Wednesday, August 22, 2012

You Are A Great Musician....You Should Consider being a T-Shirtest

(Disclaimer: This post is not an attempt to get pity for myself or other songwriters. It is simply a look at the state of affairs in the current music industry that leave some extremely odds circumstances.)

I did an interview for a music blog the other day. The interviewer (John Holland at "Voices to Hear") had some interesting questions.

One of John's questions got into my brain and has been wiggling around ever since.

The question was how has technology affected the music industry?

This question was intentionally vague. I believe John was trying to see which way I would go with it.

I believe I could write a book on the subject (who knows maybe someday I will).
But for today I just wanted to focus on one specific part of my answer and how it puts a spotlight on a uniquely peculiar part of the modern music industry.

Although I will not be focusing on it here, I started answering John's question with all the ways technology has made life easier for artists. (I hope that you will take the time to read the full interview once it is published. I will announce it on Facebook once it is ready for consumption. And you can check out periodically. John writes good articles and focuses on lesser known, quality artists. So even if you get to the site before my interview is published, you will not want for good stuff to read).

Anyway, after the initial section of my answer which dealt with all the variety of ways technology helps modern musicians (easy and cost efficient recording, duplication, marketing, etc), I had to turn to how technology hurts musicians.

It is not the purpose of today's blog post to cast moral judgement on people who illegally download songs nor is the purpose of today's blog post to rally people to take up pitchforks and torches and rid ourselves of the thieves.

Society has spoken (especially the younger portion of society). And they have said, "We steal music. We will continue to steal music. Deal with it."

So I will not be debating illegal downloads from that angle. Apparently illegal downloads are here to stay. That is a foregone conclusion. I WILL however discuss a very very interesting result of this.

Since this is the state of affairs: society has basically renamed our profession.

No one can be a professional musician anymore*.

Let me explain.

In the pre-download era, a musician made music (hence the name). Fans bought the music. This is where musicians made the bulk of their income. In this era, fans would also buy t-shirts , stickers, lunch boxes, and a wide variety of other merchandise related to musicians. Shrewd musicians of the day would maximize the profit from these extra items and have a nice bonus income. But that money was BONUS above and beyond the money that was generated by their craft which (again which was why they were called musicians).

Oh the times they have a-changed......

Now music makers are in a drastically different state of affairs. Now even the most beloved and supported musicians can't survive from music sales alone. Now their "bonus" merchandise money is virtually all of their income.

The knee jerk reaction tends to be, "Musicians are still getting money, so what does it matter?"

That's the peculiar part, it does matter on a profound level. Of course if a musician understands that their music has been devalued by society and they choose to adapt their business model so that they focus on selling a ton of merchandise, they can make an income that will sustain them (any modern musician that doesn't adapt to this model will not stay afloat for very long).

What makes this so weird is the fact that society is not looking at popular Artist X and saying , "Your music is horrible. It has no value. We will not buy and therefore you will go out of business." That would make sense and that is how every other industry in our capitalist society works. With the post-illegal download era, people are saying something decidedly different. They are saying to Artist X, " We absolutely adore your creations. We actually love them more than any creation by your colleagues. However we will not give you any money for your creation. Please make something unrelated with your name on it. We will buy that."

So society has said no one is allowed to be a professional musician. There is only a small small fringe market that will purchase music, everyone else will steal it. Therefore one can't have creating and selling music be their profession. One can of course still be a musician but one must be a professional t-shirt creator/marketer.

To see how strange this is, let's apply it to another industry.

Let's say you own a tire store and you sell high quality, fair priced tires. You have spent years honing your craft. These years of perfecting tire making have resulted in you and your tires being among the elite in the tire biz.
The public has taken notice to the increase in the quality of your tires. In a recent survey, it was actually shown that your tires were on more cars than any other brand, 3 to 1.
Good news, right?

Well, kinda. You notice that despite the above facts, your tire sales are at an all time low. Then you see why. People are coming to your stores in droves (it's been well documented that you make the best tires and the public loves them). However the people are stealing your tires. Virtually no one is buying them. The people do really love your tires and your store though, so they tend to buy keychains, bumper stickers and air fresheners with your brand name on them (so they can show the world they use only the best tires). They actually buy a bunch of them. They buy enough of them that you can afford to keep the doors of your tire store open, barely.

Well, what can you do to build profits (and not have to lay off all your employees)? Well you could always spend a ton of time creating hot new keychains, bumper stickers and air fresheners since they still generate revenue. Of course this takes a lot of your time away from your true passion (making quality tires) to focus on merchandise. But it seems like the only option the public is allowing you. So you start churning out a variety of merchandise.

After years pass, your store is moderately successful, you stay afloat but your tires are subpar and not the quality you once insisted upon (due to having to take a backseat to merchandising). Then you realize that you don't actually sell any tires these days, so it's hard to call your store a tire store anymore. It's really a keychains, bumper stickers and air fresheners store. As more time is spent focusing on store merchandise, the quality of tire production drops and drops and drops. But this shouldn't bother you too badly. Your store is able to survive. And besides, these days, your tires are more of an advertising expense than your bread and butter. Right?

The strangeness seems more apparent with the tire store analogy, but it is the same with music.

And just like in the tire store analogy, I think it is sad to think about the plight of a lot of musicians. I know plenty of musicians that are mindbogglingly great at writing and performing music. Their undeniable songs and performances draw in crowds of all ages. They stand out as being better craftsmen than a vast majority of other musical performers. However some of these artists are horrible at T-Shirt design, Bumper Sticker marketing, etc (Why should it be expected that they would naturally be great at design and marketing? They are MUSICians).

It is so odd to me that society would love these artists' music, but let them fail. Society has chosen to let them fail because they do not excel at some arbitrary craft, even though they are highly skilled at their own craft. It should be noted that this craft, music, is still a craft society respects and values.....just not monetarily.

How can anyone be said to be a professional musician when music has been deemed virtually unsellable? One can be called a musician due to the fact they create music, but in our current model these people are professional T-Shirt Designers and Salesmen who happen to play music.


the most peculiar of scenes

Society walks into the smoky bar. Musician sitting at the bar.

SOCIETY: Hey, you make music, right?

MUSICIAN: Yes. Yes I do.

SOCIETY: I thought I recognized you. I love music with all my heart. And I have all your albums

MUSICIAN: Thank you. I appreciate it. I have a new live album and a new studio album for sale here tonight.

SOCIETY: Oh cool. I 'll definitely get em.....Not right now. I'll just download em for free when I get home tonight. Got any stickers, or shirts, or wristbands?

MUSICIAN: Nope. Sorry. I only brought my music.


(after a few moments of silence, MUSICIAN motions to the bartender for his bill)

MUSICIAN: Yep.....Too Bad


(*some exceptions to the above blog post are session musicians and other "hired guns". These musicians don't get paid directly from the public. They get paid directly from ........the musicians who are hiring them. And THOSE musicians ARE getting paid directly from the public. So even though the session guys/hired guns may not be affected directly, the trickle down effect leaves more than just the singer/songwriter/ performer trickled on.)


  1. I also wanted to make this spin on the "new music industry" We just ran across this add the other day for a job in the mobile area.....They were recruiting people to sell copy-write licenses to local establishments that have live music.....It looks like they are going to be coming at this town hard-core......I have had 1 other experience with this type of "Copy-writer enforcement sales-person".....that works solely on commission......laying their sights in on a bar-owner.......the end result was the bar quit having live music.......It is my opinion that now the "record labels" are using the same laws created to protect the musician from "the record labels" to go after and bleed the only outlet the already struggling musician has to try new songs, write new songs and just become better at what they do........the jukebox has a license....but we do-not......the live-music-room has to pay a very large amount of money just to let us play any bar-room cover tunes......if your bar has not been hit yet.....get ready.....its coming!!

  2. Oooohhhh Robby. Sorry... The answer was "what is the mechanism by which musicians make the majority of their money if they are "successful".... I will elaborate if there is interest :)

    1. yea we have had this conversation before....... ;) I will take "is in a Jagger-bomb" for $300. ;)

  3. Robby
    I'm not sure I fully understand the process you are speaking of (but I'd like to). If ya don't mind, explain it here a little more fully ( it could help spread info to the community).

    I've heard of some very shady practices beginning to imerge but I don't think it is exactly what you are speaking of. We need to get "our team" knowledged up so we can avoid treacherous scandals.

    thank you man

  4. I had about 3 paragraphs written.....and I did something to make some editor sub-program pop in all over my extremely well written story and make it disappear.......grrrr.....maybe later.....

  5. Well if Brian is saying that "successful" musicians make the majority of their money by extorting bar owners I say horse hockey.....because that's all these people are, extortionist.......Back in the day....if your not recording it, your just playing an instrument for other people.....its your interpretation of a song....why should Jimmy Buffet get paid for a dive bar rock star singing his song in a bar??.....Jimmy is the one that should be paying anyone in this case.....the bar singer is promoting his song......In my younger musical days back at Tabby Blues Box and Heritage night I got up and did a song I wrote.....afterwards tabby called me over and asked me "Was that your song?".....I said yea tabby...was it alright?....he said it was real good....but you don't need to be singing your songs out there unless you have them copy-written, someone will steal them....then he proceeded to tell me how to do a poor-mans copy-write......then he says....just sing the other guys songs on stage......Where Tabby was coming from was why those copy-write laws were protect the musician from the that a musician cant sell anything but T-shirts.....the copy-writer extortionists are going after the only other way a musician can play music for other people......and maybe pay a bill in the process......pretty soon we will only be able to go out and see a licensed hologram play his top 40 hit that is projected from a for those club owners that do get strong armed into paying....where does that money go? the artist? there a counter around somewhere making sure every brown-eyed girl penny goes to Van Morrison? goes to the joint coalition of extortionists....and I will bet no artist ever sees a dime of that......and they are killing our craft the rest of the way.....slowly

  6. here is one of the job ads

    1. Man I thought you were talking about some fly by night scammers. ASCAP Is a group formed BY artists and songwriters. It's sole purpose is to get money FOR people who create music.
      I'm not saying its a perfect system but ASCAP (and other P.R.O.s) serve a vital role. They ceased to me many more musicians would be hurt than are with them here.
      There are plenty of dangerous rights scams circling out there of people trying to screw artists and songwriters. That's what I thought you were initially speaking of.

    2. And that wasn't meant to downgrade your comment. I get what you are saying and how it could push some cover musicians out of work. I just don't think ASCAP is the enemy. And they aren't new. They've been doing it for 100 years.

  7. I think your downplaying the role these people are playing and mistaking their role in this....there's noway going after a venue is a justified way of protecting artists....and the help wanted ad means this is about to become more of an issue....I sent a link to a former club owner...hopefully he will chime in a give some insight on how they railroaded him and cost us a place to play music.....he says there's like 4 different ones....all claiming to be copywriter protectors.....they all want you to buy their license.....were are not stealing cable here.....we are playing music and singing to what we play.....but not downplaying your complaint....I have not heard your new CD yet.....but when I get it....I will get it from you....on a gig.......that someone, possibly yourself, played a cover tune on....either that night or the night before....but after the copywriter grumps get ahold of him......he has to stop getting live music at his place of nobody has the gig.....and the song that was going to be written while playing music out on the gig or about the gig...will never be written.. catch 22....take it away Bob!!

    1. hey Robby I owned a Restaurant and bar for 10yrs and fought this for 10yrs...I think it is total bullshit!!!... I had four different orgainzations comin at me all the time... they wanted money for the radio I was playing in the restaurant which I was already paying sirius radio for...they wanted money for the tv I was already paying comcast for... they wanted money for the jukebox I was already paying for... they wanted money for all the bands I was already paying for... they wanted money for the cds I already paid for... how is a business owner supposed to make it paying double for everything... when 90% can make it anyway why do u think so many restaurants and bars close or change hands over and over...I paid bands 4 and 5 nights a week and somtimes 2 bands in the same night that adds up...I tried my best to support local people... over the course of those yrs I asked the musicians how much money they got from these people they just laughed...I would like to see how many people get any of the money...I will tell u who gets this money they do!!!!!

    2. Hey Robby and Bob,
      I really appreciate ya'll taking the time to comment here. You gave me some insight that I didn't not have before. You also caused me to search the interwebs for stories of misjustices of Performing Rights Organizations (i.e. ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, etc). I found some serious examples (a big one was Zoe Keating. her story : So, thank you. I never claim to know everything and I welcome the opportunity to learn. And I learned some about PROs thanks to ya'll.
      However I still believe PROs are necessary. Do I think the current system is perfect and fair? No. Do I feel like it is skewed toward the "big artists" getting a disproportionate amount of cash while "smaller artists" get little? Yes. Do I think small music venues suffer (because for example...PROs judge a room by capacity not income)? Yes.
      But these are issues that need to be fixed with the system. Let's rally together and make them fix the system. I'm in. But I think destroying the system isn't the answer.
      To say there should be no licensing fees paid to songwriters by businesses who make money from having those songs played is wrong in my opinion.
      So we may be of differing opinions on that, but we all agree that the current system is flawed. And I wanna say thank you for showing me a couple flaws I hadn't fully considered and inspiring me to search out even more flaws (via the internet). I appreciate it.

    3. You Rock Bird Man!! .......I say get the license through the provider. Business already pay more to have cable, juke-box and such according to capacity......whatever someone plays with his/her voice and his/her instrument should be his/her own....IMHO(i stole that word from I owe him some $?)

  8. Yea...and you haven't mentioned the cheap bar owner who expects you to play for the door....who NOBODY want to pay a cover.

    1. Ya get what you pay or don't pay for ;)

  9. Hi Guys! I hope you all have kept your feet dry the last couple of days. Please allow me to jump in on this. Although I was in radio for years,(filling out BMI logs by hand before computers took over that task) I always thought illegal downloads were mostly a problem for the big labels and to a lesser extent big name artists. I never realized it affected local cats so much!
    Now bear in mind I've been hanging around with musicians since the mid '70's, a lot less since I got out of radio a few years ago, but the point I want to make is this; If I don't know how much of a problem it is you can be damn sure most of the public doesn't know either. So maybe it would help if the public knew how much it takes out of your pockets. Every gig you do take 60 seconds to lay out the problem and ask the crowd not to steal from you. Every time you do a recording make the plea the first 30-60 seconds of the first track. Beat it into the ground and into their heads! Chico should have a banner made to hang on the trailer every Mardi Gras. Get club owners to print up and hang signs in every venue. Talk to Tim Camp at the ZEW and have them let a bunch of you record PSA's about the problem and get a promise that they will drop it in once or twice a day.
    As to these copyright weasels, well I understand most musicians are better people than I am and won't wanna screw up your karma but bar owners may more will to go this route at least in the short term.... when I was young and stupid, living in Miami I worked for a short while as a bouncer in a strip joint owned and operated by the mob. No kidding, real deal Mafia. When ASCAP guys came in the manager took them into the office and intimidated them so bad they left without a dime and didn't come back. A few months later somebody else would show up and it played out the same way. I'm not saying it was right but needs must and all that. The Gulf Coast has more killer musicians per square foot than any place outside N.Y. or L.A. maybe Chicago, and you deserve to get paid.