Does this radically new age of music consumption benefit artists? (Image Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
By Neralie Bailey
In 2011, Ed Sheeran released a track titled “You need me, I don’t need you” as the second single on his “+” album. There is a lot of anger here, but the takeaway message resonates as the years go by; we need the artists, they do not need the machinery of the music industry.
In 2019, artists have more power in their hands than at any time in history, even if they do not realise it yet. Technology allows them to connect directly to their audiences and what is more, that is precisely the experience audiences want. The days of tangible products, CDs in your rucksack and a tub of vinyl in the boot of your car have been replaced by downloading, streaming and live music events.
While some bemoan the plummeting CD sales figures and ask how artists are to survive on the pitiful amounts paid for streaming, others are seeing opportunities, particularly in the independent music industry.
Danny Harley, the magic behind successful electronic music project The Kite String Tangle and independent label Exist Recordings, is a big fan of streaming services like Spotify despite the pay per 1000 streams of $4.40.
“That is how I listen to music and I find it really convenient and you can take it anywhere and access everything, so I think fighting that sort of accessibility is just going to be an uphill struggle,” Mr Harley said.
When I asked Danny about the income situation, he surprised me.
“It actually makes income for musicians better, there was a huge decline in music sales through pirating and now people are pirating less,” he said.
“So, while people are not making the money they used to make in the industry 20 years ago, it’s on the up…even smaller artists can make a little bit of money rather than just a few artists making an absolute bank.”
Most artists are still struggling in financial terms, even if they have a loyal following. Although they work in an industry generating $4-6 billion a year in Australia, more than 80 per cent of artists make below the minimum wage in Australia. The structure of money flow might have changed, but it still is not flowing the way of the creatives, and we do not have an industry without them.
SBS’s Mark Fennel and Jan Fran examined this on their podcast “The Few Who Do”, with the premise that someone, somewhere, is making money—just not the musos. Their guest Clare Bowditch said it took her years to get her head around charging people to come to a show and what the mechanics of making a living from her art were. She saw that radio was the gatekeeper to her audience, but the big labels controlled this access.
Fast forward 14 years and some of those barriers have come down. Although the power of the labels still dominates access to commercial radio, community radio and internet radio has opened up opportunities for artists to make direct contact and get airplay. Her project, Big Hearted Business, has taught creative people about business in a way that makes sense to them.
A 50-year veteran of the industry, Marty Rhone has a single charting at #2 on the European and UK Country Hot Disc Top 40. He tells me that he has always gone with the flow and accepts that change and progress are inevitable.
“The upside is that we as artists have far greater control over our music than we ever had,” Mr Rhone said.
“We are not controlled by a big multinational record label anymore that siphons off almost everything, and you don’t see anything or you don’t know what the heck’s going on—today, you have far greater control over your music.”
The picture is more complicated for independent artists who represent around 30 per cent of the industry. Although they have control, there are so many income streams to manage that it has the potential to interfere with the time needed for the creative process.
This is why so many artists end up opting for external management; few creative people have a burning desire to manage spreadsheets. Artists can earn royalties for the use of their music, sales of digital or physical music, streaming, social media monetisation (such as YouTube) merchandise, and live performances. That is a lot of managing that needs to be done alongside actually making and performing music.
Even if management is helping you out, you still need to be across what to say yes or no to.
A recent Rolling Stone magazine article estimated that US musicians only take home about a tenth of the national industry revenue. It blamed streaming services but also pointed out there are a vast number of “broker, middlemen and other players in the music industry” that are diverting funds away from the artist.
Major labels typically receive more than half of the royalties and even looking at the oft-cited small amount received from streaming services, Universal Music Group and Sony Music earn $550,000 an hour from streaming revenue. There are also technology-based issues on the correct reporting of digital data, which is estimated to run into the billions and has led to money not making its way to the rightful owners.
Ironically, live performance looks to be the most lucrative space for musicians in the digital age, not just because it largely removes the people who have their hands out between the artist and the audience, but because audiences are looking for a connection with the music that they cannot get from a digital experience.
In Australia, there are pressures on live music from state government legislation concerning venue licensing and the gentrification of urban areas previously home to the noise-makers. Inner-city warehouse living became popular in the late ’90s, which placed new residents alongside iconic venues like Melbourne’s Rainbow and Empress Hotels.
However, that was far from the end of the troubles for live music. Liquor licensing laws introduced by state governments attempting to control alcohol-fueled violence led to venues being required to have security guards, regardless of the actual risks of a given venue. The Railway Hotel, a family run business renowned for its live blues music, was the first victim: unable to sustain live music due to the cost.
Music Festivals also came under pressure, and the Byron Bay Bluesfest looked like a no-go under the new legislation. Remarkably, it did go ahead in 2019, although Mountain Sounds did not, and there will be others who choose not to run festivals, particularly after the Berejiklian government was reelected in NSW.
The Industry Insider reported on May 30 that NSW Labor’s Shadow Minister for Music and the Night-Time Economy, John Graham, had referred the music festival regulations to the Legislative Council’s Regulation Committee for a formal investigation.
So what does this all mean for Australian musicians and how can music consumers ensure their dollars go directly to our favourite artists?
Glenn Patrick has been on both sides of the fence as a band member of Collegians and Shotgun Mistress and as a promoter with his own business, Australian Radio Promotion.
“I didn’t know anything about how it worked so that’s why I jumped ship, quit my day job and started ARP, and I’ve learned what it takes,” Mr Patrick said.
He agrees with Danny Harley’s summary of the way streaming slowed piracy but shifted the way money was made.
“You’d think it would struggle after streaming took over but it actually rose, the money just shifted.”
“Live performance is definitely the way I encourage artists to go, but it’s not just playing the songs, it’s got to be a show, and merchandise synch is a really good income stream if we can get music on television or in commercials.”
Glenn also believes radio royalties deserve mention. Artists who are getting some airplay on a commercial network can be making a tidy few grand a quarter to put food on the table and buy studio time.
All this plays very well into Australian culture, where more people attend live music than sporting events every year and radio remains a potent platform.
As consumers, we need to be mindful that the way we consume music affects the artists’ ability to be creative and sustain their careers, and the solution is surprisingly simple: support live music and turn up your radio.