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For musicians it's trickle down misery

Here's a simple math problem for you: If a legendary musician who once sold 25 million copies of an album, now only sells 650,000 copies, how much will an indie band who used to sell 100,000 copies now sell? The answer: a lot less.

Fifteen years ago Lars Ulrich opened his mouth about Napster enabling piracy and the record-buying public laughed in his face, deriding him as a whiny, rich musician. In some ways though, Lars' story can be seen in a different light. Had he not testified before a senate judiciary committee the flawed but good-first-step answer of legal streaming services might never have popped up as the solution. Ulrich shows a more nuanced but no less sobering appraisal of the music industry fifteen years after the dawn of Napster.

Ulrich does say that declining record sales are hurting up-and-coming bands. “When there’s less people buying music, there’s less money generated back and record companies take less chances,” explains the drummer. “Instead of promoting 500 records a year, they promote 50 records a year, and there’s less and less and less and less money being put into younger artists. And there’s a danger of younger artists coming close to extinction.”

It's important to unpack that quote a bit. While Ulrich is specifically referencing the record industry's tendency to not risk their declining income on up-and-coming bands, the fact is record sales have been declining across the board. That means the biggest bands and the richest of the rich, like Metallica, aren't selling many copies of their albums these days either. Before we have straw man arguments about the quality of Metallica's music now compared to the ...And Justice For All era, let's look at actual numbers.

Start with Miley Cyrus. At her sales peak, which was pre-twerk, pre-Flaming Lips, her debut, Meet Miley Cyrus sold 9.5 million. That was back in 2007, by the way. Today, an article in the Atlantic quotes her referencing her team of advisors "...they’d never seen someone at my level, especially a woman, have this much freedom. I literally can do whatever I want. It’s insane.”

Perhaps Cyrus hasn't heard of Madonna. Arguably the first woman to have as much freedom and control as she wanted. Her first three albums sold 10 million, 25 million, and 25 million. In other words, Madonna's debut album sold a million more than Cyrus' grown up debut, and Cyrus' sales have dropped ever since. Bangerz sold 4.5 million worldwide. That's a sharp decline. But keep in mind the decline is being felt among all artists. Rich, poor and in-between. Madonna's latest album, Rebel Heart, sold just 650,000 copies worldwide.

Ah, you say, they can always tour to make up for the lost sales? Can they, really though? Madonna's Rebel Heart tour starts this week. But it comes at the end of a lucrative ten-year deal with Live Nation. A deal that, according to analyst Richard Tullo, is "a relic." He continues: "Only a half-dozen artists make more than $10 million from any one album anymore — not nearly enough to justify (it).”

Times change. As the new York Post correctly states: "Music lovers often stream or pirate their favorite tunes as US album sales have cratered to 257 million units last year from 501 million units in 2007."
Remember, 2007 was when Meet Miley Cyrus sold 9 million copies.

Further, Madonna has taken to giving her album away to people who buy tickets to her show. Tickets that are outrageously expensive. But inflating ticket costs are the only way you're ever going to make up for lost sales. Richard Conlon, founder of Rights Management Holdings, sums it up this way: "It’s now about selling a show for $500 a seat, obviously, and no longer about selling an album for $20."

$500? If I check out Madonna's tour prices for her October 22nd Glendale, AZ show, (plenty of seats available, by the way) the cheapest ticket in the nose bleed seats is $70.25. In the front rows? Try $1,532.00. Keep in mind that during The Rolling Stone's Steel Wheels tour in 1989, the most expensive ticket was $250. Even adjusting for inflation that's $500 in 2015 money. Still exorbitant, sure, but nowhere near $1500.

With reports that Madonna hasn't sold out her tour, let alone her opening date of the tour, the argument that you can make up for lost sales on tour sounds like it's proving to be false.
But before the sun sets on it completely, my suggestion for the indie bands out there is to start charging 50 at the door while you still can.

Make no mistake though, the sun probably will set on this "extra" income stream. Consumers decided over the past decade and a half that they'd rather pirate or stream for next-to-nothing than pay for an album. How much longer will it be before they decide they'd rather stay home than pay for expensive concert tickets?

Madonna's tour will be the true test. Because if it turns out the rich can't do it, what prospect do you think the working class musicians will have?

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Dabitch's picture

But they can sell more T-shirts! As if t-shirt designs aren't pirated too, and hey, as if if producing t-shirts is free.

Larry's picture

Apple selling $0.99 songs has had more impact on album sales than anything else. Blaming piracy these days is totally missing the point. And why should a musician expect to make $10 million a year?

kidsleepy's picture

Talk about missing the point.

Did you completely miss the point of the entire article that the economic realities are having a direct impact on working class musicians? I mean I did bookend the article with those points for the tl;dr crowd.

How about Claude Coleman Jr, Ween's drummer, who was living out of his car because he couldn't make a living. Or are you perfectly fine with that? Is your take, why should a musician expect to make a living at all?

How about Daniel Dlimi, Swedish guitarist of Aeon who quit because he can't afford to make a living by touring?

Forgive me if I think someone should expect to make a living for their job, but I refuse to take your stance on this issue.

Dabitch's picture

Honestly at every single one of these articles we have a "blaming piracy is missing the point" comment, so canned and so predictable it seems like astroturfed spam, which I am starting to believe it really is.

Latching on to the 6 artists (that's what half a dozen means) who might make $10 on an album is retarded when there's more then a dozen middle-class people, such as sound engineers, designers and studio musicians who are sharing in that income on that album.

Rich Tullo's picture

Legal Streaming in a way is worse than Piracy and is putting Piracy our of business.

When you consider the time, investment in data storage, and the risk to your hardware and identity streaming is cheaper than Piracy.

One solution I have proposed is to give the artist the flexibility (A La Taylor Swift) to pull content from streamers and the CRB IP Radio.

Another idea I have promoted is either eliminate or modify the Sound Exchange. The Sound exchange should work more like an Ad exchange then Obamacare. Pricing needs to floored at the low end and variable at the high end so acts like Mush Mouth are getting better economics as the Rolling Stones on the first million spins.