The Life of a Working Musician in 2021
What is the one thing that musicians and songwriters need to do to ensure they are being paid for their work?
It is every musician and songwriter’s dream: rolling in royalty payments, signing endless sponsorships, recording theme songs for the next blockbuster and booking sold-out tours. Of course, this kind of success has always been the preserve of the privileged few. The digitization of music led to a massive decline in record sales, with industry revenues falling from USD 14.6 bn in 1999 to USD 6.3 bn in 2009 in the US.
In the process, many of the cultural touchstones of the music industry became extinct. The Tower Records chain died off, a beloved hangout among music devotees and musicians alike, while most independent record stores bowed to economic pressure and followed suit. The collapse marked the end of an era, as less and less public space was devoted to selling and celebrating music. Just ask former Tower Records store clerk Dave Grohl.
Of course, the digitization of music did enable artists to reach audiences in new ways. We spoke with two musicians at the epicenter of the music business in LA, John Taylor* and Charles Danek, about how they navigated the scene.
Danek, who moved to LA in the 90’s, recounted that the first people who came to see him play at music clubs were his own friends, pointing out that, “you wouldn’t start packing them in until you land a song on Grey’s Anatomy or some other popular TV series.” The culture of the music business was particularly reliant on radio and TV — unless your songs received airplay, you literally didn’t have a voice. Danek notes that “the bottleneck between being an artist musician and a successful professional musician was FM radio”.
This all changed at the turn of the millennium, however, when online music distribution gained prominence and digital recording came to the fore. New technologies, Danek points out, radically lowered the financial barrier to becoming a recording artist — from production (thanks toProtools), to promotion (Twitter, Friendster and Myspace) and distribution (iTunes).
More recently, streaming services such as Spotify have eaten into the revenue generated by digital downloads. iTunes is now on its way out, while most musicians in the US are still making under USD 25K a year. Although Apple Music and Spotify have reportedly increased the revenue of established musicians, the opposite is true for less prominent artists. Simply put, income from streaming is negligible unless you’re getting millions of streams.
What’s more, the royalty collecting process is not always seamless, and the system is often not transparent enough. Not every song which is broadcast is reported, meaning that artists lose out on potential revenue.
Some musicians have managed to strike a balance between earning an income and creativity. John Taylor initially relied on album advances and touring to make ends meet. “Now, it has evolved into across-the-board income from the whole pie — CD sales, downloads, streaming royalties, live shows, merchandise — but mostly for me it is producing and touring that have become a lot more important.” He emphasizes the importance of having both “creation time and showing time… and to really compartmentalize them”.
Perhaps the digital age has eroded the allure of living at the physical epicenter of the music business in LA. Although the appeal and prestige of performing at the Troubadour, Roxy or Whisky-Go-Go — or heck, even the Hollywood Bowl — is unlikely to be replaced by a digital platform, today’s technology has undeniably transformed the way we listen, record and share music with the world.
In striking the balance between financial sustainability and artistic creativity, musicians shouldn’t have to live in a state of constant anxiety about whether they will be paid what they are owed. Utopia Genesis is attempting to change this. We developed blockchain pay system which thanks to Utopia Music’s channels monitor we can ensure the fair payments “1 play = 1 pay” to the relevant rights holders more quickly and efficiently — whether that’s the songwriter, performer or publisher..
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*Source wishes to remain anonymous.