What This Economy Is Doing to Creativity

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There’s a dark theory about great, lasting art. Some of the greatest and influential music has sprung from pockets of desperation, poverty and struggle, and a desire to escape these confining elements.

It’s why Robert Johnson will be remembered long after the Strokes; why Eminem started in a trailer and not a mansion; why the funniest comedians are often dark-and-despressed at the core.

It’s a theory with holes, undoubtedly, but also a lot of truth.  But what’s happening to bands, songwriters, and performers right now, ‘in this economy’?  Perhaps we’re so obsessed with digital disruption that we’re neglecting this other, collosal macroeconomic shift.  This is a Great Recession with a questionable and confusing ‘recovery,’ elevated and prolonged levels of unemployment, disturbing shifts towards income inequality, and huge amounts of uncertainty.  And it’s deeply affecting the decisions and lives of artists, particularly those just starting their careers.

There’s a myth that touring is full of money and opportunity.  Sure, receipts are up for the top 50 or 100 mega-tours, the brand names that can fetch $75 a seat.  The rest are experiencing a more difficult road, and the real economic issues tied to being an artist.  This is not an easy life – not now, not even in the 90s – but there’s less cash to develop a career, practice your chops, pay for gas, and keep the creative lights on.

This is also having a big impact on the crowded, DIY market, simply because artists are playing with very tight budgets. Tunecore raised its rates and faced an epic backlash, others report difficulties upselling artists into more sophisticated analytics, advertising, or touring packages.  The average annual payouts for artists on Tunecore and CD Baby is about $170, according to our calculations, thanks to an incredibly-crowded digital terrain.  So, where’s the extra money for all these rate-hikes and extra services?  That’s the entrepreneurial challenge, but also a setup for a Darwinian pare-down in the space.

But what about the music, our real lasting legacy?  The RIAA argues that good music requires money, though there’s actually more evidence to suggest the exact opposite.  Sadly, artists often give up after prolonged periods of economic struggle, though these same factors also seem to produce the most vital, enduring works.  It’s a process that may already be happening.