Scary Thought: Are Musicians Doing Worse Than Ever Before?

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Music fans are doing better than ever in history, that is never debated.

But not only are artists struggling these days, they actually might be worse off than they were 10, 20, or even 30 years ago.  We’re so used to hearing about how liberated musicians are, how easily they can connect to fans and the greater percentages they’re earning.  But talk to an actual artist, and most will say that their actual earnings haven’t changed at all – and it may be getting worse.

It may take years before we understand what’s truly happening here, though artists currently have less access to financial backers and supporters.  Sure, the big label is often deleted from the discussion, but so are their once-deep pockets.

But even outside of that system, plenty of artists were gigging and paying the bills back in the day.  “In 1980 I was a full time musician, earning a true middle class living,” independent musician Clark Colborn commented to Digital Music News. “And I knew dozens of other full time musicians living in or near our city [Rockford, IL] making about the same income.  Now, I think Rick Nielsen (Cheap Trick) is the only full time rock musician living in our city.  The musical middle class, which many of these so-called experts claim didn’t exist until the last decade or so, is a myth.”

Then again, who’s kidding who?  It’s never been easy to be an artist – and that’s why your parents begged you to put down that horn.  But gigging musicians are definitely struggling, and even established artists like Imogen Heap are having trouble making road economics work.  “I’ve been telling people this, but the ones who believe it’s a wonderful time to be a musician don’t want to know that for most musicians it is actually harder to make a living now,” noted Suzanne Lainson, head of research at Brands Plus Music, also in the same thread.  “A lot of the local gigs that sustained bands/musicians in the past are gone.  Or if they still exist, they pay less money.  And it used to be that local/regional bands could make good money selling CDs (and before that cassettes) directly to fans at shows.”

But, what about the incredible opportunities presented by direct-to-fan relationships?  Shouldn’t things like demographically-detailed email lists and cultivated superfans be changing the calculus?  That’s the rap of most DIYers, though perhaps the elements that created those opportunities are also working against musicians as well.  The noise floor is often impenetrable, simply because every artist suddenly has equal footing.  But beyond that, potential fans are more inundated with information, tweets, text messages, and screens than ever before in history.  Perhaps the net result is simply negative.

Paul Resnikoff, publisher.  Written while listening to Bach.