The music industry is a construct. Musicians are the reality

by Jason on January 2, 2012 · 21 comments

in Business, Thoughts

I inadvertently stumbled across some comments I wrote back in May of 2011 on a post over at Digital Music News called The Music Industry: It’s Becoming a Third World Country… written by Paul Resnikoff. After reading the original article and the subsequent comments again I realized that the points I made back then (seems like an eternity ago!) crystalize my thinking on the state of music as we launch into 2012. I’ve decided to put my comments together into a blog post as a reminder to myself and others that there has never been a better time to be an independent musician, contrary to what most of the “experts” will tell you.

I hope you enjoy reading this and welcome any comments you may have.

Here’s to a fruitful new year filled with real personal connections, beauty and music!

The music industry is a construct. Musicians are the reality

The music industry has been around only for a blink of an eye. Musicians have been around since the dawn of time. For the majority of civilization, musicians didn’t need an “industry” to prop them up. They relied on either their fans or their patrons to keep them going. The music industry saw that there was money to be made (most of it NOT by the musicians, btw) and jumped in to capitalize on the situation. I do not think that was for the better of music or musicians, only those who controlled the music, i.e. the labels and publishers, and the very few they chose to prop up.

Times of change and upheaval produce the greatest art

The music industry is a construct, and constructs change over time. We are in a period of such change. And it’s times of change and upheaval that produce the greatest art. Musicians will continue to make music, writers will continue to write, painters will continue to paint. And the fans of these artists will continue to search out what they love and support it. No one needs to sell 14 million records or do stadium tours to make a living.

There are fans for everything out there

From bubble-gum pop to the most esoteric music you can envision, somewhere there are fans. And the internet has made it easier than ever before to find those fans. Yes, it takes hard work. But it’s work that we can do ourselves, and there are models of success out there for us to learn from and follow. Check out Steve Lawson, Zoe Keating and Hope and Social, just to name a few.

Fans will buy music

Fans will support artists they develop a relationship with. Fans understand the value of the music TO THEM. The “industry” stopped cultivating fans long ago, instead trying for the biggest buck in the fastest way possible, and telling people who they should like and buy, and how much it should cost. That’s why very few pop stars these days make it past 1 or 2 records. No one gives a shit. But people do give a shit about artists who develop relationships with their fans. If your music resonates, you tell a story that touches people, you don’t need an “industry” to help you be successful. You just need to find your fans and reach out to them.

For artists who develop true fans, and true relationships with those fans, paying is not a problem. My fans are happy to pay me for my music even though I offer all of it on a pay-want-y­ou-feel-its-worth basis. I stopped putting a price on my music last year, and since then have made MORE money on downloads and CD sales at shows.

I’m not concerned with the music industry

So, call me selfish if you want, but I’m not at all concerned with the music industry. I’m concerned with making a living doing what I want to do the way I want to do it. And as I’ve said before, there’s never been a time when that’s been easier. Artists all around the world are doing what artists have done throughout history. Creating great work and finding people who will support it. If you can do that, “piracy” (which is a term that excites emotions but has no real bearing on the situation it is currently being applied to) cannot harm you.

We just don’t need the music “industry” any more

I will continue to be vocal about this, because I believe the best thing that can happen for the music and the musicians is for us to take back the control of our own destinies. We just don’t need the music “industry” any more.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul Archibald
Twitter: paularchibald
January 2, 2012 at 1:44 am

Hi Jason

A great blog and good to read an article that chimes with my view of the music ‘industry’ here in the UK. If more musicians could understand that they can be responsible for their own career path and value the relationship they have with their supporters or ‘fans’ then I believe there would be a much more positive vibe about the future of the music profession.

Michael Anderson January 2, 2012 at 4:22 am

It was funny going back and reading that one – I follow DMN as well. It seemed that there were several different things being discussed in the comments … which got lost as the thread-indenting eventually led to a post being 2 characters wide!

Paul’s point was that the number of people making ‘big bucks’ has dwindled as the radio station deregulation has meant a loss of personality for most radio stations, the Republican war on art has meant the loss of some really adventurous public music avenues, and consolidated labels and smaller A&R means more tightly controlled ‘product’ fed to the channel.

But where he missed the mark – as did the commenters – was in understanding that the ability to be a ‘working musician’ has been growing considerably through the years, as exemplified by you and many others. All of the stuff you say and do … well, it works.

I mean, it is funny how music keeps our world small. I just published a review for the recent Dave Chisholm album ‘Calligraphy’, and when he re-shared the review to Facebook, there was a comment from someone I played in the high school jazz band with, did a bit of small group stuff senior year, but haven’t seen in more than 25 years! So he grabs the album, shares with HIS friends, and so on and so on and so on …

gregorylent January 2, 2012 at 9:31 am

just a distribution system that arrived with industrialization, and is passing with electronization

bards, troubadours, minstrels, they go on forever

SmittyG January 2, 2012 at 10:07 am

Thank you so much for putting this out there. Over the past couple of years I have become so discouraged that I just figured I had no chance of making a living playing my music. I know it won’t be easy–I know I will have to work my fanny off to do it–but I just needed some confirmation that it is indeed still possible to do this. Much appreciated. — SmittyG

flora mcgill January 2, 2012 at 12:02 pm

great post, mr. parker, and i agree. it always sat wrong in my gut that any corporate head (who would probably not ever really care about me) should own my art and tell me what to do. i’ve always felt a core belief that i, or anyone else, can “make it” out there based on talent and hustle – by going directly to the people. it just feels like the right time; the fans are ready to make their own choices.

to add to that, i think we are leaving an era where musicians are forced into an age/genre/fashion box. now that fans have had a taste of freedom of choice, they are evolving enough to simply enjoy good music, however it comes to them.

Kai Weber
Twitter: fruehlingstag
January 2, 2012 at 2:52 pm

Jason, great and very considerable words. As I earn my living by working for a book publishing company, I’ve got to be prepared… The music world is ahead of the book publishing world, but some of your arguments would be true for us as well and we’re facing a tremendous transition, too. Actually, even for me it has already partially arrived: My wife has just self-published her first essay book and I’ve been doing some best boy work around it. And you know what’s the best thing about it? It contains a chapter about your 100 CD’s project! Pity that the book is in Chinese… Some info on the book here:, you’ll find the mentioned chapter in the table of contents under 傑森•派克項目 😉

Howlin' Hobbit January 2, 2012 at 3:16 pm

I can’t remember where I stole this from,but I think it was either Andrew Dubber or Steve Lawson. (somewhat paraphrased):

Saying the RIAA and their ilk are the music industry is like saying the stone lions are the NY Public Library.

Allen Wentz January 2, 2012 at 3:34 pm

Nice blog Jason. It seems, thanks to technology, that indies will serve us well, & peacefully co-exist alongside “The star making machinery behind the popular song”. Indies have always been there, but now its easier to get your music heard ’round the world. A good thing for sure!

M. Owcharuk January 2, 2012 at 7:50 pm

As long as Life persists, Art persists. Thanks for the reminder Jason!

David J. Hahn January 2, 2012 at 11:18 pm

Hi Jason –

Very well said. I don’t feel as uniformly optimistic about the musician industry, but I do agree 100% about the music industry – good riddance to them. They were never out to help us and we got along fine before they came around.

I’m interested to see the new art and new boundaries that this time of upheaval will bring. After our conversation on Twitter the other day I’ve really tried to open my mind to new music and to look in new places to find it. Thank you for that.

Rick Walker January 3, 2012 at 1:03 am

I appreciate your sentiments and agree with you that we need a new paradigm and that musicians need to take control of their destinies again.

But I disagree with you , from my experience, about the state of ‘fans’ and music right now.

I’ve been a professional musician, a band leader, a record producer, studio and tour musician and a festival concert promoter for 35 years in Northern California.

My experience is that with the exception of already established acts that fans are NOT buying music and they are NOT paying much money to see people play live.

Around 2004 and 2005, people just completely stopped buying CDs due to the ubiquity of freely (and illegally) downloadable sources of music and the rise of online sites like Pandora, Last FM, Rhapsody, Spotify and most saliently, iTunes.

Everyone started to listen to mp3s. From my experience and I’ve know hundreds of creative musicians who struggle to make their living on the fringes of the old school musical world (by touring, trying to sell recordings in vinyl, CDs or even cassettes) and almost everyone is having a hard time, financially.

I see all original band nights at local venues where locals refuse to pay $5 to see 3 to 5 bands play live. Little by little (and I live in a town that has as much live music in it per capita as any city in the US) the venues have reduced the money they pay acts (because not much is being generated) and most have gone to pay for free………the bands are going for it, because the number of places to play have diminished so much.

This may be the old paradigm, but it is what is happening.

I love music……I will make it until I die, but the world I trained myself to be in for all of my adult life is disappearing and it’s disappearing rapidly. Even the number of people who take music lessons has dwindled precariously.

I dont’ meant to be all doom and gloom, because I also think it’s a wonderful time to be alive, espeically in terms of how inexpensive it is to produce really high quality music with a laptop computer and a couple of microphones, some software and some talent.

It’s like Dickens said in the Tale of Two Cities
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”

Rick Walker aka loop.pool

Best Jazz Books January 6, 2012 at 1:20 pm

The future of music is online video, online radio and digital music. The relationship between the musician and fan is more important than ever especially with traditional radio dying. The manager is more important than ever with artists making most of their music through touring. The music scene is still lucrative, just different.

Best Jazz Books January 6, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Let me also add that CDs are on their way out with the rise of mp3s and downloadable music. You can be successful in music if you understand how it has changed.

The future of music is digital and the relationship between the fan and musician is the most important. Social media allows fans and musicians to have an even closer relationship.

You have to get with the program. What applied to music in 2004 no longer applies today.

Even traditional record labels are dying out.

Laurel Mayhew January 8, 2012 at 11:04 pm

I find it fascinating that Rick seems to be making the same argument as Jason. Jason seems to say that if you cultivate true fans then they wont mind paying for CDs, performances, etc, whereas Rick seems to be saying that if you provide three random bands then the fans wont pay even $5. Or did I miss something?
Laurel Mayhew

Barry Dallman
Twitter: playjazzblog
January 15, 2012 at 4:37 pm

It’s certainly true that musicians have always been around and always will be around,but the idea that the music industry is a modern construct that has interfered with musicians being supported by fans and sponsors isn’t strictly accurate.

For about 300 years, the only way it was possible to be a professional musician in the western world was at the whim of the church or the court. The whims of these institutions controlled both the style of music being played and access to that music.

It wasn’t until Beethoven that composers could make money from commissions and selling music. Even well into the twentieth century in places like Russia and China, musicians were still at the beck and call of the state. However, the patronage of the state allowed them to apply themselves to their art exclusively, without recourse to other forms of income.

The (popular) music industry of the twentieth century did both good and bad things for music and musicians, but there is no doubt that the traditional industry model is changing beyond all recognition.

On the one hand, musicians today have an incredible opportunity to get their music heard without being at the beck and call of a record company. On the other hand, it is becoming incredibly hard for musicians to balance working on their art with the business side of promoting their own music. There’s also the small matter of making a living to consider.

In the past, before they demanded instant success, a record company would sign a band and allow them to focus on developing their music. For example, Pink Floyd were signed by EMI in 1967 and it took four years before they started to make a profit.

Today record companies are not prepared, and can not afford to be this patient. For the developing artist, this means that they are going to have to fund the evolution of their own music. There is almost no patronage in the modern musical world and today it’s up to musicians to do it all themselves.

Is this the best time to be a musician? I honestly don’t know. The modern musician has the opportunity to share his music with the entire world without the need for a record deal, but he also is likely to have to be his own producer, arranger, writer, publicist, web-designer, agent, booker, PR officer and tea boy! He also has to combine all this with some way of earning enough money to keep the wolf from the door whilst he tries to generate enough income to let him create music for a living.

It’s a double-edged sword. Being an independent musician means that you don’t have to rely on somebody else to develop your music career, but it also means that there’s no support mechanism to take on the business side of things and allow you to concentrate on what you should do best – making music. Add into the equation that music is being seen less and less as something that you pay for, the ever-dwindling number of places that will actually pay musicians to perform and all the stuff that Rick mentioned before and it’s clear that in some ways there’s more opportunity for musicians than ever before, but they’re going to have to do it ALL themselves.

The opportunity may be there in theory, but it’s certainly tough for most musicians to make it work in practice. Not impossible, but very tough indeed.

Tronix Makaih January 21, 2012 at 2:50 am

This a very inspiring post!

Chloe Zimmer April 19, 2012 at 4:26 pm

This is such an interesting and inspriing post that really stripped the music industry down to the raw materials that it is! Makes me want to be a real musician!

Twitter: musicbizcoach14
April 28, 2012 at 4:26 am

WIth technology today and online retailing rapidly growing, it presents independent artists an entirely new opportunity to earn a living. While the days of selling music are nearly gone and more and more artists are giving away their music to their fans, the way to earn income is through selling your merchandise and touring. The Record Industry didn’t consider the disruptive technology created by Apple and instantly their model of selling an 18$ album disappeared. Selling songs for $.99 or $1.29 is no way to get a return on investment and that applies to the new independent artist as well. Selling T-shirts, posters, jewelry and other unique pieces of bling representing the artists image is the way to bring in high revenue at a low cost. Distribution is achieved via Internet and many third party fulfillment companies. So yes, everything has changed and oh! don’t forget to learn how to get an App for your band to give to your fans!

Rob Kay
Twitter: thefreemusician
January 23, 2013 at 1:59 am

Wow, that was just the tonic I needed… Thanks for sharing. It’s both exciting and scary to see so clearly that as musicians we really can take responsibility for our own success or failure.The possibilities for freedom of expression that will grow from this are truly awesome!

Tristan Waley
Twitter: jazzsyntax
January 23, 2013 at 8:56 am

Great Post & Well Articulated >> Cheers !!

Melina Kastle August 8, 2013 at 1:57 pm

Just happened upon your blog and really appreciate the perspective in this post. I love any attitude that is pro-active instead of from a “victim” perspective. Not to say it’s not difficult to get out there and do the hard work of being a self supported artist, but people are doing it! Well done, sir, I look forward to reading more.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: