How can musicians make a living in today’s economy?

I’ve been reading a fantastic book recently by long-time Warwick academic Chris Bilton:

Chris Bilton (2017) The Disappearing Product, Marketing and Markets in The Creative Industries, (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing).

This book comes at exactly the right time for me, when I am both reimagining the focus of my research to look at music as micro-enterprise in the rural economy and also thinking about the future of my teaching at Newcastle.

The book deals centrally with the ongoing and declining value of intangible creative products in the economy (i.e. like music) and the rise of the huge intermediaries like Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple, who make money by turning audiences into the product and are essentially interested in monetizing consumption rather than production. Many of us will know (in detail) how making a living from music has become harder in the new, more digital economy, and this is one of the best attempts I’ve read of how that might be possible, and in explaining how it works.

Anyway, it got me thinking seriously about what models exist for musicians (artists) to make money in the new economy? (And what does that mean for a music degree?)

Entrepreneurial musicians now understand that their albums have little financial value today, and that most musicians make money from live performance and touring. This is the result of complex international new capitalism and globalization, where the value has shifted from the product to consumption. As Chris Bilton so admirably lays out, the triangular markets that have emerged in music (and other creative industries such as film, TV etc.) are three sided: The producer, the consumer and the intermediary. Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Google are the intermediaries and have understood that the new economy means that they make the money not from the product, but instead, turn the consumer into the thing that they sell to advertisers. In old fashioned Marxist language: ‘The new intermediaries have adapted to the new capitalism by seeking to monopolise the means of exchange rather than the means of production’ (Chris Bilton, p. 80 The Disappearing Product, 2017 Elgar Publishing).

The interesting thing as a music academic is that every year, we meet at university, new students who have invested thousands of hours of their lives into becoming expert performers, and in some respects, curators of musical cultures. Students, are usually ‘inflexible applicants’ (in that they only really wish to study music) and come with huge commitments to the professional skills that allow them to be seen as expert performers (I remember being one of them myself!). Universities (such as my own at Newcastle), unlike conservatoires, attempt not only to encourage performance skills but also to educate the young musician so that they have a range of transferable skills that will support them both economically but also intellectually throughout their lives. At Newcastle, we have already begun to try this through the excellent work of my colleague Jane Nolan who teaches the Music Enterprise module. We try to enhance students’ talents at university, however many musicologists and performers, still regard music degrees as primarily a vocational training for a profession that has very high levels of esoteric professionalized skills. In short, many HE institutions train people to become highly skilled in producing music, in creating music and in the cultural understanding of music in time and place. However, unless performance students move into a large euro-classical orchestra setting, they are unlikely to find a professional income that allows them to flourish in today’s society solely on the basis of their performing skills. But as many people (such as Robert Adlington) have pointed out, music graduates have an edge in the jobs market because of their mix of skills.

One would assume (as many of my acquaintances who have had very limited or no contact with music graduates do) that music graduates have pursued useless degrees that will not lead to the income of other, more vocationally-oriented degree programmes. We see this tired old cliche back in the headlines again this week. However, leaving aside the arguments about how to value a higher education degree, counterintuitively; we see quite upbeat employment data for music graduates: Music graduates are in fact very well placed for portfolio careers and often find innovative ways of making a living across two or three sectors, which does often include performing. Many music graduates work in education, the media, public sector and in areas such as broadcast, publishing and in local authorities. However, what we don’t currently teach them in music degrees (very much), and I would argue we now should, is how to think beyond the artistic and the aesthetic to the economic and the sustainable. There are opportunities today that are particularly powerful for the small or micro-enterprises (i.e. individual or collectives of musicians) that can afford musicians a better way to make a living in the digital age.

As some of my more savvy music graduates have intuitively discovered, in the age of social media, the audience’s relationship with the artist is often more important than their relationship with the product (usually recorded sound). Services are replacing products, especially in the music sector given that digitalization has completely changed our relationship with music-as-object (Marx’s commodity fetish is probably now a bit redundant!). Musicians can exploit this in new ways to make a more sustainable living that exists alongside the billions made by the ‘new intermediaries’ such as apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google who exploit the consumer-as-product to sell ads.

So one way of doing this as Bilton suggests, is to take advantage of the extended product–that is the wider value of a product beyond its core value in symbolic or aesthetic object. Here then are some of my ideas about how niche performers might be able to realize the ‘extended product’ idea to monetize their performing identities in today’s economy:

Paid sessions with fans in their local pub or private house—pay an artist to come and play with you for an evening in a local pub. Costs can be based on distance, time and/or prestige as well as numbers involved. This could even be made a regular feature—traditional musicians have been doing this for years with the triangular relationship between the publican, the musician and the audience where the publican pays the musician(s). We kind of see this happening more and more with house concerts, but usually on a one-off basis. This model cuts out the publican but requires a sympathetic one—albeit they are making money from the sale of their drinks, this model could be operated in fans’ homes or in an alternative public space. This idea can be extended however from the one-off event into a series of events that is perhaps place-bound–i.e. fans in a certain region can contribute until the crowdfund reaches the level where the performer is ‘guaranteed’ to come and play to them.

• A collective of artists who create a subscription club: A subscription for fans will buy them access both online but critically also in person to meet ups, bonus tracks, access to video, exclusive gigs, tuition videos, music sessions and potentially even short, regular residential weekends/festivals. Subscriptions would be modest just as with many clubs, but ideally annual and distributed across the collective on some sort of equitable basis. The musical collective could also act as a legal entity and sign contracts to provide musical performances with tour operators, restaurateurs, hotels or accommodation companies—to provide music regularly in certain venues, restaurants or public places through the collective’s members. Some of these would be place-bound and some would not so considering how much face-to-face extension would be particularly key for any collective. What would the difference be between a collective online and a Facebook group? The added value would need to accrue primarily to fans or members of the community through face-to-face encounters with musicians. And the musicians in the collective would need to have, and maintain a strong social media profile in order to provide the necessary pull factor to the service (something most savvy performers already do any without any remuneration).

Music holidays for fans: Already a successful model to a certain extent in Ireland and in the States, this involves a collective of musicians acting as tour operators and guarantees an unprecedented level of authentic experience for fans. Tours can be as short as an afternoon or as long as a week. This involves going to a level of entreprenurial activity that most musicians aren’t comfortable with, but as most musicologists (and professional musicians) know–it’s the grafters that tend to have successful careers, not always the most talented performers.

Give away the album download with the price of a concert ticket (like Prince successfully did in the noughties). Bundle the digital download of an album for sale only with the sale of the concert ticket thereby encouraging fans to buy a ticket to the live event and receiving the musical recording for free. The economics of this can be more profitable than selling the album anyway to fans and has the advantage of expanding knowledge on the fanbase and stimulating further income by establishing an enjoyable face-to-face relationship with them.

• New music subscription: Either an individual band/artist, or more likely, a collective based on a particular genre, can offer a subscription service for new music every month. A subscription to the group at £2/month could generate regular income for the group, and the benefits of collectivizing would mean that each artist benefits from the audience pull of all the others in the group. The subscription would really need to be separated from the conventional media subscription services through the use of face-to-face interactions which are exclusive to the fans who subscribe. Other extensions of the product such as curated playlists and curated readings and so on could enhance the offer. Gigs could even be offered through a crowdfunded platform like this, when income reaches a particular level for a particular region. This model cuts the distance between the artist(s) and the audience to nothing. There are already some online teachers who are offering this level of innovation in online teaching via subscription (this is my favourite! and the New York times agrees it’s a great idea!).

Of course, some of these ideas have been trialled already, but often by the big international mass mediated artists. And there are a lot more besides, online sound libraries and so on. And there have been similar spectacular failures too. I’m interested however in sustainable incomes particularly for musicians within niche genres–which has not really been trialled comprehensively because of the dominance of the new intermediaries and they have basically wiped out the old models of making money as a small artist–that’s why musicians in niche genres like folk and blues need to think about alternative models for generating income (even if it’s quite small). Royalties from Spotify aren’t going to put food on the table as many musicians have now discovered. That’s why their glossy targeting for emerging musicians like this one are so insidious.

In all these (and many more possible models besides) the key aspect, as Chris Bilton points out, is that the artist has to take responsibility for their relationship with fans directly. They have to have in marketing speak—forward and back integration—to be responsible for production, creation as well as marketing and distribution. In this world therefore, I think we need to be teaching these skills in a music degree also. Certainly many musicologists would visibly shrink from the idea of teaching (or ‘acquiescing’) to the market–usually invoking the ‘n’ word fairly liberally in opposition to any idea of thinking about money and music. However, for those of us that are keen to see musical performance more diverse, and to realize some of that democratic potential so long promised and then dashed by the continuing globalization of capital, getting our students to start thinking about more innovative ways of making a sustainable living from performance is probably a really good thing.

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