Many artists, especially musicians, are alarmed that it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a living as a professional artist, yet there is evidently money being made in the industry. Where is all the money going? Why can’t the musicians and artists get a hold of their fair share of it?
Artists have traditionally shunned the business part of what they do. They want to be footloose, insouciant and creative and let somebody else handle the messy details of ensuring that their creations are marketed, distributed, sold and that money is returned to them, from the entire transaction. Some musicians have taken things to extremes, feeling that their only role in the whole process of monetising their work was to party until dawn, get wrecked, do drugs and trash hotel rooms. It seems easier that way, but it’s an infantile approach. They’re paying for the circus, of course, but not paying enough attention to their business.
In the music industry, there are more middle men than ever before, now that you can count entertainment lawyers, accountants, tax advisors, booking agents, promoters, managers, tour managers, producers, record companies, aggregators, streaming services, online download services, performing rights and royalty collection agencies, music publishers and other representatives supposedly working to promote and monetise the artist’s work. It’s a minefield and each one of these intermediaries between artist and fan wants paying. Often, they want a percentage of the entire enterprise that is your art.
The question is simple. Are all these middle men acting in your best interests, working for you, or are you inadvertently working for them? Does a record company market and distribute your work, for a cut, or are you the lowest cost commodity provider of musical product, like some kind of garment sweatshop in the Far East, producing under atrocious conditions for slave wages? Does the royalty statement you get contain an accurate accounting of what you are owed, or is it a fabrication, to skim money from your earnings via a number of wheezes? That’s not to level an accusation. There is no evidence that royalty statements are inaccurate, but how do you verify it? Has it ever been audited? Can you audit it? When an aggregator tells you what the streaming service told them was your number of plays, how can you tell if the number is even right? Do you know if there are sweetheart, under-the-table deals between the streaming service and the record company, that provide a second earning stream to the record company, on the back of your work? If you are an independent artist, are you getting the same deal as a major record company? The point I am making is that you don’t know. You don’t have a way to know.
In fact, much of the infrastructure of the music business, these days, works on the assumption that the powerful companies are in charge and that the artists work for them on a take it or leave it basis. In truth, all of these middle men are supposed to be working for the artists and artists, if they ever discover wrong doing, are supposed to fire them. Of course, when competition is eroded, such as when Spotify appoints Google people to its board, it’s not easy to fire one streaming service acting against your interests and use another. This is clearly a case where you should use neither, or else use them only to distribute free samples and promotional content. What if they’re all in a loose cartel to bilk musicians out of their due earnings?
If you are in a band, are you part of the larger enterprise, from an earnings perspective, or are you just a hired gun bass player, with no stake in the publishing and song writing revenue streams? Did you even pay attention and clarify your standing and expectations, when you joined? Do you have a contract?
The point of this post is that the infrastructure of the music industry is riven with blatant conflicts of interest and opportunities to cheat musicians out of their due earnings. Musicians, for their part, haven’t been paying attention to their business, with sufficient oversight to call the cheats out on their cheating. For too long, we’ve been overly grateful for any seat at the table, even if we’re fed leftovers and are required to prepare all the food for everybody else, to stretch a metaphor. We just haven’t been paying enough attention to where the money goes. For that reason alone, it has gone elsewhere.
Artists and musicians especially need to turn the tables, so that middle men go back to working for artists (if they ever did), being paid only to add value to the process of getting your work monetised and to the fans. For too long, the middle men have acted like artists are disposable fodder that they can do whatever they want with and we’ve let them. If the infrastructure in place doesn’t let you audit the numbers or provide full transparency about what the earnings and costs are, in relation to your work, then a different infrastructure needs to be built. You can’t keep using middle men that turn out to be crooked, self-interested cheats. It won’t work.
Artists need to treat the middle men with a “what have you done for me lately” attitude and retain only those that transparently work in their best interests, backed by hard data. Ideally, you would find honest men and develop partnership relationships with them. However, while there are spivs and get-rich-quick fly-by-nighters dominating the industry, that’s going to be hard to do.
If your agents and appointees don’t provide full transparency and truly independent verification of their accounting, avoid them. Sure, iTunes, Amazon and Spotify claim to have aggregated huge audiences, so that you’d be a fool if you didn’t accept their crumby terms, but if enough artists drop them, pretty soon the audiences will follow. What the customer wants is the music. The middle men pretend to own and control it, but without the products of artists, they don’t have a business at all. The source of all the wealth is the art created by the musicians.
It’s time musicians started selling directly to their audiences, using the less attractive (from a monetisation point of view) channels simply as a means to deliver free samples and loss leaders. The product needs to be in your own control, so that you can count the sales directly. Any middle men you use need to demonstrate the value they have added, with verifiable data, or you get rid of them. It might mean that you have to spend more of your time taking care of business and less time creating, but that is surely preferable to creating and having everybody else earn from your creations, but leaving you out in the cold. And stop signing the first contract that is ever presented to you. It’s almost certainly written to put you at a disadvantage.
Artists need to ensure that middle men work for them and not the other way around. They will have to educate and market to their fans, to show that their work has value and that if the fans don’t pay for it, there won’t be any. Fans could, of course, opt to not pay for new music and rely on the existing back catalogue, but that sounds like a Cuban solution, where 1940s cars were kept in operation for decades, because new car sales were blockaded. Eventually, the most penny-pinching of music fans will want something new. That doesn’t need to be provided for free.
Let Pandora and Spotify try to sustain and grow a business on the back of old music that they have already locked into contracts. The new music can go elsewhere, where musicians are paid fairly, if musicians want it. Audiences will go where the new music is. Gatekeepers and middle men have never been less necessary, in fact. Most of what they do can be achieved with a few online tools, if put into the hands of independent artists.
It’s time for musicians, writers and artists to take care of their businesses and to make the infrastructure work for them, rather than being its road kill. The future of new music and new writings depends entirely on the extent to which artists can take control of their revenue streams and control the distribution of their product. If people steal their work, they’re going to have to take steps to deal with that directly, on their own, too. Leaving everything to middle men hasn’t worked out too well for artists, so far.