Money for Nothing or Nothing for Something

A friend of mine recently blogged about preferring to give away her music, and not supporting current copyright laws, as it favours record companies over artists.  She gets lots of performances of her compositions worldwide as a result.  That’s great, and everyone has a right to make their own decisions about their intellectual property.  My personal view is different.

For quite a few centuries of Western history, there have been people employed as artists and musicians.  For the majority of that time they were employed by nobility to compose and perform.  Painters and sculptors were commissioned to paint portraits, create sculptures and so on.  The money wasn’t great, but it was possible to live on the income of an artist.   Later artists had to support themselves as best they could.  I’d like to highlight a couple of examples.

Bach is known to have neglected the duties of his day job in order to complete his great works.  Imagine what additional wonderful works we could have had if he didn’t need to balance his composition time with other duties.  The balance between composition and other duties is far worse for modern composers, some of whom I dearly wish had more composition time in their lives.

Mozart died fairly young as a pauper, with intermittent support from patrons and commissions during his short life.  Imagine what he could have produced in a longer life.

Schubert supported himself with teaching (and from what I recall, his heart wasn’t really in it).  He was already prolific and accomplished.  What else would he have produced?

There is a movement amongst musicians to establish a “musical middle class”, and I support this trend.  This refers to musicians who are not top of the charts or amateurs being able to earn a decent living, sufficient to have a home, vehicle/transport and raise a child.  Usually this involves having a combination of income sources from gigs, album sales, sheet music sales, merchandise, downloads, sync licensing and teaching.  My own music income has come from the following in descending order:

* music lessons

* sheet music sales
* album sales

* gigs
* live performance returns

* singing competition prizes

* downloads

* busking

* streaming income
If I were more active, then gigs, busking and conducting/teaching would probably be a larger portion of that.
A new trend that is worthwhile is what I would call the micro-patron, made possible via the internet on such sites as Patreon.  Historically a patron would support an artist completely.  Now, we have a system where many people can support an artist a little bit, allowing the artist to continue to provide new content for general consumption.
I’ve written about streaming income before.  I was amused at dafuq’s recent article on living on your spotify income.  It reminds me of those poverty awareness campaigns where you try to live on $2 a day.
Other ways I’ve known artists to survive and still be artists is through the dole.  I recall artist acquaintances referring to it as “government arts grants”.  It is certainly the easiest type of grant to get, particularly given the huge reduction in government spending on the arts in recent years.
Some people say that artists need to suffer in order to produce great work.  The “starving artist” is a much stated cliché.  While I agree that suffering can be inspiring, the suffering doesn’t need to be of a financial nature.  In my case it is more to do with my inner life, and I’m sure that’s the case for other artists who use their suffering as input to their artistic expression.
For now I’m not giving up my day job  (which has its own intellectual rewards), but I’m also not giving up the dream of earning enough from my artistic endeavours to cover my costs and labour.
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Streaming Income

I was thinking about how most music discovery is via streaming services rather than radio these days, and how that compares for the indie musician.  For commercial radio or television, the royalties to composers is in the hundreds of dollars, but this is usually broadcast to a mass audience.  The streaming situation is different in that people can choose which tracks to listen to and the audience is one person.

Current streaming services pay copyright owners up to 2 cents per play, with many sites paying a tiny fraction of a cent.  The lower end of these rates is definitely too low, and the upper end is a rate that I consider to be reasonable.  If you imagine the purchase of a typical track for a dollar, if it is a favourite, it will be listened to hundreds of times, whereas a track that was purchased but not really liked may only get a couple of plays.  The majority of tracks would be somewhere between those extremes, so maybe at 100 plays, making it 1c per play.  So any pricing scheme that is at about 1c per play is fair.  This is only a rough estimate, but I think it’s a reasonable one.