It's nigh-on impossible to make a profit from music these days, so why do we still do it?
Here's a fun little game for self‑recording artists: starting from zero, deduct the price you paid for all your music gear, both hardware and software. Yes, you may want to sit down for this one. Now deduct the price you paid for all the gear you've long since bought and sold, and add on the eBay or Readers' Ads money you received when you let it go. Finally, add all the money you've made from your music, and you have a result! If the figure is positive, then well done, you are a profitable musician! If you're anything like me, however, the figure is in negative thousands, and you'll be glad you took a seat.
One difficulty many musicians are facing is the ever‑growing expectation that we should write, perform, produce, design for, distribute, market and manage our own material and live performances, even down to selling our own merchandise. As fun as this is, the more tasks we take on, the less time we have for writing, and the more money we have to shell out up‑front to make our music a product. As much as I love my hobby and am passionate about songwriting, it's become hard to justify the next software upgrade or that lovely new converter when I know the result will be taken for free by more people than will buy it.
The music-streaming service Spotify has become so astronomically popular in such a short amount of time that it now seems expected for an artist to appear in the listings. For an established performer, this will simply be good promotion; Lady Gaga may have received just over $150 for over a million Spotify plays of 'Poker Face', but she's probably earning plenty from her 20 million downloads. At least, I think she is. For an up‑and‑coming singer, however, it's a tough decision. Being listed on Spotify will allow me access to a broader audience. On the flip‑side, though, users listening for free, and premium users paying Spotify (and their major‑label shareholders) to listen to my music wherever they want, without me ever seeing more than pennies, is a bitter pill.
Band Camp provides a popular alternative, allowing musicians to set up a site and sell their music via PayPal. Users can even sell WAV and FLAC files and, best of all, Band Camp don't even take a cut! But even this distribution model still leaves the artists needing to create some slick artwork and record some damn good tracks before they start selling material. Customers expect a top‑notch product, and for the most part they don't want to pay for it, no matter how much it cost you to produce it, especially so if they aren't paying to listen to their favourite, well‑known bands. Add to this the fact that venues appear to be closing left, right and centre and paying gigs are more and more rare unless you're playing covers, and, producing and playing music starts to look like a money pit.
To understand why I keep throwing money at music, I have to cast my mind back to the first time I wrote a song, at the age of 12, or the moment I worked out how to make a house beat on Music 2000 for Playstation. I experienced a kind of release, a buzz that comes from recording or composing your own music that's quite unlike anything else. As I've learned more about recording and producing, bought better mics, upgraded software, modded guitars and sung until my throat was sore, I've felt new avenues of achievement opening up, and new kinds of buzz with each new creative expression.
If I'd really wanted to make money, I would've studied Law or Medicine, not Sound Art & Design. There's a bizarre sense of freedom in knowing that my latest record will likely never make me any profit. I know I'm doing it for the right reason: for the love of the music. I know that every time I buy something new it's because I want to give my listeners the best version of my song they can have, whether they've paid to listen or are streaming for free. I find it ever harder these days to avoid getting sidetracked into gear acquisition syndrome, or web‑site marketing and distribution nightmares, forgetting why I'm doing it all in the first place: a few choice notes and a couple of words can move someone in a way nothing else can; the rest just lends the tune a helping hand.
JG Harding is SOS's Video Media Editor. You can hear his music at www.myspace.com/jgharding.