“Some of your friends are probably already this fucked.”
That’s how Steve Albini concluded “The Problem with Music”, his famous essay breaking down the malevolent economics of the music industry. It analyzed with mathematical precision how a moderately successful rock band could generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit for various industry middlemen, while the musicians themselves worked for sub-minimum wages. The article was a sensation and was reprinted hundreds of times in the 1990s.
There’s no money in selling music anymore, people say, now in the era of digital music. What they really mean is there’s no money in it for YOU, the artist.
You imagine Europe as a vast, friendly continent of ethical businessmen waving around checks payable to obscure American tech house artists and waiting for someone to claim them.
YOU START WITH GOOD INTENTIONS You didn’t take classes in music but you’ve been a DJ all your life and music is a big part of it. You play some local gigs and sometimes you play out of town.
You’ve graduated from Fruity Loops to Ableton and you have left an extensive online record of inane questions posted on music production message boards. You made some edits and offered them up as free downloads on your SoundCloud account. People liked them.
Free, as in beer, has been a good ride for you, but you can’t pay your rent with good karma. You put everything aside for a minute and you spend hours stumbling through various issues and experimenting with various plug-ins to get that perfect “warm” sound.
And you finally have something. You’re proud of it. You played it out when you opened for DJ Qwerty and it got a good response. You gave a copy to DJ Qwerty and he told you it was “nice”. You take a screenshot of this single word in your Facebook inbox and open a new file on your computer called “feedback.doc”. First entry:
DJ Qwerty: “Nice.”
Though you believe it could be a hit, you’re not sure if you want to go through the trouble of releasing this record yourself. You have friends that have labels that sell digital music, but they always seem to be unusually circumspect when it comes to the issue of revenue. You suspect that the more people who are involved with releasing a record, the less money you get. You’re right.
You suspect that the more people who are involved with releasing a record, the less money you get. You’re right.
You pass around small clips of your track, providing the complete track when prompted. One larger label, Very Old Recordings, Inc., seems interested, but the price of their interest is to surrender a piece of your publishing to them. Forever.
You’re not really sure how publishing works, though it turns out nobody else is either. Your friends with labels sometimes get small amounts of money from obscure sources, places like Turkey and Scandinavia. You imagine Europe as a vast, friendly continent of ethical businessmen waving around checks payable to obscure American tech house artists and waiting for someone to claim them. That money is yours. You worry that surrendering a piece of your publishing is the first step in getting ripped off by “the fucking music industry”.
You love Very Old Recordings, Inc. A lot of their tracks get played by DJ Fanny Sac on BBC Radio 19, which you’ve never heard but which certainly sounds impressive. And wow, their Ibiza label nights seem amazing.
In truth, Very Old Recordings, Inc. doesn’t anticipate making much money off you.
Very Old Recordings, Inc. signs or licenses dozens of records a year, most of them forgettable pieces of shit, because they only need 1 in 100 records they release to hit to make the model work for them. The payoff is once it hits: they’ll license it around the world and claim their monstrous share of the proceeds.
You’re just raw material – a single cell in an Excel spreadsheet one hundred miles long.
But you can’t figure out how this is supposed to pay off for you. You worked for months on your track, it’s the first thing you made that doesn’t blow chunks and it doesn’t make sense to give it away not for nothing but so some balding has-been in a Manchester United jersey can get rich off of it.
You call up the owner of Very Old Recordings, Inc. and give him the sad news. He belches and says, “It’s a bit ov a pissah, innit m8?” and hangs up.
So you decide to release this track yourself. Vinyl is out of the question – you’d love to see your name on a label but you don’t even know where to begin raising the cash and acquiring the wisdom for selling that shit.
The world of digital music seems just as opaque and confusing, though. You don’t have a label but your roommate, Darryl, does. Darryl owes you for three months rent and wants to do you a solid: rather than splitting the sales or publishing, he’ll release your track on his label for free, and cut you a check every few months when the money comes in.
Unfortunately, you have your own thoughts about how to market music, and releasing your track on a label called “FunButtTrumpet Records” doesn’t seem like such a great idea.
So you’re going it alone.
Where does one begin?
You always imagined the music industry as a vast enterprise of people toiling silently on your behalf; you feel as if it’s beginning to hum all around you.
FIRST YOU DECIDE THAT YOU NEED TO MAKE AN EP OUT OF THIS. You’re not sure why, but everyone releases “EPs” and you want to do this one right.
Getting a name remixer would help with sales, and calling in some favors you compile a small list of people who promise they can do it for you, quickly, for $100. That seems like a bargain.
One by one you send out the parts. You wait and hear nothing back. The few remixers who reply to your increasingly frenzied emails explain that they’ve been on the road or “in the lab” working on their own material. Eventually, though, you get one, and it’s a dream. It’s a guy that plays locally, but he was a big deal once – “legendary”, even. He sends you the remix. It’s tight. Christ is it tight.
Doing some back of the envelope calculations you realize that any more remixes here are going to drive up the price of this record pretty sharply. You follow Ancient House Music Wisdom: “When in doubt, produce a dub.” Darryl, your roommate, offers to do a remix for you too. Since there’s no physical limitation to this thing, why not? He remixes your track with his “dope tech house vibes” and you agree to deduct $100 from his overdue rent tab.
Now there’s the question of how to get this thing off your computer and into the stores. After some hunting, you send some emails to Beatport, Traxsource and other sites. You are only mildly surprised you never hear back from them. They’re really busy, everyone says so.
It doesn’t seem to make sense that you’re giving away a massive number of copies of your track to the same group you’d hope to sell it to, but this is how it’s done. This will generate “good buzz.”
Googling for your salvation, you discover that there are these things called “digital distribution” companies. Aggregators. It doesn’t make sense – this is digital, why do you need a “distributor”? – but every download shop seems to demand that you use one.
You can create a free account with one digital distributor. You feel like a real pro the minute that verification email arrives. The prices don’t seem so bad – it’s a flat fee, charged annually, for each release in your catalog. Wary of music industry scams, you are pleased to note you keep 100% of your sales. So far.
They also offer to collect publishing royalties on your behalf. They have a special offer: they’ll charge you a one time fee and pass on 90% of your publishing royalties. They’ll even have people working on your behalf, trying to place your music in movies and on TV via their “Creative Team”.
Now this really puts the “business” in “music business”, to have someone collecting your publishing. You always imagined the music industry as a vast enterprise of people toiling silently on your behalf; you feel as if it’s beginning to hum all around you.
Darryl, your roommate, has a cracked copy of Photoshop. Looking through Google Images, he manages to transform a computer desktop wallpaper into your track’s cover art. It’s got bubbles and shit and reflecting letters and looks really cool. At your suggestion he adds a woman’s bare midriff to the image for a touch of sexiness. Sex sells, and it’s already selling for you: hearing that dope remix and seeing your dope artwork, Beatport decides to give you a banner on their homepage if you give them an “exclusive” and allow only them to sell it for the first three weeks. You cringe at their taking 50% of all of your sales, but at least they’re helping to promote it for you.
Darryl agreed to do all this for free but claims he hasn’t been high all week and really needs a little something for pulling overtime on this fine artwork. He’ll do the next one free, he promises. You agree to pay him $35 for the artwork and call it even.
You send the track out to your friends. You don’t hear back from them, which causes you some indigestion and then some indignation, but everyone gets a lot of music in their inbox these days. You look at the prices of “promo companies” who say they can get people like Louie Vega and Damian Lazarus and Richie Hawtin to listen to your music, in addition to their “industry list” of 100 blogs, magazines and radio stations worldwide! You figure you can google the 100 blogs, magazines and radio stations worldwide! yourself, but you could really use some help with the DJs.
A friend turns you on to a guy, he used to promote parties and he’s really connected in the industry. The logo for his company, Fossilized Promotions, seems to be on everything, and after seeing your dope artwork, he agrees to circulate it among his friends, and post it on message boards, in exchange for a flat fee. It doesn’t seem to make sense that you’re giving away a massive number of copies of your track to the same group you’d hope to sell it to, but this is how it’s done, you’re assured. Doing this will generate “good buzz”.
FINALLY, THE TRACK GOES LIVE. Your digital distributor sends you daily “sales trend reports” which feature a graph that draws itself in Firefox, these bloody red arrows shooting upward. It’s like lightning in reverse. It seems only a matter of time until they’ll shoot all the way to the moon.
Let’s say you sell 400 units. Most people who run digital labels on the underground side are shaking their heads right now (and not because the number seems too low). But let’s say you sell 400 tracks.
The starting price per track is variable depending on the website and how many copies are bought during the Beatport exclusive sales period, but $2 seems like a good working estimate, for $800 in total revenue. iTunes offers a larger percentage to artists than most dance music boutique stores, but usually sells fewer copies, so let’s say your split with the download shops averages out to you surrendering 45% to them.
How broke are you?
At this point, your track has made $125 for you versus $675 for the supposedly “dead” music industry, including:
$360 for the download shops
$105 for the digital distributor ($30 for distributing the track, $75 for collecting your publishing)
$75 for a guy sitting on a sofa in his Tighty Whities with a laptop spamming DJs and message boards to generate the almighty “buzz”
and $35 for your roommate Darryl’s weed.
The publishing fee is a one time charge and doesn’t have to be paid again, but everything else here will be renewed every time you release a new record. If Darryl eventually moves in with his mom and her new boyfriend or you decide to pay for musicians, mastering or legit licenses for all the uncleared samples you used, your cut will diminish further.
If you spent 2 hours a day for 10 days making this EP, and 1 hour a day for 3 weeks doing all this business nonsense, you have raked in approximately $3 per hour, which is slightly less than the government-mandated minimum wage for a domestic servant in Barbados.
Welcome to the dance music industry, circa 2014. Some of your friends are already this broke.