Today is May Day. In addition to being a day that celebrates spring, it is also International Workers Day, to honor laborers and the working classes – a group that finds itself under siege and struggling. That’s a circumstance that many musicians find all too familiar.
Even as the modern music industry finds its footing in the post digital age, most of the creators that make it possible are questioning how they can survive.
Fractured media and ubiquitous music have amplified a two tier class system of artists – the ultra famous and everyone else.
In an age when sales dollars are rapidly being replaced by streaming pennies, superstars and their labels still make big money on shear volume. But for an artist generating tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of streams, the payback is barely enough to keep their gas tank full to get to the next gig.
Despite the valiant efforts of companies like CD Baby and TuneCore and particularly PledgeMusic and Bandcamp, the income drain for many savvy middle class musicians has not yet turned into a flood. But rest assured, music as a souvenir is not a long term solution as sales shift rapidly to streams.
Still, there is reason for hope.
Smaller, nimble indie labels that support new music are thriving; and according to Merlin, about 30% of them now make 75% of their income from streaming.
Or look at the list of touring acts that hit your local 500 to 1000 seat club. Most of them never had a hit song on the radio. Many you’ve barely heard of, and yet they can generate $5000 to $50,000 in ticket sales. That’s not superstar cash, but it’s a living.
It’s all possible because, thanks to social media, email, direct messaging and the work of smart startups, artists and labels can reach fans directly with increasing accuracy for pennies.
The gatekeepers still control the keys to the castle, but entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial artists are building sustainable villages all around them.
Join me in saluting the modern working class musician today. We knew music would never die, but unlike their peers in many other jobs – and make no mistake being a musician is a tough job – they found a way forward.