Free Music For Everybody- Except The Artist

You have a free Spotify account and consider yourself to be a rabid fan of independent music, listening to hours and hours of music, interrupted occasionally by an advertisement or two.  It costs you nothing.  Spotify got the songs you listened to directly from the artists for free.  They didn’t pay for them.  It cost them nothing.  Because Spotify doesn’t pay royalties on a traditional scale, there is a decent chance two hours of listening will generate a total of about two cents in total royalty payments to the artists you listened to.  It pays the artist next to nothing.

We have become a society that truly believes music is an art form that should come at no cost.  Free streaming has crippled the music economy and made it impossible for anybody but the top 1% of the industry to earn a real living.  What gets lost on the listening public and most of the industry leaders is the true cost of that seemingly free product.  It is far from free to the artist.

On a recent trip to Nashville, I had the opportunity to visit with an artist and bandleader.  I sat in his living room as he fielded phone calls about band business and verbally tried to lay out a routine that would allow him to get everything done that needed to be done to keep the band relevant.  It was an eye-opening view into the real cost of making music for the masses.  I was caught off guard because even as someone who feels he has a good pulse on the industry there were things that had completely escaped me.

As independent musicians, many take on all of the responsibilities of writer, performer, manager, publicist, promoter, producer, and finance company.  To give you an idea, here’s a short (and I’m sure incomplete) list of things that need to happen:

  • Coordinate and schedule rehearsals
  • Have rehearsals
  • Time to research and find potential performance venues
  • Time to contact potential performance venues
  • Time to confirm booking with venues
  • Promote upcoming appearances
  • Setup, sound check, perform and break down at every venue
  • Design logos and merchandise
  • Order and purchase merchandise
  • Promote and sell merchandise
  • Coordinate and schedule studio time for recording
  • Pay for studio time and record
  • Pay for production and post-production work
  • Pay for physical copies of music
  • Create and maintain distribution channels for the music
  • Ship purchased physical copies of music
  • Register music for royalty purposes
  • Create promotional material
  • Distribute promotional material to every blogger, radio station and influencer they can think of
  • Contact every blogger, radio station and influencer they can think of to ensure the promotional material was received
  • Maintain and update social media accounts and websites
  • Contact bloggers and radio stations for potential interviews
  • Find time to conduct interviews
  • Oh yeah, somebody has to write the music
  • Do something else to pay the bills and put food on the table

These are just the basics, and there is more than a full-time job listed here, not including the pay the bills piece of the equation.  The amount of work to get that ‘free’ music to your ears is staggering.  And it is all lost on the listening public.

It gets lost on those of us inside the business as well.  We create unnecessary steps and hurdles for the artists to overcome to maintain visibility and traction.  We find it easier to make everything the artist’s responsibility, instead of taking the time to keep ourselves informed, educated and up-to-date.  It is very easy to take an attitude that the artist will reach out if it’s important to them, rather than doing due diligence and reaching out to the artist first.  We lose sight of the fact that we are one of the dozens, if not hundreds of contact points for each musician we come in contact with, and we all live in a short-sighted and close-minded world where we should be that number one point of contact for every artist we cross paths with.  The exact opposite is true- to truly help the artist, we should be the first person to reach out to them and be their first point of contact in the business, each and every time.  We take a lot of time off that to-do list if we, as music professionals, take that approach.  That goes for artists we have already developed a relationship with, as well as new artists we are finding along the way.  Our jobs should be to make the artist experience easier, not more of a challenge.

You’ll also notice the word ‘pay’ used frequently in that list.  Besides investing thousands of dollars in equipment, musicians have to maintain that equipment (guitar strings don’t grow on trees).  In many instances, bands pay for rehearsal space.  They pay for every aspect of the music recording process, pay to ship music and merchandise.  The general consensus is that the average cost to just produce a single song is somewhere around $1000, and that is a pre-distribution cost.  Some venues have resorted to requiring minimum gate receipts, with a deposit towards those receipts to be paid by the artist in advance.  For most bands, any money made from performing is simply rolled back into the music, used to fund everything artists need to pay to make the music that reaches your ears on that ‘free’ music stream.

So, the next time you go to listen to some of your ‘free’ music, give it a second thought.  Everybody, including you, wins when music is paid for.