just a bad idea either. It’s a dangerous attitude for artists to take because it will only create animosity between them and their would-be fans while they waste time and money on a dead product.
In his letter, Professor Lowery explains that he has been teaching music business courses at The University of Georgia for the past two years, and he acknowledges that most young people have the same attitude about purchasing music that Emily does. They aren’t going to do it.
Instead of beating them over the head with ethics, and trying to convince consumers to pay for something they already have, wouldn’t a smarter businessman ask his potential customers what they will pay for?
It may not be the responsibility of government and big business to fairly compensate artists, as Professor Lowery claims, but if an artist wants to be compensated, it is his or her responsibility to learn the laws and learn the business.
The fact is, technology has made it much easier to record music these days. This has caused the real value, and the perceived value of recordings to diminish greatly. Record labels and even many independent artists are certainly being hurt by this, but the worst thing they can do is recklessly cling to the past and ask the future to conform to their wishes.
I don’t feel sorry for the major labels’ loss of revenue any more than I blame them for making a fortune by re-releasing old recordings when technology gave them the CD format. That’s just business.
I do feel bad for independent artists that are struggling, but I think there are a lot of things going on in the music business right now to be excited about, and I think looking at what is working is a better idea than whining about what’s not.
A major concept to understand is that recordings are only a part of the music business. There are three major income streams flowing into the industry—record sales, live performance fees and publishing royalties.
Publishing revenues have been steadily rising because music is being used in so many new ways. Video games have become a huge source of income, while television shows, commercials and movies are using music now more than ever. That’s why the country’s two largest, non-profit, performing rights organizations, ASCAP and Sound Exchange, reported record revenues in the first quarter of 2012.
Have you tried to buy a concert ticket, lately? They are often hard to come by. Big arena shows have been selling out in a matter of minutes, and theater shows are reporting big numbers in ticket sales for music from all genres. Live performance revenues in the first quarter of 2012 were three times more than they were just five years ago. The biggest reason is that fans aren’t spending as much money on music, so they’re buying T-shirts and coozies by the bucket full. Younger fans may not have any interest in reading your CD’s liner notes, but they will buy all sorts of merchandise as long as it’s stamped with their favorite artist’s logo. At a recent Miley Cyrus concert, she collected a staggering $25/head in merch sales, and more avant-garde artists like The Flaming Lips and Jack White have had success hocking everything from earbuds to gummy skulls.
If you don’t want your music to be used to sell other products, too bad. It always has been. Even if you never get to put your name on them, venues have always held you responsible for selling those big cups of Budweiser or shots of Jagermeister.
If you are an emerging artist, don’t attempt to convince your fans to buy your iTunes. You will never sell enough to make a difference. GIVE YOUR MUSIC AWAY! If you still have physical CDs to sell, give them away with the purchase of a key chain or a coffee mug, but GIVE IT AWAY!
Like every business, the music business is actually about mathematics. Historically the percentage of people who hear your music that will like it enough to invest in you is around 7 percent. This usually holds true regardless of genre, talent, marketing campaigns or region. The best thing you to can do for yourself, as an artist, is simply to get more young people to listen to your music. To do that, the most important question you can ask them is “How do you find out about the music you listen to?”
This is more potential than ever for you to have your music heard by large numbers of people because the traditional “gatekeepers” are gone. Terrestrial radio and a major label backing are no longer the accepted norm, and grass roots marketing and social networks have taken over.
Spotify, or some other subscription-based network, will eventually take care of the illegal downloading issue altogether and the fees to artists will be worked out by government and big business. It may not be their responsibility, but they are the ones that are going to do it. Big business shapes every aspect of American culture, and Emily White’s generation is far from the first generation to inadvertently “unstick it to the man and instead stick it to the weirdo freak musicians.” Or to the family farmer. Or the local hardware store owner. Or the neighborhood coffee shop.
But the most important thing to remember, as an artist, is that you love making music. You don’t do it for the money. You do it because something in your soul won’t let you not do it, and you want the world to hear it. You know that a world where people have access to more music, regardless of their tax bracket, is a better world. You want to be a part of that world.
As your fans, we want you to succeed and we will invest in you. If you write great songs, put on a killer show and iron your logo on a funky T-shirt, I promise you that we’ll still cough up every nickel we rake in working down at the car wash to be a part of your world.
For more information on this topic:
Emily White’s letter