Musicians Are Better Off Than Ever Before In History. And Here’s Proof…

It’s becoming an unlikely chorus: David Lowery, the RIAA, and many artists themselves now feel that the digital age has made it worse for musicians, not better.  But former TuneCore CEO Jeff Price couldn’t disagree more — and in this guest post, he brings a litany of stats to prove his point.

“During his speech on June 12th, 2012 at the Personal Democracy conference in New York City, Cary Sherman, head of the RIAA, stated:


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‘…there are fewer people trying to make money as musicians today…’

Cary misrepresented the truth to push the RIAA’s agenda.

As the former CEO and Founder of TuneCore, I can tell you that between just CD Baby and TuneCore there were at least 20,000-30,000 newly recorded releases distributed each month. Each major label currently signs/distributes/releases about 110 releases a year. That’s about 9 a month.

In its heyday in 1998, Warner was releasing about 365 releases a year, one a day.

This means there is more new music being recorded and distributed in just one month than all of the majors combined release in over 100 years.


Now add the fact that barriers to becoming a musician are lower due to technology – it costs less to record and you don’t need the same type of talent in order to create/write/record music (its easier now).

Therefore, there are more musicians, not fewer.

In addition, a recent article at Digital Music News suggests that:

“There’s more music being created than ever before, but paradoxically, musicians are making less. Which means there are also fewer musicians and music professionals enjoying gainful employment, thanks to a deflated ecosystem once primed by major labels and marked-up CDs.”

I disagree.  Look at the numbers.

In the old system, at its peak, all of the majors combined distributed a total of about 1,800 releases a year.

Of those 1,800 releases, about 20% were box-sets, re-issues etc.  This leaves about 1,500 new releases.  Of those, some were not debut releases by ‘new’ artists.  This leaves about 1,200 releases a year of ‘new’ artists coming into the music ecosystem.

Of those 1,200 releases by new artists, 98% of them (1,176) failed and were dropped.  This leaves 24 artists a year that ‘succeed’.

There are a lot more than 24 artists a year these days that ‘succeed’.

Now granted, of these 24 artists, they raked it in, big time.  But that was just for them.

In the ‘old days,’ musicians did not really make any money. There were the lucky and talented few that did – i.e. U2, Led Zeppelin etc – but these musicians were the rare rare rare exception, not the rule.  The rules were:

(a) Less than 1% of the world’s artists will be let into the music industry ecosystem.

(b) Of those let in, 98% of artists will fail and get dropped after the release of their first album.

(c) Of the 2% that succeed, less than half of them will ever get paid a band royalty for the sale of their pre-recorded music on CD/vinyl, as they are “un-recouped” (The band royalty rate for the sale of a $17.98 list price CD in Walmart etc was $1.35 – $1.75 for each unit sold).

(d) If you wrote your songs, to get all of your songwriter royalties, you had to do deals with major publishing companies—and most could not get one. If you were able to get one, you usually signed a co-pub deal where, for a one-time advance, you had to give up 50% of your income and 50% ownership of copyrights to get all the royalties you earned.  And mind you, this was just for the band members that wrote the songs, not all band members.

(e) You lost money when you toured (and you had to tour).

(f) The cost of failure was that your career was over and done.

And the list keeps on going.

The hard truth is, forget making less money, most artists made no money in the traditional industry; they could not even get into the ecosystem to have their music available to be bought on the shelves of stores.

As a matter of fact, they lost more money in the old industry, as the costs to record were higher and the goal used to be to get signed.  Getting signed meant: buying gear; spending money to record a demo; manufacturing a physical CD or cassette to mail to an A&R rep to get a gig in LA or NY so the label rep could see you, fronting costs to play the gig, etc.

In other words, invest more, make less and don’t get let in.

Let me be clear, no matter what the music industry business model is, most artists will not succeed.  This is a tough business.  The path to success is writing and recording a song that causes reaction when it is listened to – a rare and difficult thing.

But for Cary Sherman to stand up and state something false so the RIAA can attempt to slow down its demise is beyond disgusting and does damage to artists, perhaps almost as much as the file sharing he is raging against.

Follow Jeff Price on his blog, or @TuneCoreJeff.

48 Responses

  1. Visitor

    “it costs less to record and you don’t need the same type of talent”
    Oh. My. God.
    Also, I’ve never seen such a mess of an article before. Weird font sizes, and all…

  2. Rankin

    This old-style major-controlled music industry Price describes sounds like somebody who has got all his information third hand from someone’s dad who once had a subscription to Rolling Stone.
    He seems to think that prior to the current situation there were two states you could be in: as big as Lady Gaga or Led Zep; or totally out of the business.
    There has always been a flourishing culture of independent musicians and labels to support them. Artists that can play (and fill) 250 – 500 capacity venues, not making a million dollars but getting by quite nicely on their cut of the door, on record sales from gigs and independent shops, on merch.
    Occasionally one of these artists would be noticed by the majors and signed, and often as not sales (which would have been a glorious success in the artists independent times) wouldn’t look good enough to the suits, and the artist would be dropped. But that doesn’t mean CAREER OVER. It usually just meant they went back to the independent lifestyle.
    He is at pains to say that 98% of people made no money when signed to a Major. I’d bet 98% of people on CDBaby make no money, either.
    24 people a year “succeeded”? What?

    • Sara-tone-in

      I like your response. I guess it depends on what Mr.Price defines success being. You made some excellent points and made me laugh as well.

    • Suzanne Lainson

      He seems to think that prior to the current situation there were two states you could be in: as big as Lady Gaga or Led Zep; or totally out of the business.

      This is the big problem I have with all the people trying to say that today musicians are so much better off. Most musicians have never been signed to major labels, so they never got any money from them in the first place and had to find other ways to support themselves. They were always DIY.

      What has happened, though, with the bottom falling out of recorded music (and I don’t mean piracy — there are a lot of legal ways to get free music) is that DIY musicians have lost a big source of revenue: selling cassettes and then CDs at shows. Those margins were great. The musicians would cover the cost of recording an album (which was never “major label expensive” because local and regional studios could give you a professional product for $5000 to $20,000). And then after they recovered those expenses, they were making very good money on those CDs. It would cost the band about $1.50 per copy, which they would then sell for $15 at a show. The musician or band could then keep 100% of that money for themselves. A popular local or regional band was selling between 3000 to 10,000+ CDs a year, generating $45,000 to $150,000 a year, which could then be used to fund touring, covering other expenses, etc. (And some DIY bands were selling many more copies than that per year.) What bands sell now doesn’t make up for that lost income. Merchandise doesn’t have the same margin, and in terms of ticket sales and guarantees, most bands aren’t making more per gig than they were 10-30 years ago. A lot of the gigs they used to get (e.g., private parties, bar gigs, weddings) now go to DJs. And musicians that used to take full bands on tour now might take a computer instead. Having just one or two people on tour is a lot cheaper than taking a full band, but that also means those band members no longer have gigs.

    • Visitor

      This is not meant as an insult — I have a lot of respect for Mr. Price and all the good things he has done for artists — but it’s impossible to comment on his article.
      I mean, where would you begin?
      And why not mention the only real problem — piracy?
      Nothing else matters today.

      • I can see clearly now

        “And why not mention the only real problem — piracy?”
        What a non-value-adding comment.
        Piracy is not a problem, it’s a reality. You can NEVER stop it and drm and many other attempts have only built up scorn for the industry. What you need to do is build services that are easier to access and more useful options than piracy. Anyone who doesn’t do this does not deserve any money and will die like the rest of the dinosaurs. I hope they die quickly so we don’t have to suffer listening to them whine about the good old days.

        • Visitor

          You can support the piracy industry all you want to, but illegal up- and downloaders are today’s dinosaurs.
          They need to adjust to the new anti-piracy laws that pop up all over the globe.
          And they know it. Look around — criminal sites are shutting down all over the place:

          But we need a new, creative IP organization who understands the piracy industry.
          We need a new Jeff Price for a new decade.

        • Visitor

          Spotify is 10 times easier than piracy with more options and more consistent sound quality.
          Its user defined radio product is as good or better than Pandora. They’ve got a bunch of cool apps. The ability to use shuffle to mix you onboard mp3 with the streams is really cool. The fact that it works on almost any platform is great. It’s free if you want it to be free … and, it’s spectacular if you pay a measly $9.99 a month for the full blown service.
          $10.00 a month? Why would you risk all the negatives of piracy when this such a much better, and safer experience?

          Still glorifying piracy puts you at about a 2005 – 2006 level of digital savvy .. Kinda like being stuck in the mind set that your high school years were the best years of your life.

          Grow up.

    • Sara-tone-in

      If there was a like button for your comment, I’d click it.

  3. musicservices4less

    Dear Jeff,
    I am an admirer of what you have accomplished and what you are continuing to do in the recorded music field. However, you are serverly slanting your view of the recorded music industry of the past 40 years by only focusing on the “majors.” And I am surprised at that since you co-founded spinArt, a somewhat successful independent label.
    Having actively worked in and run an independent label and publishing company, record retail stores, independent distribution and heavily involved in legal and business affairs for over 35 years, I take issue with the following:
    1. “This leaves about 1,200 releases a year of ‘new’ artists coming into the music ecosystem. ” You know that’s not true. There were more than an additional 10,000 new releases a year on independent labels and self releases (similar to what goes on now).
    2. “There are a lot more than 24 artists a year these days that ‘succeed’.” Of course and if we apply your definition of “success” there were alot more that “succeeded” back when each year.
    3. “In the ‘old days,’ musicians did not really make any money.” I don’t know who you hung around with in the ‘old days’ but the artists, musicians and producers I hung around with made alot of money and I know of many, many others that also did.
    4. “(a) Less than 1% of the world’s artists will be let into the music industry ecosystem. [and (b) and (c)]” I don’t believe those percentages in your a), b) and c) are any different in 2012.
    5. “(e) You lost money when you toured (and you had to tour).” Not the majority of the time. Your were propably not in the industry when all labels, majors and independents, gave tour support, sometimes recoupable, sometimes not.
    6. “(f) The cost of failure was that your career was over and done.” Not necessarily. The label I ran (and many others) made an extremely profitable business out of releasing new albums from artists dropped by the majors or other independents. And so did our artists, musicians and producers.
    7. “Let me be clear, no matter what the music industry business model is, most artists will not succeed.” That’s definitely correct!
    8. “The path to success is writing and recording a song that causes reaction when it is listened to – a rare and difficult thing.” This is the big myth of the current internet age. Reaction does not mean success in the music business. TALENT is the basic ingredient to success in the music business. Along with a great team to handle all other aspects of your career.
    Other than the above, your comments are spot on!

    • Glenn Galen - Minneapolis

      8. “The path to success is writing and recording a song that causes reaction when it is listened to – a rare and difficult thing.” This is the big myth of the current internet age. Reaction does not mean success in the music business. TALENT is the basic ingredient to success in the music business. Along with a great team to handle all other aspects of your career.

      Really? You call “talented” a producer who makes tracks that do not raise any kind of emotional reaction by the listener…??
      It’s ALL about making tracks that create a pleasant, strong emotional reaction in the listener, such that the listener wants to hear the track again, and again, and again…

  4. @themrreynolds

    Normally I love everything you say and do Jeff, but I have some serious issues with your latest missive.

  5. Fuddfar

    More digital home recorded releases. What a joke. Sounds like crap and no one buys it. The only people profiting are the guitar centers of the world suckering these dopes into buying more lousy sounding home recording junk.

    • Visitor

      “Sounds like crap and no one buys it.”
      Absolutely, but look at the bright side:
      “it costs less to record and you don’t need the same type of talent”

  6. Just A Fan

    The explosion of music seems counter to general pricincpals of supply and demand…but does support the notion presented by a writer in Forbes:
    Heres an excerpt:
    The economic point is that we don’t actually care about the producers at all. As Adam Smith pointed out, the purpose of all production is consumption: it is the consumption possibilities which are important.
    In this particular argument what this means is that we don’t care in the slightest whether musicians get paid or not: what we care about is that they continue to produce so that consumers can continue to consume. And there’s no good evidence that less new music is being produced now that there is so much copying. There’s no evidence that there is less creativity in what is produced either.

  7. dangude

    Mr. Price’s entire bloviated rant could have been reduced to a paraphrase of Cary Sherman’s quote.
    – “there are fewer people trying to make money as musicians today… with members of the RIAA.”

  8. Funkyfreddy

    This article is very misleading as well as poorly written! It might cost less to record nowadays but it certainly costs more to tour….

    And what does the amount of releases have to do with the ratio of musicians that actually make a living from their work?

    • Visitor

      Unfortunately, it’s also far more expensive to make professional recordings now:
      Fender, Gibson and Mesa gear is pricier than ever. So are LA2A’s, U87’s, 1073’s and all the other analog stuff you need if you don’t want your music to sound like it’s recorded in a tin can.
      And while you don’t need tape machines anymore, you need tons of extremely expensive high end AD/DA converters instead.
      Plus, you could fill your room with plates for the price of a rack of M7’s…

  9. Visitor

    If this is the snake oil Price fed to SOCAN. Candian songwriters are screwed! Less power to you Jeff.

  10. Visitor

    This article reads like a catalogue of myths… so many that David Lowery will probably write another long and amusing response to it along the lines of his ‘letter to Emily White.’ Some of it even sounds intentionally offensive to musicians. Less talent required? Seriously?
    By the way, has anyone looked at gear prices lately? Sure, you don’t have to pay for tape anymore, but the cost of most decent equipment is double or triple what it used to be… a J45 was originally $650 list price in inflation adjusted 2011 money, now it’s over $3k list price for a lesser quality instrument, $4k for one that’s close to the real thing. You can’t even buy a real U87 anymore.

    • Visitor

      The ONLY way to contain progress is to do everything in your power to be sure creators don’t get paid. When they come to the realization that can’t earn a sustainable living they’ll stop providing new technology with something to do.

  11. @carljacobson

    At last! Data backing up what I’ve been saying for years.

  12. Packson

    Jeff Price got kicked out of Tune Core for a reason. I think you’re seeing that reason right here

  13. Jaded Industry Dude

    If I would have known this article was written due to things Jeff Price said, then I simply wouldn’t have even clicked it.

  14. Oz

    this is all fine, but i think people are fixating somewhat on the recorded music aspect. I can vouch for the the fact that, as an independent musician, yes I definitely made more money selling recordings 10-15 years ago – around 1998 in fact!
    Historically speaking, over hundreds of years, musicians – and i mean real musicians with a range of employable skills – have generally done a variety of things to make a living – teaching performing, arranging, conducting, sound engineering, whatever….. I’m not even saying that some of this work hasn’t dropped off in some areas, but all this is in fact the bread-and-butter day-to-day stuff that musos have been doing for a very long time indeed.
    And outside the rarefied monetary returns of pop stardom, there would hardly be a real/serious musician on the planet not involved in a range of musical activities to keep themselves busy and solvent….

  15. R.P.

    The best part of this was:
    “The path to success is writing and recording a song that causes reaction when it is listened to – a rare and difficult thing.”
    …and a lot of you still don’t get that. There is a formula to making a hit. Study your chord prgressions, the overall reaction to those chord progressions, study voice leading, and figure it out. It takes A LOT of time, studying, and work, which is why—it is a very rare and difficult thing…
    Worse part is, many of you still won’t get it… sad really.
    You can control the reaction a person will feel giving them the right music. It’s called manipulation and music can manipulate humans. Do some research and stop wasting your time giving baseless opinions based on regurgitated crap you read on a music blog somewhere.

    • Funkyfreddy

      Have YOU ever written a hit? If you haven’t then what you write is just noise….

      God protect us from these music industry “experts” :(

  16. Sam M.

    If you want the current state of the industry in one word, here it is: Turmoil. No one really knows what is going to change over the next decade nor which direction the industry will even go. It is a glorious time of opportunity for any who want to involve themselves in this “redesign” of the “new model”, but for a lot of working musicians out there and those trying to make a new career for themselves as performers, it is a scary world. True, we have more ability to self record and self market than ever before in history, but with this ability has also come an increased presence of amateur musicians who suddenly are capable of self releasing. A market flood leads to more competition, and in order to stand out among the many one needs to truly demonstrate their ability to lead the pack, in whatever way they choose to do so. Better off now than ever before in history? Proof of this? No, I don’t think so…but I also don’t think that the world is ending for musicians either. Opportunity is in abundance, and we are surrounded by a mountain of resources at our disposal. With the right knowledge, mindset, talent and drive, success is within our sights; It’s hard, not impossible. Our world is changing, that is the truth…but it’s also the truth that it is up to us how this world does change.

    • Funkyfreddy

      Turmoil is right, and what helps to feed the turmoil is the amount of misinformation that is posted as fact. A lot of the so-called music journalism that is currently up on the web is written by techies who make music as a hobby, not for a living…. Dave Lowery was/is a professional musician…. how many of his critics are?

      When it comes to the “new music paradigm”, the blind are truly leading the blind :(

  17. Ms. T

    This is hogwash. the biz has become amateurized. hows that making it better for real musicians.

  18. TheDukester

    There are some conclusions drawn based on a system and process that is becoming obsolete year by year. Using a Biblical metaphor, they are trying to put ‘new wine in old skins’. The result is the bursting of the skins.

    I refer to The Internet as a ‘Runaway train with no brakes’, will on occasion, ‘Sybil’ is at the switch. The ‘establishment’ of the industry and many musicians, artists and performers are in denial of the new paradigm. As an older musician/entertainer, the tools available to artists of today do in some ways make it better for them, but they have to redefine what is ‘success’.

    There are trade-offs that come into play more than ever. There have ALWAYS been Independent artists and record companies. Radio stations had more individual control over programming, and have lost it incrementally with the advent of FM broadcasting. Today, terrestrial radio isn’t where people are getting a lot of their music from. With the Internet now in the mix and sharing, to say nothing of devices, computers and satellite access, the ‘pool’ is a lot bigger. This is a double edged sword for both the ‘suits’ and the artists. The ‘suits’, depending on the objective of the artists and the effort they want to assert, have the greater dilemma, as they only provide the skills of marketing to the process. This, an artist can now learn over the ‘Runaway Train’.

    This article was posted on a site I participate in for member commentary, and as I said then, this story is like the mosquito in a nudist colony. You don’t know where to start.

    In the end, all parties and parts must take the new paradigm a lot more seriously, individually, and must examine ‘trade-offs’ based on what they interpret as ‘success’ and what the new paradigm says that is.

    Just a thought……..

  19. Mofo

    Why are people shitting on him for the taking less talent comment? I think that’s absurdly obvious. Between cheap recording software, cheap synths, looping software, etc, you literally need the most basic understanding of music to put out a listenable song. There’s no learning curve because there’s no more learning a new motor skill. Why do you think DJing/electronic music is so popular now when it’s been around for decades? Because it’s easy to do.
    Now, doesn’t mean it’s bad, or negate innate creativity, but as someone who has worked at small venues in NYC and goes to a ton of friend’s shows, sees a lot of sets, etc, I can tell you that the avg technical skill level is very low. It’s all about dream pop or post punk or open chord strumming. Again, can still be good music, but for every band of people that have been obviously been studying their instruments intensely for however long, there’s 15 that have never practiced a scale in their life.

    • Glenn Galen - Minneapolis

      When the easy stuff runs out and people are saturated with a sound that comes “easy” by dragging and dropping loops…
      …then audiences will be amazed by sounds that come from musical training, dexterity and in-the-fly creativity and improvisation. And from lyrics that are on an entirely higher level than the stuff of today.
      That’ s my hope, anyway. :)

  20. Brian

    This article and all its assertions are so far out of context it isn’t even remotely close to reality.
    This is BS.
    DON’T READ IT, it’s a waste of your time. Propaganda, nothing more.

  21. clobber

    this is complete garbage. this author clearly has no idea what he is talking about. extremely midleading and irresponsible article. the author should be ashamed.