It took a while but it finally happened. IT happened. Maybe it’s a good thing… When it happens to us it often hurts… So we resist it. We often label it “bad” and thus put it off, or even when it does happen we continue to label it bad, which then prevents us from seeing the good in it. A little backstory…
Last night we saw the film Silver Linings Playbook. I had no idea what the film was about, but was sucked in from the very first minute. See it. It’s better than good. Due to this new trend of infinite potential greatness in art all happening simultaneously, I found it easy to exclaim that Silver Linings was the best movie of the year, beating out even Speilberg’s Lincoln, before settling back down into recognizing that we are now in an age when it’s possible for there to be MANY “best movies of the year” all at the same time.
[This is a fairly new and exciting trend, due to many factors; globalization being one, another being the continued decline of the cost of the tools and technologies of all the various fields of art. Whether filmmaking or music making or just about anything else, the cost of entering, the entry fee, has come down to a price point making it possible for anyone to make a movie or an album or whatever else the heart and mind can imagine. It’s one of the Signatures of the Personal Expression Age and has both good and bad ramifications. It’s not the purpose of this particular post, but in the book I’ve been working on for the last six years, we elaborate on it in much more detail. Suffice it to say that this Signature has created a world where there is more “Best Of the Year” projects being released simultaneously than any one consumer could possibly take in — unless you make being a consumer of art your career.]
So towards the end of the film, during the end credits roll actually, we hear this song, an amazing song, an incredible song, sounded like the Stone, or the Faces, maybe Chris Robinson’s new band. As always I waited till the very end of the movie to see who the artist was. It turned out to be a group called Alabama Shakes. The song was called “Always Alright.” I took a note of it in my phone in the usual file where I note music that I plan on purchasing later. The film ended. We exited the theatre, talking idly about how great the film was, how believable, how real, how moving; our dialogue occasionally interspersed with my excited exclamations of “how fucking great that song was, wow!”
In the men’s room a few minutes later I was still thinking about that song, fantasizing about that moment when I would be able to go home and buy it and listen to it over and over. And then it hit me, just standing there in front of the urinal. I didn’t need to wait till I got home. I could pull out my phone right there while still taking a piss and download the song using iTunes and listen to it immediately. So i reached into my pocket to grab my phone. But then another realization. I didn’t need to go to iTunes. I could probably just go to YouTube and do a Search for it. So i did. Sure enough, ten to twenty different versions of this particular songs came up and I began to listen to each one until I found the one I was looking for. (I never did. Instead I listened to a few live versions of the song, never finding the actual recording of the song itself.) But that was enough. I got my fill of it. At least for the moment.
When we got in the car to drive home, I took it further and plugged my phone into a little quarter inch jack we’ve rigged into our car stereo so we can listen to our iPods and iPhones through the car’s stereo system. I didn’t think much about this experience truth be told. For whatever reason, IT didn’t happen then. But it did this morning.
This morning I woke up with the song “This Guys’s in Love with You”, the Herb Albert version, in my head while I was dreaming. With eyes still closed I fumbled my hands around the bed seeking my phone so I could check my iTunes library to see if i had already downloaded the song. I wanted to hear it. Right then and there, before I woke up fully and the day started. And THAT’S when IT hit me. I didn’t need to check my iTunes library to listen to the song. Who cares if i had already downloaded the song. All i had to do was go to YouTube. Sure enough, there it was. In hundreds of different forms, uploaded by hundreds of different people. Within less than a minute I was listening to this haunting and beautiful Burt Bacharach song over and over again and not paying a dime for it. And THIS is when it really hit me.
For the last six months I have been struggling like a mother fucker to make ends meet for my family. My last big hit was in May of this year. The checks from sales and royalty checks roll in eventually and that’s always a great thing. But they aren’t what they used to be. Not even close. Something has changed. Many things have changed. You can have a song that goes to #1 in cities all over America and even jump up into the Top 30 on Billboard and still not be able to support yourself as a working musician. It’s not something we talk about. Call it denial. No one wants to talk about it. But it’s happening. Access to music has become so easy for all of us as consumers that it’s become impossible for those of us who make music for a living to make an actual living at it. It’s no one’s fault per se. It’s just the way the industry has shifted.
Sure we make money every time someone downloads one of our songs or albums. We do. And it’s good money. If it’s done in the traditional legal and above board fashion, ala going through amazon.com or iTunes, we get paid for that. So the first thing is just to continue to encourage friends and fans to buy our songs and albums. Because that is still our primary means of making a living. But this morning I watched it happen with my own eyes. Not as a working musician, but as a consumer and lover of music. I just wanted my fix in that moment of this song. And I went to the fastest way i knew how to get it. YouTube. And the sad truth of the matter is that we as artists don’t get paid when people listen to our music on YouTube. It doesn’t matter that “Gangam Style” has become the most viewed video on YouTube in terms of the artist making any money from it. He doesn’t. It might feel good. And yes, surely it leads to other potential money making opportunities. Maybe. But the act itself does not make any money. Nor did it help Herb Alpert or Burt Bacharach when I listened to “This Guy’s in Love With You” ten times in a row this morning on YouTube. Hell, I even Shared the song on Facebook and Twitter to spread the joy with my friends and fans. And that led to more people listening to the song on YouTube. For free.
And that’s the operating word now in our industry. Free. People that like having easy access to music and listening to music for free will jump at this point in the discussion to point out that artists DO get paid if people listen to our music on Pandora or Spotify. But let’s yank that cat out of the bag once and for all so the whole world can feel the shock and pain of it as much as we who make the music do. You ever wonder how much we get paid each time someone listens to one of our songs on Pandora or Spotify? It looks like this: $00.0001. That’s what it looks like. On the statements we receive each month or quarter from the various different companies who collect and distribute the data and money to us. Hundreds of pages comprise these statements. And we do get to see each and every time someone listens to (streams) or downloads one of our songs or albums.
Sometimes it’s in the millions. Or even tens of millions. “Scene in San Francisco” has been streamed more times than I can count at this point. But at that rate of pay, it amounts to less than enough to make your mortgage payment. Which is why most working musicians rent. And worse, that’s ONLY if people are listening through very firmly established music services, like MOG or turntable.fm or Spotify or Pandora. Most of the places people go online to listen to music, like YouTube for example, don’t offer a way for the artist to make even one-one-hundredth of a cent from that experience. Not a penny. Not half a penny. Not a tenth or even a hundredth of a penny. Zero. Combine that with the fact that most people have stopped buying music — why WOULD you BUY music when you can listen to it for free anytime you want to from a device that is literally in your hands 23 out of every 24 hours in a day? — and what you end up with is an industry where 99% of the people working in it aren’t able to make a living from it.
This was a huge realization for me this morning. For months I have been struggling to decide what to do about this. I have never seen anything as heart breaking as my poor new wife crying her eyes out in fear that we are already broke and penniless because my well ran dry so fast after having two Top 30 hits this year. I’ve never seen anyone so frightened. “I’m not used to this like you are,” she scream-mumbled in between big sobs and moans… “What are we going to do???” she asked me. I had no answer. Only, “I’ll think of something honey. I promise. Our new album just came out. We’ll get money from the sales of that.”
But i knew I was kidding myself, being delusional. Those days of big sales numbers from a new album release for most of us started drying up in ’05. Sooner than that for some people. Adele’s last album, 21, just topped the 10 million mark I believe, making it one of the few albums in decades to sell that many. Albums that now sell a million, what we call Platinum, are few and far between. It’s a small earthquake in our industry when it happens. Selling half a million, what we call Gold, happen a bit more, but we are talking about maybe five to ten artists a year now. For the most part, the large majority of working music makers sell in the thousands. The last stat I read was disarmingly sad and sobering. It showed that out of the 5,000 albums a month that are released each year, less than one-thousand of them sell a thousand copies or more. Most of those are in the classical music genre. That’s 60,000 albums a year that get released, with less than 1000 of them selling even one-thousand copies. Don’t bother doing the math. It’s so far below the poverty line that it isn’t even worth considering how much those artists make. It certainly isn’t enough to support a family.
For me the big realization happened towards the end of this year. We were convinced that with all the hype and sales and radio airplay and Billboard hit making that we were doing earlier in the year that it would lead to bigger and better things, i.e. more money. At least enough to live comfortably. Or live, period. But it happened fast. The money comes and the money goes. Whatever you make usually goes right back into either making more music or marketing and promoting the music you’ve already made in an attempt to reach more people and make a bigger splash. It’s throwing money after money is what it is. It used to work. And for a very few it still does. But they’re few and far between.
We are supposed to make money every time our songs get played on the radio. This is true. So with a song like “Scene in San Francisco” where it received tens of thousands of spins on radio stations all over America and eventually the world, you would think we would have received tens of thousands of dollars from it. But it doesn’t work that way. There are three companies in the entire world that collect all that money for every musician on planet earth. ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. And they collect hundreds of billions of dollars each year from our music being played on the radio. But their systems are crooked. They don’t pay per spin. They claim to have a proprietary system that they can’t reveal to anyone. Not even Congress, who has been breathing down their backs for nearly a century to try to get them to conduct a more honest and transparent business.
So big hit or not, two big hits or not, what ASCAP wanted to pay me personally came to less than $3,000. I went into a bloody apoplectic seizure when I found out. See, it isn’t that they didn’t collect the money. They collected the money alright. From every single radio station in America and beyond they collect plenty of money. And it’s not that they cannot see how many times each song has been played. They can. The system is all computerized now. It’s easy to discover how many millions of times your song has been played on radio each year. That’s not the issue. The issue is that they “cannot reveal their proprietary system” to the artists that shows how they calculate how much money they are going to pay out for all your radio spins. It’s a fucking nightmare. They’re the mafia of the music industry. Pirates. Raking in huge sums of money on behalf of every working musician in the world with no intention of paying it out.
That’s radio airplay. Sales is a different matter. Coldplay’s record label spent five million dollars just on promotion of their last album (the one before this latest one) in their attempt to get the sales they needed to pay for the recording of the album. I never bothered to check to see if they made the money back. I just couldn’t believe that they spent five million dollars on marketing and promotion alone. It was an astounding figure. A huge risk. But for a very established act.
Most artists don’t have that kind of established reputation in the industry, nor access to a record label with enough liquidity to be able to afford to do something like that. For their last album, just a few short years had gone by, but by this point their record label had gone bankrupt, gotten divided up and all the little pieces sold off to a variety of different other players, and so the money for marketing and promotion wasn’t there. Instead of throwing five million dollars around for marketing and promotion, they chose a different path. They teamed up with Google Music and put the new album up for sale for .99 cents to try to market it. They sold an 250,000 units through that stunt. Which was considerably more than they had sold up until that point. And that’s a huge artist.
But again do the math. If the artist only receives ten percent of the net proceeds…. Yikes. Split that 25 grand four ways if you’re in a band and you better be married to Gwyneth Paltrow, because you aren’t eating if you aren’t. Personally speaking, I’m not. So I need to come up with a different plan of action to make a living and support my family. And fast. It doesn’t mean I don’t love making music. I do. I’ve already written a few thousand songs. So for me the whole mission is to just try to record and release as many of the songs I’ve written over the last thirty years as I can before I die. The fans I do have deserve it. I know that. And I deserve it. I want to. There is nothing more painful than having thousands of songs sitting in notebooks unrecorded. Nothing I can think of. At least not for an artist. But I also need to make a living.
After this morning’s experience, after watching how easy it was for me, me, a working musician myself, someone who has always resisted the trends of accessing music or free for fear it might jeopardize the livelihood of the musicians I love the most, even I found myself taking advantage of this new system and simply heading to YouTube to spin a few songs I love five to ten times, knowing full well that the men and women who created that music that I love so much wouldn’t make a cent from it. It’s just not the same industry anymore. For all of us. Yes, something CAN be done about it. YouTube could enforce a law that ALL music that gets uploaded to their servers MUST go through a database that tracks the airplay, the spins, the views, that somehow cycles back to the musicians themselves. But who knows when that will happen.
In the meantime, the Ambassador is going to have to find another way to make a living that permits me to still be able to make music at the same time. It won’t be easy. The trick with being a musician is that every cent you make from whatever it is you do you want to take all that money and put it back into recording and production and marketing more music. So one needs a job that pays you twice as much as you need to live. Either that or you starve as you spend every cent you make from your job on making music. I did that all through my teens and twenties. As everyone already knows. You get used to living without a car or a phone or electricity or even food. Your teeth fall out one by one because you can’t afford to go to doctors or dentists. But you’re making music. You’re fulfilling your life’s purpose. You’re happy. You have fans who love what you do and it makes you happy thinking about how your music makes them happy.
But things are different now. And I know it. I finally took the big leap I had both dreaded and wished for my entire life. I got married. I have a wife that I love. I have step daughters that I love. We’ve been trying to have children of our own for years. Eventually we’ll achieve that goal, either naturally or through adoption (which I have started to see only recently is a very cool thing). And children are expensive. I have to stop trying to change the music industry to go back to the way it used to be. I also have to stop living in denial. I either need a HUGE break, as in times past, one that propels me to a place where a backflip into poverty once more could never happen again; or I have to invent or devise or discover some new way to make a fortune from continuing to make music for a living.
Or i need to choose another way entirely to support myself and the family. I’ve been meditating and praying about it incessantly. And miraculously money has been flying in from all over the place. Loads of it. So as we gratefully and graciously have been able to pay the bills as of late all of a sudden, I’ve been scrambling to try to figure out what the hell I’m going to do. Perhaps that big break will come. Perhaps it won’t. Maybe the industry will change and musicians will begin to get compensated commensurate with how much their music is enjoyed. But until then… I cannot help but feel that somewhere around the bend is this silver lining. There always is. Perhaps this waking up and recognizing how the music business really is now was a good thing, even though it felt like a bad thing. Perhaps it’s one step closer. I hope so.