Earning money from your music has become more difficult than ever in the digital era. Less money coming in is obviously a downer, but it’s just a small part of a cultural shift in the way we consume and think of music as a whole. To understand why, we need to look at how the landscape is changing, and acknowledge we’re still in the early stages of a very messy musical revolution.
The pre-internet days was a simpler time. There was, more or less, a set formula for the birth and subsequent life of a band. You rounded up a bunch of people, wrote some songs, played a few shows, and released some material. If people liked your music, you could go on tour. If you were really lucky or your music had mass-appeal, you might even get played on the radio. Even up until the last decade or so this was somewhat standard practice. Underground music scenes held more significance, and the hype surrounding emerging bands could, for the most part, be trusted.
For the most part.
A band could release an album with the hope they’d be valued and revered based off merit. Take Nirvana, for example. They started the band in 1987, wrote some songs, and played a bunch of shows around Seattle. They recorded Bleach in 1989 for six hundred bucks and gained radio airplay, and Bleach went on to sell an initial 35,000 copies. That was pretty solid for an indie release, but not at all uncommon. The spotlight on the Seattle grunge scene at the time did its share for the group’s success, but conclusively they followed the path set out by most established bands before them. Except for the dead singer part.
It was a harmonious formula, which I’ve outlined very eloquently below with an accompanying diagram.
Band + Songs + Shows = Hype + Album + Tour = SUCCESS = Money & Admiration.
(B+S+S) = (H+A+T) =
Radio, TV and music publications played an essential role in discovering new music. There were ‘hype’ bands just as today, but it was generated by excitable word of mouth and added to their success. Back in those days, if you liked an album you had to buy it. A mate could show you an album – or even loan it to you (borrowing your mates albums was a thing, okay) but if you liked it enough you had to spend money on that shit. You’d waltz on down to your local CD store, or have your stupid parents that don’t understand you AT ALL drive you down (drop me around the corner Dad) and hand over anywhere up to fucking FORTY DOLLARS for a premium/multi-booklet/magic-eye/special edition record.
It’s hard to fathom we lived in a time where you couldn’t instantly access music from any band in the entire world within a few seconds. But then again, it’s rather bittering and nostalgic to reminisce. As musicians and music lovers, we just don’t value music as a form of media like we used to. It’s a harsh but true statement, yet it’s no real fault of our own. Or, well … it kind of is, actually.
From a musician’s perspective, the artistic process of creating an album has completely changed. Music was once provided in a very clear, definitive form. When your band decided to write an album, you would dedicate a tremendous amount of time perfecting an album as a whole. A band spent notable time writing and recording, and also spent significant time choosing an album title and quality cover art. They were important aspects of a release which helped make an album a physical and interactive work of art. It was something you could be proud of. Not only that, once you had carefully chosen all artistic elements that make up the record, you sent that shit off to a printing house to have copies pressed. You had to quietly wait until you received a stack of neatly packaged achievements with the comforting knowledge you could sell them to people for actual money. You trusted that fans would appreciate the laborious work you put into all facets of creating an album, and in turn, hand over some hard-earned bills.
It might sound like I’m putting bands in the bin for not cherishing the process or something wanky like that, but I’m not. It’s hard to articulate, but I feel there’s less of a focus on all perspectives that make an album more than just a collection of songs and an actual artistic statement. Am I wrong? Maybe. Probably not, though.
From the perspective of a consumer, you spent time and energy discovering, listening to and purchasing new music. You actually stood there in the flesh, flicking through the racks back and forth with your grubby and presumably sexually-inexperienced teenage fingers. The aforementioned artistic elements of an album acted as a tool to draw in new listeners – I know this because I discovered so many of the albums which shaped my youth in this way. I remember being sixteen and stumbling across FFAF’s Casually Dressed & Deep In Conversation in my local music store on a whim. The cover art, band name and album title all drew me in. I discovered Norma Jeans’ ‘O, God, The Aftermath’ the same way – which also won a grammy for its genius art and booklet design. Case in point. It was far more highly regarded than it is today, and buying an album and taking it home was an exciting, memorable and wholly interactive experience.
We don’t stockpile music like that anymore. Some people had a CD rack in their home. Can you even remember what the fuck that is? A piece of furniture dedicated to housing your CDs. A CD house. I miss CD houses. I miss the smell of a brand new imported CD booklet as I carefully read the lyrics to find my new MSN screen name. Your CD collection was one you were proud of. You bragged about it to your mates; about your limited edition japan-issue of Chocolate Starfish & The Hotdog Flavored Water. You cherished your CDs, keenly and regularly adding to your collection by way of exploratory foray to the record store.
Then the internet happened.
These avenues have taken a back seat in the digitally-dominated world. It makes sense. More music, more often, and higher expectations from consumers to have everything instantly in the most streamlined fashion imaginable. At some point not too long ago, the art of creating a full and encompassing work of art fell by the wayside. If you’re only going to release an album digitally, there’s no need to put time into any aspect of packaging aside from the cover art. It’s purely a symptom of the times. One negative of the shift from physical media is perhaps a decline in appreciation of an album for what it once was – an all-encompassing work of art.
The internet quickly became a revolutionary cultural influence in our daily lives, changing the way the entire world operated. Every truism we knew as a society was up for review. With unbridled access to information like never before, it’s allowed people to connect with all types artistic tendencies and schools of thought. People were able to discover new and existing music easier than ever, simply by having a medium in where like-minded people can discuss and influence each other through their individual knowledge and taste.
It wasn’t long before the music industry as we knew it started to feel the effects. Anyone old enough to remember Napster knows what an incredibly mind-bending concept it was when it first originated. I certainly didn’t understand it, all I knew was that my friend Michael who had a frullet could put music onto a CD for me, for free. FOR FREE. Little did anyone know it would become a concept that became the biggest game-changer for the music industry in its history.
Over the following years, illegal downloading became the main source of obtaining music for the younger generation. CD sales were – and still are – somewhat prevalent, of course. Even when you’re (still) able to download pretty much any album via hosting sites, they see a place in the hearts of the die-hards, the honest, the supportive, and the old. Old people love CDs. They refuse to die off completely, and it’s likely it’s going to be an extremely slow death.
Sure, a lot of bands still release physical copies of albums. It makes sense for bigger artists who have a large fan base and major-label support – with major support comes cheap distribution deals, and stocking CDs in stores ends up being a profitable measure. But not all bands release physical albums anymore. CDs were once the primary source of consuming music – with TV, radio and music publications in the back seat as support. Now CDs have been joined by new players on the scene, and we’re too early on in the birth and implementation of some of the new ways we consume music – e.g. premium streaming services – that there’s no clear winner of the new and congested race. It puts enormous pressure on bands themselves, often left uncertain on the most viable way to release a record.
In my opinion, as much as I like to hold onto the glory days of physical media – I think CDs need to die. Aside from the fact they’re shitty technology, I feel like they were only ever a transitory medium anyway. CDs’ days were numbered regardless of the internet revolution, and in some respects I think we’re being held back from establishing a new form of media with the best interests of the artist at heart by letting them bleed out.
CDs are basically the guy at a party who drinks all the booze and overstays his welcome. Let’s call him Seedy Simon. Simon knows nobody wants him there, but he has nowhere to go. The guests don’t really like him, but there are fuck-all people at the party, so it’s better to have him there. The only other guests that showed up are Vinnie Vinyl and Sally Streams, and they’re just as obnoxious as Simon. Sally is notorious for ripping off her friends, and Vinnie is a fucking annoying hipster dickhead. Fucking Vinnie. He thinks he’s so neat. Simon and Vinnie have been around for longer than Sally and are reasonably trusted by everyone, but Sally’s easy. She’s attractive, cheap and sassy, and people are drawn to her because they can get some quick relief.
That’s kind of where we are at the moment with music in its consumable form. Depending on what studies and statistics you believe, CD sales and streaming services account for approximately half the market share each. In 2013, physical CD sales made up for around 51% percent of total revenue, leaving digital revenue to make up the rest – however, that was up from 11% the previous year, and total global revenue from music altogether has been slowly declining over the last few years. The meaning can get lost, but it paints a picture of neither avenue being more successful than the other. That was until last year at least – the figures from 2014 show a clear winner in the battle between physical and digital.
2014 was the first year in history that there were no platinum-certified albums. At all. Sales of the two releases that did come close; Lorde’s “Pure Heroine” and Beyonce’s self-titled album, tapered off towards the end of the year and missed the 800,000 unit benchmark. Bizarrely, the soundtrack to Frozen sold 3 million copies – which I’m sure any parent with young children would be painfully aware of. What did become platinum, however, were sixty individual songs through digital sales. It shows a pretty clear trend towards a more singles-based music economy, but we’re collectively hesitant and insecure to move forward.
Not having a clear and reliable avenue for your art is distressing. If you’re a band relying solely on physical media, you can kiss your career goodbye. Even Dad-Rock bands have the sense to whack their tunes up for streaming. Dads who loves Dad-Rock need to ignore other non-Dad-Rock Dads at football games, banging out to the new BMTH song in-between their kid kicking it out of bounds on the full (your kid fucking sucks at footy). Conversely, if you’re a band relying solely on streaming services to survive you’ll never make any money. Premium streaming services have been under heavy scrutiny since their beginning for not passing on profits to artists – so at the bare minimum you need a paid download available on Bandcamp or iTunes to bring home the bacon.
This is a mistake a lot of bands starting out seem to make. The digital era has created a sense of urgency for bands to get their material out there as soon as possible and to a wide audience, but many are neglecting to think of an album as it should be; a work of art, yes, but something that’s also for sale. Nearly anyone can record a few songs and upload them to YouTube or Bandcamp for free, but if you pour time, money and passion into a project, then you should be willing to lay it on the line, and have the courage to ask people to pay for it. Just because we can get everything for free, it definitely doesn’t mean we should get everything for free. The internet has allowed everything, everywhere to be consumed within a moments notice, and it’s turned us into greedy, unappreciative, soulless product-sponge cunts.
Bands feel like if they charge money for their music, they’ll get passed on for the band who is offering their music for free. People forget that it doesn’t matter if something’s free, it doesn’t make it any less bad. It’s like being offered a warm and luxurious Cashmere sweater. Hmmm. Comfy. Except the sweater has the word RAPIST displayed boldly across the chest. And the back. And each sleeve. Yeah, no thanks. I think I’ll just smile politely and opt for the less-rapey sweater that costs $5. It’s probably better, anyway, but I opted for the free item of clothing like a fool. What bands are doing is inadvertently perpetuating a culture where people have begun to think music should be free. This is an undeniably stupid sentiment. Of course music should be free! So should medical care, literature and education, because who the FUCK do those idiot doctors, teachers and writers think they are to dare ask for some sort of remuneration for enriching and improving our lives? LOSERS.
But that’s where we are. Bands have to sometimes rely on things like crowd funding just to write and record music, especially if they haven’t taken steps to generate some revenue. Progressive Metal band Corelia released (in my opinion) one of the finest albums in the last five years – the album was reasonably popular, and would’ve made a decent amount of money … if they had bothered to try and make any. The band intentionally leaked the album as well as uploading it to YouTube for streaming in its entirety, simply in an effort to get their name out there. It definitely worked – but this was before paid streaming services took the spotlight, and it left the band relying on merch and album sales after everyone already has a free copy on their computers. It’s left the band essentially begging for money in the most awkwardly heartbreaking ISIS execution videos requests for crowd funding I’ve ever seen in my life .
Corelia made some bad decisions, but they’re not alone. Bands are at a loss at how to generate some cash flow and to remain accessible at the same time. It’s never been an easy game to make a living in, and you will very likely always have to have an outside source of income to sustain your artistic endeavors. It used to be the aim to hit it big off your music and quit your day job, but that’s already a long lost pipe dream for most musicians.
It certainly doesn’t make it any easier when you have to compete with a lack of understanding and empathy from so many sides of the spectrum as well. The standard consumer with little or no knowledge of the music industry doesn’t fully appreciate the damage they can do by not supporting their favourite bands financially – many take a ‘someone else will’ attitude to paying for music and will opt for a free stream instead. It speaks volumes of our idea of music and it’s worth, with someone generally spending more on a packet of cigarettes rather an album that will provide infinitely more joy and far less death. Music lasts forever, cancer is only good for a few years at most before it kills you. Oh, and don’t forget the federal Government – as part of the budget announcement earlier this year, they decided to include a few examples of ‘typical’ wage earners in their chosen occupation and any tax allowances they may be eligible for.
Fuk u Steph.
Here we see the Government’s projection on tax breaks for an average Aussie musician, Stephanie. As you can see, Steph does pretty well with earning just over $300,000 in the 2015 – 2016 tax year as a ‘small’ sole trader. That’s $300,000. Not $30,000. THREE-HUNDRED-THOUSAND. All I know is I am wasting my life doing whatever the fuck I’m doing and I have to promptly take steps to become a small sole trader. No, fuck that. A LARGE sole trader. Can you imagine how much money even a moderately-sized sole trader would make? What are you fools doing! Sure, the road to success isn’t an easy one, but if you manage to get to the end, it’s paved with THREE-HUNDRED-THOUSAND FUCKING DOLLARS.
Granted, Joe Hockey later came out and said that $300,000 was not to be taken as the ‘typical’ wage for an Australian musician, but we should cut Joe a bit of slack. Joe Hockey is on record saying that he doesn’t mind a bit of Delta, so perhaps his views on the typical Australian musician may not fall in line with the average … Joe.
Then again, it does still specifically state on the website that Stephanie ‘is just one example of the 85 Australian musicians earning over $180,000 per year’. Upon engaging in some internet research, I discovered a severe void in this income actually being reported. No wonder the Aussie music scene can be a bit sparse sometimes – obviously people aren’t even aware of the lucrative dividends involved in such grand pursuits as playing five-show (three in the home state) east coast tours and getting the support slot for a big band at your local venue. I fixed it up for everyone below – so expect to see a WAY higher percentage of psychiatrists and CEO’s starting bands.
But it of also got me thinking. Is this just part of some wider conspiracy? Surely this information has just been declassified by the Government or something … is Joe Hockey secretly working with Australian musicians to enforce the NWO? Call me crazy, but all you have to do is look at the inconsistent information being spouted by the powers at large. BAAAAA!!!! BAAAAAAAA!!!!!!! Fucking sheeple. Keep drinking your fluoridated tap water and taking your ‘paracetamol’. Feel calm? At peace? THAT’S HOW THEY WANT YOU TO FEEL.
Any actual real-life musician knows the painful contrary, with many lucky to break even let alone turn a profit. Most low to mid-level musicians put their estimated earnings at anywhere from $6000 – $10,000 – a mere pittance when you factor in all of the expenses required to run a successful business. Success stories do happen though – the Temper Trap earned around $4 million in 2009 – 2010. When they moved to London after they grew tired of slogging it out in Australia to no financial gain, of course. Also, if you believe the internet, Parkway Drive’s Winston McCall is reportedly worth $1 million. Even if that’s the case, remember that they’re currently in their thirteenth year as a band and have been at the forefront of one of the most influential revolutions of heavy music in recent history.
I remember in seventh-grade my music teacher was also for some reason the school principal. I have no idea why. Looking back, I don’t ever recall her picking up let alone playing an instrument, so I’m fairly convinced it was a matter of staff shortages that this plebeian, insufferable, dull, box headed, lego-haired succubus of fun was appointed with teaching us the joys of music. She used to call me fucking Jason Mason for God’s sake. For the record, my name is John Mason. It’s really not that hard, and I recall more than one occasion where I almost told her to fuck the hell off for getting it wrong. Seriously, could you imagine if my parents called me JASON MASON? Jesus Christ. Strangely, something else she used to say resonated with me and has stayed with me ever since.
“If you don’t have ability you’ll end up playing in a rock band, and you’ll never make any money”
Okay, firstly – fuck her. Rock music – and by default, heavy music, is astounding. It turns out she stole the first part of the quote from one of the greatest drummers that ever lived, Buddy Rich, adding in the part about money herself. Dullard. Although, in her defence she was just trying to make a point: rock music is not the most profitable slice of the music pie. The highest earners in Australia are commercial and session musicians, along with members of orchestras and classical ensembles. This is where the Government’s figures have likely originated from – but one could argue that they’re not an accurate representation of the ‘typical’ Australian musician.
To conclude, I thought I would provide a quick guide on artist and consumer etiquette. It’s not a comprehensive list, but rather a loose set of ramblings to help ensure everyone is getting the most out of music in our unpredictable consumer culture.
Start acting like a business. Every single dollar counts – don’t make it too easy for people to listen to your music for free. Always offer at least a few tracks for streaming via YouTube or another free outlet, but make sure to have a dedicated source of income from your music coming in from somewhere. If you have a song on YouTube, fill it with notes directing the listener to download your album via iTunes or Bandcamp. CDs, streaming services, vinyl – there’s a host of ways to format your music, but Bandcamp has become an extremely important avenue for bands (especially emerging bands) to get their material out there. It’s the minimum standard these days, and applications like Soundcloud are not enough to be taken seriously and turn a profit.
In conjunction with your Bandcamp, you absolutely need a Facebook band page. It’s a no-brainer, obviously, but you would be surprised at how many relatively successful bands don’t even have that. You can pretty much rely on those two things at first to get by – list your Bandcamp clearly on your Facebook page, and vice versa. Write a decent press release, get some high-quality, non-copyrighted photos up on your Facebook, and include a detailed biography. All of these things help people to get to know your band a little better, and also serves as a useful tool when exceptionally talented writers such as myself want to do a little story on your band but has to spend days waiting for information from a band, or even worse – approval from a photographer (YUCK) to use photos that are terrible anyway.
List your music for a reasonable, but fair, price. Remember, unless you’re a Metalcore band you’ve worked hard to create something, and pride and a glowing sense of achievement won’t put beer in the fridge. Oh, and get some merch done up. It doesn’t have to be hand-printed by Michael Crafter himself, just make sure that it’s not badly designed and something that people actually want to wear. That’s a good place to start, and some surefire ways to generate some cash flow while you’re trying to find your feet.
Just fucking pay for it.
What do you think the future holds for physical media? Will CDs ever die? Is streaming here to stay? What are your ideas for a sustainable form of media that looks out for artist’s financial interests? Discuss and fight each other in the comments.
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