Unintended consequences, or how the trouble in the music business affects you, music lovers
My musician acquaintance Tristan Avakian had the most unexpected perspective today on Facebook on an article about the dressage team in the Olympics. This was his takeaway:
"reading this beautiful article, it strikes me how closely competition dressage parallels the cultivation of a music career. it is an antiquated tradition, the costs are astronomical, the chances slim, and now the potential rewards are pitifully small. it's already dominated by the independently wealthy, and I could easily see it becoming exclusively an aristocratic pursuit. even as my artist career unfolds, and develops, I wonder if I, as a father and a provider, can - in good conscience - go on. I might need to fold."
I got to thinking about a conversation I had recently with a writer friend, bemoaning the fact that the major British actors these days are all from the aristocracy - Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne, etc., because they can afford to devote themselves to classical training. In the sixties and seventies, when affordable housing existed in London and low budget films were still funded by major studios, middle class and even working class actors could live and study and build careers. Now that's not possible, and the movie-going public will never know talents like Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith and Michael Caine.
As I promote my movie The Shopkeeper, I'm always talking about free music and its impact on musicians. But I'm also trying to explain to listeners that this will affect them, too. I haven't had such a clear sense of just how to explain it until today.
When musicians could make money from music, even though it was a hard business, a poor truck driver like Elvis Presley could afford to quit his job and bring his unique talent to the mass market. A group of working class boys from Liverpool could hone their skills in a residency in Hamburg, so that when they hit the big time, the Beatles' writing and performing chops were world class. Folk singers like Pete Seeger and Odetta and Joan Baez could afford to release albums and tour, bringing songs of protest that galvanized the country for the civil rights movement and against the Vietnam War.
Before Elvis had a hit, he went into Sun Records whenever he had saved enough money to record another two-sided acetate. Total number of songs he was able to fund on his own? Four. When everyday musicians can't make money from their music, unless they have outside funding, they have to get a day job.
What does that mean to you, music lovers? It means that music in the future will come from three kinds of people:
1. Artists who were famous before the mid 2000s
2. Artists who are supported by family money or corporate funding
3. Hustlers who are great at self-promotion but not necessarily good at writing songs
(Let me clarify one thing before I go on: I'm talking about the mass market. There are always going to be those undiscovered gems you find on Bandcamp, or great indie bands that are able to make a couple records and tour before they it's not financially feasible any more. And there will be outliers like Adele and Kendrick Lamar. [I'm not counting Taylor Swift because her first album hit the mainstream right on the cusp of the old model.])
Because music is now free, we are losing the mass distribution of the music that brought us together. Think about this: the movie Forrest Gump used dozens of songs as touchstones for the important cultural moments through which the story progressed, songs that defined history. The new model is fundamentally unable to create those cultural moments, to bring to listeners throughout the world "For What It's Worth" or "What's Going On" or "R-E-S-P-E-C-T." Or "Fast Car" or "In The Name of Love" or "Don't You (Forget About Me)."
The world knows the Blues because WC Handy sought it out and sold it to the mass market. We have the Hillbilly canon of the Carter Family because AP Carter marketed it to Ralph Peer. We have rock and roll because folks like Sam Phillips and Leonard Chess had the insight to meld the two in the form of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. And Hip Hop exploded out of block parties into the national consciousness because of the marketing efforts of people like Sugar Hill's Joe and Sylvia Robinson.
Artists already know how their lives have changed. The mass distribution of music that defines your life is going away. This is what's changing for you.