Mike Doughty is bringing me down. (or, “The future reality of playing music for a living”)

I used to have an interest in the music industry. I think I actually believed that I could potentially, eventually get a job in that mucky muck. With the passing of such ideas, I still have a vague interest in the music industry. Mostly I’m appalled at the way businesses have failed to adapt to the advent of the Internet (suing your customer base for fun and profit) and simultaneously I’m curious to see how things will shake out once the sinking ships finally go down.

There has recently been an exchange in the media whose honesty is one of the more accurate reflections of the current situation of making money off of music. It all started with a blog post by Emily White, an NPR intern, titled “I never owned any CDs to begin with” in which the author brags about the amount of music she has acquired illegally, rationalizing her acquisitions by way of the venerable “artists don’t get any of the money from record sales” argument.

Emily’s blog moved a lot of people to write about it, including almost 1000 comments, a commentary from an NPR staff member, a post from a talent agency co-founder and most importantly for my little narrative, a reaction from David Lowery, the singer from Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker who now teaches music business courses at the University of Georgia.

Lowery depicts the current music industry situation by tracking the flow of end user money; when users download illegally, their money goes to internet providers and manufacturers of computers and phones _instead of_ musicians. While I can see his point, it’s not waterproof, as downloading legally still requires that you buy a laptop and internet service. Regardless, his ultimate point stands – musicians don’t get any money. This is backed up by the fact that most musicians do not, as many lay people suspect, make all their money from touring. He goes further to insinuate that music stealing makes depressed musicians commit suicide; kind of a low blow.

The next step in this conversation of comments comes from Mike Doughty, who in a blog post agrees with Lowery’s description of the situation and takes it a step further in the form of the equation:

less money to record labels = less tour support for bands = fewer bands

Doughty drives this home by positing that a band like Radiohead wouldn’t have survived if they had to deal with this new industry economy. It’s a depressing picture. Not just because of Radiohead, but because there will be fewer creative bands.

I agree with many of his points, but I can’t help but think that his equation is only good at predicting the short term. We’ve already been seeing the fallout of diminished recording industry revenues. What it amounts to is the big labels not gambling as much on quirky acts, and instead banking on the sure bets. This manifests in an abundance of over-produced, good looking pop singers and little else. I feel like this is what Doughty is describing. We’re already there.. My feeling is though that this strategy wont sustain the music industry, or if it does, it’s neglect of all the other non-cookie cutter music will spawn new avenues for bands that don’t fit the mold. Sure, these bands wont be able to tour the way that they have in the past, but does that mean they can’t be successful? I feel like new avenues for music discovery will develop as people who like music other than whats on the radio grow discontent with the Katy Perry’s and Maroon 5’s of the world.

What will these new distribution avenues and taste makers be? I have no idea. That’s for someone else to think up. I think there is plenty of room for it though. Technology has not only given people the power to steal music, but it’s also given people the power to create web streaming and pirate broadcast stations with little financial cost. The web has given us a huge network of self guided discovery, and interactive discovery. You can’t shortchange that. At an even more basic level, will the death of the “getting signed” dream keep people from making music? Yeah, right. Less people will be able to make a living playing music, but is that necessarily a bad thing? Music is a big part of the human experience. I wouldn’t mind seeing it de-commercialized a bit. It doesn’t cost as much now to “be a musician” as it used to. You can buy instruments at Walmart. You can record your music on your laptop at home and distribute it on the internet. Yeah, you wont get Radiohead level famous doing this, but why do you need to be. If the “get rich” factor is removed from the equation, I can’t help but think that cooler, more interesting music would surface. 


Note: I’m not deriding any of the authors mentioned above, or trying to say that they are wrong. We’re all just trying to see the road map of the future of music.


7 thoughts on “Mike Doughty is bringing me down. (or, “The future reality of playing music for a living”)

  1. Steve Lawson at http://stevelawson.com had some wonderful thoughts on how his career wouldn’t exist without the new model – obviously the solo looping bassist isn’t going to be Katy Perry, but his point that he wouldn’t be able to sell and tour without the ‘net and how he adapted make for an interesting counterpoint. The key issue there is getting fans to care enough to support. I agree that nobody deserves a guaranteed living at anything, but it’s a daunting proposition for anybody trying to make a living.

    • Interesting. I think the solo looping bassist is a great example! Pop music has been stuck in a (mostly) 4/4 time, drum/bass/guitar/piano/vocal box. Why shouldn’t solo looping bass be the new Katy Perry? Or electro-hindustani? I guess I feel like the money has stifled us.

      Also, re: guaranteed living – I like the way you put that. I am trying to think of meaningful analogies, but the only one coming to mind is beer brewing. Many people do it as a hobby, and if they are so inclined, they can try to make a living at it… but as far as I know, there are no companies funding craft brewers and trying to recoup on poor selling seasonal ales. hehe.

      • And you’re not unable to prevent people from taking all of your free samples and leaving nothing behind. It’s great to enjoy a product, but you should sometimes leave more than a penny when you take.

        That said, suing your fans and generally making the whole experience unpleasant is no way to run a business.

  2. I understand Lowery’s point and I think musicians do deserve to get paid for their efforts, but he generalizes a lot of his own inner angst towards the “free culture movement.”

    This website – http://www.copythisblog.com/some-problems-with-david-lowerys-letter-to-emily/ – held more of a neutral standpoint in my eyes, but one thing that stood out to me, and which the writer makes abundantly clear, is the fact that this so called “free culture movement” doesn’t want to get rid of copyright.

  3. Just wanted to pipe in to say I actually think the Radiohead experiment is an example of one of the ways forward. Though I have no idea how they actually came out on the pay-what-you-want model, it seems the best way to make inroads into getting people to pay for music. Of course it appeals to my ultra-left leanings as well, so I might have a bit of confirmation bias going on, but I’ve never seen anyone stiff the honor system at a coffee shop. For that matter, I almost never see anyone make change in that system.

    • yeah, it’s hard to say. Doughty makes the argument that the pay-what-you-want model only worked for Radiohead because they already have popularity (that they got by way of label tour support). I can totally get behind that argument, but at the same time, we know bands like Devil To Pay who are recording with kickstarter funds. The sums of money involved are vastly different between “band members making a living” and “recording an album”, but I think the fact that you can make an album off of donated funds provides enough hope that something like this could work in the future.

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