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Somehow, somewhere, musicians need to be compensated
The most I ever spent on a single concert ticket in Chattanooga—or anywhere, for that matter—was $75, to see Robert Plant and Alison Krauss at the Memorial Auditorium in 2008. It was worth every penny.
The least I ever spent on a concert is, of course, zero dollars, dozens of times, enjoying free shows or the occasional comp; an honorable mention goes to a Lord T & Eloise show at Rhythm & Brews, where I potentially could have made money since the duo threw cash into the audience.
Music has a price and a value, and they are two different things, not necessarily in alignment. An old William F. Buckley, Jr. quote comes to mind: “Life can’t be all bad when for ten dollars you can buy all the Beethoven sonatas and listen to them for ten years.” After seeing the garage-rock band The Intelligence at JJ’s Bohemia in 2009, I asked front man Lars Finberg about the unusually low price ($5) of their CDs; the low prices were due to his belief that in a few years, CDs might not even be around.
Physical formats haven’t gone away, but they’re clearly in general decline; a recent Generator Research study predicts a $2 billion drop in physical media revenue over the next five years, while online streaming services will find tremendous growth.
This isn’t necessarily good for artists, though, as Galaxie 500’s Damon Krukowski revealed in his Pitchfork essay “Making Cents” that 5,960 Spotify plays of the Galaxie 500 song “Tugboat” yielded royalties of $1.05 (35 cents per member). Sure, Spotify is a great resource for music lovers, but it is a business; its CEO even said, “Our focus is all on growth.”
Don’t be surprised if Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google or Microsoft buys Spotify one day, and if you need a precedent, then simply look at what happened to Lala.com, a similar free music-streaming service, purchased by Apple in late 2009.
In 2012, an intern for NPR’s All Songs Considered named Emily White started a music-sphere poop-storm with an unintentionally incendiary essay, titled “I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With,” about being an avid music fan yet only having purchased 15 CDs in her entire life, mostly listening to Spotify or copied digital files.
She closed the essay by asking, “All I require is the ability to listen to what I want, when I want and how I want it. Is that too much to ask?” My instinctual curmudgeonly internal response was to shake my rake while mumbling profanely about entitled Millennials, but the essay bluntly illustrates the reality that many people just aren’t used to paying for music.
Years ago, bands would tour in order to support an album, but now, career musicians must increasingly depend on performance or merchandise (clothing, beer koozies, beard shavings, etc.) revenue; the performing arts and recording arts are two different things, so now, it can be a dire situation for many recording artists.
I have seen several amazing shows at Nightfall, Chattanooga’s summer-centered weekly free outdoor concert series, and it warms my heart to think about its 2006 Sun Ra Arkestra show, seeing people (children, parents, bikers, etc.) who probably would not have otherwise paid for such a show, getting a taste—perhaps their first—of world-class free jazz insanity, and enjoying it. It’s hard to compete with free, though, and local venues have adjusted accordingly, with some even taking advantage of the post-Nightfall crowd.
Having a sustainable music career is difficult, but having one that is fulfilling, while not necessarily paying all the bills, is a more reasonable and meaningful goal.
So, I offer this to musicians and promoters: be creative and flexible (pass-the-hat arrangements can work!) and understand your audience’s expectations and possible mental barriers; some may gladly buy a $10 gourmet burger but balk at a $10 admission. And to audiences: I don’t want to preach about morality or what is or isn’t stealing.
But, when you receive a gift, at least what is owed is an expression of gratitude, and that expression can come in many different forms, including: kind words, a Facebook “Share,” or cash.