A Flawed and Egregiously Inaccurate Study About Working Musicians



The Atlantic has run a story about how--surprise--musicians are making money from selling physical recordings now. This means that everyone can continue to rip them off and feel good about not paying for music downloaded from the Internet.

Articles like this serve the interests of people who want to continue justifying that early 2000s mentality--musicians are rich, so stealing music from them is good because it will help them sell more CDs. The problem is, it won't, it never did help anyone do better, and there are considerably fewer record stores now than there were in the early 2000s. There are whole entire chains of music stores that are gone now.  Oh, and you can't write about artists wanting to be paid without taking a cheap shot at Metallica, so there's that, too.

The good news that the article is based on is the flawed conclusion of the study--musicians are making "12 to 22" percent of their money from selling physical recordings. How did we arrive at that total? By conducting a ridiculous survey of older, established artists:
DiCola's study isn't perfect. It analyzes answers from roughly 5,300 musicians who volunteered for the survey, meaning it lacked the element of random sampling that most social science work strives for. The participants were overwhelmingly white (88 percent), male (70 percent), and old (the largest demographic was 50-to-59-year-olds). Almost 35 percent were classical musicians, and another 16 percent were jazz artists. In short, this isn't going to offer a crystal clear financial portrait of your up-and-coming Pitchfork darling. 
Nonetheless, the results do offer insight into how workaday guitarists, saxophonists, singers, songwriters, and timpani players -- 42 percent of the group earned all of their income from music-related work -- earn a living. And music sales (or streams) are usually a small but by no means insignificant piece of the picture.
I would say that these results are incredibly misleading, flawed, and skewed away from people who are really struggling to find a way to succeed. The only business model that seems to be working is to play live, play live a lot, get money from people directly through the Internet in some way, and find a way to survive. If you're going to say that there isn't a problem anymore, look directly at the problem itself; analyzing what is happening to 51 percent of your survey respondents, who are either classical or jazz artists in the 50-59 age demographic isn't going to clarify anything except to tell you how those people are continually being screwed. There are fewer big labels and fewer deals. There are a lot of people struggling to make a living playing music, and it is becoming next to impossible to survive by playing music without a solid method of making money. That's what has to be fixed, and soon.

What is a "workaday" musician? That would be someone who, for all intents and purposes, already has an established revenue stream that pre-dates the Internet era. These artists have survived a dry and fallow period and are already looking back at several years of greatly diminished sales. How is a current uptick supposed to undo a decade of damage? For an artist who existed prior to the Napster era?  That would be someone who has a revenue stream that includes physical recordings and a catalog extending back at least twenty years. These are artists that are making a very paltry amount of income from recorded music. To me, "12 to 22" percent is ridiculously low given that these are established, older artists who should be making a great deal more precisely because any sales of recorded music happening right now are happening on a much different scale from 20 years ago.

With fewer stores, outlets like Amazon.com, and with people paying prices that are either too low or too high depending on how their inventory is priced, each sale should be triggering a larger royalty payment since the actual sale of a physical item--CD or vinyl--is a rarer occurrence. Ideally, these artists should be handling the manufacture and sale of their own pre-recorded music so as to increase their own royalty. 

This means that the "12 to 22" percent is based on a new metric. In the old days, artists were advanced money, they recorded their music, and sales were made. Royalties were paid usually only after the advance was paid off. Today, artists usually pay for their own recordings, own their own publishing and, in many cases, their own label imprint. There is no middleman between them and the person who buys their product. This is because they are now able to directly pay for someone to make their CDs or vinyl records for them, and financing a lot of this comes from being able to play live, which is something the study chose to avoid considering because that would reveal more flaws in the study methodology. When they sell something for $10-15 at a show, why wouldn't they collect a much larger royalty? Why wouldn't that become "12 to 22" percent of their income when they've fronted the costs out of what they paid to make that product in the first place?

So, if you're an established musician, and if you're using your live concert income to make and produce recordings, you're investing that cash in yourself. You're making that pot smaller. Then, you're turning around and selling physical units and making some money there as well. But that means you robbed Peter to pay Paul and have made back some, but not all, of the money siphoned from the proceeds of playing live.

And this means that things are great now, right? What happens when you can't play live and finance new recordings? Do you wait for a non-existent music label with non-existent funds to pay you to make a new CD that they will own and sell, providing you a royalty when you're done paying off their advance? Really, it's not that hard to figure out--as the age 50-59 cohort dies off, what happens to the study results?

Articles like this mean well, but they fail to assess the big picture--artists are struggling, and the early 2000s mindset that all music should be free is the cause.