By Sasha Frere-Jones
Last month, Damon Krukowski and I discussed Spotify, the public exit of Nigel Godrich and Thom Yorke from that platform, and the various challenges facing musicians who do or don’t want to participate in similar streaming services. Toward the end of the discussion, Damon and I both hinted at the freedom of going free, the moments when giving your music away is more profitable—in the long run—than letting another company sell it inefficiently and unprofitably. Damon expanded on his position in a subsequent article for Pitchfork, but neither of us was advocating that musicians play and record for free, in all scenarios, all the time: nothing of the sort. So before I hand this discussion over to a new panel, one clarification.
My band, Ui, released a clutch of records through Southern Records. These albums are no longer available on Spotify because, according to Southern, the costs of administrating the relationship were not covered by the microscopic amount of revenue generated. I believed them then, and believe them even more now. Because I have no illusions about a horde of people dying to stream instrumental music from the nineties, it occurred to me that offering high-resolution versions of the album for free (through a service like Bandcamp) would allow our music to circulate in the world, and might even sell ten or twenty copies of the vinyl sitting in Southern’s warehouse.
But we’re a defunct band that never experienced much popularity. What about an excellent, working band like Dawn of Midi, whose new album, “Dysnomia,” received a score of 7.9 in Pitchfork this week? (I’d say 8.9 but who’s counting?) This band uses a grand piano, an upright bass, and a drum set to make their music; touring means they either play venues with grand pianos on site (relatively common) or that they rent a very big van (uncommon, if we’re talking about small bands trying to drag around a grand piano). More to the point, their music needs to be recorded in a well-equipped live studio by a skilled engineer; Garageband and other popular home-recording software programs are of no use in properly capturing a mechanically traditional band, that is, despite an advanced aesthetic vision. Some kind of business model needs to remain in place, or we won’t have albums like “Dysnomia.”
These tactical questions are obviously different for Top 10 artists who can partner with telecommunication and cosmetics companies when releasing albums. To discuss how less popular musicians are going to survive, I asked Dave Allen, Jace Clayton, and Damon Krukowski to answer a few questions. Dave Allen is Director of Digital Strategy at North, Inc., a bass player, and a founding member of the post-punk band Gang of Four. Jace Clayton is an artist primarily known for his work as DJ /rupture, and is currently writing a book on music at the dawn of the digital century for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Damon Krukowski is a musician—Damon & Naomi, Galaxie 500—and a writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Sasha Frere-Jones: So here’s a recent peg, a long and detailed piece about Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and the economic details of his career as a musician, moving into and out of the major-label system. Dave, Tweedy’s experiences are possibly closest to yours, as you’ve been through many stations of this mayhem. Damon and Jace, you’ve also gone through several levels of business and non-business; and you both still play live regularly.
How do we think about spending the lion's share of your time playing and recording music when the chances of that activity providing a living salary are incredibly small? What is the viable future for marginal and independent artists?
Damon Krukowski: I think the Wilco model is a useful one for bands at smaller levels, not so much with regard to digital strategy but just for making sense of the business for oneself. Naomi and I started our own label when our contract with Sub Pop ran out, and, as a band, Galaxie 500 chose to move its catalogue to our label when that contract (with Ryko) ran out. Our reasoning was similar to Wilco’s: Since licensing had grown more financially valuable to us than record sales, why definitely give up half of the former for no more than a chance of increasing a slice of the latter? But there is a tradeoff in going with your own label, not only in terms of forgoing advances. Using our own experience as a guide, I would venture that Wilco’s post-Nonesuch records are probably selling fewer copies than they did before. So their gross may be lower—but in terms of net I’m sure it’s a huge gain.
The people Jeff works with are very, very smart and are always looking for new solutions to standard problems. Deb Bernardini (check out their label name, dBpm) and Tony Margherita are industry veterans who practice a kind of music-biz jujitsu, turning the aggressive moves of the major-label world against itself, leaving the band’s business affairs standing. Wilco now not only have their own studio, label, and staff, but their own festival, too (Solid Sound). In that way, the model they offer artists is a bit like the Dead or Phish, or Dylan in his current incarnation—they seem to focus not on expanding a band’s audience so much as working with the existing one as fully as possible.
Dave Allen: It appears that Tweedy has built an extraordinary machine and has been aided and abetted, as Damon points out, by some intelligent industry insiders who understood that Wilco and Tweedy were a strong brand. This is similar to the Radiohead “In Rainbows” scenario, where it was management who came up with the idea of the “pay what you want” model. Now, there’s always going to be folks who say, “Well, Wilco and Radiohead were on big labels, so they got their start there and were able to make it work in the new business world,” but that isn’t the point. Tweedy and Radiohead now own their own copyrights. Marginal and independent artists need to understand that they must hang on to their copyrights. Yes, it’s cool to have a Sub Pop logo on your artwork, but that doesn’t mean anything except to a shrinking audience of indie diehards. Owning your own copyrights might be considered cool if you think about it, and, by holding on to their rights, artists can remain outside a system that promises the world but delivers only debt.
At music conferences over the years, I have heard the refrain that musicians should be able to make a middle-class income and should be provided with health insurance. But really? I mean, so should migrant workers toiling in Oregon’s fruit farms. When one starts out, as did I with Gang of Four, the last thing on your mind is getting a decent salary or enough to pay the rent. That comes later, when you enter the “business of making music for sale.” I feel like music has come full circle—it was always hard to make a dime, income very rarely came from record sales, and touring was the holy grail. So now, with the level playing field called the Internet, there is an added dimension to the possibility of making a buck, by using the platforms to extend awareness of your music, to sell directly to fans, to make fans aware of your gigs, etc, etc.
In short: own your own copyrights. Work hard. Play shows. Engage your fans via the Internet. Same as it ever was except for the Internet part.
Now, Rick Moody has called me a closet libertarian because of my attitude as outlined above, but I don’t see any other way. The positive viable future, Sasha, is now upon us and it looks like the atomization through music-streaming services, a cultural shift by young people to renting, not owning, their music, and demanding access to it easily and cheaply, if not free. Yet, still, there are plenty of people out there who fully support music and musicians and who will happily pay to see them perform, buy their T-shirts, their downloads. But I sense that this is the “tactile generation” that doesn’t see the Internet as a replacement for books or vinyl records. As Sol Lewitt put it: “Every generation renews itself in its own way; there’s always a reaction against whatever is standard.” And Rishad Tobaccowala said: “The future does not fit in the containers of the past.”
Jace Clayton: I’m most interested in what resources and structures are required for artists making little to no money to continue creating. For example, something I’d love to see would be a way for, say, young African producers to sell beats directly to a global d.j. audience via their phone. All the technology is in place, phone payments are already quite popular across the region. Some of the most exciting music being made right now is produced by people who can’t capitalize on the fact that they can reach a weirdly scattered microaudience of d.j.s and music fans around the world.
Or, to take it closer to home, last week I spoke with two high-powered managers. The first told me that, in general, musician managers will only work with an artist if that person is already making over 100k a year on their own. The second manager told me that that number is more like 200k. It confirmed what was already obvious: that there’s a huge potential market for managers and publicists and bookers who are willing to work with artists who are making a fraction of that but could grow with a little direction. So I’m optimistic about the bottom. There’s a lot of room down here. This attitude is informed by my work as a d.j.—for instance, due to issues of licensing, huge portions of my own catalog—aren’t on Spotify or other streaming services, which reflects the fact that lots of musical subcultures simply don’t play well with musical monetization schemes, much less copyright laws.
What’s clear to me is that the Jeff Tweedy model of “fire your friends, start a company” seems unrealistic for artists who can’t attract top-level business lawyers and management. The notion that an independent artist can simply start and maintain her own label and continue to make music/merch/tours is preposterous. Running one’s own label requires dedicated personnel, institutional memory, and an incredible amount of busywork, especially now as everyone is focussed on developing multiple revenue streams, each with its own strategy. And what does label mean when certain songs earn more money from YouTube streams then paid downloads? I hope we’ll see more collectives, where all the various skills required to make money from music are distributed among friends or like-minded artists rather than a traditional label situation.
Krukowski: What jumps out at me is how Dave’s emphasis on artists holding on to copyrights and Jace’s idea of microsales to microaudiences are both about musicians capitalizing on their work without going through mediators (which is how I read Wilco’s business efforts, as well). That seems like a natural way to use the power of the Internet, to reach one’s audience directly—yet here we are dealing with larger structures than ever that stand between music and online listeners: Apple, Spotify, Pandora… The audience is being seduced to turn to ever-decreasing numbers of sources for music, even as they are being encouraged to diversify their listening. The middleman is only growing bigger.
Allen: When the Internet smacked down the music industry there was an attempt to back-fill the holes that were left behind. But trying to make up for lost revenue in the past is a costly enterprise and doesn’t ensure success. Companies must start from scratch. I see starting from scratch for musicians as a huge opportunity—even as the existing record-industry system still tantalizes musicians with its false promises. The two Seans who built Napster; Alex Ljung, who built SoundCloud; and Daniel Ek, who built Spotify all used the Internet’s low barrier to entry to get their startups off the ground, and they weren’t hampered by having to bend to the system.
Years ago, Clay Shirky wrote a piece on the end of print journalism and disruption. In it he wrote: “That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread.”
Perhaps it’s time for hundreds of small ideas for change to be put into place and see what evolves? The next phase of Kickstarter, Bandcamp, Beatport-type innovations kicked off by creative artists of all stripes. For all we know it’s happening now.
Krukowski: Musicians don’t need to reach everyone; we just need to reach our audience. And we don’t need to make everyone pay a little, but we do need those for whom our work means something significant to pay enough to enable us to provide it. I believe that relationship is relatively undisturbed by the Internet—that’s why limited editions, from lavish box sets to underground cassettes, seem to be humming along fine right now. Those are products made for a specific audience, which appreciates their agreed-upon value.
But in the big marketplace it’s as if there’s no agreement like that anymore. What is the value of a track made universally available, to the universe of all listeners whether interested or not? I’m not the type to think in equations, but I suspect that’s one whose answer approaches zero.
Clayton: As music-listening habits continue to sprawl, we’ll see lots of opportunities where creatives who couldn’t imagine that they’d have a fan base in a certain country or scene can make some bucks off of mobile payments. There will be P2P-leaning distribution structures mushrooming in the gaps between “everything online for free” and large-scale tours supported by labels and sponsors: distribution structures unafraid of small numbers, not constructed around the aggregating (& aggravating) “more is more” trap that Damon was mentioning w/r/t to the Apples and Spotifies of the world.
Allen: Jace, I’m glad to see you pressing for awareness of these issues outside of the U.S.A. and Western Europe, where much of the anguish and handwringing re: Internet/music/tech takes place. There are systems in place for payments, as you say, especially in India, where the government pays rural farmers and others via mobile payments to their simple flip phones, no smartphone required. This means a mobile-payment platform already exists, which might then be used for micro-payments to musicians…
Frere-Jones: How does live performance figure into this? The big-box retailers, Live Nation, booze companies, ticket venders, labels, artists—everybody is going harder and harder on live. People seem to be comfortable with tickets commonly going way above $100; it’s like the CD insanity, where people simply accepted a ridiculous price point, against the model of the rational actor. (Business schools now often use the CD as an example of why the “rational actor” model needed to be abandoned.) But live is where their bottom lives, too, and in so many ways. Aside from controlling the experience more than, say, you can control the audio fidelity of your work on the listener’s end, artists can get a not pathetic sum of money and also sell goods directly that don’t go through the tubes: T-shirts, LPs, various knick-knacks. Thoughts? Fears? Yet more optimism? And then we’re done for now. Thank you all.
Krukowski: I’ll jump in as the participant here I would venture has had the least financial success on the road. My bands have been “album” bands: the first one (Galaxie 500) had a reputation as a sleepy live act (I was actually quite proud of our live show, but I was biased), and my current one (Damon & Naomi) started out with that now quaint idea of being a “studio act.” We wanted to make records but not perform them, which we maintained for one and a half album cycles, until we realized that we were destroying our career by staying home. But even then—when we reluctantly, at first, and then more and more enthusiastically started touring—we never looked to live shows business-wise for anything other than “supporting the release.” We toured at a loss, or break-even, in order to publicize and sell our records.
That model is somewhat lost now, cause there are fewer and fewer who can afford to make records—an activity that tends to happen at a loss, or break-even—without supporting that activity with money made playing shows. Is it a loss worth crying over? For us, yes, because we never did develop into a live act that could make money on the road. But for music as a whole? Maybe, in that the “Sgt. Pepper’s”/”Pet Sounds” ideal of the LP that is the art has perhaps suffered from this turnabout. Then again, that was a short-lived heyday for the LP in the larger scale of music-making—it just happened to be my era!
Allen: O.K. The Gang of Four reunion in 2005 through 2008 netted me more income in those three years than I’d ever made in all the prior years of touring with the band. My other outfit, Shriekback, was a “studio-only band” for a span of an EP and two albums, and weirdly (although probably, obviously, with hindsight) the lack of live shows created demand—ex-Gang of Four member, ex-XTC member. When we lit out on tour we had audiences! And Shriekback on the tour circuit created a better stream of income for me than G4.
But this discussion shouldn’t really center on musicians’ income or the lack thereof. I believe that’s where the search for solutions takes a wrong turn. It has always been difficult to make a living as an artist—and I mean artist generically, whatever the preferred medium. I chose to be a part of the system back in 1979 by signing to EMI Records and Warner Bros. Records for our record deal, and to EMI Publishing and Warner Chappel to administer my publishing rights. For those actions I received advances. Thirty-four years later I remain un-recouped with EMI Records and finally, in the last five years, in the black with the Warner Music Group. Those companies still control our master rights (recordings) and my publishing rights. And for the last two decades the Internet brought about profound change. So we can’t cry over spilt milk, over those original deals that don’t help us now in the new music world. We must adapt and move on.
Musicians are now in the T-shirt/Kickstarter/BandCamp/Spotify/Twitter/Facebook business. In the end, it’s not the big tech companies or the conglomerates driving this, it’s the users who tell us what they want. Spotify simply managed to find the problem and solve it, as did Apple with the iPod and iTunes.
Krukowski: Whenever we make more from T-shirt sales than our actual show, I always get depressed. Like I’ve turned into a logo. But yes, Dave’s point is well taken, in that whatever “business” we are now in as musicians, it’s going to be dictated by the audience.
Which brings up another point about the live situation—I’ve been hearing from venues that their old way of doing business has been falling by the wayside, too, because they used to be able to count on a certain number of regulars in the clubs each night, which helped even out their income and staffing needs. Now the place is either sold out in advance or hurting for customers—it’s boom or bust, cause the regulars are gone, and tickets go in clumps. (That means if you’re a band that’s not clumping, live work is not going so well, either.)
I’m guessing that pattern is another influence of the online market, cause chatter can escalate exponentially now for a given band or gig. But the local club-goers—the ones who hung to make the scene, regardless of how buzzy a given night’s entertainment might have been—they might be going the way of the CD. Maxwell’s closing speaks to this, I think.
Allen: Damon, I’m surprised to hear you say you’re depressed when T-shirt sales outdo your shows. Isn’t all income from being creative a plus? Does the logo shirt overshadow the album art?
Krukowski: It’s true that I’ve always been bummed by the T-shirt thing. When it first happened in Galaxie 500, I felt like I’d walked through the wrong door. “I was running away to a life of travel and excitement and now I’m managing a T-shirt shop!?” When Naomi and I went on our own as a duo, I acted the purist and wanted no more T-shirts. Naomi is a graphic designer and loves ephemera of all kinds, however. And so we have an agreement: she deals with T-shirts, and I shut up about it! (Of course, I benefit equally from her efforts; nice work if you can get it.)
Clayton: The live thing is really fraught. Personally, I’ve been fortunate: the extreme portability of the d.j. allowed me to travel—solo—all over the world, often living off of a profit margin that would vanish if I were leading a band. My most recent project, The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, is a four-person touring entity, and it’s only because of all the Rupture years that that can get the attention needed to make sense financially. At the same time, I’ve never made a DJ /rupture T-shirt, although that type of merch is a proven money-maker. I completely understand Damon’s position; for me, shilling Tees, even cool, beautifully designed ones, felt awkward and somehow utterly peripheral. I remember Kid 606 telling me ages ago how his best-selling merch was the T-shirt that simply said kid606 in Helvetica.
More broadly, while everyone’s listening habits are increasingly eclectic, our going-out habits tend to be less so. The Internet overvalues newness, and live-show attendance follows suit. The deluge of music in our digital lives means that discovery is sped up alongside digestion—Oh, I streamed their single, saw their video clip, can extrapolate the live show. Scenes become useful insofar as they are patient organisms, interested in slow changes and small differences, less enmeshed in online attention cycles—but you need to reach across them to be able to tour.
So while it’s a great time to really push what a live show can or should be, especially ones that can harness an Internet-y centrifugal sprawl into focussed momentum, live-show revenue is not some reliable income source. So why do I still feel optimistic? I think it’s because for each “expert” or nugget of conventional wisdom, you can find someone doing the opposite thing to equal or more success. We’re living in an era of music-biz polytheism. Corporate sponsorship, major-label investment, family money—there are no substitutes for these deep advantages, sure, but there are a thousand alternatives to them which can be cobbled together into something you can leverage, and every paradigm creates its own backlash which in turn offers up another possibility.
For me, a great musical experience exceeds any monetary value you could assign it precisely by immersing you in a world where worth is created in radically different ways than the market teaches us—that’s the freedom and that’s the rub. If it were otherwise, these sounds we’re all chasing would be a lot less beautiful.