Facing the future: on compensating artists fairly again
A few months ago I posted an article on the Roots Music Canada website entitled “A Brief history of Why Artists are no Longer Making a Living Making Music.” The topic was actually about the relationship between music and technology since the post war period. It was based on a talk I gave at Trent’s “Ideas that Changed the World Symposium” in 2014. The title was not my idea nor really the intention of the piece, but I think, because of the title, the post went viral. It’s had well over 160,000 hits and counting. I even got a note from Janis Ian, a songwriter for whom I have great respect.
I mention this at the outset to note that the viral status of the article indicates a huge interest and concern many musicians, writers, photographers and journalists have trying to find a path through the digital age. I will confine my thoughts to the musical and recording world because it has been my life for the past 50 years.
Since the beginning of the digital age in the mid-80s and the subsequent onset of digital downloading, the musician’s world has been rocked to its foundation. It is like an earthquake has hit our house. There is little foundation left to stand on. Record and CD sales have all but disappeared, boutique markets excepted. Compensation for downloads is absurdly low, and the adage “music should be free” is now in common use among those born in the digital age. Music is now almost free from Napster to Spotify, “pay to play” gigs are rampant across the country. But the hook is, it is definitely not free for the practitioners. Musicians are still putting in the 11,000 hours, purchasing equipment, travelling the country and paying for recordings that are often now no more than necessary-but-expensive demos.
For much of the 20th century, the foundation and the career path for the popular musician in North America was relatively known and set. I am not saying it was necessarily lucrative, but even from the golden age of sheet music to the first recordings, what you had was a musician, music and a product. The musicians, of course, would tour as much as possible to make an income, but they were also representing their recorded work that you could take home and enjoy beyond the live performance. The recordings and the often hard-fought-and-won royalties that accrued from their sale and radio play gave some assurance of financial flow for the musician when not touring. Some musicians, like Louis Armstrong for example, not only toured but recorded up to three sessions per day. By the mid 1960s, the LP emerged as an art form in its own right, and the popularity of this art form allowed some artists, like the Beatles, Miles Davis, and Harry Nilsson, to stop touring for the most part. Popular music led the way in what could be called recreational spending, far ahead of all other entertainments. It was another “golden age”.
However, it would appear that every golden age is followed by bloating, and this certainly happened in the following decade. This bloating in the music industry set in motion the first cracks in the foundation. While sales of records boomed, and musicians earned a living wage in clubs through the strength of the Musician’s Union, the indulgence and greed of record companies and some artists spawned a rebellion in the punk movement. It rippled through fashion and the arts and rightfully undermined the status quo. This mini revolution as quickly turned to style, but the message was clear to the listening public: don’t trust the mainstream any more. “Money for Nothin’ and your chicks for free.”
In 1979, the first digital recording was released by Warner Bros. It was Ry Cooder’s “Bop Till You Drop.” The first CD released was Billy Joel’s 52nd Street in 1982. The digital age had begun. Records quietly and quickly left the shelves and were replaced by CDs. For some of us, it was sardonically called the age of cassettes because CD mastering and reproduction was restricted or often unavailable in Canada. The recording process at the time was faced with a myriad of digital formats from VHS to Beta, Mini disc to DAT as engineers grappled with the challenges of digital sound. At the same time, there was a democratization of the recording process and more and more “independent” recordings appeared. Soon, another event took place that would further crack the foundation. When Much Music appeared, it was deemed that the recordings and videos used on Much Music were advertisements for the record companies and artists, and so presentations were not paid for. Nor were there royalties to be paid to the artists no matter how often they were played on Much Music. I believe this paved the way for Napster and later, Spotify. The cost of videos produced for Much Music now became part of the production costs of a recording and would have to be redeemed before any royalties for that recording were paid to the artists. This crack in the royalty system would be later amplified when the internet and the age of downloads and YouTube arrived a decade later.
As musicians and engineers worked through the challenges of digital recording, the home computer was introduced in 1995 along with the introduction of the internet, downloading and home recording. Napster followed, and the notion that music could be obtained from the internet for “free” arrived with it. This possibility was further complicated by the introduction of the Mp3 player in 1997, which, in some ways, made the collection of records or CDs obsolete. But it also made music a disposable virtual commodity. Except it wasn’t a commodity any more, because it could be obtained freely over the internet. Nobody could keep up with these changes, nor their ramifications. Everyone from the Musicians’ Union to the CRTC was caught with their pants down and could not, or did not, respond in time to the changes that were upon us. Perhaps there was no way to respond to the rapidity of change, but by 2010, CDs sales were down 50 per cent, and music was now fifth in order of recreational dollars spent, well behind video games, home recreation, and movies. By 2012, the largest and really only distributor of CDs left in North America was Starbucks. Would you like a latte with your Lauren Hill? The golden age of recording and records was over. The record store was a dinosaur.
I think to some extent we are still “Reeling in the Years” in a different way than Steely Dan once wrote. I think many musicians are now still in a post earthquake traumatic state. What happened? Maybe I should get out of the house. What now? Most musicians still hang on to the idea of having a product for sale off the stage, whether it be a CD, record or a download card – even a t-shirt. Some international artists scoff at the bill of goods musicians in North America have had to swallow. They report that CD sales in Europe are still robust. Some of us cling to recording because we love the medium and the opportunities it presents artistically. But with little chance of financial return for the product, the idea of recording now is far more daunting than it ever was, and the music industry engages only with the one per cent crowd, guaranteed of some success. Can you imagine Warner Bros. releasing Ry Cooder in the mainstream now?
Many musicians in this digital age have simply put their chins up and headed back to the road to make a living. For younger musicians, 10 years of KD, life in bashed out minivans, and nights on someone’s couch might be living the dream. But now, when faced with gigs where you literally have to “pay to play,” the dream might be short-lived. It is also true that the stage is ever more crowded with more and more people wanting to take up the musician’s life. Go figure.
When I posted the original article, I received a number of comments under the “stop whinging” category. To be clear I am not whinging. I am stating what is and how we got here.
This is where we should go: I believe that while music is a gift that can be given freely, equally I believe there is a right to a just commodification for those musicians who have achieved a professional level or have been deemed to have given a contribution to the community at large. I believe it is incumbent on the community to recognize this gift and contribution, and it is the responsibility of the community to respond with an appropriate accommodation. I am not talking about money set to an economy of scale, but rather musicians should simply be paid appropriately for their work.
The Musician’s Union has a key role in reasserting this simple right. It is simply wrong that musicians “pay to play.” It has to change. I personally believe that the Musicians’ Union needs to modernize if it is to play a meaningful role in the modern musician’s life. The union fell behind the times at the beginning of the digital age, and now few young musicians consider the union relevant or meaningful. I still see a role for the union in reassuring the rights of musicians playing clubs and concert venues. However, the Musicians’ Union has to get with the modern age and make the case that they are part of the 21st century if they want renewed membership. I certainly see a role for the Union to bring to an end “pay to play” venues. I used to always carry my union card when I played a gig. I still do. Why aren’t there union reps around the clubs now protecting musicians’ rights?
At some time in the near future, governments and their monitoring agencies (CRTC) must get a grip on platforms like Spotify. There must be legislation to bring back an appropriate commodification for the playing of a musician’s music on these platforms. The notion that music is free must be revealed to be a bogus concept no matter what world you live in. If Spotify and others like them are allowed to continue to dole out a pittance for millions of plays, the idea that music is free will persist. All the suggestions for the future outlined above are really about catching up with the past to correct the present.
The last suggestion I have might seem outrageous, but so be it. I think musicians as creators must return more fully to the task of being musicians again. At present, musicians have been so overwhelmed with so many different job descriptions – everything from being self-producer of their own records to fundraiser, website manager, videographer, promoter, Facebook or Instagram host, distributor, tour manager and poster person for the next gig – that they can’t see straight. It is way too much for one person to do, and much of it has nothing to do with music. Too much of it has to do with more and more hours spent in front of a computer – as opposed to an instrument. A friend of mine recently released an album and, having done all the above, was so exhausted she could hardly face the very tour she had organized. I personally feel the music has suffered because we are spread across so many different job descriptions.
At the same time, musicians need to embrace what is offered by 21st century platforms. I don’t think we need to stay married to the album, the single, or even the concept of a release. I think collaborations with visual artists, cinematographers etc. are certainly a way to go but not on a platform like YouTube, where there is little chance for reimbursement. Therefore, an option-to-pay platform should be encouraged. I think there is an opportunity for musicians to work in multi- disciplinary fields, but this prospect must also be inoculated in the scientific and arts communities. I was fortunate to work as an artist in residence on several scientific expeditions, but there has also been resistance to this type of work with the academic and scientific community. First and foremost I believe it is important to reinstill the value of the musician, photographer, and journalist into the fabric of the community. If not, we face becoming another sponsored art form like theatre, classical music or opera.