Glitter and poverty: how the digital revolution made musicians poorer

    It may seem that musical fame is a guarantee of stability. If you have released an album that critics praise and millions are listening to, poverty is out of the question.

    But, unfortunately, the status of a “star” as such is not a source of income. Musicians, even famous ones, sometimes face financial difficulties throughout their careers.

    Let’s tell you why after the digital revolution musicians had more problems, how it changed the music industry and made artists look for new sources of income. Photo by Jörg Schubert / CC BY

    It was: albums and "physical" sales

    The main musical form of the second half of the 20th century was the album - a self-contained recording from 30 to 45 minutes, created to listen to from beginning to end. The focus on album sales has played a big role in shaping the music industry.

    Albums were the main way to express themselves and create their own identity, and other events in the lives of musicians revolved around their recordings. Contracts with labels to this day are often concluded not for a calendar period, but for a certain number of albums.

    Record sales were a very important source of income for musicians and their labels. In the golden age of albums (1960s - 1980s), the proceeds from the sale of physical media exceeded the proceeds from tours by 2-3 times. This allowed some performers to simply ignore concert activities. The Beatles spent the second half of their career without appearing in public (apart from a farewell performance on the roof ). Yes, and popular musicians of a smaller caliber could afford to ignore other sources of income - Kate Bush toured only once in the first 36 years of her career.

    But the value of long-playing records, and then physical music in general, began to decline. The first blow to the established order of things was dealt by music television channels. MTV, with their focus on hit singles , encouraged superficial musical omnivore. Singles - compact records with one song on each side - existed in the west since the 19th century and cost 5-6 timescheaper than albums. Such a price point forced the labels to limit the margin, making it difficult for musicians to earn serious money.

    Moreover, fixation on hits has changed the attitude towards music. Singles' buyers were less interested in the context in which the song was conceived (they did not hear the entire album). "Single consumption" has complicated the creation of a strong emotional connection with the musician and his work, not giving the opportunity to invest in the artist's artistic vision. Translated into the business language, such purchases rarely generated brand loyalty, which could be used to earn further.

    Now: streaming, singles and collecting

    With the advent of broadband, the threat to the music industry has been massive piracy. Almost anyone could make a copy of the purchased disc and share its contents. The insecurity of audio files was frightened by music companies that bypassed the digital market. Instead, they fought in vain for the illegal distribution of their intellectual property. Metallica sued Napster, the American record company sued Limewire's P2P exchanger, and CD makers introduced measures to prevent copying. It was a theft in their eyes.

    But for Internet users, exchangers have become a revolution in music distribution. Napster, at the peak of its popularity, had about 80 millionusers, not only allowed them to save, but was more convenient than going to the music store. He was the prototype of streaming platforms and gave access to a giant music catalog in a couple of clicks. After the death of Napster, the launch of the first major digital song store - iTunes. He slightly corrected the situation with the legalization of the digital distribution of music, but could not “lure the bright side” of the majority. As a result, over the first decade of the 21st century, revenue from music sales fell by half.

    A worthy alternative to piracy came later. Streaming services, subscription to which is cheaper than buying one CD, attract users who are not used to paying for music. But profitability for musicians is out of the question - a million listenings on Spotify brings the artist only 5 thousand dollars .

    But it’s worth starting with a conversation about the fact that up to a million listening is still worth a walk. Often, distribution of music on streaming services requires regular fees and costs to attract an audience to listen to (by no means do all the authors of the tracks recommend the algorithms of the platforms themselves). As a result, this results in losses for small teams and independent authors.

    The problems of digital distribution musicians do not end there. In this format, again, singles and, as a result, genres that focus on singles win. Albums are interesting only to a limited circle of people - on platforms with millions of different songs it’s hard even to recognized stars to hold attention to their work.

    Photo OhllyOhlhoff / Wikimedia CC BY

    Thanks to the digital revolution, physical formats have become, first and foremost, objects of collectible value. To increase sales, performers produce beautiful box sets, interestingly design covers and booklets, or even experiment with the physical medium itself. Such releases attract a very narrow audience, consisting mainly of loyal fans. Therefore, modern musicians, unlike performers from the 60s and 70s, cannot live on the sale of albums alone on physical media.

    As a result, in order to simply recoup the recording of the album and earn something, the performers have to release a merch, participate in a television show and tour a lot more. Although touring is not a guarantee of good earnings for many performers.

    From radio to internet sites

    Radio was a reflection of the music industry and an important, though not leading, source of income for independent musicians. The fee for each song playing with a sufficiently wide rotation could pay off the recording of the track and ensure stable earnings.

    In the golden age of albums, the playlists of large radio stations were often picked up by the DJs themselves . This greatly simplified the process of getting on the air. Some presenters (for example, John Peel or Seva Novgorodtsev from the BBC) could independently create musical phenomena. It was the appearance on the show of Peel that led to the popularity of artists such as Joy Division and PJ Harvey.

    Independent radio stations also played a role in the formation of musical stars: despite the illegality, the British pirate radio was influential, and the American indie movement, represented by groups such as REM and Pixies, was “born” in university radio stations. Hit on the radio was a guarantee of income and the way to a wide audience - that is, to a larger volume of album sales.

    In the 90s, the process of radio consolidation began, both in Britain and in the United States. Large radio stations and media corporations gradually bought up competitors. The result was obvious - focus groups and centralized playlists replaced the DJ curators, and independent radio stations closed one after another. In 2015, only three songs from the top 100 of British radio were released by independent labels, and similar trends are observed in other countries. According to a Finnish study, over the past ten years, popular radio stations have begun to repeat the same songs more often. Now getting onto the radio without having any connections with media giants is no easy task.

    A kind of replacement for the radio has become the Internet. Literally anyone can upload their song to SoundCloud or another similar service, but this does not guarantee either earnings or a wide audience. On the one hand, thanks to the Web, a lot of people got their voice in the music industry. On the other hand, in this noise it’s easy to get lost, but it’s difficult to make money on your work.

    Photos by Best Picko / CC

    Random discoveries, previously possible due to DJs or collections of little-known groups in music stores, are becoming less common. Streaming service algorithms cannot take risks, as previously done by expert curators. Of course, the musician may be lucky, and this or that platform will begin to offer his music to thousands of people. Over the past couple of years, such situations have beenat least two .

    "Flattening" a track on a laptop and recording a single in your own apartment, creating a group page on social networks and putting creativity on SoundCloud - it was hard to imagine that in the seventies. The digital revolution has opened up many opportunities for aspiring musicians - but just not the opportunity to seriously earn money on their work. We will tell you about “what live” performers who do not have superstar status in the following materials .

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