Monday, November 07, 2011

Music and Musicians in the 21st Century, a brief summary

Here's what I think about music and musicians in the 21st century:

If you are an artist or hobbyist (defined as someone who cares more about the specifics of what you're creating than getting paid), it is a better time to be alive than in all human history. You can make great recordings for cheap and distribute them globally with minimal effort. People are more interested in live performance than any time in the last few years, and willing to try new things. So there's a big potential audience and lower friction than any time I can recall.

If you are someone who expects to earn a living from music, (and thus fundamentally cares more about getting paid than the specifics of what you're creating)
...the good news is it is easier to get started because there are all kinds of tools for creation, distribution, and feedback you can use that didn't exist even 5-10 years ago. 

...the bad news is that making a lot of money is probably more difficult than it has ever been, and you must think like a business person first and foremost. You are going to have to work. Being a great musician isn't enough - it's just table stakes, just like being a good chef is not enough to have a successful restaurant. 

You have to either be a businessperson or surrender a portion of your revenue to one. (If you are not prepared to do that, I'd argue you're a hobbyist/artist.)

Artist/Hobbyist or Careerist, in either case, there's far more music out there now than the audience can take in

You'll be competing against not just the 200,000+ albums that will be released this year, you'll be competing against the 200,000 that came out last year. And against Lady Gaga's album. And Britney and Nirvana and Duran Duran and Led Zeppelin and The Beatles and Eddy Cochran and...people who think whatever they did with the "T-Pain" app is a "real song".

And when I say "compete", I mean that you are highly unlikely to even make minimum wage as a full-time musician:
  • In 2009, there were 98,000 new albums released (Soundscan, does not include Tunecore-style digital only releases)
  • Only 2% of those 98,000 releases sold more than 5,000 copies over the entire year.
  • Only 1% of those 98,000 releases sold more than 10,000 copies over the entire year.
In the late 90s, the average band on a major label, with a national promotional push, sold about 1,000 copies of their album.

This is the price of democracy - everyone can contribute, everyone has a voice, everyone is competing. 

Musicians shouldn't expect an audience to find them, and shouldn't expect any individual or company to wave a magic wand and solve their problems for them.

This is good advice for anyone in any industry, and is certainly how my own career (in every part of the music business) has been.

Really, musicians are like any other person in the 21st century:

You can't coast along doing whatever worked last year or last decade or last generation and expect success or even survival. It is a cutthroat, competitive world out there. 

If you run a business (say, a restaurant or a digital music service) and it fails, mostly people will say "You probably did it wrong. You probably weren't good enough. You made mistakes." Complaints about how rough the industry is and how people won't pay for quality will fall on deaf ears.

Is the music business any different?


Elizabeth E. said...

It's the great educational question too, isn't it? How do I teach when I can't know what my students will need in the future? What's the balance between historical and presentist context and future-looking skills?

Anu said...

Elizabeth, I think the key is to teach:
- A solid grounding in fundamentals. These generally don't change much over time and are literally the building blocks for whatever comes next.

- A deep and thoughtful overview of history, noting what's fallen in and out of fashion, with an eye towards looking for big trends and what causes shifts.

- As flat and unbiased a presentation of the current moment as possible, always noting that "this is just today's fashion" and things can change in the future.

The future is always uncertain. You never know what's around the corner. Teaching students to think and synthesize from what they've learned is really the only way to "future-proof".

Elizabeth E. said...

Anu, Yes, I agree with your list.

Increasingly, I also focus in my classes on how to find what you need to solve a problem. But that is made difficult because many of my college students are very very literal right now. (If I were speculating, I would ascribe that to the standardized testing that rewards literal and discourages creative. They are smart; they just find it risky to be imaginative.)

So the challenge is to help thinkers find models even when the model says nothing about the challenge at hand. Or find inspiration even when the history seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with the new problem.

In other words, teaching to think, yes, absolutely. And teaching to synthesize, yes. But also teaching (or simply making it necessary or safe or possible) to leap and create too.