The Music Omnivore’s Dilemma
When Napster became popular my freshman year of college I wasn’t yet the music freak that I am today. My passing interest in music was mostly fueled by music videos – which I was obsessed with – but I had no passionate interest in any particular bands or genres. But when I downloaded this magical program, where every bit of music I could possibly want was available for free (not $18.99, like the Cds at the record store that I worked at), I simply couldn’t get enough. A lifetime of music was sitting in front of me, and the years of work it would have taken me to establish a musical identity was reduced to a series of dorm room download binges.
I have no doubt that without Napster and it’s radical reinvention of how we consume and discover music, I would not have grown into the music fan I am today. But as someone who partially makes his living in the music business, and interacts often with bands of all stripes – from arena rockers to upstart Brooklyn indie bands – I’m ambivalent towards the professional music culture that Napster hath wrought. Because while, yes, the major record labels were hyper-bloated, profit hungry machines with the artist often squeezed out in the shuffle, their downfall has given rise to an even more stratified system where even fewer people reap the profits made by music and artists are more than ever left begging for scraps.
While there’s some dispute of the actual numbers, it seems to me that people are splitting hairs over numbers that are so low they are inconsequential. As Damon Krukowski of Galaxie 500 told Pitchfork, it would take them “312,000 plays on Pandora to earn us the profit of one LP sale.” If there’s some wiggle room on either side of that number, it’s still an incredible statistic.
Many of the most ardent music lovers — such as the NPR intern Emily White, who admitted to paying for less than 1 percent of the music she has in her ITunes library – are the ones who abuse the system the most. I do not absolve myself here – I am listening to MOG right now, paying Thee Oh-Sees .0001 cent for the privilege of listening to one of their songs. I understand the impulse to consume as much music as humanly possible, and the fact that it’s now free and available, it feels impossible not to indulge. Back in the early 00’s, when one CD cost a ridiculous $18.99, we valued every album greatly, for better or worse. But now, it’s not that we now take that $18.99 and distribute it to the 100 albums we listen to a month. At least that would leave $00.19 for each band. No, we get everything we want for essentially free, which consequently means we assign no monetary value to anything.
And I get it. Who wants to pay for things we can easily get for free? But, as much as we hate to admit it, our habits have consequences. Our relentless desire for free music doesn’t exist in a vacuum – there are businesses that are feeding off it in a damaging race to the bottom, where profits are paramount and artist royalties are seen as an annoyance and a threat to the bottom line. Therefore, we enable and calcify the truism that “no one pays for music” by supporting companies that give away bands’ work for essentially free. To paraphrase David Lowery’s eloquent response to Emily White, the Napster generation is the first in history to “unstuck it to the man and instead stick it to the weirdo freak musicians.”
And yet, it’s hard to imagine being a music fan these days without the free distribution model. Twenty years ago, being well versed in one genre took a lot of damn work, money and time. Now, music fans dip their toes into many different pools – it’s not uncommon for music freaks to have the new Frank Ocean, Converge and Cat Power records cued up on their Spotify playlists. Free music culture has bred a new generation of music omnivores, people who can consider all genres, from black metal to smooth R&B, on their own merits. This democratic, judgment free mode of music consumption has woven its way into the music itself – one needn’t look farther than Big Boi’s integration of indie-rock into his southern rap or Death Grips’ gonzo fusion of electronica, punk and hip-hop to realize that omnivorous listening habits have effected the art itself.
This wholesale deconstruction of genre barriers has been a boon to music festivals, the one area of the music business that no one can dispute is still doing quite well. As a music fan, there are few things more heartening than a good music festival. This year at Bonnaroo, as a camera operator on the second stage, I filmed everything from mainstream hip-hop (Childish Gambino, Mac Miller) to indie rock (The Shins, Feist) to bluegrass (The Punch Brothers) to world music (Afrocubism). I saw a lot of the same faces in the crowd for many of these bands. When everything is free and available, there’s no financial downside to sampling different types of music – this leads to tens of thousands of music fans who can be legitimately torn between trying to catch a few minutes of Refused, The Black Keys and Flying Lotus at Coachella.
That being said, the fragmented attention span fostered by the internet – as great as it is in promoting diverse musical taste – makes it harder than ever for a young band to get noticed. For the entire history of popular music, making it big has always been a million to one shot. This is not the issue I am trying get at – even though recording a demo and setting up a Bandcamp page is easier than ever, no one is trying to argue that every upstart band should be able to make a living. The real issue is for bands that have already made it and still cannot afford to play professionally without working a day job or going deeply in debt.
There is far less opportunity these days for people to become professional, “middle-class” musicians. In the mid nineties, we’d probably consider a band like Dinosaur Jr., critically lauded and adored by a medium sized audience, to be a middle class band. I haven’t discussed this with J. Mascis, but I’m guessing his hardworking band, between record sales, touring and occasional licensing, probably were able to live comfortably without having bartending gigs on the side.
Nowadays, a band like Grizzly Bear, who released two records charting in the Billboard Top Ten, sold out Radio City Music Hall, and licensed a song to a Super Bowl commercial, is considered middle class – in that, the members can generally support themselves without having to work a second job. A few of them even have health insurance! The bar has been raised for bands’ ability to support themselves to a point where musicians who regularly tour and sell out shows can barely make a living.
So why do we care? Music is a fun thing, right? It should be more of a hobby then a career, right? If I can enjoy music so easily for free, why should bands be able to make a living? The truth of the matter is that for bands that have their attention divided between their hobby (music) and their day jobs, it is exponentially more difficult to exist as a group. Engaging in a creative enterprise with four or five other people, especially when stuck in a van together for weeks at a time, can be crippling for interpersonal relationships. Add the fact that these bands, even successful bands, lose money continuously, then you begin to understand why fewer and fewer bands can last more than a couple of years.
This will inevitably lead to a music landscape where less and less bands can grow artistically and find large audiences over time. There will be more and more bands that put out great records that simply cannot go on because they are unable to break even, let alone quit their day jobs. As someone who works in the industry, it’s heartbreaking for me to know that a lot of the smaller bands I’ve worked with and see a ton of potential in will never have a chance to find their audience in such an unforgiving commercial landscape.
I’m not arguing that every underground indie flavor of the month deserves to be able to drop out of the workforce and become a professional musician. Dues must be paid; a critical mass of popularity (plays on Spotify, live shows, licensing) must be achieved. But bands that cross this threshold, that play for hundreds or thousands of people a night when they tour – I truly believe these bands deserve a shot to not go broke bringing this music to the public. I think if you framed the situation as such to most passionate music fans, they would agree.
So, what to do about it? Doug Moore has a terrific article in Stereogum that tackles the issue, basically advocating bands run themselves like small businesses in order to survive. I agree and think his solutions (tour more intelligently, utilize direct revenue music sale sites like CD Baby and Bandcamp, start a kickstater) are very credible in today’s music landscape.
But over and above that, I think music fans need to do some soul searching. Personally, I see (or work at) more than 50 concerts a year. I also have a paid subscription to MOG (which pays slightly more fractions of a penny to their artists then Spotify). I also subscribe to Emusic, which cuts in musicians more generously than ITunes or Amazon. In comparison to the average music fan, I would classify my attempts to justly pay for my music as extraordinary. And yet, for as much as I go out of my way to support the music I enjoy, it’s still a drop in the bucket when a vast majority of music fans pay nothing to listen to hours of music all day.
In the end, I feel like anyone who values a strong music community should take this issue very seriously and should contribute in any way they can (buying vinyl, paying for the MP3s you listen to most). But I also feel like there needs to be a better way for money to find its way to musicians. It’s not that people aren’t listening to music – it seems like people are listening to more than ever. But Pandora, Spotify and the rest will not pay their artists higher royalties so long as they are profitable on the music-for-free model. I truly believe that if there was a stronger campaign out there by musicians, and maybe some new service whose main selling point would be that money filters more directly to bands, that enough people would sign up to make a difference.
Outside the box thinking, like Jack White’s subscription model for Third Man Records, also needs to become the new norm. Record labels of all sizes should follow this model – for a modest fee, you can have access to the label’s catalogue, exclusive content downloads, discounts for concerts. Bands too could create models such as this – take a note from NPR, make direct requests to your fans to support your work. It worked for Amanda Palmer through Kickstarter. It could work for bands of all levels if it became a more ingrained part of the music promotion culture. Maybe an app or a text reminder to donate an extra dollar or two when you’re at a show, swept up in the moment?
People who really love music want their favorite bands to be able to survive and thrive. As a culture of music fans, we’ve become so overwhelmed with content that it’s hard to focus on the few bands we really care about. I believe this is the crux of the problem. If we all could support our favorite acts, while still constantly searching for new ones, musicians would have a more credible chance at sustaining themselves. But as long as we treat all music, even music we love, as a disposable commodity not worth a cent out of our wallets, then all we will end up doing is depriving ourselves of great music in the future.