A few days ago the above tweet from Bette Midler got some attention. She's one more in a series of prominent and once best-selling musicians who are displaying how their royalties have shrunk to laughable rates thanks to music streaming services.
Ah, the great irony of ironies-- musicians are being more transparent with their finances than the Pandoras and Spotify. How is this any different from the recording industries golden age, when the record labels would have musicians sign shifty contracts in exchange for say, their copyright, or less money? As far as I can see, there's only one big difference. The record labels actually spent money by investing in the artists, be it through marketing, touring, or advancing them money to make an album to begin with, which in turn led to a thriving economy, both for musician, but studio and artist alike.
Back in 2012, I interviewed Britta Phillips (from Luna, Dean and Britta, voie of 80's cartoon Jem, etc.) She expressed a wish that "there was a way to track music that is downloaded. Like a digitally embedded barcode. All entities that make money by allowing people to download to have to pay the musicians who are downloaded."
I still think it's a fantastic idea, although trying to get pirate sites to pay for your content (let alone legitimate sites pay reasonable rates) is head-in-the-clouds thinking. If this recent Slate article is anything to go by, Britta's husband and band mate Dean Wareham seems to understand this all to well.
If you were particularly lazy and didn't read beyond the headline you'd get one of the main points: Dean Wareham: "You can get attention. You just can't sell music." But put it in context a bit further. In Dean Wareham's memoir Black Postcards he describes a time before streaming services, when record companies spent a lot of money investing in their acts, radio and record stores were still prevalent. he is then asked to juxtapose that time with now.
Yeah. I mean, everyone’s in this situation. Everyone’s in this boat right now. Everyone’s saying, “Good lord, it’s easy to get attention.” Or maybe not easy, but you can get attention. You can get on the Internet, you can be all over the place, and connecting with people. It’s hard to sell music, sell any physical product. Now it’s getting harder to sell downloads as well. And it’s not just me saying this. Apple and iTunes will admit as much also.
It's kind of simple, actually. For various reasons, the recording industry is in its dying days. Labels are disappearing, record stores are now for the niche. Clubs are closing. And with this trend there are fewer and fewer places for bands to play, not to mention the roadies and tour bus drivers and sound and light people. And music promoters, etc. Let alone the fabled makers of merch.
I know this for a fact. I can look at my home town, Pittsburgh, and my current city, Los Angeles, and see the number of live venues has dwindled in both. Just up the street from me, a club opened and closed in less than a year. And we're talking in a prime space in Venice a few blocks from the beach. Instead you are left with corporate owned House of Blues like venues with tickets slung by Ticketmaster.
You stupid, stupid people. You thought you were sticking it to the man by pirating music. But only the man had deep enough pockets to survive.
And yet despite the stupid people, there is still a small but dedicated group of people who still care about music who are trying to make a difference. Recently, down the street from the failed club, I went to see a show in the back of a custom-built motorcycle shop. The owner is thinking of doing this kind of thing more often. There were twenty or so people in attendance that night with very little promotion except for a Facebook post. I only found out about it because the guy who cuts my hair is in one of the bands and he invited me to come out. And while I appreciate the fact they're trying, it's not exactly making a case for a stable music community.
I can't prove this definitively, but I suspect music is the cultural barometer for all content. To paraphrase a saying about America, when the music industry sneezes, the rest of the content community catches a cold. In less time than you think there will be no way for things to stay in place as we know it. The status quo you think still exists of mega millionaire musicians and greedy record labels was replaced years ago. We now have the status quo of greedy Spotify, Pandora and google, and the shrinking content creator economy to contend with.
And there is no way this status quo will sustain itself. You simply can't ask that many people to work for next to free before they wise up and say "no thanks." It will be interesting to see what happens to the big tech industries when the content shrinks. Like everything else in the digital world, content is a double-edged sword. Too much of it and it gets buried (as Dean Wareham is alluding to) or diluted under the weight of its own mediocrity (I.e Buzzfeed). By the way, there's no such thing as "not enough content."
Big Tech is only partially responsible for this sorry state of affairs. Most musicians were never good at hiring lawyers to negotiate their contracts. And the wiser or perhaps more cynical musicians have stopped making music and started working for The Man, figuring it's easier to make a profit by joining them than not. Sure, google and its like have been able to run rampant and influence the government (although that is finally starting to change) but there were a lot of missteps from different places over the past twenty years. I'm not interested in finding patient zero of guilt, however. I'm interested in how we're responding to it as a society.
Any population that fights so hard to raise the wage of burger flippers but provides no such safety net for content producers, is a huge part of the problem. Any group of people that tells another group to focus less on their content and more on merchandise as a way to make a living is delusional. Any group of people that won't pay for an icon's music until after he dies and is therefore unable to make any more music does not know the value of music to begin with.
My hope is that the light will shine down and wake up the dim people. Maybe once and for all they'll understand that for every Lady Gaga there are lots of musicians out there, most whose names you know, who can no longer pay the bills because they've enabled this situation. Perhaps one day they'll understand the musicians will not keep making music just because "they love to do it," any more than google will stay in business out of love.
But if some people are really still okay with that, and don't care about the quality of content, then they won't notice when content falls into the cultural mudslide and all there is to consume is crap. Question is, who will determine the outcome? google and the idiots who care more about convenience than content? Or people who still care about the content?
Me, I'll keep seeing Dean Wareham whether he plays at the proper club or in a bike shop. Because I believe in the value of content from all medium.
Me and twenty other people.