Wednesday, May 8, 2019
Somewhere On Spotify: My Own Industrial Collapse, Part 2
Spotify is not single-handedly responsible for my relatively impoverished financial state as a working musician. But it is certainly one of the most prominent reasons for it.
Somewhere on Spotify: My Own Industrial Collapse, Part 2. I could agree with myself on the heading for this one, but I'm having trouble with the subheading. This is the kind of thing writers, and editors, agonize over for some reason. Nobody else probably cares or notices, or at least that's what they think. There are so many things like that. But I digress. The subheading to follow up Somewhere On Spotify: How To Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater was one idea. How To Become A Dinosaur was another. But then this is basically a followup to missive #27 from a few months ago, My Own Industrial Collapse, so, My Own Industrial Collapse, Part 2 made sense.
Listeners of my podcast will be aware that I always end it with an original song relevant to the subject at hand, sometimes one I just wrote. Often it's a song related to recent events somewhere in the world -- Gaza, London, California, or wherever else. This week I'll stay closer to home -- my own, specifically. And by extension, millions of other people in the world who used to make a living traveling, playing music, and selling their recordings at their shows and through the mail.
The song I wrote that predicated this missive was not inspired by international, national or even local news. Maybe local, but really, really local. The news of my windowsill, in front of which sits a laptop on a desk, through which I have access to so much of the world's knowledge, art and music, basically for the cost of the Xfinity corporation's usurious monthly broadband fee. I got one of those emails from CDBaby that I get every three months, telling me I can use their platform to upload a new album to all the various music streaming services -- use this code to get their fee waived, because I use them for web hosting, and that's part of the deal. Then that email reminded me that I intended around now to make my most recent album, Historic Times, available on Spotify.
It's been quite a while since I've put an album up on Spotify. The last one was Ballad of a Wobbly, in 2017. With that recording and several others before it -- Punk Baroque, Live in Rostrevor -- over ten thousand dollars altogether went into making the recordings I made between 2016 and 2017, and I never had any intent of making that money back, or turning a profit on it, or releasing the recordings in physical form. For two of the aforementioned recordings, I crowdfunded the recording costs, as I have done on many other occasions, with varying degrees of success.
The album I'm about to put up on Spotify, however, is a bit different. It was, it is, a vinyl record -- my first and last. I'm guessing I will have boxes full of vinyl records sitting on top of my closet, along with the boxes of CDs under my daughter's bed, for years to come. The broad lack of interest in vinyl appears to me to be just as total as the lack of interest in CDs or any other kind of merch I might try to sell at shows or on my website.
Which makes perfect sense from a consumer viewpoint, and of course we all do it every time we search on the internet -- find free information, news, music, art, movies, podcasts, whatever else. But from the vantage point of those of us who are what they call "content creators" it's an unmitigated disaster at this point.
Those of us born yesterday might take heart at recent Spotify-related news. Spotify has invested half a billion dollars into becoming a major podcasting platform. I don't know if this is related, but my listenership on Spotify has recently doubled -- up from 2,700 monthly listeners to over 5,000, each of whom are streaming about an album's worth of music about once a month. My monthly revenue from Spotify has risen from a three-digit number beginning with a "1" to a three-digit number beginning with a "2."
In the business cycle of a touring musician there are times when you're making money and times when you're spending it. Well, you're always spending it, but there are times when you're also making it, and other times when you're just spending. Like when you buy lots of plane tickets for tours coming up that you haven't done yet, so you haven't actually made any money yet, you've just put a whole bunch of plane tickets on your credit card. The hope, and sometimes the reality, is that at the end of the tour, you've paid off your credit card and you've even got some money in the bank.
So as I was contemplating uploading my latest album to Spotify, I actually found myself looking at my $9,000 in credit card debt after all those plane tickets and everything else, contrasting it with the $2,000 currently in my bank account after having just paid rent for the month of May, and thinking, if I upload this album now, maybe by next month there'll be an extra $50 coming from Spotify.
That's when I was suddenly overwhelmed with the kind of emotion that leads a songwriter to write a song, let's just say. Sometimes it seems too dangerous just to let yourself feel what you're feeling, and to acknowledge it to yourself. You can always put a positive spin on most things, if they're not totally dire -- I'm putting my album up on Spotify, cool, now I'll make an extra dollar a day for a little while, in ten years or so I will have paid for the cost of the recording, and hey, all those people out there who are too lazy or otherwise will never bother downloading the album for free on my website can now get it the way they prefer to consume all of their music, on Spotify, without leaving that particular Swedish corporation's now-ubiquitous platform. I might get dozens of new fans around the world because of this album being on Spotify. Maybe some of them will even come to my shows, on the unlikely occasion that I happen to be playing wherever on the planet they happen to live.
Sometimes my internal voice of motherly optimism just gets squelched by the reality of my collapsing industry. The act of putting this album on Spotify, which I invested so much time and money and effort into, this album that represents everything that went into four different recording projects, including a days-long session to record new songs specifically for this album -- it hit me that the feeling was almost exactly like how I felt as a kid on behalf of my friend whose parents forced him to "give away" his dog to someone who lived on a farm in the countryside, because the dog would be happier there. In retrospect, they probably made up the bit about the farm in the countryside. But, assuming, as we did, that it was true the dog was going to live out the rest of its days on a nice farm somewhere, romping around in the fields, our overwhelming sense as children was one of loss. We wanted to keep the dog, even though we only lived in the suburbs, not the countryside, where dogs apparently belonged, according to my friend's parents.
This record isn't alive, but I raised it. I wrote all those songs. Each one represents a day or several days or sometimes weeks of spending much of my time reading, writing and playing to get the song right. Most of the money for making most of the recordings was crowdfunded, it's true, but the idea of being compensated in some real way for my time and effort in this whole process, the idea that there's any direct relationship between making these recordings and paying my rent, is at this point a cruel joke. If the money for the recordings weren't crowdfunded, where would it possibly come from? There are no sales.
Putting the album up on Spotify feels like nothing more or less than an admission of this fact.
I had a wonderful concert at a labor history conference last weekend in Portland. These are my people -- I recognized a lot of the faces in the room, labor organizers and leftwing academics from all over western Canada and the US. There were 130 people at the show, I believe. An enthusiastic and appreciative crowd in the triple digits. A decade ago at a show like that I would have easily sold enough CDs to pay that month's rent. As it is, I was happy that I sold a handful of recordings. Let's see, I still have the cash right here, let me count it -- $110.
I know that depending on what you do for a living, whether you're paid by the hour or on a salary -- or not at all -- it's hard to get your head around the workings of someone else's profession, and the expenses and costs involved with it. But you probably get the basic idea. I made a lot more money at gigs when I was in my thirties than I do now, in my fifties. I didn't crowdfund for making expensive recordings because I didn't need to. Now it would be impossible any other way.
But wait, people say, when I whine about the state of the profession I'm in. There's home recording -- you can get a nice microphone and set up a studio in your nonexistent extra room in your overpriced apartment or perhaps somewhere in between the cribs and the diapers.
Which brings me to the bits about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and being a dinosaur. I am, I now realize, a dinosaur, and I presumably will be for the rest of my life. Because I remember what it was like to make a living as a touring musician, largely from income derived from selling your physical recordings to people who liked your music so much they wanted to listen to it at home, which more or less required that they buy physical albums. I remember those days, and I always will, and so will everyone else who had that experience, which now seems like a fantasy. Hard to believe that there was once a time where it made sense to spend thousands of dollars of your own hard-earned money on making another recording every year, because if you made it, you'd sell more during that year of touring than you would otherwise, such that it would easily make up for the expenditure involved, and then some.
I'll be the dinosaur who remembers the days before we embraced USB mics and technological optimism at the expense of recording studios with engineers and producers in them. My well-meaning fans, friends and acquaintances on Facebook and Twitter give me advice -- cut costs, record at home. Some of them are even musicians, most of whom are too young or outside of the realm of more professional music circles to have ever worked with a professional engineer and producer in a real studio. If even musicians don't know the difference, why would anyone possibly expect music consumers to know how much of a difference such professionals can make? One of the fantasies currently being promoted by the pop music industry is about this one young woman who supposedly makes her recordings in her brother's bedroom. Maybe they live in a mansion somewhere in Beverly Hills and her brother is a producer.
You've probably heard about George Martin, the producer who was behind many of the Beatles' albums. He's one of those producers that people have heard about. One of those producers where people might have some idea that his contributions to the music of the Beatles were as incalculable in their impact as the contributions of any of the actual members of the band. They call him "the fifth Beatle" because he was. Now multiply George Martin by thousands and thousands. Behind most great albums is a great producer. That is certainly true of anything I've ever recorded with other musicians.
I was recently stranded at the Los Angeles airport overnight by a late flight and a tight connection. Exhausted, I booked a nearby hotel room, though it was outrageously expensive on my budget, rather than spend the night as a zombie wandering the airport until my new flight left at 6 the next morning. I wanted to get to the hotel, and I didn't see any taxis anywhere. I asked someone who worked at the airport where the taxis were to be found. He looked at me, confused. "Oh, you mean like Uber?"
I lived with two cab drivers in San Francisco for years, and I have never yet paid to ride in an Uber. But I discovered that near where the Ubers were, there was still a taxi stand. It had three taxis in line -- a far cry from the dozens that would have been in the line there years ago. I know that those taxi drivers have all been told by their friends, why don't you just drive for Uber? It's something about the tens of thousands of dollars they spent on those medallions that are now worthless, that keeps them from driving for Uber. Others give up on cab-driving, sabotaged and betrayed by capitalism, technology and government corruption, and drive for Uber, as the debt they incurred from the medallions that they never finished paying for now mounts, since they don't make enough on Uber to keep making those payments. In the space of eight months, six such cab drivers in New York City killed themselves last year.
Unlike with the medallion system, with all its flaws, recording studios with engineers and producers didn't exist just as some kind of control on the industry. It's not like, get rid of medallions and you have freedom -- get rid of medallions and you have total unregulated capitalist insanity in the form of the terribly exploitative Uber corporation. By the same token, it's not like you get rid of recording studios and then you get lots of great home recording. You get rid of recording studios and people will still write songs and make recordings. However, they certainly won't be nearly as great as they could be. But there will be fewer and fewer people alive who know that to be true as the years go by, and people like me will seem more and more dino.
And of course, although the great producers we are losing may never be replaced, the skills of the engineers in the real studios are gradually being replaced by technology. As the software improves, it can increasingly compensate for everything -- background noise, bad microphone technique, bad microphone placement. We have more and more control with software over making adjustments to pitch and rhythm and so much else. I'm sure that someday soon the idea that anyone used to go through the trouble of soundproofing rooms for recording purposes will become as obscure as the notion that cars once had drivers, or that there were once people who made a living by recording albums and selling them at their concerts.
I'm one of the lucky dinosaurs. One of the ones who was lucky enough to record a dozen albums back in the days when they paid for themselves, who developed a following around the world because of those albums and the fact that they paid for themselves, and who can now beg my relatively numerous fans for support in the form of the Patreon-style program I run from my website -- I call it my CSA, which stands for Community-Supported Art. To really make the whole thing work without needing to crowdfund for recordings and such, I would need four times as many CSA members than are signed up at present or at any given time. But the support I do get has allowed me to at least stay in the running as someone making some kind of a living from making music.
But before I put the next album up for adoption, out to pasture on the Spotify ranch, I will memorialize it first, too, and all the time and effort I put into creating the next album that I will give away -- whether or not it involved a producer, an engineer, an assistant engineer, seasoned studio musicians, soundproofed isolation booths with really thick windows, or if the next album is made somewhere in between the cribs and the diapers, while carefully avoiding the days when the guys with the leaf-blowers are outside my window.
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