Selling your wares as a musician goes part and parcel with the job. When things are going your way, every gig is a joy, filled with nerves and adrenaline. The performance comes to an end, and afterward, rather than slunk backstage to greet an abundance of groupies, (in my case one young lad who digs Irish music), times have changed, (the industry having somewhat imploded) and, so, artists nowadays – my favourites included, wipe the perspiration from their brow, and go straight to man the merch table. And there they’ll stay until the crowd weans to a trickle, and the last of the potential punters leave. Only then can the musician rest.
I remember seeing Lisa O’Neill announce she had 7 copies of her album left, and she’d “prefer having less leaving”, and went from the stage direct to the table – after wrapping up her own cables. She’s my favourite folk artist working at the moment, leaps and bounds ahead of me, and she’s still doing it. You have to. Streaming accounts for next to nothing. Rent is a problem for a lot of musicians now, so of course a roadie or merch-handler is utterly out of the question. Pharrell announced just this week that “43 million Pandora streams of ‘Happy’ earned [him] a measly $2,700”. Suffice to say he ain’t too … chuffed.
Rather than solely complaining, I find most musicians I know have embraced the fact artists have to play live a lot to earn their living. Playing live is music at it’s most visceral, and captures musicians as their meant to be heard. Albums we’re traditionally a preview of a live art form, before commercialisation reared its ugly head, and had Roy Orbison singing about Coca Cola, and Michael Jackson, Beyonce & Britney Spears hocking Pepsi.
Things have changed, but a lot of these changes are for the best. One such piece of collateral damage is the One Hit Wonder. If you want to live off your work, one sure-fire pop song isn’t going to sustain you anymore. The risk is too great. If you’re not playing music truly for the love of it, and you’re after a single money-grabbing, cheese-monging pop tune – chances are higher than ever you’ll fail miserably. There’s simply too many people all vying for radio play and streams to be heard. A single song cutting through could potentially happen – but living off the royalties? At it stands with streaming, it’s simply impossible. And so a lot less chancers and in-it-for-the-money, dross-shovelers have entered the music business as of late.
In general if you want to earn an easy buck, music simply won’t deliver. The downside of this is musicians struggle longer and harder to achieve their idea of success, and the upside is … musicians struggle longer and harder to achieve their idea of success. A byproduct of this is that those people who previously entered the business solely with the intention of riding the wave of what’s popular already, and churning out a bad copy of it – i.e. every single pop song every recorded in the late nineties, early millennium – are no longer in business.
A New Era
We have entered the second-coming of the singer-songwriter. Billie Eilish, Lady Gaga, , Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, Ed Sheeran, Drake are all songwriters and Popstars. That hasn’t happened on mass since the 60s. And one reason is: the music industry as we knew it imploded as torrents and streaming sites soared. The skeletal remains of the industry had no choice but to latch onto those artists who were still making waves, whether through word of mouth, or via a strong internet presence, without instruction and in spite of any big company’s backing or meddling. Only then, after the ground work had been lain, did music companies come calling. But, the rules had changed. The implosion was real, and the results mattered. No longer could the music industry go about constructing another Frankenstein creation in the guise of some unsuspecting, unfortunate 16 year old with dreams of stardom, whose inevitable breakdown 16 years later will only further fuel chart-sales. Rather today, record companies are prowling actual venues and streaming sites in wait of what’s great to appear fully-formed before them. When the wave is just about to break – they pounce. But, record company or not, the power still lies in the hands of these songwriters and creators. For the first time in decades, record companies are lost at sea and artists making actually art are their only lifeline.
Such breaking artists still serve populous pressures of labels, ensuring hit after hit. But, a sure-fire hit no longer exists, and neither does a sure-fire genre to guarantee sales through endless rehashing of spent ideas. As a result, labels can no longer can insist their artists sing a certain song a certain way – as the way is ever-changing, faster and stranger than anyone can grasp, let alone anticipate. These songwriters hold the power as they are somehow in tune to what the people want, and deliver it, but retain (at least in the case of Billie Eilish, Del Rey and Gaga) a degree or artistry and originality in what they do.
Effectively, the music market’s implosion alongside with the advent of streaming services and torrent-sharing has sorted the real thing, from the carbon copy. For these reasons, I’d argue today’s actually a great time for making music. When it comes to alternative music, folk and that which lies outside of the mainstream, collectives are emerging to give their talents a chance to be heard. Alongside this, mainstream review sites are giving full spreads to unsigned artists more and more. (Thanks Plattentests for Kilkelly’s Debut album review!) And a lot of bigger venues no longer insist on label connections before agreeing to put on a show. All that matters is whether you have somewhat of a following, and you’ll forgo the luxuries of an orchestra sized-backing band, wrap your own cables and, maybe, man your own merch table. I, for one, think it’s worth the trade-off.
Published 30th Jan 2020
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