Waldeaux | Balancing the Music Books

Balancing the Music Books

I saw a really good post on Facebook recently by Steve Knightly of Show of Hands. It exuded his love of music at all levels and his support for independent musicians. Many established artistes remember where they came from and give back (I was going to say ‘remember their Roots’ but that might have been too much of a corny pun!), because they remember what it was like to scrimp and scrape their way between gigs, and to try and afford their latest project.

One of the comments in answer to Steve’s article suggested that folk musicians who play at festivals should make sure they bring along affordable CDs of their music. The rationale was that many festival goers can’t afford standard CD prices. On the face of it, I would agree, and most musicians would tell you that any sale is a good sale. This idea would provide some payback when most musicians see little or none, being expected to play for free in too many venues and having a tiny cut of sales from their own music when it is uploaded to the major platforms.

It was refreshing to read that some festival goers would take a chance on a low cost EP where understandably they might baulk at taking a risk on a full album by a previously unknown musician. There is also the point that an impressive live performance may not fully reflect a performer’s recorded material, so for music lovers the risk is not just financial. Steve Knightly goes on to show his admiration for those musicians who aren’t interested in profile, or selling their music. Some, in fact many, just play for the love of creating and playing music, but it is also important not to forget the flip side of their efforts.

Making music is not cheap, and while some musicians are also technical wizards who record their own music, most would not be able to achieve the standard of a professionally produced CD. It’s like anything else in life. Most of us can get most of the way on our own, but if we want to break the tape at the finish line then we need the help of a professional, and that is not cheap. It costs almost as much to produce a sampler EP as it does a full album: the CD art and the CD sleeve; the reproduction and printing; the packaging and transport, the postage, and of course the freebies they have to give away to get your music heard.

There has to be a solution to the perennial problem of musicians struggling to afford to continue to create good music. There are a number of elements to any such solution. I also read in the last week that the Music Industry in the USA made $43 billion last year, with artistes taking just 12% (albeit up from 7% in 2000 but come on, that was nearly 20 years ago!), and with a minority of artistes taking the lion’s share of that 12%. It is fundamentally unfair, and the balance needs to shift. The Industry has changed enormously in the last 40 years. I used to look forward to saving up enough money so I could go to Bispham Records, RHO Hill’s record Department, or to Blackpool’s Abingdon Street market to buy a new vinyl single or LP. Yes, it was the norm to buymusic, albeit generally by established artistes or bands whose music had appeared either on Radio Caroline, Radio Luxembourg, Radio One, Top of the Pops or The Old Grey Whistle Test back in the day – there weren’t many more places to hear music unless you also paid to see bands live.

It used to be the case that recording artists made money from their records but lost money on their tours. There was a huge pressure to sell records. Then it was the tours that made the money and the recordings that were the loss leaders. Nowadays a musician without a name in the music industry loses significant amounts of money on both. Traditional music venues are closing at an alarming rate, and many of the venues that offer live music prefer covers bands rather than original music. It seems to bring in more punters to eat and drink. So opportunities are shrinking for musicians to earn sufficiently from playing live. I am fortunate to have an income outside music that enables me to afford to do what I do. Many musicians don’t enjoy that privilege. They still need to pay for instruments, recording equipment or someone to produce their music, CD costs, transport, accommodation and food, promotional costs, insurance, and sometimes, review and radio play costs.

The comment on Steve Knightly’s article that suggested festival goers would pay for low cost CDs felt like a breath of fresh air, because while people have always bought the music they like yet there is also a growing expectation that music is something you can download for free. Festival goers will probably have already paid a reasonable fee for entry to the festival so they are already supporting the performers. Anything else is a huge bonus and a big compliment to the artistes whose music they may buy.

Part of the deal has to be that music creation has a value, but it would be wrong to lump all that cost on the buying public. The Music Industry has a responsibility to give all musicians a better deal. A musician uploading music to iTunes will at best get 50 pence in the pound, and they won’t get paid for months (and nobody seems to know exactly how many months). Songs downloaded from Spotify yield fractions of pence. It isn’t nearly good enough. The payback to musicians from their music uploads to these multi million pound business platforms needs to be increased significantly – not just pence per play, not 45% of sales for their own creations. That is daylight robbery, and we all tolerate it because “it’s the best way of getting heard” or “it gives independent musicians a platform they otherwise wouldn’t have”. Well that, my friends, just feels like blackmail.

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