Artists Should be Compensated for Their Art
According to DigitalMusicNews.com, Jon Simson, former executive director of SoundExchange, recently warned, “I am very concerned about the apparent disrespect shown by many in our culture to those who pursue artistic endeavors. One recent survey showed a surprising number of Americans who believe that artists should have a second job to support themselves – as they should not expect to be paid for their art! We must educate the public and eradicate these extremely destructive beliefs.”
CD Baby is, of course, a distribution service. So obviously we feel it is in an artist’s (and our own) best interest to be paid for their music. As the creators of intellectual property, it should be within a copyright holder’s rights to dictate exactly where and how their creation is used. Should they decide to sell a single-song MP3 ONLY on cdbaby.com (and NOT on iTunes or Amazon or anywhere else) for $4000, it is not our place (or yours) to tell them otherwise. Though honestly, we may question their sanity and try to gently suggest an alternate price and convince them that they’re losing sales opportunities by keeping their content off of iTunes and Amazon. But that being said, what they say goes.
But in contrast to this black & white opinion regarding the protections afforded a copyright holder as it relates to the sale, use, and distribution of their work,… live music seems like a somewhat different beast.
The Real Perfect World
I certainly agree that good art should be rewarded. But in a society where EVERYONE can easily create art, should everyone be paid for it? Is there enough money to go around? Should the riches be reserved for the true masters? Who determines who those masters are?
I would love to live in a world where it was a commonly held truth that a decent band should earn a decent wage for playing at your favorite bar down the street. After all, they’re providing a service (at least to the proprietor), same as any other W-2 or 1099 employee. But should the patron have to pay if they don’t like the band? What if the band is having an off-night? How did this band get a gig here in the first place? I’m here for the drinks, not the music!
Maybe if we all, performers AND listeners, conceived of art as a profession (one that requires the development of skills, a deep knowledge of history, a certain level of competency, and a bit of that magic factor: creativity, innovation, inspiration, exploration) instead of a worthwhile self-obsession, we’d live in that perfect world. But just because it is a profession doesn’t mean you necessarily should be earning money right out of the gates. Perhaps music-making should require a certain kind of apprenticeship (what used to be called “paying your dues”) before artists can assume a posture of financial entitlement.
Running full-speed through the gauntlet of a music scene can be exhausting. This crucible of apprenticeship might (might!) weed out the slackers, the unworthy, the untalented, and the ones who are in it for all the wrong reasons. All the while, the decent bands who persevere will keep getting BETTER, rising to that level of appeal and skill where they should get paid.
What You Get is What We Got
Hmmmm. That world described above sounds a bit like the world we live in now, right? Well, partly.
1) The skilled musicians with mass-appeal clearly reap the benefits.
2) The skilled musicians with little appeal have to confront the realities of the Law of Supply and Demand. If mass appeal is your goal, you must change your art to meet their tastes. If you choose to make niche art that is truer to your vision (a vision with little mass-appeal), you will struggle harder to find your target audience. But once you do, you may be able to charge them more for what you offer and command more fan loyalty.
3) The ones with mass-appeal who have little skill… oh boy! Here’s where the real trouble begins.
Get Your Act Together
We once lived in a world where only the best of the best dared step into a recording studio or onto a large stage. (I won’t give away my musical prejudices by naming names). Now (and for the past 50 years) it is possible to make a professional sounding recording without necessarily having the physical, hands-on skills of professional musicianship. In other words, better technology makes up for poorer technique. But, in the realms of live-performance, especially using what the old-fashioned among us might call “real” instruments (sorry, Brian Eno), the same cannot be easily said.
I don’t care how creative, ambitious, emotional, or filled-with-conviction you are as a performer. Live music, to most people’s ears, is still primarily about execution. Well, I should say “passionate execution.” It doesn’t have to be precise. But it has to be transparent and alive in order to transmit the musical message. If you’re singing off key, if your guitar is out of tune, if your rhythm section isn’t tight, if you’ve forgotten lyrics, if you botch a transition, if the performance is lethargic,… all these things will take the listener out of the moment. They will become overly conscious of the listening experience. As soon as that happens, it is tougher to win back their rapt attention. You may have lost them.
Clearly I’m Confused
The listening experience I just described above is what happens to ME when I hear poor musicianship, boring songs, or witness combative or posturing attitudes from performers on stage. But sometimes I feel like I’m in the minority, and that many of my friends are oblivious to what seem like obvious musical weaknesses from a buzz-band they’ve convinced me is the next greatest yesterday’s news. Are the listeners oblivious? Does the audience care? Are they deluding themselves because they feel like they SHOULD appear to enjoy the music (either out of politeness, or according to the prescribed hysteria of such-and-such tastemaker who may have anointed the band as “important”)?
To quote Mugatu from Zoolander, sometimes “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!”
Have we lost our discerning ears? Are we patting everyone on the back now for simply having the guts to create something (which is a commendable act, I might interject)? Are we a peaked-society, slipping into declining days of aesthetic decadence? Are we too passive-aggressive to call a spade a spade? Does the hipster echo-chamber believe its own hyperbole?
Call me a snob, but I think that sometimes even brilliantly creative bands should stay in the basement a bit longer to practice their great ideas until we don’t have to guess at the intent, until we don’t have to be rubbed raw by bad intonation or sloppiness (unless it’s sloppy on purpose, of course).
Then again, maybe a live performance should work the same as a recording in terms of determining value. if someone chooses to download a song or attend a concert, no matter how good or bad it is, they have made a consumer choice. Shouldn’t they have to pay for it? You don’t get to return an opened Coke can just because you suddenly changed your mind and now want Mountain Dew, do you?
By this point in my rant, you can probably tell I’m just arguing with myself.
So help me out and tell me what you think!
-Chris R. at CD Baby