The pandemic has put on full display tensions and pains that existed for years, and the music industry is no exception. The tension between artists, labels, and distributors that began when phonographs became ubiquitous enough for public consumption of music has varied in manifestation over the century, but it’s current state is on greater display as touring (and the merch sales that go with it) have been cut off. Most of the points that have been made in the last three years are well summarized in this YouTube video from Rocked, which also has a surprisingly good bibliography for that medium. Watch those eleven minutes or read the articles linked there if you have not been following this in various other publications.
The structure of the music industry today, from the perspective of an artist, is more like the earliest days of recording than anything in living memory. Before Ruth Brown sued Atlantic Records for her royalties, labels could assume artists wouldn’t demand significant cuts from sales, using the recordings as a draw for their live performances. Keeping this in mind, musicians seeing considerable profit off recordings, starting in the 80s outside huge acts like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones and lasting until the internet era of the 2010s, looks brief and the fact that it has slipped from us is less surprising. Before labels and distributors became clearly separate entities, the fact that labels treated their artists decently was all that was needed.
Streaming services use this leverage of distribution to extract deals that are terrifying if not surprising to anyone who looks at them. The globalization of music is great for consumers because we can now hear songs and albums previously only accessible locally before which is great. I love the sound of the 2000s Bloomington, IN punk scene, and I’d never have known about it without the internet. But a new artist cannot find an audience through recording anymore. Accessibility of recording equipment and a place to upload your MP3s online means that there is more music out there you will like than ever before, and finding it in the mass of music that you don’t even understand is basically impossible. The algorithms that curate playlists don’t get designed with the goal of finding new artists, so after two or three listens to an Internet Radio station, I wind up knowing all the artists that show up every time after. Diamonds in the rough are now more available and less accessible than ever before.
The monotony of traditional radio only exacerbates all this. Clear Channel’s acquisition of every major radio station in the country relied on a segmentation that has only gotten worse over time. Every radio station has a genre it plays and it’s idea of what that genre is winds up confined to the point of monotony. Classic Rock stations get a lot of shit for just playing the hits of yesterday, but putting Black Sabbath on just after a more lighthearted Beatles tune at least yields a variety of sounds. If I put on a Country station at any time but their “Americana” hour I can listen for half a day and never hear a song that I don’t think is by Brad Paisley. College radio doesn’t tie itself down like this as a whole, but any given program is still terribly monotonous. I’m not against an hour long block of Neo-Soul, but I can put on a Spotify Radio playlist of that whenever and get way more than an hour of it.
The last place musicians could still be found was live concerts and while the pandemic making this venue impossible for the foreseeable future is awful, making any money off live shows wasn’t feasible anyway. Getting an audience requires people to remember you enough to pay attention to if you’re coming to town. Before terrestrial radio ceased to be anything but the Billboard Hot 100 all day, musicians could do a radio spot and have their songs played in the lead up to their gig. Great way for people to know you’re there and then enough people buy tickets that you’re at less of a loss for the tour. Bruce Springsteen is thoroughly a New Jersey artist, but a DJ who loved having him on the show made Cleveland the first place he could reliably sell out a theater. Word of mouth winds up being how you get an audience now but even if all ten of the people who saw you at that dive bar think you’re amazing, they can’t spread the word like someone with an audience can.
The first gig I ever played was at O’Brien’s pub just over a year ago. I headlined, the opener was a local act whose first gig it also was, and the act between us was a blues group from Seattle called Alberta and the Dead Eyes, who had been touring with various players under the same name for about seven years, crossing the country like they were doing that night regularly. Their set had an amazing energy that contrasted high octane with a slower darkness and an on stage dynamic that had clearly been refined to near perfection over years. All this was on full display in a dive bar where the four people who saw it were all personal friends of mine who liked my music and also just wanted to hang out with me. My performance was good, but it woulda been upstaged if the whole audience didn’t have different expectations for me. I bought some merch of theirs, since the 40 bucks made at the door was kept by the bar but I didn’t have to worry about running out of gas between here and Hartford, and their album is great anyway. Despite how much I loved them, finding the link above to promote them required 15 minutes of internet sleuthing, since in the last year I’d forgotten what bits would yield search engine results and that CD is somewhere in a pile I really oughta keep neater for moments like this.
All this demonstrates how much effort yields so little reward for anyone who wants to produce music. Day jobs are necessary to pay bills, which makes saving up for tours harder and getting that repeated exposure a process of such glacial a pace that you’re more likely to spend 10 years trying before giving up and leaving the trade with nothing but memories. Getting an audience without a live gig is effectively impossible without being selected by a label with the resources to promote you, and those are almost all owned by the same four companies anyway. In a market this saturated with talent, platforms will sometimes use exposure as payment, but that only means you’re giving up economic security for a roll of the dice that is snake eyes 99 times out of 100, and merch is as much a way to get fans to remember you exist as it is a way to actually get paid. All of this collides with a system of distribution of recordings where over 22,000 streams are needed to make as much as an hour of Federal minimum wage, and it’s no surprise that musicians, who have always been disproportionately people with severe stress who need an outlet, have a sense of futility about everything they like to do.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.