The first true “professional” musicians were minstrels who traveled from town to town, performing in exchange for food, drink, and shelter. While it isn’t clear when the first human decided that walking into another human settlement with the intention of entertainment in exchange for something tangible began (or was even a smart idea). They were all, with a few black-sheep exceptions, from the peasant class and being a musician was a less arduous lifestyle than laboring in the fields, hunting and gathering, or other basic survival skills.
I suspect that early in every minstrel’s tenure they felt that this traveling minstrel gig was a good idea. But as time passed that traveling part, and the insecurity, and the fact that when they got old and could no longer travel to play, became less attractive as their survival became less of a sure thing. if you were a musician you HAD to tour to stay alive.
And this continued well into the industrial age. Until the advent of the commercially available sound recording choosing the life of a musician meant your sole source of remuneration was live public performance (yes, at some point composers began receiving money from their compositions, but even Beethoven had to put on concerts to rake in walkin’ around money).
For about fifty years, during the “golden age” when recordings had commercial value, a musician could hope to retire from the road on the sales of their recordings and royalties from their lifetime creative output. That was, for many musicians, a very good thing. But it seems that the “golden age” of musician’s commercial ascendance from recorded output has largely passed. While some older, well-established acts continue to see revenue streams from recordings, new acts and young musicians are definitely not getting this monetary perk.
Recordings, which for a few generations of musicians, were the way to middle or even upper-class incomes, have been relegated to the level of t-shirts and bumper stickers – something fans pick up as memorabilia from live concert events. And if you don’t tour, you don’t sell “fan gear.”
And while I’ve seen numerous arguments that streamed music from Spotify, Pandora, Tidal, and U-Tube (which is the most often accessed of any streaming service AND offers the worst royalty stream to content creators) are the way for a band to build a fan-base so they can tour; for most musicians streaming revenues have not been enough to constitute a serious revenue stream and have only value as promotional tools. Many artists (and critics of the industry) see the piddling income from streaming as the corporate world’s way of telling musicians, “You really aren’t worth much to us…”
As someone who loves recorded music, the irony that just as the technology of recording has finally gotten to the point where anyone with skill and some small investment in recording equipment can produce an outstanding recording, the commercial worth of recordings has plummeted.
Is there anything that one recording-loving person can do? Well, the obvious personal solution is to try to buy more recordings directly from artists through their websites and Kickstarter/Indigogo projects. Just yesterday I purchased a copy of Joan Osborne’s newest release, Songs of Bob Dylan through Pledge Music, which also has projects by Ani DiFranco, Scott Miller, and Def Leppard. Yes, I know one person buying product won’t instantly reverse the “tour or die” environment of today’s music biz, but if enough music lovers decide to support their favorite musicians in a more direct way it may encourage artists to continue to release recordings and may also help keep them from being forced to tour constantly to survive.
That’s my plan, care to join me?