Wednesday, January 30, 2019

My Own Industrial Collapse

Here in the USA, the government shutdown is over for now and the state of emergency has not yet been declared. Stay tuned to future episodes, when we find out what happens next in America's rapid transition to an openly fascist state.

Hundreds of thousands of government workers and millions of contract workers are trying to put their lives back together. It turns out so many of them had no means to cope with missing one paycheck, despite being more or less gainfully employed, often because they're spending so much on housing that they can barely afford to keep roofs over their heads when they're not being furloughed, and they have negative savings – otherwise known as perpetually maxed out, high-interest credit card debt. They are part of the growing class of Americans who no longer measure desperation by lack of savings or even by massive credit card debt, but by the point when you can no longer pay the minimum because you missed one paycheck.

The stories of high-interest credit card debt, late fees, medical needs put off or ignored, unpaid bills, not knowing what lies around the corner, that point where you decide it's OK to see if folks out there in a less difficult situation might be willing to help out a bit, the fear that someone will then expose you as a fraud and a freeloader, they're all so familiar.

I have personally never had what I thought might be a stable job, and I've never been furloughed from such a job either. But for most of my adult life I've been one of many, many people working in an industry that has been in a state of perpetual collapse.

I know most people don't conceptualize music as a business, or as a job, but it is, or at least used to be. The business they used to call the music industry was altogether five times bigger when I started working as a musician than it is now.

The feeling of working in a perpetually collapsing industry is a lot like playing the classic video game, Frogger, where you're leaping from one sinking log to another sinking log, hopefully departing one log before it sinks, and landing on another before it does the same. It's a process of constantly trying to figure out how to stay afloat now that the whole scenario has changed again.

Amid so many other collapsing industries, from steel mills to newspapers to big box stores, it's easy to overlook professions as marginal to begin with as songwriters, recording artists, or touring musicians. But I promise that the collapse of these professions has been across the board – left to right, top to bottom.

The fact that everybody else's industries are collapsing at more or less the same time as mine is one reason this industrial collapse is an easy one to miss. Another reason is that everybody has been simultaneously transfixed by the same evolving technologies that have inundated us all with the very stuff that very few people can make a living producing anymore – journalism, books, movies, music, etc.

Occasionally people look up from their phones, or have a moment to think about those other than themselves who are failing to make ends meet, and, kind of like peeking out from your tent after an all-night thunderstorm at a festival, you emerge to see that half of the tents that had been set up are now floating in mud.

To briefly summarize what has taken place for people in my profession over the past century or so:

From the time radio began up until the Reagan-Clinton deregulation of the airwaves that started immediately after Reagan took power in 1981, there were all kinds of opportunities for local artists to develop a local following, to get exposure, to work in the industry. Deregulation meant the sudden loss of thousands of local radio jobs throughout the country, with the impact of the loss of those jobs on independent music incalculable. This is what paved the way for Clearchannel, and the full spectrum dominance of the culture factories in New York, LA and Nashville.

As the phenomenon of downloading and streaming music online took off globally around the turn of the millennium, it was a great time for new people to hear your music from all kinds of corners of the world, without leaving home. But in many places such as the US their cost of living was rising fast but earnings were not, and with that combination of factors, they weren't leaving home. And when they did, they weren't buying CDs or t-shirts.

The fact that crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter started up when they did was no coincidence. These weren't new concepts. They became popular when they did primarily because of good timing. That is, at the time they started up, many people were now sufficiently desperate to start begging.

I first started crowdfunding recording projects in 2011, when so many other people did. I didn't use one of the new crowdfunding platforms, but that's also when they were all getting popular. If a musician is going to spend $12,000 in a studio making an album that no one is going to buy, it's going to take a very long time before the $20 a month in revenue the album might generate from streaming will cover that expense.

It was only two years after Kickstarter kicked off and we all started crowdfunding album projects that it began to sink in to me that not only could I not afford to record albums without crowdfunding them, but I couldn't afford to pay the rent either, without making some drastic lifestyle changes such as finding an entirely different line of work, or touring 12 months a year and abandoning my children, because the loss of CD sales alone meant losing around 40% of my annual income. (It didn't help that in the meantime, my rent had also doubled. In this experience I was also in very good company.) I'm sure it was not coincidental that Patreon was becoming popular around the time that I set up my own version of their subscription model on my own website. The desperate evolution of my own career clearly was mirrored by many other careers following the same treacherous, avalanche-prone mountain path. In the dark. With bears.

The business model of creating free content and then asking people to voluntarily support you in your endeavor to pay the rent while you continue to create and give away free content online is a weird, ethereal way to go about one's life, I can tell you that. And it doesn't work as well as selling albums used to. But soon all of what I'm talking about here will seem mysterious to all of the other songwriters and bands putting music up online for free and making a few bucks a month from Spotify, who never were in a position to entertain dreams of selling thousands of CDs on tours around the world every year and supporting themselves in the process, as I did for most of my adult life.

That, in a nutshell, is the story of my own industrial collapse. What's yours?

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