Musicians : wake up!

I left this as a comment somewhere else, in response to someone complaining about how:

“…musicians are asked to just get over the fact that no one pays for music… [it is] my hope that someday more people make the same realization that unless people to help finance records, you’ll never get that fantastic song you can’t stop listening to all summer.”

Hey there. I really disagree that the onus is on the rest of society to solve all musicians’ problems. People have been copying my work on the internet for decades now. I’m a computer programmer. We’re in exactly the same boat as musicians – probably more so, and have been there for longer. But we manage to get by.

Some programmers attempt to stop copying of their work, but this is rarely successful. Others take a different tack. We’ve had to adapt. We acknowledge that our work will be routinely pirated on the internet, and we adopt our business model accordingly. We have to make and sell different sizes and types of tools than we were accustomed to making, and sell them through different channels. We have had to find other ways of charging for our work. My own company gives away our software for free. We embrace piracy as inevitable, and use it as a promotional tool.

This is difficult. It is counter-intuitive, grounded as we all are in the scarcity economy of the physical world. It requires us to change our attitudes and outlook and behaviour. Sometimes we fail. We are still figuring out the realities of our markets in a post-internet world.  But goddammit we are trying and sometimes we try things and they work. The software business is more diverse and thriving than it ever has been – despite all our work being just as freely copyable (and freely copied) as music.

The financial hardship that musicians are feeling has always been felt by musicians. Copying music on the internet has not made this any worse than it always was. This is simply the cost of choosing to be a musician.

Musicians must adapt, just like programmers have. It saddens me to see so few musicians even try. Is it really true that computer programmers are more flexible and adaptable and imaginative than musicians. Who would have thunk it?

Embracing piracy as a promotional tool can allow bands to make more money on live shows than they have ever made selling records, but still, the majority of musicians sit around, complacent, thinking that the responsibility lies on the rest of society, to put things back the way they were before the internet.

No. I for one refuse. Adapt or die – if you can’t make it, someone else will take your place. By definition, that someone will be more adaptable, imaginative, risk-taking and dynamic. Isn’t that supposed to be what our creatives are good at?

People will doubtless think I’m being harsh – imposing my tyranny on struggling musicians. But I’m not. When I say “adapt or die”, I’m not imposing my will. I’m merely reminding you of reality. If we were talking about a guitarist who couldn’t play the guitar, we would all agree that they have put themselves in a bit of a paradoxical situation, and that they must either adapt (learn to play) or die (stop being a guitarist.)

This is how competition works. Competition might seem harsh, but it’s best for everyone in the long run. The poor guitarists are eventually persuaded by market realities to stop being guitarists and try being something else. The good guitarists get rewarded, and the standard of music available to the world is increased as a result.

Instead of untalented guitarists, today we are talking about musicians who would like to get paid, but who don’t want to expend any energy on figuring out how they will get paid. Can you see the paradoxical situation they have put themselves in? This attitude is entirely understandable and human – I also would enjoy locking myself in my room and making beautiful computer programs which nobody else need ever see. But if I expect to get paid for making computer programs, then I must interface with the reality of the world around me. It’s no use me simply wishing that High St stores will start selling my software in shrinkwrapped boxes again – those days are long gone. Instead, I must figure out what programs people want, and produce them in a timely manner at high quality, promote them somehow, and figure out my angle on how I’m going to get people to pay.

It is not too much for us to ask musicians to also have to conform to reality like this. If they want to make money, and the means of making money from music are changing, then they will have to expend a little energy figuring out how they are going to get people to pay. If they don’t want to think about that at all, then fine, they won’t get paid. Adapt or die, we’ll all be better off for it.

2 thoughts on “Musicians : wake up!

  1. Ed, Hey, thanks for the that.

    I agree it will lead to a smaller number of *professional* artists, but importantly also, I like to dream that it will lead to an increase in the accessibility of producing and recording and performing music, which will actually lead to an increase in the number of people creating music for their own pleasure.

  2. I’m in a similar situation and frame of mind to you. Whatever I do as a programmer, I give away for free, and make money coding to order (essentially the equivalent of a live performance or patronage), most of which then gets given away for free.

    I think a fundamental sticking point for a lot of people in switching to this philosophy, is that previously their work has been like buying a lottery ticket; there’s a chance, however small, that they might end up as the next Bill Gates or Michael Jackson. We have to face the truth that we will never be millionaires, and that we do what we do for the love of it, and are happy that we get paid at all.

    Essentially we are in a period of violent change and we will eventually move back to a system where musicians perform music for its own sake, and get paid when they can. Copyright will be seen as a weird temporary glitch. This is no bad thing and will leave us with a smaller number of artists, who really care about what they do.

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