There are a number of blogs out there about how to be successful as a musician in this Media 2.0 world where music recordings are, in a practical sense, basically free. How do you make money, or at least manage to keep going? It’s a big topic, but it’s difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff out there, especially since there have been no shortage of snake-oil salesmen looking to take advantage of desperate and/or naive wannabe indie musicians with too good to be true schemes, unhelpful hints, and supposed industry secrets, for at least like ten years now.
Among the relatively credible out there are Derek Sivers, who runs the popular veteran indie music store CDBaby and thus has been in a position for many years now to see what’s working for people and what isn’t, and Andrew Dubber who writes on music business stuff at New Music Strategies. Then there’s Music Think Tank, which has several contributors and can be kind of hit-or-miss… but boy, when they hit, you get articles like this one.
I’ve never heard of Rhodri Mardsen before, but he sounds like the real deal. Not only has he been in struggling independent bands, he was in weird struggling indie bands that were actively not trying to ape popular, commercially viable trends, but were instead concerned with making a beautiful art mess. So I can relate to this guy. The cynicism he expresses here, he has earned every right to. And he arrives at a sort of zen conclusion, that the whole point of making music is to have fun, show off, mess with people’s heads, or to just let something out of yourself that can’t find any other way out and just might destroy you if left unchecked. And if you obsess too hard over all these music-business tips and things that people like Music Think Tank or Andrew Dubber say you should do, you run the risk of turning making music into exactly the kind of grind that music is supposed to be an escape from, and that can suck even worse than not making any money at it.
Naturally, there’s a contentious comment thread battle between musicians who feel entitled to earn a living playing a guitar just because they can play a guitar and are crying about how unfair the reality that Rhodri describes is (as if that reality is Rhodri’s fault by virtue of his pointing it out), versus musicians who don’t mind so much having to keep their day job and are just focusing on enjoying what they do. You are not your job, after all, though you are what you do. If you do what musicians do enough, then you are a musician, regardless of how you get the rent paid.
Anyway…<blockquote>Deep down, I probably still believe that rewarding musicians financially for managing to come up with something that isn’t complete shit is the right thing to do â€“ but filesharing is compulsive, it’s a tool you can’t NOT use once you know about it. What I do find hilarious is when people attempt to morally justify it. They either claim that they’re “sticking it to the man” (as if most musicians are swanning around in limousines, when the vast majority are scraping a living by working part time in Halfords) or “it’s OK, bands can make money by touring, instead”. Which is like casually suggesting to the owner of an off licence, after he’s spotted you nicking a bottle of wine, that he can sell a few crisps to make up for it. And anyway, The Rolling Stones might well gross millions on a world tour, but nearly all bands lose money hand over fist while on the road. People might come out with stats about live music revenues being on a gradual incline, but believe me â€“ having been in bands known and unknown, and done tour budgets for countless others â€“ touring represents a black hole of disappearing cash for musicians. Sound engineers might get paid, promoters ensure that they get their cut, but precious little filters down to the musicians, unless they’re lucky enough to get tour support from the record company. Which is actually an advance. Which means that, er, it’s their money in the first place. But anyway, after you’ve pointed all this out, the filesharer just says “well, bollocks, I’m just going to do it anyway.” And this kind of logic is impossible to argue with.</blockquote>
Nicely cutting through the bullshit here. For people to grab music off the internets for free and then claim that musicians can make their money by touring is also a rather circular, self-contradictory bit of logic. What’s the source of money on tour that’s expected to carry you through pathetic door takes? Merch sales! What are the some of the big-ticket merch items? CDs, LPs, 7”es…
Rhodri gets even more gutsy calling out the very venue he’s posting this text on (the text is actually from a presentation he gave somewhere, originally):
The difficulty I have with being a musician in a Web 2.0 world is the fact that press articles, blogs and web startups are all trying to persuade us that we should somehow be raking in the cash, that the web is providing us with a unique opportunity to earn decent money from our music. One blog called Music Think Tank is entirely devoted to this very concept. The posts, many of which I fundamentally disagree with, provoke comment threads where you can almost feel the desperation, because this holy grail of being paid for your art has been ratcheted up to a preposterous extent.
Indeed, there are tons of ideas and strategies put across on Music Think Tank and New Music Strategies that are just terrible. I once read a post that recommended things like, recording personalized birthday songs for individual fans, or for example, they cited some punk band that wrote a 30-second song with the lyrics “Answer the phone! Answer the phone!” designed to be used as a ring tone. These are about the corniest ideas imaginable. They could be pretty novel though, for the first one or two bands that do them, after which time it becomes a cliche idea that you stole from some other band. It’s like naming your band “Free Beer” – once it’s been done, it quickly been overdone. The fact that they are passing along these ideas because they saw some other band do them actually implies that the ideas are now pretty much useless.
John says that he had to disassociate himself from friends who were holding him back by telling him that there was no way he could make it. To me, this utterly joyless statement completely misses the point of playing music.
Not only that, but it’s pretty much the same advice that Amway or Jehovah’s Witnesses members get: cut anyone out of your life, including avoiding TV or magazines, that casts doubt on what we want you to believe and hope for.
Jonathan Coulton is another one; he is often cited as the king of online DIY music, because for 18 months he has been making a living by spending 6-8 hours a day vigorously social networking
Gee, I thought the best way to become the “king of (online) DIY music” would be by spending 6-8 hours a day vigorously writing, recording, and performing music. Shows what I know.
And it's worth noting that if I hadn't been told that Taglieri and Coulton were supposedly famous internet successes, I would never have heard of them.
And if they were famous for how good their music is, you would have heard about them for their music, not for their promotional tactics. So I suspect their music isn’t all that interesting. It sounds to me like these guys are no different than like, the red paper clip guy.
Basically though, in the end, what I get out of this refreshingly honest post is, it’s all well and good to put some effort into promoting your music, but not at the expense of why you got into music in the first place, which, if you’re really honest with yourself, was to have a good time. Part of why you do music anyway is to show off to people, and the more people who show up to watch you show off, the better time you have at it. So if you really care, you’ll work at getting more people to show up to those gigs. So in a way, it evens out. And breaking even, as an obscure underground nobody, is at least enough to keep you at it.