The music industry has certainly changed hugely in my 53 years, both the technology – I was very much the Walkman generation - and artistically. In the 80s, I loved my first tape to tape machine (not just for my own produced mixtapes!) and CD burning via a PC in the noughties was just mind blowing. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps all this technological change was not quite so great.
I was listening to an interview (streamed via YouTube of course) with Julian Sullivan of New Model Army (NMA). He described how in the previous month (in 2017) he had received a monthly payment from Spotify for just £15. Now I accept that NMA is not the biggest band out there, but they are just about to release their 15th studio LP in January. Their back catalogue now extends over 40 years, and Sullivan has contributed to all of those albums as the only original member. 51st State has clocked up nearly 8 million streams – small perhaps compared to Taylor Swift’s ‘Cruel Summer’ (1.5 billion!) but surely worth more than fifteen quid a month. Incidentally £15 is what I pay monthly Spotify Family membership, but I suspect very little of that is going to Mr Sullivan’s pocket.
Even further down the musical foodchain, a teaching colleague of mine leads a ‘Latino Punk’ band called The Zeroes. They are on all the streaming platforms at a cost to them of about $50 a year. Last year their entire revenue from all these streaming platforms was $50. Let’s just say that he had better keep his day job, despite a clear (IMHO) musical talent.
Now I’m guessing that for well established bands with a loyal merch obsessed following and a large back catalogue, a living can still be made. This will not be the case for younger and less established musicians appealing to a more youthful demographic. Tom Gray of the #brokenrecord campaign has even calculated (see below) the number of streams required to earn an hour’s minimum wage. In terms of YouTube, over 7,000 streams are needed and there’ll be plenty of others in the mix to share the pennies.
The problem (to me anyway) seems to be people’s general unwillingness to pay for musical product anymore. My adult children happily benefit from our family membership to stream to their hearts content and spend their Gen Z cash so much less on musical product than Gen X’ers like myself did in my teenage years. As already indicated, I am a teacher. I teach A Level Business and Economics and sometimes engage in this topic with my Sixth Form students. I regularly encounter students who happily admit that they have never paid for any music in their lives – they almost assume that this creative content should be ‘free’ as that is what they have grown up with at their parents' expense.
Musicians have clearly adapted to what we would call ‘business disruptors’ like Spotify, Amazon and Apple – via crowdfunding new releases, self-publishing / management and perhaps most importantly playing live more often. That is perhaps where the balance has changed the most. I recently found a ticket stub on eBay for a New Order gig that I saw in 1989 at the NEC (now Resorts World) Arena. The face value was a mere £8.50. With my Economics class, I plugged that into an ‘inflation indexer’ which calculates what that would be in today’s money. The answer is a surprising £27.13. These days you’d be thrilled to pay less than thirty quid for an arena gig, unless it was the incredibly cost of living conscious Paul Heaton. At the time the CD of New Order’s Technique, which they were touring set me back £11 - £35.11 in today’s money. We even coined the phrase ‘product/performance price ratio’ but this has yet to gain any traction in the economics world so far.
There has been a complete reversal of the business model. Whereas the tour once promoted significant product sales, the tour is now the most important means of revenue. Musicians clearly don’t like paying huge commissions on merchandise demanded by (ironically) some larger venues, so one can only applaud the work of the Featured Artists Coalition in seeking a fairer deal for performers.
As to the future, who knows, but I can only hope that a creative drive (rather than increasingly unlikely untold riches) will encourage artists to continue to release and perform new material for us music lovers.
This is a great piece by our dear friend Nick Meynell. For further reading, please check out The FAC's White Paper, The Economics of Music Streaming. And FAC have also produced a list of the UK venues that allow artists to keep 100% of all merchandise sales. Check it out and write to venues that do not do this. Fnally, check out Tom Gray from Gomez - he is the founder of the #BrokenRecord campaign - you can follow him on X (aka Twitter) @MrTomGray
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