The biggest catastrophic event in artists earning a living is not the Internet, and it’s not piracy.

It was the advent of recording. Some people got rich. Other working musicians wound up out of a job.

If you pay attention to that history, it puts recent changes in a different context and on a different scale. The real question is why anyone debating music compensation would ignore its single most transformative moment. Any view of the future that involves history must take it into account. And maybe then we’d ask different, deeper questions about what’s next.

  • Ev Buckley

    Peter, I posted this in the Selling and Promoting comment thread, little knowing you were composing a similar missive at the time. Hopefully it bears cross posting:

    I don’t think it follows from paying for music being a responsible thing
    to do that every individual end consumer of that music should
    necessarily be the one to do the paying. It’s certainly one way to do
    things, and I’d never argue that it is wrong, but other ways exist too.

    Take for instance visual art. I don’t pay for any visual art, ever.
    Occasionally, after the art has been made and paid for by other people
    I’ll buy an exhibition ticket for a big show, but I never contribute
    directly to its creation. And yet, I don’t have any moral problem with
    expecting (demanding, even) that visual art continue to be made, and
    visual artists continue to be paid, whether by government funding,
    private funding, or Saatchi-like commissions.

    Visual art is never paid for by me. I never buy art, never commission
    it, and never own it. I just keep going to galleries for free, and
    soaking up the amazing cultural achievements created by interactions
    between those who care enough and can afford to pay for these things to
    be created, and the artists who create them. In spite of this, I don’t
    feel like I “treat [visual artists] like garbage” just because I benefit
    from their work without paying them directly.

    I think the commodification of recorded music was an aberrant detour
    that one branch of the arts made away from the others due to a
    peculiarity of reproduction technology, and in future music will have to
    gradually come back into line with everything from poetry to
    architecture, where it’s simply unheard of to expect to make a living by
    charging per reader, building user or listener.

    • Chris Randall

      That is an excellent point, Ev. I am in full agreement with you, for what that’s worth. I’ve often looked at this issue from the other direction. I was giving a talk to a community college Electronic Music class, and during the QA session someone asked me the usual “how to make a living in the music business” song and dance. The response I gave, which I paraphrase here, was thus: if you want to make a living in the music business, the only real way to do that is to make a living off of musicians in some manner, by exploiting their creations or providing the tools they need to make those creations. Nobody becomes a musician to be rich. They do it either because they need to, in the core of their beings, or because it seems like a pretty good way to get laid on a semi-regular basis. It’s only later, when they’ve been grist for the mill for a while, that the bottomless pit reveals itself, and they have to have the crisis all musicians go through, which is “do I keep doing this at a professional level, hoping for the big break, or do I finally give in to the needs of the market economy and develop a skill that can actually provide me with a livable income, and do music on the side?” 

    • PaulDavisTheFirst

      i recommend a reading of bill bruford’s autobiography. its a great read, but it also offers a different perspective on the life of a working musician. 

    • Hello

       “And yet, I don’t have any moral problem with expecting (demanding, even) that visual art continue to be made, and visual artists continue to be paid, whether by government funding,
      private funding, or Saatchi-like commissions.”

      Jolly nice of you to give permission. Good that somebody else picks up your tab. Seriously, think a bit deeper about the kind of art you are going to get from high level patronage. The words ‘mainstream establishment’ might give you a clue.

    • “Former Musician”

      I used to be hell-bent on making my living as a musician. I studied theory for many years, learned multiple instruments, found other talented musicians my age that had good chemistry, and set off on a journey. Some years into that journey, I learned the lesson here the hard way. I was living with three of my four band mates in a silly flat that may as well have been a small box with four broke musicians in it. The band was going nowhere, not because of pirates, corporations, booking agents, bar managers, or malice on the part of any stranger. 

      People always want to blame their misfortunes on the malice of some stranger, all the while forgetting that we do live in a certain society, which is, as all societies are, governed by norms. In our case, it was forgetting a simple truth about United States culture surrounding small business. Like it or not, anything you do to make money is a business. So please don’t preach to me about art being outside that norm or above it or in any way different. If you want to sell art, you have to do just that – sell it. Your art is your product. You are its creator, its salesman, its technician, its everything. Here in the United States, we live by a certain code, and that code entails selling a product to somebody else and taking that money to maximize a good for ourselves. 

      That good can be an electricity bill, groceries, a new guitar, a gift for a friend, a TV or Playstation purchase, or anything else you might decide is what you need. After a few years of realizing that my band just wasn’t making a product for which there was enough demand to “make ends meet”, I decided that it’s possible in America to do art and live an otherwise productive life selling a different kind of product in a different industry or job setting. It’s much harder the other way around. So the band broke up. 

      Now I live in a decent apartment, some 1,500 miles from home. I found a job I enjoy, where I’m not ashamed or miserable or broke. On top of all that, I’m in another band. We’ve written a few of our own songs, but we found this great niche of playing parties with mostly covers for people we know. We’ve done a wedding, a number of housewarming type things, new jobs, birthdays, etc… Sometimes they throw us a little money, and sometimes they don’t. We don’t mind. There’s no pirates strangling us. There’s no corporations holding us down. There’s just us, deciding our own fate. We’re still making art. People are still enjoying it. <– Isn't that what art is for? Do you really make art for yourself? I hope not. It's for others. So either get on board or get left behind.

      If I have enough time or money later, maybe I'll devote my time to music again. Until then, I'll do music on the side of a "serious" job and continue playing fun parties that guarantee the happiness of people I care about. That'll be enough for me until some song we write strikes gold. (not holding my breath) 

    • Amfolyt

      I think it’s great that you’ve found a balance between “serious” work, and the music you want to make/play. And while I agree and sympathise with most of what you’re saying, there is one point that I can’t agree with. 

      “Do you really make art for yourself? I hope not. It’s for others.”

      Well… I do make art for myself… I don’t care if others like it or not, that is not the point for me. I’m not in the entertainment business. I’m not creating music for the sole purpose of entertaining people, or to please people (on the other hand if someone likes what I do, and is entertained, great!). I want people to feel they’ve discovered something new when they hear my music, not to feel that reassuring sensation of recognition. The fact that it might not be that often that I reach this goal is another story… 😉 And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t create art for others than yourself, but to have that as the sole purpose for creating art, well, then it’s not art for me anymore, it’s entertainment. Art for me is the exploration and development of ideas, not “the art” of doing someting. You might be good at “the art” of playing a certain instrument, or “the art” of handeling a paintbrush, but until you use that ability to create something original and honest, you’re not an artist in my eyes. Not to sound condescending, but playing in a coverband is not art to me. Well, it might be the art of entertaining, which is great, but it’s not the art of making music.

      But, since I’m making music for me first and foremost, I don’t expect to get paid for it. I think people should pay for something if the think it’s worth paying for. If someone hears my music and gets something out of it, then that is beautiful. The idea of two (or more) people enjoying one persons creative, personal output is fantastic. In a way that should be a sufficient reward.

  • PEMF Primus Luta

    Hmmmm… well then you have to go back to the printing press don’t you?

    • Peter Kirn

      Nope. The printing press had no ill effect on the life performing musician. 😉

      Composer, on the other hand, yes — and this is the origin of copyright law, which was based on *printed* musical material in its first iteration.

    • Graham Metcalfe

      But the printing press sure put a lot of scribes out of work. And some might argue that it devastated the arts of calligraphy and illumination (as in, illuminated manuscripts). So maybe there is more of a corollary there. It was a catastrophic change in literary distribution that enabled wider distribution of content while severely impacting an art form. Much as recorded music had on performing musicians and instrument manufacturers shortly after its introduction.

    • Peter Kirn

      Absolutely! You destroy one thing, and create something else. And I agree, the parallel with the printing press is definitely strong. (I just misunderstood and thought we meant in relation to performing musicians, directly…)

  • josh

    Read this Peter?

    • Ev Buckley

       Personally, I find it abhorrent that anyone would try to make a direct link between an invividual downloader’s actions and the suicides of Mark Linkous and Vic Chesnutt.

    • josh

      I didn’t think the article intended to make a direct connection between an individual and the suicides. He was trying to make the point that collectively, people’s actions have real world repercussions. 

    • a_w_young

       Same thing. It’s emotional manipulation and a very flawed argument to a bigger debate. I can appreciate what it means to him and the honesty is important but the whole article reeks of politics and agenda.

    • Tim

      He was certainly trying to make the connection, and then disclaiming his way the heck out of it. So it’s young people who download music’s fault that the US medical & social systems aren’t helping people with mental illness?

      So many questionable issues with that article. His statistics about recorded music revenue being down & there being less working musicians would look a little different plotted against the rest of the global economy over the last 10 years!

    • a_w_young

       No disrespect to anyone intended but it was a terrible article, full of misinformation, assumptive jumps, pandering to a very easily defined audience and emotional sensationalism.

      He missed out on an opportunity to have a useful conversation about what someone wishing to acknowledge their moral obligations might mean on a personal level in favor of a highly-politicized approach to a very old issue.

      People who say things like he said are damaging to people on both sides of the debate.

  • Nibinabi

    Composers, musicians in orchestras, all had financial problems because their wages were rotten, not paid regularly and so on. Maybe the bards in the pre-historic times were lucky. :-(

    Read about them before you put the faults to the record business.

    • Peter Kirn

      Who said I was faulting anyone?
      By “catastrophic,” I mean large-scale change. The destruction of one thing doesn’t necessarily mean that there can’t be something that follows.That said, I think you may be oversimplifying wages on the bandstand, etc. Accounting for inflation and whatnot, you’d almost certainly be better off being a performing musician in New York in the 1920s than you would in 2012, on average, in terms of live performance wages alone. Think of the number of clubs with live music, as a total. And historically, some of those people earned wages that very much were living wages. That’s narrowly defining live performance, though – there are new opportunities in 2012 that weren’t open in 1922.

  • a_w_young

    You’re right Peter and perhaps that can lead to a much more useful conversation than the usual banter on the topic.

    As for some of the others out there (and partially in response to an article that’s been passed around in the last few days, and in the comments below..)

    The success of an artist has zero link to internet “piracy”, the 21st century’s most often understood phenomenon. I’m quite bored of starving artists blaming their inability to buy food on poor record sales.

    Music is a business. There’s more to it than making something and hoping that a miracle happens and enough people buy your record that you don’t have to do any other work. There’s a LOT of things that have to happen to even sell a record, let alone the other responsibilities a career musician has to adhere to when desiring to maintain a living without having to seek out other work. A sad fact as well is that sometimes.. I hate to say it.. but your record sucks. At least as far as those you’ve managed to reach are concerned. You can either find an audience for it, try harder or just enjoy the process while finding other means of paying the bills.

    If someone wants to succeed financially as a musician, it doesn’t matter how big or small your “name” is. You have work to do and it has nothing to do with who heard your record without paying for it or shared with 1000 strangers on the internets.

    • josh

      If your’e not a live performer, how are you going to make money selling records if nobody buys music anymore? Obviously, piracy isn’t the only reason why the music industry is what it is today, but it certainly can’t help that people don’t buy music anymore. 

    • a_w_young

      Some might say that is a bit like asking “If I don’t eat food, how do I get full?”

      There are a lot of things people can do though. Think bigger.
      Your response is kind of the point I’m making. Artists need to stop thinking 1-dimensionally and blaming everyone else for failure.

      Your financial success, if that’s what is important to you, is entirely in your hands and has nothing to do with pirates. Even if it did, you could not stop it in any way and it would still require a more creative solution.

    • josh

      I’m afraid I don’t see your point. What are some of those ‘things people can do’? How should I ‘think bigger’? I’d like to hear some ideas, really. I definitely do not think that anyone who makes music should be paid for it. I just think that if you create something, that you have every right to ask to be paid for it.   If someone is out there making money off of it illegally (file sharing services, etc.) I think that’s wrong. Isn’t it that simple?  

    • Hello

      Oh yes. Of course, artists think 1 dimensionally. Those foolish artists. Jesus, listen to yourself. Endless stereotypes and absolute assurance that everything is ‘just as I say’.

    • Hello

       “The success of an artist has zero link to internet “piracy”, the 21st
      century’s most often understood phenomenon. I’m quite bored of starving
      artists blaming their inability to buy food on poor record sales”

      And with one bored wave of your hand you dismiss this whole possibility. So arrogant.

    • a_w_young

       There’s no arrogance there. I want fellow artists to have a more useful conversation. I want them/us all to succeed in the ways desired by each individual. There are more positive and constructive ways of doing so that don’t involve placing blame on something that exists completely outside the realm of individual responsibility on part of the artist.

  • PEMF Primus Luta

    Side thought: It’s interesting how no one ever weighs cultural value with financial value in these debates.  The argument for the ‘ethics’ of recording technology for music was that it spread the music to people who otherwise would not have had access.  Could not the same be attributed to filesharing?  (Thinking out loud don’t hate me).

  • Brendan Dougherty

    one could also say there was a time in the pre-corporate record industry when the people running record companies were doing it for other reasons that to please shareholders.  

    • NB

      Nope, that is false. Record companies were always run for profit.

  • Butthose8000

    never knew anyone who made a living off of it who made anything worth hearing

    idea, recognition, failure

    repeat forever, it’s fine

    • Hello

       “never knew anyone who made a living off of it who made anything worth hearing”
      Well that’s a scientific survey right there.

  • Seba

    Out of a job? The recording revolution also created entire new categories of jobs surrounding the recorded medium: mastering engineers, mixing engineers, assistant engineers, session musicians, the entire business of recording royalties (which for many musicians and composers, is their livelihood), not to mention the entire art and craft of film sound design and music which wouldn’t exist without recording technology. Artistically, recording created entirely new means of artistic expression and resulted in the birth of countless artists who only work with ‘recordings’ as their medium. We are immeasurably better off culturally for the existence of recording than without it…who would want to live in a world where we could only listen to the amazing music of the past century by having lived during the specific periods and in physical proximity of the artists we love? For me and many others, I’m sure, recorded music is the primary ‘thing’ about music that we love. Personally, I hate people say “oh, musicians can just make money on tour, buying recordings is stupid”. For me, I never go to live shows but purchase all of my recorded music – the art of recorded music is the primary thing that interests me, and I am more than happy to purchase it as a creative product to ‘own’.

  • crom

    the whole mentality of people expecting money in return for art is retarded and the height of arrogance.

    • TeddyBones

      Why? I’ve studied classical guitar for five years. People hire me to play. Am I arrogant? Are they dumb?

    • Hello

       Spoken like a consumer.

  • papernoise

    I’m not sure I understand your point here Peter.
    Of course we can go question the whole economic system. Because the record industry as the whole entertainment industry is just part of an evolution that started with the industrialisation and developed further with the successive evolutions of western societies. We could question if using a virtual non-material currency is so healthy for our economic system (everything seem to suggest that it’s really not). The other question is the eternal conflict between what we call culture and what we call economics. Should culture be free? Free like in beer? Free for whom?
    Music used to be something people made around a bonfire to keep themselves entertained, to exorcize fears and to support rites, we could go back to that, but maybe we want to move forward and not backwards.

    What are the questions we should ask ourselves? If the music industry as we knew it is a dead business model, which we can’t really argue about, and if we acknowledge that it wasn’t that great anyway (which it probably wasn’t), we have to start to focus on finding something new. And that’s what many people are doing already. Everybody has started to focus more on creating something physical, we’ve seen a resurgence of vinyl first, then of special collectors editions, gadgets, art. Ghostly International with have proposed a nice model, Others are still experimenting, using many channels at once, or inventing new channels from scratch.

    But in the end it all boils down to one main question: how can people still earn money from music? Some say money should be taken out of the equation, but that is a bit of an utopian view in my opinion. Musicians need a lot of people who just do regular jobs. engineers, marketing consultants, graphic designers, managers, bookers, drivers. Sure you can do everything yourself but is it possible to build a whole ecosystem on DIY? Maybe it is, but I’m not sure…

    I’ve seen the decline in the comic book market here in Italy, and one thing you notice is that when the big ones tremble the little ones start to tremble with them. The indie market needs the mainstream one and the other way around. Who makes it profitable to run a print shop, it’s big companies that print thousands of books, not the little ones. But we digress.

    But back to the topic. What I miss in the whole discussion about the changes in the so called entertainment industry is the cultural component. But when I talk about culture I don’t necessary mean high culture (like in art and literature) I don’t mean the cultural value, I mean it in a much broader more anthropologic sense. there is a complex set of values, expectations and relations that define how we perceive music, the emotions we associate with it and the value we think it has. This is all changing, or better it has changed, since first the industry turned music into a commodity (as has been pointed out) and then it was rendered practically free (like in beer) by the internet.
    Partly it is the fault of the industry itself that now they have to complain about sinking sales.
    The question now is, how can someone find a new business model that will sustain labels, musicians, technicians and so on in this new and radically changed landscape? I think this can only happen through a cultural change.
    Of course cultural change is already happening, since culture is not a static thing, it’s continuously changing. The economic problems of the record industry are the consequence of a cultural change (a huge one).From here though, there should be a further change, into something where we focus on culture being free like in freedom and not just free like in beer.

    • Peter Kirn

      My point is that you can’t look exclusively at one sea change and ignore the even bigger one that came right before it. What analysis you make of that history is really up to you.

      In fact, we’re so much in the habit of doing that, that a number of people in this thread are back to thinking only about the relationship of the recording economy before and after widespread Internet access and are still removing that earlier context — and are reading all sorts of things into my statement above that I didn’t say.

    • papernoise

      Ok, so you agree that it’s not really a business model problem, do you? It’s much wider cultural change we’re experiencing, which btw. includes far more than just music. Everything is changing around us, the internet played a big role in it (and still does) but the consequences span far beyond that. I see a lot of positive potential in this (like the whole blue economy thing) and of course also big issues and dangers.

      I don’t know if you’re familiar with the concepts of blue economy and marketing 3.0, but I think there’s a lot of interesting points there that musicians should take into consideration.Looking at the past is really important, to trace a line to the future. Not that things were better or worse before, but should go forward and the direction is clear only if you see the broader picture.

    • Peter Kirn

      Yep, that’s the idea!

  • Amfolyt

    Everybody is busy finding someone to blame in this, and to some extent it is certainly true that filesharing, piracy, recordcompany/investmentfirm greed etc., has helped shape the current state of things. I am in no way questioning this. 

    But while we’re busy blaming everyone else, let’s take a look at ourselves. Not because we are doing something wrong, but because we are so many. It seems like everyone is a musician/performer/producer these days. The tools for making music are available everywhere, and they’re cheap, in some cases free. No wonder people have a hard time getting compensated for their efforts.. But is it a bad thing that more and more create music? Not to me. I obviously love music, and even though it can be difficult sometimes to find the gems in all the shit-music that’s being produced, I love the development. Does everyone get compensated for their efforts? No. Does that mean less people get into music-making? No, apparently not.

    I’m not coming with any solutions here, I know, but I have a feeling that as more and more people get into music-making, diversity is key. Both in musical terms, but also in marketing terms. Obviously it’s difficult to come up with examples of how this could be done, but that is sort of the point of innovation isn’t it?

  • Philippe Pascal

    What i see is “top” artists getting richer, and their big labels too.

    There are more and more musicians, producers these days ?
    May be because the recording industry makes them dream about being a rich artist…like the few ones they promote.
    In fact, the whole music industry and medias, not only recording.

    How many millions of ppl dream about singing for their living ? (X-Factor anyone ?)
    But how many really do, compared to millions wannabe?

    All i see here is ppl without any other thing to do than dreaming, because it is very hard to get a REAL living job and a stable future.
    So between an unstable future with an average/poor/no job and an unstable one making music…music seems a not so bad option.

    Our society simply use our dreams to make money.
    How many time we ear : trust in you and you will succeed ?
    But it don’t tell how many millions will fail to let a few win…

    And this one will make other dream, buy records, t-shirts,billets,software,hardware…
    That’s called capitalism : a few win, the great mass loose.

    • Peter Kirn

      Well, to be clear, selling t-shirts is not necessarily big-C Capitalism. It can simply be running a business. And that’s what a lot of smaller players might simply go and do, outside the big-bucks star system you’re describing.

  • d b

    Anybody who thinks that ‘downloading’ is the issue is out of the loop.   The loss of value for recorded music comes from people swapping entire hard drives.  Collecting 10,000s of tracks in minutes from friends.  Trading is used as social currency.   In such a context individual pieces of music, or even the enjoyment of music is secondary.  It’s just a key into some ‘in group.’    The tragic part is not that some musician isn’t getting their fair rewards for their work —     If it truly is ‘their work’ then they should be abandoning the fruits of their labor to avoid corruption.   The sad part is that the lack of investment required to acquire the music lessons the value of the music itself to the listener in a broad sense.   The idea that someone is going to invest time and effort (and learning) in order to appreciate the best music that has been created by man when the choice instead could be to skip to something that has some wizbang immediate appeal that other people like and gives them a sense of belonging…

    The most rewarding music takes time to understand.  Understanding is what is lacking with todays short attention spans and selfish mindsets.

  • Oliver Baptiste

    When we talk about the advent of recording, the gramophone and its digital heirs shouldn’t get all the praise and blame.  Remember the player piano and music rolls.  Not only because as MIDI musicians we still work with its descendant, but it is the origin of the compulsory mechanical royalty. In 1908 the U.S. Supreme Court heard White-Smith Music Publishing vs. Apollo Co., a roll maker. The Supremes found in favor of the defendant because their reading of current copyright law:

    “These perforated rolls are parts of a machine which, when duly applied and properly operated in connection with the mechanism to which they are adapted, produce musical tones in harmonious combination. But we cannot think that they are copies within the meaning of the copyright act.”

    The decision is definitely worth a read, and feels strangely current.  They saw the rolls not as a copy of the music, but a part of a mechanism — intelligible by a machine but not by humans — and not covered under existing copyright law.  (Similar arguments were made in the 80s about personal computers and software.)

    Thus, Congress passed the 1909 Copyright Act, creating the first compulsory mechanical license, allowing anyone to reproduce copyrighted sheet music in pianola rolls so long as they pay a mechanical royalty at the statutory rate.

    So this new tune we keep singing is just a digital arrangement of the Old Piano Roll Blues.

  • Jason Phoenix

    I’m late to the discussion but I’d like to point out that in the broadest scope of history, being a musician was not a vocation, but rather something people simply did for themselves and each other. Temple musicians and chanting monks were by vocation not musicians but performing religious duties.
    Bards and jesters relied on the generosity of their audiences; composers had patrons-usually royalty or the Church, and later still publishers and commissions. Of course folk musicians have been busking for tips for centuries, but let us not forget that once upon a time playing music to make a living was, for most of human history simply not what people aspired to.
    I, for one, am far more interested that our technology lowers the threshold for capturing and distribution of music allows more variety and opportunity to more musicians and types of music worldwide than I am whether those who control a multi billion dollar industry get to keep the reins on who gets recorded, distributed, and paid under their terms.

    I would rather rely on my audience for patronage; I trust them and their generosity far more than the alternative.