It seems like independent musicians have plenty to worry about these days. While it is certainly possible for DIY musicians to find their own audience (thanks to the Internet and social media), and while it’s even possible to make some money, it also seems like there are a lot of obstacles to making enough money. We live in a time where most indie musicians have to supplement their income with “day jobs” or multiple income streams, and when we hear how little the streaming services are paying the artists for their music, how album sales in general have hit record lows over the summer, or how few people even bother buying music anymore, it’s easy to get discouraged and to wonder if it’s even possible to make a living at this. Or worse, if music even has a future in our culture.
There’s no doubt it’s difficult for musicians right now. But I’m gonna just go out on a limb and tell you that you shouldn’t be worried about it. Yeah, that’s not easy to hear when the rent is due and you barely made enough at your last gig to feed yourself for the week…but the way things are right now won’t necessarily be the way things are in a few years, or even a few months.
Here’s why I’m such an optimist about the music industry, even with all the bad news swirling around: this isn’t the first time the industry has been in crisis, nor the first time musicians have wondered how they will make a living. You know all the fear-mongering about how music piracy and music streaming will collapse the music industry? They were saying the same kinds of things 30 years ago when stereo cassettes came out. When people figured out they could record their vinyl records to blank cassettes, the fear was that no one would buy records anymore. Obviously, that didn’t happen; in fact, the emergence of the compact disc changed the landscape yet again before any real damage could be done.
As for musicians making a living, that question goes back for centuries. Back in 17th century Europe, there were basically only three ways to make a living as a musician: a) work for the church; b) work for the nobility; or c) teach. The days of Mozart and his peers were particularly difficult because war had taken its toll on the aristocracy’s ability to support the arts. Composers learned to survive by teaching, then by selling their compositions directly to publishers, then by paid performances. In a manner of speaking, these were the precursors to today’s independent musicians.
The point is, in every season of transition and crisis, music has never disappeared, and musicians have survived. Why? Simple: we can’t do without music. While some like to dismiss music and other arts as frivolous, in fact humanity relies on these things for inspiration. Without them, we would not last a generation. And so music somehow lives on, and musicians find a way to navigate the changing seasons.
I believe streaming music will not kill the music industry; I think eventually they will figure out a way to pay musicians a fair royalty for their work. In fact, I think music streaming has helped reduce piracy because is now actually easier to stream music than to steal it. I think eventually people will figure out ways to make the new technology work in their favor, rather than against them. In the meantime, the musicians who will do best in this difficult time are the ones who will think outside the box. This is why if you read this column, you’ll notice I’m always encouraging DIY musicians to think creatively, not just about their music, but about how to leverage their talent in original ways.
Bottom line: music and musicians will survive. We will get to the next season, and we’ll figure out how to make a living at this. We always have, and we always will. Because we simply can’t do without music.
That’s why I’m not worried. And that’s why you shouldn’t be worried, either.