Try as I typically might to avoid outright social commentary (not that there isn’t plenty hidden behind the arrases), 2014 is a year that simply begged for it. Presumably because it was a year rife with crisis. Sure, every year has its issues, but 2014 seemed more riddled than average with causes for serious concern. Ebola threatened not only to wipe an entire continent off the planet (not really), but actually had the gall to sneak into our own backyard, like the unnamed intruder in Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, and disrupt our ill-deserved decadence with threats of bloody vomit. The tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner reminded everyone just how real the artifice of racial tension is, and like too many tragedies proved a greater occasion for shouting and scapegoating than for reflection and progress. And then there was this:
But of course it wasn’t really our pets’ heads. It was, you know, that American journalist. The whole Isis thing, remember?
Now, a lesson learned at least from the ebola scare is that not every bump in the road portends armageddon, and if there’s one thing I want to be skeptical of it’s the combined tendency of mass media and action/thriller movie fans to foster some sick obsession with the idea of the world ending, or at least sinking into dystopia. 4 seasons of The Walking Dead and now every idiot with a baseball bat and a can opener is just waiting for the chance to self-promote from office cog to road warrior. Yeah, we’ll see who makes it past week one of whatever sick joke ultimately befalls our race.
Then again, maybe these issues – or at least some of them – do deserve a bit more credence, even from a oblivious, privileged, don’t-give-a-shit-bout-nuthin’ guy like myself. So I’m going to spend some more time thinking about them. Maybe I’ll make it a New Year’s resolution to be a bit more aware. But in the meantime I don’t really want to write more about them than I already have, because they’re delicate issues. And I truly wish more people on the internet would adopt some of this same reservation, because while we already know that most of what’s on the internet is garbage, when it concerns these very real matters of life and death, it becomes exceptionally dangerous garbage. Well, there’s enough dangerous garbage out there, and I’m not about to add to the pile.
However there is a dialogue that has run throughout the year which I do feel a bit more qualified to respond to, one which is isn’t as immediately horrifying as the aforementioned conflicts but nonetheless might well be seen on a parallel track to some eerie dystopia. I’m talking about the fear that the internet has enslaved, warped, and perhaps even destroyed the music industry.
Once again, this might simply be the same old wine in a brand new bottle, and it’s certainly not the first time that the music industry as we know it has been vulnerable, but for whatever reason it feels like it came to a head this past year. And maybe, just maybe, as someone who strives to be an active participant in the world – the industry, even – of music, I should actually have, and actually share, some thoughts on the matter. So I’ve gotten these thoughts together, and I now plan to close out the year by sharing them with you.
Disclaimer: I am a musician. I’ve been playing in bands since I was 12, which means that for more than half my life I’ve been performing and recording music, and not getting paid for it. In fact, it’s cost me plenty of money just to do it, between the prices of gear, gas, studio time, etc. So I don’t want anyone to think this is a Horatio Alger kind of story. The moral is not: work hard enough at music and eventually you’ll make a bunch of money for it, because you deserve it. The moral is: nobody owes you anything. If you decided to pursue music as a means to make money in the first place, then you deserve neither music nor money.
The idea that Spotify is doing something immoral with the way it has structured its artist payouts is based on a model of the music industry that has existed for less than a hundred years. My point is, there is no ancient truth written in stone somewhere that guarantees musicians money; it’s simply the way things used to be for a brief period of time in the 2nd half of the 20th century. If you wanted to to make money as a musician before then, say in the 1930s, you probably had to perform it live, and earn a very modest compensation for it. That option is still very much available today. In the worlds of classical and jazz music, if you’re good enough, you can get a gig:
Granted, the worlds of rock and pop music are more pertinent to the current conversation, but I can still assure you, and I’ve seen it first hand, that even within these genres you can get paid to play shows. And at these shows you can sell your merch and make money from that. A live performance is still a unique experience that people definitely pay to attend, and if anything the proliferation of music festivals both domestic and abroad have only afforded more opportunities to touring musicians. You won’t make a million dollars, and you have to be very smart about it, but it’s absolutely possible to make a living this way, and I’ve met plenty of people who are doing just that, even if they’re not yet world famous. These are people who have not expected Spotify or anyone else to pay them just because; they are people who have great talent and great songs, and who took a courageous plunge to follow their dreams.
The internet has done a damn good job of making everyone in the world an expert and a complainer. “I know this and I deserve that”. It’s atrocious! And it’s this kind of self-victimizing mentality by which the minority group that is struggling musicians has unwittingly revoked all power, agency, and creative control over their own product. You want to express yourself in a way that is truly rewarding? Write a song and play it for people. It’s your song, and the applause that follows will be yours exclusively. If you want, you can charge people $5 each next time you play it. If it’s a good enough song and you’re good enough at playing it, they’ll be happy to to pay the $5, and the money will be all yours. If you want, you can then record your song, put it on Spotify, and the whole world can hear it. IF YOU WANT. Because absolutely no one is forcing you too. It is fully within your rights to keep the song all for yourself and claim full ownership of any revenue that it produces.
So why not do this? Because it’s impractical? Impossible even? Because today’s climate has rendered the small, struggling artist incapable of true creativity, true progress, true rewards? Well, tell that to this guy:
He’ll tell you start a band, and he’ll let you sleep on his floor whenever you play D.C.
So musicians, I implore you: stop begging companies like Spotify, or a record industry that doesn’t exist anymore, to give you things you don’t deserve. Just do it yourself. It’s completely within the realm of possibility, and whatever happens, at the end of the day you’ll have the singular joy of being a musician, and not a beggar.
Before I sign off, I do want to remind everyone that it’s the holidays. And I say this because those problems that I mentioned at the start of this article, those are real problems. All in all, 2014 has been a pretty dark year. Maybe that’s why so much good metal has come out this year. And for someone like myself, you could do a lot worse in the way of a silver lining, but I’d still like to think that all hope is not lost for a slightly more universal, a slightly more palpable lesson to be learned. I’m not exactly sure what the lesson is – and I say this in earnest, not in smuggery – but I’m pretty sure it has to do with treating the people around you with kindness and compassion, and the holidays are the best time to remind ourselves of this simple fact.
So yeah, that’s it. Love people and write songs. See you in 2015.