I’m pretty bad at small talk. Recently I attempted some small talk at someone’s beach house. A guy asked me what I did for a living. He told me that he was a video game developer. His girlfriend mentioned that she had made a lot of money on Wall Street. I told them I was a musician.
Video Game Developer: Isn’t a great time to make music?
Milton: Well I sure like making music, but what do you mean?
Video Game Developer: There are so many different ways to make money with your music on the internet.
Milton: I like to make money and I like to make music. I’m not sure I like much of the music being made these days. I’m not sure I like the ways that I can make money making music these days.
Wall Street Girlfriend: For years only very few records got made by mainstream companies and no one ever got to hear all of the original and creative things that people were doing. Now anyone can put their own music out there on the internet.
Milton: For years we couldn’t hear what everyone was doing instantly. Now we can hear what everyone is doing instantly. Is everyone now good?
…But wait! I still haven’t answered the first question. So I will now in this blog post.
I’ll call this segment IFAQ (infrequently asked questions):
Hasn’t the internet been liberating for artists?
In some ways it has, in other ways it hasn’t. The internet is a medium. It’s what you make it. You can use it to promote and distribute great art or you can use it to sell Cheese Whiz to diabetics. “All of this machinery making modern music can still be open hearted”* as the group Rush sang long ago. But if your heart isn’t open, the internet won’t open it. Billions of people can record their own voices talking and send out their signal to the whole planet instantly, but it’s really what they’ve got to say that matters. If we don’t create an environment in which interesting voices can be recognized, developed, promoted and protected, we will hear only the sound of “ten thousand whispering and nobody listening”** as Bob Dylan sang so many years ago. …Ahh yes, Bob Dylan, who got his start on a big, fat major label in 1962 at the age of 21. Even a major label doesn’t have to be a bad thing, if the machinery is open hearted. If artistic decisions are actually made by people who love art and know about it. Bob Dylan was signed by John Hammond, a man who loved music and spent his life immersed in music. The Beatles were signed by George Martin, a classical musician with an ear for novelty in music. Run DMC were signed by Rick Rubin, a fanatical music fan. These music lovers were able to promote the artistic cause of the acts they worked with, not just the commercial cause. If the decisions made surrounding a piece of art are only made in the interest of crass commercialism and marketing, it doesn’t matter what medium we choose. Paint on canvas is only as interesting as the artistic vision that gets the paint on there. Does the internet make it easy for millions of people to read this blog or hear my Garageband demo if millions of people want to? …Yes. Has the internet made people, and specifically those with the most money, power, and influence more quality oriented and art friendly? …What do you think?
Aren’t there so many great ways to make money from your music on the internet?
“They give you this but you pay for that”as Neil Young put it.***
There are many ways to make money with your music in a variety of different media. Most of the money you can make comes from licensing of a piece of pre-recorded music. For-profit enterprises will always have some money to throw at artists if there’s a lot more money to be made by using the art for their commerce. Companies used to make a lot of money by selling the recordings themselves. That doesn’t work anymore. There’s a lot more money to be made from using the recordings to score movies or TV shows. There’s even more money to be made by using music to help sell products directly. If you don’t care what products you sell, then any commercial usage of your stuff is great. More artists each day are game to take the money every time. I would have a hard time turning down big money if it were offered to me. Still, I know that flatly accepting corporate ad money has its cost. When I think about the question of what the money is worth to me and where it comes from, I always think about the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind. A baby is underwater reaching out for a dollar on a hook. I think that cover design was chosen very deliberately. Kurt Cobain was not happy about becoming a big brand name. Many people today mark the major label release and commercial success of that Nirvana album as a landmark victory for independent music. But “history is written by the victors” as Winston Churchill once said. The rise of commercial “alternative” music, was in many ways the death of a truly independent underground music scene, a self-governed counter-culture/economy, left untouched by the big marketing machines. Today, many is the angry young musician, independently turning out songs on a computer, dreaming of hearing his/her songs on a commercial for a bank or a chain restaurant. Once upon a time Allen Toussaint wondered what justified the decision to “jump the fence for the dollar sign”.**** I’m not sure that as many artists even care about that question anymore. I’m not sure many people spend much time in their lives on the other side of the fence.
Isn’t it a great time to make music?
Yes. It’s a great time to make music, really good music. It’s a truly great time to do that. In fact, it’s always a good time. It’s a good time to learn a lot about music and work very hard. It’s a good time to sing and write and play with all of your heart and soul. It’s a great time to hone your craft and try again and again and again. It might be hard to get rich making music. It might be hard to make any money at all making music, but this world could still use some good music. People could always use some good music, some good art, some good entertainment. We could really stand to gain from some good music now more than ever. It’s a good time to learn about listening. It’s a good time to read and inform yourself as much as possible and develop your own taste. It’s a great time to make something lovely and to appreciate something lovely. It’s a good time to keep your eyes, ears, mind and heart open.
*The Rush lyric mentioned comes from the song “The Spirit of the Radio” from the album Permanent Waves, released in 1980. I got a copy of the record on 8-track tape at a garage sale in about 1986. I didn’t have an 8-track player so I never listened to it. I learned spirit of the radio from the radio. The song got a lot of play on classic rock stations when I was in high school.
**From the Bob Dylan song “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”. I learned the song from Bob Dylan’s performance at the Concert for Bangla Desh. It first appeared on his second album when he was in his early 20’s.
***From Neil Young’s song “Hey, Hey, My, My”. I just gave Rust Never Sleeps a spin yesterday. It’s awfully good.
****From the song “What is Success?” from the album Toussaint, released in 1971. The song was also recorded by Bonnie Raitt. I learned it first, by hearing it at one of Allen Toussaint’s lovely Sunday brunch solo shows at Joe’s Pub in New York City about 6 years ago.