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A brief history of why artists are no longer making a living making music

Today’s column from veteran Canadian singer-songwriter Ian Tamblyn is adapted from a speech he gave at a symposium at Trent University.  It’s a long read, but we decided to post it here all at once it its entirety because, well, it’s just that good. 

I would like to begin this talk on the future of “popular” music with a few cautionary notes about our ability to see into the future clearly. The fact is, it would appear we are not very good at it. Somewhere back in our Savannah DNA, we got very good at reacting to danger when it presented itself — say a lion or tiger. However, it seems we are less capable of looking ahead to avoid danger. In other words, we are a reactive rather than proactive animal. The contemporary analogy in relation to climate change is that we are similar to the frog in a pot of hot water who does not have the sensors to recognize the increasing temperature and the fact that he should get out of the boiling pot.

Yes, there have been a handful of futurists – H.G Wells, Aldous Huxley, and given the state of many current governments I would grudgingly include Ayn Rand. Probably the most successful futurists in our lifetime may have been Marshall McLuhan and Stanley Kubrick, but even so, all of these writers and film makers have been only partially successful gazing into the crystal ball. Given that the past is no more fixed than the future I begin this conversation with you.

What I hope to discuss in this time with you is the relationship between technology, the gift of music and the commodification of that gift and how that gift and the commodification of the gift has been eroded in the digital age, and as I see it, could continue to be eroded well into the 21st century.

The golden age of recorded music

I would like to start by going back to 1945, the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the baby boom generation. By the end of the war, there was a “golden age” of music, the big band era, the beginnings of bebop, the great songwriting partnerships, Broadway musicals, and even the early stirrings of rock n’ roll, as blues came up the Mississippi from the Delta to St Louis and Chicago. It was also the populist height of the music borne of the Depression, the music that came out of the hobo camps, the dust bowl farmers, Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Tennessee Valley Act and so on. It was the music of Woody Guthrie, Jimmy Rodgers, Bessie Smith, Leadbelly, and the Carter Family.

It was the time when audio technology served this renaissance that came of struggle and war, and this technology came as a result of the war itself. Quickly told, the Germans created great microphones so that their leader could be heard in the stadiums. The English built great speakers and listening consoles so they could hear what the Germans were saying. The Americans in turn created excellent platforms (tape recorders) to record what they heard. Though they developed this technology separately and quite secretly, the apex of these technologies would find themselves together in the recording studios around the world soon after the war. The British and Americans found out how good the German microphones were and how they could be used with British speakers and American tape decks. The Germans were quick to listen through British sound systems. To give you a quick example, the Neumann U-47 was first designed in that year and is still considered to be one of the best vocal microphones ever created. It is sought by collectors throughout the world. The microphones used by Ry Cooder and Buena Vista Social Club were U-47 s found in an old studio in Havana.

Time was on our side

It took the next ten years to tweak the technology, but by the mid 50s and the height of the bebop era, the engineers had become artists of this technology, and the results were some of the best recordings ever. With the addition of multi -track recording, invented by jazz guitarist Les Paul, another golden age of recording began. As a side note, it has been said that the best live recording of the bebop era was recorded at Massey Hall with Charlie Parker – on a plastic saxophone he borrowed for the gig – Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Mingus, Max Roach and Bud Powell. The album Quintet marked the only time these giants of the era played live together. It was also the period when Deutsche Grammophon began its run as the premier recorder of classical music. The long playing record appeared, and we entered the age of the album.

What is important to this look at the future through the past is the fact that the engineers had enough time to understand their technology, to begin to use it artfully, because later in the century, this essential process would be lost, and with it much more.

Time moves on and into the 60s, a period you all know well, and you can run through your own favourites. However, the essential point is that the platform of microphones, equalizers, limiters and compressors and magnetic tape decks remained basically the same. Multi-tracking and stereo came along, but the engineers were using the same transport systems. There were, of course, bumps in the road, but at the same time, there were great recordings like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Beatles’ Revolver and Sergeant Pepper’s, Who’s Next – jazz recordings, particularly on the ECM label, emerged, and then in the 70s along with 48 track recorders, Supertramp’s Crime of the Century and one of my favourite recordings sonically: Roxy Music’s, Avalon. The producers and engineers were experts in the studio, and their names were almost as famous as the artists: George Martin, Phil Spector , Glyn Johns, and Phil Ramone to name a few. It is important to recognize that the engineers, producers and artists of this post-war generation had worked on the same platform for 35 years. They knew the process and were experts at it. It is amusing now to see assistant engineers at Abbey Road in lab coats now, but that is how they saw themselves.

The performance rights agencies and the musician’s union

The accommodation or payment for musicians, creators and works was also well-established in the post-war period through a series of royalties paid by the recording companies to the artists – as well as royalties paid to the artists for radio and television airplay that were monitored by BMI and ASCAP and in Canada by CAPAC and PROCAN, which later became SOCAN. The record companies were notorious for not paying these royalties, but there was a system, and there were lawyers who were there to both secure music contracts and ensure that royalties were paid to recording artists – at least in theory.

There was also a formidable force in the musician’s union, which held tight control over gigs and contracts. At times, the union could be intimidating and seemingly out of date. I remember having to swear I had never been a member of the Communist Party when I joined the union in 1971, but it did bring back memories of when some musicians were given a rough ride during the McCarthy period. I mention the musician’s union because if you wanted to play clubs or radio gigs, you had to belong, but you did get paid reasonably for your work. I mention this as well because by the mid 80s, the musician’s union would be a spent force and all guarantees for just compensation at gigs would be gone. I would contend that the union did not move with the times.

By the 70s, the music industry was a huge force in our lives. It was the number one entertainment industry in North America, making far more money than movies or television. However there were chinks in the system and changes in technology that indicated further bigger changes to come. In 1969, The Whole Earth Catalogue was published, and the subtitle was “Access to Tools.” In the book, it revealed the first home four-track recording deck put out by Tascam. It was a revolution in the making. No longer did one have to go through the check and balance system of the record companies and their artists and repertoire staff. You didn’t need to secure a record contract. You didn’t need to incur huge costs at a recording studio that would be then set against future royalties. You could do the album yourself without arbiters from the record company. You could do it yourself! This independent release movement was no threat to the mainstream industry, but as this technology progressed, more would be attracted to the indie movement, and it would seriously threaten the mainstream industry by the 1990s and the forthcoming digital age.

Was punk rock the beginning of the end?

By the late 70s, the industry was fat, corrupt and complacent. It was also very expensive to make a recording in the beautiful studios of the world. It was about to blow apart – in one case literally. It is dizzying what happened in a very short period of time. First the punks came along and called the bloat on the musicians and the industry. Groups like the Ramones, The Clash and The Cure ridiculed the fat boys of the business with rough, loud records reminiscent of the garage bands of early rock n’ roll. The local punk rockers opened and played at clubs that were not associated with the musician’s union; they said, “fuck the union” and basically broke the grip the union had on clubs. Though I enjoyed the new music and was invigorated by the punk and new wave movement, I would have to say they were misguided in their disregard for the musician’s union and undermined a support system that had worked to protect musicians. It would never be the same again.

Next came the introduction of the CD and the beginning of the digital age, introduced by the industry itself. The digital CD format was invented by James Russell in 1968 and was advanced by Sony and Phillips in the 1970s. By 1981, they were ready to change platforms – a platform that would completely replace records and imprinting on magnetic tape, a platform that had been in existence for more than fifty years. With the release in North America of Billy Joel’s 52nd Street, we welcomed in the digital age.

Technological change outpaced producers’ ability to adapt

What they didn’t tell us was that we were actually entering an age of missing information. What they told us was the CD was a compact unit with a clearer, cleaner sound. However, with a sampling rate of 44,000 samples per second, there were overtones of sound now missing. There were reverbs that collapsed as they tailed out because the sampling rate was not sufficient to hold them. The sound was cleaner because there was less of it. This new format also did not work with the microphones that had worked so well during the analog tape saturation age. The engineers were now scrambling to figure out how they could make this new cold sounding digital age warmer. However, this was made more complex because new technology was rushed onto the market every few months, and engineers might figure out one system only to be confronted with another. ADAT, mini disc, DAT VHS and Beta, as well as advances in digital sound boards and digital recorders marked the technological onslaught of the 80s and 90s. The engineers could not get ahead of the curve of the technological changes coming at them in order to serve the music. This was a far cry from the “golden age” of the 1950’s.

I have long since abandoned arguments about the quality of sound. The analog sound was better. It was fuller and warmer, and it held all the sonic information. I realize for the most part, people listen to music for cultural information, not the sonic quality of that information. I wasn’t listening to the quality of the Byrds with two pennies on my stylus, I was listening to the way they sounded and what they were singing about.

The technological changes of the 80s did not stop there. The home recording units that I used in the early 70s developed and blossomed, as musicians and studios realized that a $200,000 Studer tape deck or $100,000 Neve console could be replaced by a much cheaper series of ADATS and new, less expensive boards. The dinosaur that was the great studio and the great expense involved in it was now at the end of an age as audio companies realized they could make more money selling cheaper digital gear to thousands of punters rather than one expensive piece of equipment in a cathedral of recording.

CDs made it costly for indies to stay in the mainstream

However, the change was on, and we dutifully packed away or sold our records and bought our CD collections. Record companies made fortunes during this period reissuing everything that had been on vinyl. Elvis was king again. He had not left the building. For some of us who could not afford to go digital (CDs were much more expensive to manufacture), it was known as the golden age of cassettes! I released several cassettes during this period, and I mention this for one reason: in 1986, I released a cassette called Over My Head. It was difficult to get things placed in record stores at that time, so I sold it in book shops and health food stores. I sold 60,000 cassettes and then another 40,000 CDs by this method. It went platinum, as they say, but the thing was, because I released it, I received no royalties, and because it was a cassette, it was not played on radio. By being under the radar and independent, I also took myself out of the game and the project was never recognized by the mainstream industry. I have no regrets about this because I, in effect, made the record company’s profits on the recording! But I will admit now that I was undermining a system that had worked.

Along with the new digital age came the introduction of video games and home entertainment systems. Music was now not the only game in town. At first, this was compensated by the enormous back catalogue of records that were rendered to digital CD format, but by the 1990s, the technological revolution that they had brought forward was beginning to feel the effect of competing forces for the disposable dollar.

Music videos turned works of art into ‘recoupable’ promotional expenses

In 1982 MTV arrived, and in 1984 Much Music hit the airwaves, and another development took place that was to affect music and musicians to this day and beyond. MTV and Much Music are rightfully credited with promoting the careers of many musicians, most notably Madonna, Michael Jackson and Duran Duran, and they presented music in an exciting new way. But there was a difference in the presentation of this music that would affect musicians and begin to affect the paradigm of appropriate accommodation for their music. Music videos were seen as advertisements for the artists and record companies and, therefore, were non-royalty-bearing. In fact, the musicians had to pay for these videos, and these payments were set against the royalties owed to the artists by the record companies. It was an interesting dilemma because, while one could see the attraction of the music video, it set a precedent about the value of the music, how music might be perceived, and it potentially undermined royalty payments that radio and television had been paying to musicians. As music videos became more and more grandiose, it aided and entrenched an already hierarchical system that left some musicians in the dust and others, notably Tom Waits and Rickie Lee Jones, to avoid it all together.

The most fateful chapter in this story arrived with the introduction of the home computer, followed by the internet in around 1995. During this dizzying time, cyberspace opened up, and the world truly became the global village that Marshall McLuhan envisaged. Music was now available universally, and the world of music was at your fingertips. The age of downloading began, and with it, the notion that music was not only available, but most importantly, free. In quick succession came downloading networks like Napster, cementing this music-should-be-free notion for a generation. The royalty-collecting agencies were caught behind the times, and any litigation against illegal downloading would be years to come. To this day, free downloading is a way of life for many in this generation, who say, “Why should I pay for music when I can get everything I want for free?” Needless to say, this completely undermined the commodification of music even though the majority of musicians barely made a taxable income.

Now everybody can make a record – and maybe that’s not a good thing

It was not long after the home computer arrived that studio software like GarageBand was available, thus completing the story that anyone could make music at home. While this democratization of the process was laudable, it led to a glut of dubious releases on the market. This was ok in principle, but it made potential purchasers wary of independent product.

While this was going on, big studios were going bankrupt, the musicians union was growing impotent, and in the background, formats continued to change, baffling engineers trying to stay on top of their game. The top musicians continued to use analog studios, but they were getting harder and harder to find. At the same time, home video games and entertainment systems were improving and threatening to overtake the music industry. CDs continued to sell, though, and with the introduction of new microphones and warming buffers, digital recordings improved.

Even this tumultuous period was short-lived as the MP3 format was introduced in 1997 and popularized by Apple’s iPod in 2001. Once again, the platform completely changed and, for better or worse, it changed everything. The sample rate of an MP3 is 23,000 compressed samples per second, half the sample rate of a commercial CD and a quarter of the sample rate of a studio quality digital recording. I am not going to lament the loss of audio quality again because, as I have said earlier, most popular music is not listened to for its audio quality but for its cultural information. But I will say that, when the audio quality reduced to that of an MP3, music’s value is also reduced.

The introduction of the MP3 made CD and record collections obsolete. You could store your entire CD collection on your iPod and later iPad. Free downloading became the way to obtain music as music stores began to disappear across North America. Though musicians continued to release CDs, it became clear that the notion of a recording that had existed for 100 years was in serious trouble.

The internet makes music ‘free’

With the introduction of the internet, music was, however, available from around the world and, on a positive note, it must be said that the world music movement was largely spawned by the new digital global village. One could download music from Bulgaria, South Africa, Angola and Nigeria, and certainly global village expressions like the universally sung song “Stand By Me” were wonderful new events. The problem was that there was no money for all this downloading, which entrenched the idea that music was free, or that music should be free. This trend was symbolically addressed when it was ruled that companies like Napster should be shut down – but really, the horses had been let out of the barn. Many of this generation have not purchased any music in years, although attendance at live concerts has burgeoned during this period.

Again on the internet front, YouTube arrived and, in the music world, this “digitized Much Music” further disseminated some wonderful music free to the world. However, You Tube was free and was, until recently royalty free.

In 2010, CD sales dropped 50 per cent and video games had replaced music in homes. In fact, music purchases had dropped to fifth place in the North American entertainment market. Record companies disappeared, compact disc stores disappeared, and by 2012, Starbucks had become the leading distributor of CDs in North America. In 2010, before his world tour, Prince released his new album free thought Britain’s Sunday Times stating that it was a loss leader for his upcoming world tour. Radiohead did the same, stating they would make up the difference in t-shirt sales. Music, they said in effect, was free. But only the musical two per cent could afford to say that.

Free albums as loss leaders

For lesser mortals like myself, this was shocking news, as I was in the middle of a four-CD project and had completed only two. Prince was giving his CD away?! Would the format and platform disappear before I had even completed the project? Would the CD join the boxes of unsold cassettes and albums in my basement? If music was to be free, why did I have so much expensive equipment? Why was I still renting studio time? Why was I still investing in Cds? Why had I invested in my craft for 45 years?

Fortunately, I still am able to play on tour, though the return, all things considered, is about the same as it was in 1980. For a younger generation, they are faced with some clubs where you pay to play.

Still, musicians released CDs they might sell in concert situations. Remember, we are reactive beings who cannot see the future, let alone the present! I sold my CDs through CD Baby, and between 2010 and 2014, the sale of digital downloads doubled sales of Cds. Still I made CDs, though the outlets I could sell them in dropped to one in the city I live in. I have a national distributor for my Cds, but they sell less across Canada than CDBaby sells downloads. The times have changed, as Robert Harris spoke of on his wonderful CBC radio series Twilight of the Gods about the hundred-year rise and fall of recorded music. And still musicians make CDs. In 2013, automobiles and laptops stopped having CD players in them. Though the writing was on the wall, the changes have happened so quickly that, in effect, no one told the musicians of the changes that were to come down on them. If we look back on this conversation, this is exactly the reverse of where I began: where the technology was serving the art form. It would appear at this moment that the art form is being dictated by the technology.

Young musicians no longer see music as a career choice

And so what of the future? Since the death of Steve Jobs, Apple has not released any new platforms in the last five years. Are technological changes slowing down after 30 years of whirling change? As one critic opined, “How many versions of the Beatles catalogue does one really need?”

There are signs that the royalty-collecting agencies are beginning to catch up to the myriad array of digital offspring ranging from the internet to satellite television and radio. Some would say that there is more music being produced now and available now than ever before, and this is probably true. And yet, when I surveyed my incoming students in the music faculty at Carleton University, not one of them thought they would make a living as a musician in the 21st century. Though the sample was small, the response was 100 per cent. When I asked them why they had such an outlook, their response centred around the notion that music has become free or should be free.

I recently received a letter from a filmmaker who sent me an advance for work I had not yet done on her film. Along with her cheque, she wrote, “as a fellow freelancer, I know the value of your work and what it is like to wait for payment.” I was pleasantly surprised and quickly deposited the cheque. The value of the work is the key phrase here. The process of democratization and ease of dissemination of music have both contributed to the questioned value of the work being done. It is so easy now to create and distribute one’s music, people believe it can’t be worth much, so it must be free. What is lost in this equation is the years of craft it might take to get to a professional level of musicianship and songwriting craft: years in the field, a lifetime spent in the trenches.

The future of music?  Sponsored artists, mix clubs, and granting bodies? 

I suspect that, in the future, musicians and songwriters will continue to ply their craft as they have in full face of the diminishing horizons before them. Perhaps some music will return to a form of digital kitchen party where musicians play for the enjoyment of it and do not expect a financial return for their gift of music – the gift of music without the expectation of return. I see this going on now. I expect for some, it will unfold as it did in the 19th century when painters were gobsmacked by the introduction of the camera. They thought their day was over but came back with a new and liberated approach to the canvas. I think some of the internet work done by the likes of Brian Eno and David Byrne could fall into this category, but they benefit from the comfort zone of considerable financial security. Similarly, in the 20th century, the theatre community suffered an extreme setback with the birth of the film industry. Many thought theatre was over, but theatre reemerged in the post-war period with the “angry young men”: Beckett, Osborne, Pinter, Arden and Ionesco. Yet, since theatre’s re-emergence, it has become a sponsored and often threatened art form, supported by public funds, similar to classical music orchestras and opera.

There is considerable evidence that live music will continue to be supported. If my sons are any example, they keep track of touring artists on the internet and will travel to Montreal or Toronto at a moment’s notice, gathering a crowd to join them through social networking. Local clubs featuring live music continue. Mix clubs are very popular, and indeed, this may be the new type of creative music emerging through digital downloads. This creativity may continue to grow with the DJs being the new musicians blending existing beats and pads. The musician’s union shows some kind of resurrection, but I suspect it will only be viable in the context of supporting orchestra contracts and may not see the street again. On a personal level, the establishment of viable house concerts has kept my date book relatively full.

The future continues to look supportive for music in film, theatre and television. Indeed, many musicians have focused their work on getting their music on television shows, where the economy of scale is huge, and royalties can be bountiful. I think at some point many so-called “non-commercial” musicians will leave the public marketplace and, given their value, elect or hope to be sponsored artists. This has already happened in the jazz world. It is also happening in some granting programs set forward by the Canadian Council or Ontario Arts Council. At the same time, all of you know how oppressed these agencies are by the current governments and how the arts are seen in contemporary North American society. Not necessary. It is ironic for example that in Norway, jazz is presented and taught in primary schools, while in North America , concerned parents fight to keep any sort of arts programming in the schools. We are definitely part of a debate now, and how it goes will affect our future. As times get meaner in this century, and as the water gets hotter in the pot, as resources thin and the world’s population strains the planet, I think the need for music will be greater and indeed may harken back to the visceral need for music that was evident in the hard times of the 20th century through war and depression. How that may be expressed may be in the global village of cyberspace. Whether one could make a living from it depends on where and how we understand the value of that gift.

The responsibility of community

I would like to conclude with an idea that occurred to me after reading Lewis Hyde’s wonderful book The Gift : Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. I think music is a gift. I feel tremendously lucky to have had music in my life and to have made a living from it. But I have worked hard at it, and it would seem that you have seen value in it by according me a status in the community, one that brings me here today. Though the technology has changed, the value of the work should be unchanged, and yet because of the technological revolution that has overtaken the art form, the idea that music should be free has become dominant in popular culture .

I think in the future, we must return to valuing the art form. If we as artists attend to the work at a professional level, if we support the community in every way we can as artists, and you have invested in us, is it not incumbent on the community to support in kind? Or are you happy to download it, upload it, rip it , and dispense the art form for free? I think it is incumbent on the citizens of the community to understand its relationship to the musicians and creators if it is to be considered a community at all. If this conundrum cannot be addressed, I suspect music will be generated by computers programmed by robots in the future, and that will be a very shitty future. I think it is important to consider this so that the students in my classroom will be able to have a future in music.

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59 comments

  1. avatar
    Thomas 25 March, 2019 at 14:21

    I can put this in one sentence. In the words of my musical partner, “No one gives a ****.”

    He means … about music … anymore … except us old folks …. we make music for museums, apparently.

  2. avatar
    Nicholas Thielker 31 March, 2019 at 17:07

    Interesting that the more that one is involved with any creative pursuits the more likely one will be asked to do it for free which has probably always been true and is getting truer and truer as the years go by.

  3. avatar
    Glenn Allen 2 April, 2019 at 13:21

    I’ll admit that in the old days if an album had sold 5 million copies or 5 years had elapsed since the release I didn’t mind making a few cassettes for friends. And I still occasionally cruise the used record and cd bins for things I missed over the past 50-some years. And I know where to find Youtube.

    However, I’ve pretty much always paid for my music and been pleased to do so. I’ve known and loved many musicians and songwriters, including Ian, and I know how bumpy Dave Bidini’s “Cold Road” can be.

    Here a funny one, tho’. Ellen McIlwaine was playing the Rainbow in Ottawa many years back; I’ve loved her from the start, so of course I went down to see the show. At intermission I approached her to express my admiration and told her that I’d made up a couple of compilation tapes for a friend and that I had a twenty in my pocket that I wanted to give her as compensation for the rip-off. She just looked at me like I had oatmeal for brains, shook her head, and walked away.

    I see by my internet that Ellen still plays the odd gig, but mostly drives a school bus out west to bring home the groceries. I reckon she’s good with that, but I think it’s a damn shame! I like to think she vocalizes some on those bus trips and how lucky those school kids would be.

  4. avatar
    Joe Bruno 3 April, 2019 at 10:18

    As a real time creator of music, I have been waiting patiently for the technology to make bit possible fir me to sell my live performances directly to my it any audience. Recording has allowed for those who are better at creating recordings of their ideas and exploiting those of us who can create in the moment for an hourly wage, while their name is the one on the copyright. The future is here. My family has been performing jazz live for over 100 years. YouTube makes it possible for anyone in the world to see and hear our music. We can get hired to do the “Live Music” thing that records have almost squelched over the years. As for technology replacing me or others like me, I engage the audience taking in the energy of the room and the other musicians! Technology gives me back my future of doing what most songwriters can’t. Create my interpretation of familiar song my way, Live and the abilities to stream it and some day get paid for it by anyone listening from anywhere!

  5. avatar
    Bobby 8 April, 2019 at 17:28

    I am sorry but this sounds a wee bit like sour grapes. The times they are a changing man, and as you very well pointed out they always have.

    IMHO for way too many years music was over produced and over priced. The market was flooded! One out of every four homes in America has a Greenday album. Get my drift?

    Multiple stores within a few miles of where I live now sells used CDS for $1.00 each. I use to go to a thrift store that would sell a grocery bag full of cds for a total of $1.00.

    For music fans it is great! It is a buyers market. I listen to an entire album for the first time almost everyday.

    For professional musicians working today it is not great, but hey, that is just the way sh*t happens. If you don’t believe me ask a painter. Ask a newspaper publisher.

  6. avatar
    David Spano 10 April, 2019 at 08:21

    Real musicians have a day job.or your gonna starve to death.I have three professional careers.first I learned to play horn,I’m classically trained.from third grade on.I front my Awesome authentic blues bayand play Harmonica.this is my last career.I played gigs every month for 20 years. I never took a penny of the pay. I gave it to the band!

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