In 1982, I bought my first full-length album. It was by a relatively well-known artist named Michael Jackson, and that album went on to be one of the more popular ones of the era. It was titled Thriller.
I paid $9 for that album (adjusted for inflation, that’s around $22 in 2016 dollars). The album featured nine tracks and had a total running time of 42:19. In other words, we placed a value of approximately $2.44 on each song from that album. Today, my monthly Spotify subscription costs me $10. And there are about 30 million tracks for me to listen to whenever I want. According to Spotify — their payout to artists is approximately $0.006–$0.0084 per stream. And that gets broken up according to the artists’ deal with their own labels.
In other words, we have completely destroyed the value of music.
Over the last few weeks, I surveyed professional Colorado musicians, asking them to share their working experience in this state. And the results, though unsurprising, were as depressing as I expected — and truly bear out what Spotfiy has proved. In a nutshell, wages haven’t budged over the last two decades — and when you factor in rising costs for everything else — they’ve effectively plummeted. Meanwhile, the bottom has fallen out of the recording industry so precipitously that live performance remains the last, gasping revenue stream for a working musician.
Eighty-one musicians responded to my survey. Here’s a bit of the breakdown:
- More than half have been playing professionally here for more than 10 years.
- 60.5% play 1–4 shows per month
- 96.3% play the bar/club scene
- 75.3% play private functions
- 75.3% play the festival circuit
- 82% of those who play the bar/club scene make under $100/gig.
- Only 18% make at least half of their income as musicians.
My own experiences reflect this. I’ve been a professional musician in Colorado dating back to the mid-’90s. Our best-paid gigs at the bar/club circuit averaged $100/man. That remains the de-facto average ceiling today.
None of this makes sense, when you position it up against the handwringing we’ve seen across social media with the loss of so many amazing musicians this year. The sense of grief around David Bowie and Prince’s deaths alone was monumental.
So we end where we started — why do we pay so much lip service to the value of music and yet refuse to follow through with our pocket books?
We left room for musicians to write free-form responses to two questions. The first one was, “What are the biggest obstacles to begin a full-time musician for you?” and the overwhelming responses were having enough money to pay for housing and/or health insurance. The second question was, “What are some things you would change about the way musicians make a living in Colorado?” Here are some of the responses:
“Organized labor. New bands are hungry for gigs and willing to play for nothing or very little which drives the market price for music down. The supply/demand economics of music are out of balance. An economic approach and an industry-based model with some kind of implicit regulation may be the answer.”
“…Residencies/affordable housing for Colorado artists would make it much easier.”
“Musicians have to earn a living by their own accord. Nothing in life is ever handed to you, no matter the profession. If you can’t cut the work or the scene, then you should stop.”
“With streaming paying only pennies on the dollar it makes no economic sense to make a CD…and other musicians playing for free makes it next to impossible to get paid what you’re worth. I guess the thing to change might be the perception that playing music is a hobby. There is a lot of time and money and blood sweat and tears that go into performing at a professional level. Most of the work is behind the scenes and most are not aware of that.”
“I would suggest basic business education for local musicians. Connect them with the chamber of commerce, small business development centers, startup weeks. Often, musicians want to think of themselves as artists. Hard truth is that if you are good enough for others to want to listen to you, you need to get good at the business side to grow your audience. I play out regularly and have also set up local events for musicians. Many have not gone through the process of setting up a web site, getting the recording online, creating a video, setting up a press kit. These resources take money, time, and a variety of skills that not every musician has. Creating a co-op system similar to a makerspace for musicians and other artists / developers would help with this to help establish a barter and trade system for services.”