Music, as we’re constantly being reminded, is in a state of flux. What we really mean by this is that the artists aren’t happy; and what we really, really mean by that is that the artists aren’t getting paid enough.
This isn’t like a college football coach who walks away from a $3 million contract because he’s not being paid enough1 In many instances, artists get paid nothing.
It’s not enough, if it ever was, to be good at one thing. You can’t get anywhere just by being a great songwriter or a great performer. You have to learn how to hustle, how to sell your brand, how to plant your visage in everyone’s mind without them knowing how it got there. How to seduce and hypnotize an audience while competing for their attention with millions of other people and apps and cat videos and yellow phosphorus journalism. And it’s crowded. All of the space (both physical and virtual) is taken up by someone already. So now you can’t even just be a great performer and a great self-promoter. You have to be an imperialist, too.
I thought it was strange when KOOL A.D. started selling art on Instagram. Surely he didn’t need the money? This started when Das Racist was unbelievably hot — it was right when Relax came out which means it was right before they split up — but in that moment they were it. They had to be getting money. But here’s Victor Vasquez selling crude drawings for $100.
They weren’t bad, some of them were even great, but that wasn’t the point. It seemed like it was something he shouldn’t have to do. He should have been getting thousands on eBay for his work. He should have been rich, and he would have been if music was the meritocracy it claims to be.
In reality, there’s no such thing as a meritocracy, and so even for the most talented people, the chances of being in a hit band are next to nothing. I’d equate it to winning the lottery, except all you have to do to win the lottery is buy a ticket. The chance of winning is minimal, but so is the risk. On the other hand, the chance of succeeding in music is also minimal, but the risk is monumental. It’s staggering. You have to get a band together, write songs, rehearse, play a bunch of shows for free, pay a studio for recording time, track a single, trash it because you don’t know how to work in a studio yet, try it a few more times until it clicks, pay for mixing and mastering, and then try to get people interested. At this point, profit is not even on your radar. You might get a few bucks back on your investment, but you’ve spent thousands of dollars and hours and you still don’t know where you stand on the path to success. You could be going the wrong way entirely. You don’t ever really know this, even once you achieve it. This is why very few people retire from music. That uncertainty pushes us forward and whispers in our ear that success is just around the corner. That uncertainty drives us all mad.
It also means artists have to do what they can—commercials, corporate gigs, reality TV—in order to survive. How can we blame them?
Back in the day, Michael Jackson didn’t need Pepsi money or exposure—at that point, Pepsi was looking for Michael Jackson exposure—but bands today need the boost in terms of money and publicity. I hated it when Jaguar did an ad with Spoon, because it took what was, to me, music that was virtually free of ideology and forced it to have one, to be tethered to life in such a disappointing way. “I Turn My Camera On” used to be mysterious; now it’s about a car.
“Sky Blue Sky” is about a car.
“Lose Yourself” is about a car.
“Are You Ready for Some Football” is about football, and also fighter jets buzzing Disney World.2
“Like a Rock” is about a bunch of cowboys who act like they’ve never seen a TV before. I didn’t even know that was a real song. I still don’t believe it is.
Yet there’s no way that we, the consumer culture that demanded more music until we had more than we could ever possibly hope to consume, can blame any artist for taking a sponsorship deal. What else are they supposed to do in a world of shrinking returns? When music was selling—and not just selling, but selling in the way the industry wanted it to sell—there was some incentive to try and take care of artists, to develop talent.3 Now it’s a huge going-out-of-business sale and the artists are the employees being forced to work in a store they know will be closed soon.
The only way it will get better is when moneyed interests can squeeze nothing more from music as a commodity, when the market bottoms out or when copyright laws get rewritten and invalidate their exhaustive back catalogs, and we can start over again.
Kickstarter may have been the catalyst for such a change, not by what it’s actually doing4 but by what came after: Patreon and the idea of patronage. Not just buying into a one-time project, but supporting someone whose work you enjoy on a regular basis, and in return getting more of their work to enjoy. And although the music presence on Patreon is almost non-existant, once musicians figure out its potential—you could quite easily convince a number of fans to agree to pay you perpetually for new songs as they are released, instead of having to collect money in advance for a single project, like the Kickstarter model—I think it will end up being the future quite simply because it’s sustainable where Kickstarter is not.
It’s hard for me to accept that the carefully crafted narrative we see all the time in music—that one’s success as an artist is commensurate with their wealth—is rarely in sync with reality, and is mostly just a ruse to sell records. It’s completely at odds with the functional purpose of music. Music is not something to be bought or sold, or fought over in court. It’s an exploration of sound, a communal activity, a spiritual rite. But none of these things are useful to the bottom line. So we will continue to live with this dissonance in our heads, and we will continue to see stars where we should see pavement, until the massive fissure between perception and reality has been healed.
although the way artists adopt luxurious stances also belies the fact that many bands who have “made it” still have day jobs. ↩
As YouTube aficionado thenekom says, “This is the most American thing I’ve ever seen. Wiping a tear from my eye with an eagle.” ↩
To protect assets, if you must. ↩
virtually nothing while skimming the top off creatives, inventors, entrepreneurs ↩