Support Your Local Rock Star

As I’ve begun to have a go at making a living as a musician and artist, I’ve thought at times about how difficult it seems for people who try this. So many struggling artists, starving artists, nobodies trying to become somebody, so little opportunity to make it into much more than a hobby, such small odds of really hitting the big time.

At some point, I realized something about this. It’s just like Barnes and Noble, Borders, Home Depot, Lowes, Wal*Mart, Target, Stop and Shop and Hannaford coming into town and putting out of business the local mom and pop bookstores, hardware stories, grocery stores, general and department stores, etc., etc. It’s the same old story, it just doesn’t seem like it. With all of these situations, we get giant stores purveying huge selections of stuff at low prices. What does that have to do with people who hit the big time as musicians?

I’m going to focus on music, but this could really apply to anything, maybe something you want to do, so keep that in mind as you read this. For the sake of argument, let’s look just at the business of recorded music — CDs and MP3 downloads and such.

According to various sources (like this and that), in the United States around 2003-2004, the average annual per capita spending on recorded music was, rounding off, about $45. Ballpark that again at 300 million people in the U.S. for total spending of about $13.5 billion.

That fairly modest amount per person supports every music sale made by U2 and Jay-Z and Christina Aguilera and Kenny Chesney and Michael Buble and every other huge music star you can think of. Plus every new copy sold of every old album by every other huge music star you’ve ever heard of. Plus every single these stars have ever done, old or new. Plus every album and single sold by less huge but still famous acts like Ben Folds and TV on the Radio and Diana Krall. Plus every album and single sold by everyone you’ve never heard of. All of it.

The U2s of the industry make gazillions. The Diana Kralls, who knows, but a plenty good living. There are probably some who get by. And most people who put something out probably barely sell any of it. It’s a lot like the economy in general — a few big haves, a ton of have nots, and the expected gradations in between.

Now, for sure, many of these artists get extra income — often very signficant extra income — from live performances, royalties from radio airplay and use of their songs in TV and movies and elsewhere, etc. So the money from purchases of recorded music isn’t at all the whole story. But imagine if it was. At all these levels from the rock gods to the nobodies, everyone would have that much less coming in, and there’d be even fewer actually making a living just from their music. How many would there be?

Let’s play with some rough numbers. According 2002 U.S. Census figures, for the entire economic sector of musical groups and artists, there was about $4 billion in revenue, $1.25 billion of which was payroll for about 50,000 people. Obviously this isn’t all for recorded music, and obviously the $13.5 billion spent on recorded music means a lot of money is going to distributors, retailers, etc., not to artists, and obviously not all artists are included in this 50,000 since many couldn’t possibly justify putting themselves down as musical artists for the census. But take this 50,000, then, as a ridiculously high estimate. Probably the number of musical artists making any substantial money from that $13.5 billion in a given year is much smaller. 25,000? 10,000? 5,000? Well under 50,000, in any case.

But now think about this. There’s a lot of talent out there. There are people every bit as talented as many of the most famous artists out there, or at least as talented as many of the less talented artists out there who have somehow found their way into making a plenty good living at music. And they are everywhere. There’s a Springsteen type somewhere in your region, whatever your region is. A Celine Dion type. A B-52s type. And so on. They’re out there. Could they all make it somehow? How many musical artists could really make a living if given the chance by the people around them?

Naturally, there would still be issues of manufacturing and distributing the recordings. But a lot of that would change if people were buying more locally. There’d be less markup needed for people and businesses to make money. There’s no way to really estimate it, but let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that $50,000 a year would be a pretty decent amount for an individual musical artist to get as their total income from making a living at recorded music and also having to cover all expenses. How many people, earning that much per year, could the U.S. afford? At $13.5 billion a year, a whopping 270,000 people.

Fine, the numbers are rough. Nothing is really accurate. There’s live performances and royalties to consider. There are foreign acts who account for some of those domestic record sales. But I think the order of magnitude probably can’t be denied. If the wealth was spread around, there could probably be anywhere from 10 to 100 times as many people making a living through recorded music.

Instead of everyone in the country having a Bruce Springsteen album, everyone would have an album by the Bruce Sprinsteen type from their region. Would it be as good as Springsteen? I suppose most probably wouldn’t be quite as good. But would most be so much worse? There’d still be real competition. Only the people with real talent would make it in every niche. There would still be quality. But with people focused more locally, the playing field would be leveled a lot. We wouldn’t all be competing with every world-renowned act out there. It wouldn’t be a lottery jackpot to get rock star success, with very few acts achieving superstardom. There’d be less of a chance of getting filthy rich, but far more of a chance for far more people to really have a go at it. And people would still end up with basically the same variety in their music collections, the same variety of concert choices. There’d still be rock and pop and jazz and rap and country and everything else. We just wouldn’t all know the same stuff. Would that be so bad?

Now imagine this. Keep the Springsteens and the U2s and the rest. What if only half of that $45 per person per year went to locals? Could we get 5 to 50 times as many people making a living at recorded music? How about taking just $9 of that $45, just one fifth, and putting it toward locals? How about on average everybody buy just a single CD per year from a local act, usually around this price for independent record sales or full albums from iTunes? Could we increase the number of people earning a living from music by 2 to 20 times? It’s sort of unbelievable to think that this kind of thing might be possible with even a fairly small change.

And now add in the royalties and the live performances. Surely the figures would multiply several times.

And now think about everything other than music. Think about filmmaking. Live theatre. Painters. Sculptors. Writers. People who make handmade clothing and jewelry. Woodworkers.

Now think about where this started. Bookstores. Grocery stores. Hardware stories. So think about what’s in between these and the artists. Almost anything you can think of, almost any line of work at all. This is why it’s all the same thing.

Whether chain retailers or fast food restaurants or rock stars or whatever else, the more we all put our money toward the same places, the less likely people will be able to make a living doing the things they are really good at. The more we’ll have to spend our lives doing things that aren’t as fulfilling. The more we’ll be subject to the whims of the relatively few who are providing the things we want.

The more we go local in whatever way, the more we all give each other the opportunity to share our real gifts with each other, the more variety there will be, and so on. If I felt like connecting this to big issues about economics and ecology, I could, because the connections are there to make and have been made by many before. But I think even just giving each other more opportunities to make a meaningful living doing things we enjoy is good enough reason to think this way.

On a more personal note:

I’d been planning to write this essay for a few months. Then, about a month ago, my buddy Howard Ditkoff and I decided to create, from scratch, a submission for the first American Idol songwriter contest. Over 25,000 submissions would end up being made, and they were going to pick only 20 for the public to vote on. That’s pretty bad odds. But we went ahead.

We experimented by writing the song using Appreciative Inquiry, a positive change process that is central to the work of Emergent Associates, the coaching and consulting company Howard and I had founded. We ended up having a really interesting time writing the song. There were ups and downs, highs and lows, as might be expected trying to work from scratch from concept to final recording with vocals, with a deadline only two weeks after the contest was announced. We should have started last summer when they announced that there would be a contest this season! But we ended up with a song that we thought was pretty good — Our Whole Lives. Top 20 for the contest? Maybe not, I don’t know, I’m biased. But it was worth having written, and worth submitting.

As soon as we submitted it, though, I started stressing over the contest. Gone was the enjoyment of the writing, the composing, the arranging the recording. Now, it was all dreams of winning and worrying about the low odds. No surprise, we weren’t chosen. Maybe the song just wasn’t as strong. Certainly the recording wasn’t quite as good as the ones they chose. But I remember thinking, it’s supposed to be about enjoying doing things we’re good at, doing what we do because it’s our calling, and that’s that. Now, it was about becoming the American Idol Songwriter. The first winner of possibly the biggest songwriting contest ever. An instant star with a practically guaranteed number one hit and probable lifelong career as a songwriter.

The lottery jackpot!

The top of the high high hierarchy.

Sure, it would have been great to win, but it was somehow muddling up the whole experience. I ended up feeling like I wished I hadn’t entered the contest at all, like I’d entered it for the wrong reasons. Hell, given the very nature of the contest, it seems like it would be impossible to enter it for any right reasons. Rather, if I could enter it and then let it go, without feeling that stress, then it would be fine to enter it. But obviously I couldn’t do that. Not yet.

So I think all there is to do is to do my thing. Do it enough, enjoy it enough for what it is, find my way through that, and hopefully I’ll get to a point where I can make a go at it, make a living at it, maybe even be able to enter contests like that and just see what happens and not worry about it.

And how’s it going to happen? Maybe by people starting to decide that one or two CDs they buy each year could be from people who are just about as good as U2 and the Dixie Chicks and Outkast but a bit closer to home.

Here’s hoping that you’ll be back to buy some new music of mine when I put it out in the near future!

2 comments for “Support Your Local Rock Star

  1. May 26, 2007 at 9:47 am

    Great post, Mark! I’m reading this book Soul and Soil by Alistair McIntosh, a Scottish activist. He talks about
    how in the old days in the Hebrides (off the west of Scotland), folks would often sing their own tunes along with
    the sound of weavers. When asked why folks don’t do that anymore, one weaver explained that singing is embarrassing
    now that they have TV – they just don’t measure up. Another cost of celebrity culture, hierarchised. I have taken
    to giving preferential treatment to local acts, seeing them live, buying their discs on-site. I still have my big-name
    favourites, but I’ve discovered a lot of great music locally.

  2. pete
    May 27, 2007 at 9:52 pm

    I couldn’t agree with you more Mark. I want to hear your music. I know it has to be good because we all (all of us here in the neighborhood) enjoy the music that drifts from your windows in the mornings and weekends etc. — The evidence is clear- you have good taste in music. It’s so exciting that local is becoming the ethical choice of the younger generation. I’m with that spirit, although I love my obscure foreign bands too. Maybe we can collaborate on some music?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *