The Fading Belief in a Music “Industry” and Its New “Middle-Class”

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We’ve all heard the claim a couple hundred times. “Internet streaming and downloading is killing the music industry.” It’s easily believable. Popular bit-torrent site The Pirate Bay illegally provides millions of albums for those looking to possess digital copies without paying for them. Services like Spotify and Pandora allow users to listen to music for free, with a few ads interrupting now and again or pay a small sum for unlimited, uninterrupted streaming. Artist compensation for these streams has been called unfair, leading popular acts such as Taylor Swift to pull their music from the services.

But this is oversimplifying the infinitely-faceted giant that is the world wide web. For smaller artists who don’t have the widespread appeal of Taylor Swift, who is the #1 most popular artist in 36 of the 50 states, the internet is an invaluable resource for getting their music heard and, consequently, gaining fans. The days of MySpace band profiles have given way to sites like Soundcloud and Bandcamp, which host artists’ music and give access to listeners around the world. In almost all instances this won’t catapult these bands to the top of the pop charts, but it puts them a notch higher than “local bar band.”

 

The Ever-Expanding “Middle Class” of Modern Music

The music industry of the 20th century is an anomaly. The fact that so many people could list “recording artist” as their profession and sole source of income borders on absurdity. Imagine if for every musician who made a living off of their art there was a painter, a poet, a filmmaker, and a novelist who made it just as big. Being an “artist” would become one of the best jobs in America. The truth of it is, however, that being a painter doesn’t pay enough, and being a musician is catching up with that trend.

Last year Jack Conte of Pomplamoose, a band that rose to relative stardom through quirky music videos on YouTube, published an article detailing the band’s tour expenses for their 28-day U.S. tour. The cost of the tour was $11,819 more than what the band brought in from tickets, merchandise, and albums sold on the road. And they’re a popular band. Their most-viewed video with original music has nearly 4 million views, while their cover of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” has over 10 million. Conte goes on to explain that through donations, per video pledges, and online sales, the duo makes about $5000 monthly.

Pomplamoose got to travel and play for fans who sincerely dig their music. Despite the debt this was not a failure. This is the reality of the new “middle class,” or “creative class” as Conte puts it, who aren’t selling out stadiums or performing for ten people at a local open-mic night. Soundcloud, Bandcamp, and Spotify are putting more and more musicians in this position. They make some money but aren’t booking five star hotel suites on their world tour.

Losing the Label

Record labels used to be absolutely necessary if you wanted to make money playing music. You signed a contract and the label would pay for a studio to record in, a producer, someone to mix and master the album, printing copies of it, and lastly distribution. This doesn’t need to happen anymore. Artists can record it at home, mix it at home, upload it at home, and promote it at home, resulting in more music being made by more people. Crowdfunding has also become a popular replacement for the funding labels traditionally provide for artists who require studio time, help from recording experts, and tour expenses. In many ways, viewing the music industry as—well…an “industry” in the traditional sense has become outdated.

None of this is killing these major labels. They still have their Taylor Swift’s, their Beyoncé’s, their Kanye’s, etc. that rake in billions of dollars. Online piracy has put music sales on the decline, but this hurts the labels more than the artists. As record producer Steve Albini pointed out last year, “The internet has facilitated the most direct and efficient, compact relationship ever between band and audience.”

This is good news for people who like making music and having people listen to it.

And really…why else would you make music anyway?

 

(Image by Holmes Palacios Jr.)

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