by Franz Nicolay
For four thousand years, there were two ways to make a living as a musician.
You could be a troubadour. That is, strap your harp or lute or hurdy-gurdy on your back and travel town to town. Set up on a street corner, in a market square, or in the corner of a pub, and start playing. Sing the epic or play the requests and hope you make enough money or charity to get a hot meal and a place to sleep before you move on to the next town. You are Homer, you are any one of a number of anonymous medieval bards, you are a vaudevillian or music-hall performer, you are Woody Guthrie.
Or, you could find a patron. Become a court musician, write and play for banquets, weddings, religious holidays, coronations. You work for the Catholic Church, writing masses and choral music, playing organ and directing the choir. You are Haydn, whipping off a symphony a week for the court concerts. You live your life in the service industry, with art as a by-product. You are Handel, you are Lully, you are Palestrina.
Then, a hundred or so years ago, a window opened for a third model: the recording artist. Now, under the right circumstances, you could stay home and mass-produce a widget that could, in a way, do your touring for you. Like the old dream, you could clone yourself, and send all your widget clones to homes and bars and radio stations all around the world to, for a small fee, play private shows for as many people will have you. You are the later Beatles, Harry Nilsson, Brian Wilson, Glenn Gould.
That window appears to have closed. The CD, the cassette, the vinyl LP, are all more or less devalued below the level of the T-shirts and other dry goods that orbit the burnt-out sun of the music industry. Their relative status as fetish objects may wax and wane, but as an economic generator, the money is in the player (phone, laptop, satellite radio), not that which it plays. It’s the opposite of the printer cartridge/razor blade scam (sell them the printer or razor cheap, then inflate the prices of the ink cartridge or replacement blades). In this case, the downward pressure on the value of recordings⎯easy enough in a business with a constant influx of young musicians willing, eager, to work for free for exposure and attention⎯enables an ocean of cheap content to refill $300 iPods. And it moves that giant chunk of money from the world of music to the world of tech and manufacturing. Lars Ulrich was right⎯he was the wrong messenger, surely (defending the right of property from the position of extreme privilege is poor optics, as they say in politics), but the right message, certainly.
Here’s what I think. We basically just experienced a hundred-year new-technology bubble. The end of the dot-com boom of the late ‘90s didn’t mean the end of new Internet-based ventures, it just meant a lowering⎯or rationalizing⎯of expectations. The recent implosion of the real-estate bubble didn’t mean people won’t keep buying houses, but it does mean that developers won’t build dozens, hundreds, thousands of unproven properties assuming someone will buy them. And the crash of the market for recorded music doesn’t mean that people won’t still buy CDs, vinyl, and whatever tchotchke you can attach to a download coupon, but it does mean that large labels won’t press half a million copies of a given CD or drop the same amount on publicity to make a star from nothing.
And what remains are the same two pillars that have sustained musicians since musician became a thing you could do. The patronage model, now, means corporate sponsorship: licensing for advertising, doubling down on radio play for the performance royalties, and pursuing work as a more-or-less full-time scorer of film, TV, and advertising. Chasing a publishing deal to become a behind-the-scenes songwriter of pop hits. Or, if you’re a so-called “serious” composer, the academic track of graduate and post-graduate fellowships; foundation and advocacy grants and commissions funded by academic and philanthropic institutions; and tenured university positions. In some of the more socialist countries, you can still be sponsored by the state⎯for example, the package France put together to lure Boulez back from New York. You can always make a living working for something bigger than you.
Or⎯and this remains the most enduring and self-sufficient path, and the one with the lowest barrier to entry⎯you can embrace the troubadour model, and go town to town singing for your supper. Your job is essentially that of the deli owner or dry-goods retailer: your income, in the long term, is relatively consistent, so the job is minimizing your expenses and maximizing your margins: on gas, t-shirt printing costs, car rental, plane tickets, motels. You try to innovate & produce new kinds of widgets with MP3 download coupons attached and hawk them. Records still cost the same to make. Vans cost ever more to fuel (I write this from a tour in which the price of gas has risen a dollar a gallon since I left home). And without the safety net of label tour support, musicians shed ever more of the trappings of tour buses, lighting rigs, and crews; and shrink ever closer to the stripped-down troubadour model. (I think this has a lot to do with the recent explosion of rock and punk singers embracing solo acoustic package tours, in addition to the fact that it’s easier to age gracefully as a folkie than as a rocker.) And your value becomes as much about the presentation as the content⎯I won’t belabor this point, because I’ve made it amply in other settings, except to quote Porter Wagoner, who, when asked about his sequined cowboy suits, replied, “I don’t know what business you’re in, but I’m in show business.”
Panic over the terminal decline of the so-called “music industry” is so common now as to be a cliche, but from where I’m standing, it’s not a collapse, just a reversion to the norm. The self-supporting “recording artist” seems to be a finished model, one that can’t be saved by digital music sales or streaming. A recent chart, which I highly recommend for a sobering reality check, amply demonstrated what most of us already knew, which is that the only meaningful transaction is the direct sale at the merch table at the show, and the only meaningful relationship is the one between you and the handful of strangers you’re trying to convince (at bare minimum) to not walk out of the room while you’re playing. Or, if you’re going the patronage route, the terms of your engagement to be determined (and not by you) by the state, corporation, foundation, or just plain boss that sustains you. As it has been, so shall it be.