Courtesy Bobby Owsinski - Forbes Entertainment Online
“Why Just Making a Living as a Musician... is the New Success.”
It used to be that if our best and brightest had any affinity for music at all, they would go to great ends to enter the business, with a long-term vision in mind.
Not so today, as music careers are getting trounced by the tech industry when it comes to making money, having job choice and just plain old job availability, and there’s no end to this movement in sight.
Where music was once seen by many as one of the highest callings possible, that perception seemed to die with the 90’s even as the music business hit its peak. It’s been all downhill since as the brain drain and lack of incoming talent has only helped to accelerate the industry’s fall to where it is today at about half its all-time high revenue.
So how could this happen? How could a business that was once the centerpiece of so many people’s dreams suddenly become as tarnished as a piece of neglected silverware? If you take a step back and look at the problem from a macro perspective, there seems to be four primary reasons.
1. There’s no glamor in music anymore. Once upon a time it was considered cool to hang out with musicians in general, and even cooler to hang with rock stars if the opportunity presented itself. Musicians held center stage in the entertainment universe, as they were always in the news and in the middle of the conversation on every college campus.
Today, music is a seldom featured asterisk to most people’s daily lives. It no longer has the cultural significance that it once had, rarely influences fashion or lifestyle, and has increasingly lost its cool factor, at least to the same degree that it once had.
Tech, on the other hand, is everything that music today is not. It regularly influences fashion and lifestyle, and it’s executives act like the execs of the music business of the 70s and 80s did, playing it (for better or worse) generally loose and free. Ironically most music execs these days now act more like the corporate suits that they tried so hard to avoid in years past.
2. You can make more money in tech. It used to be that just about anyone could at least make a living in the music business, even on the level of a band finding enough work playing in clubs to at least survive. Music was everywhere and consumers still wanted more. The possibility of making a big score that could be more rewarding than many could ever dream was always there, which was like a carrot to a horse. If you kept on pushing, it was possible that you could get a chance to snatch the golden ring that could take care of you and your family for generations.
Today those dreams have been just about completely dashed. There’s still a lot of money being made in the recorded music business as a whole (if you take touring, merchandise, publishing and licensing into account), and hopefully even more to come as streaming becomes the new paradigm, but more and more that wealth is concentrated with the 1% of successful artists, major record labels, and publishers. It’s still possible to make that big score or even do better than most other relatively common careers, but the odds are getting longer all the time and work required to get there is proving to be more intense. The current saying in the business is that “Making a living is the new success,” and that’s not good enough for most college-educated people looking for a career to pursue.
Tech, on the other hand, provides the possibility of wealth so far beyond what the music business can offer even at its highest levels that it makes all the work that’s required to be successful in that realm seem hardly worth the effort. Sure the odds are extremely long that your startup might be purchased by Google , Apple or some other deep pocket corporation, but you can at least see how that could be possible when there are examples in the news day after day.
Music, not so much any more. In many people’s eyes, if winning a television talent show (which is another post altogether) only means you’ll stay in the public’s consciousness until the series ends, then what’s the use of having musical talent when some school- or self-learned computer programming skills might get you enough startup stock to retire at a young age?
3. There’s more freedom in tech. There was a point in music were artists had the freedom to create what they wanted, no matter how much it diverged from whatever was popular, and were even encouraged to do so both by the industry and the public. Now if your music doesn’t fit into a convenient box that happens to be popular today, you probably won’t get the traction you need to become successful enough to compete with even the lowest of tech careers. Music homogenization has lead to blunted creativity, even more now than in other eras, while tech offers it in leaps and bounds, which ties in neatly in with the next point.
4. Tech is more creative. If you want to be rewarded for thinking outside the box, join the tech industry. If you want to be penalized for it, then the music business is for you. The one thing that 18 to 25 year olds have in common with their predecessors is that they like to expand their creativity and actively look for a way to express themselves. When that first job or opportunity comes along, being able to be imaginative and artistic is high on the list of priorities of what they’re looking for, whether they realize it or not. Music used to offer that, and still does to some degree. It’s just that on the highest levels where the majority of the money flows, your options for expression become increasing limited as the industry contracts (there used to be six major record labels, and now there are three, for example).
For better or worse, record labels and publishers are run more like the large corporations that they are these days, which demands more conformity from the troops than ever before. Musicians are still free to create whatever they like, but their chances of making money from that creativity is less likely the more they stray from the latest trend. Sure there are the outliers that occasionally break the mold, but that doesn’t happen nearly as often as it once did.
If this sounds like a derision of the music business, I guess it is, but understand that I’d be the last person to tell someone not to pursue a career in music despite what you read here. If your heart is totally into it and you’re committed to stick it out regardless of the ups and downs and the length of time it might take, most people find a way to at least making a living. More and more opt out after many years of struggling.
That said, you can see how a person that at one time would have considered music as a long term career has bypassed it in favor of tech or finance. While finance is even more restrictive than the music business is at the moment, corporately-speaking, at least the potential rewards are far greater. Tech, on the other hand, provides all the things that used to be so attractive about the music business, like a relaxed atmosphere, flexible working hours and conditions, and workers your own age that you can relate to.
Music is cyclical though, and a total upheaval of the business due to a new trend has occurred many times before. In a flash, music can again offer all the coolness and creativity that it once did in the past, and attract the talent that it so needs to flourish. Let’s hope that such a disruption happens as soon as possible.