Arlo Enemark: Is “rockstar” now a real job?
The changes in the record industry over the last five to 10 years have been dramatic & contentious. High-profile stars have come out slamming the streaming model or strategically delaying availability of their releases to advantage paid download sites.
But underneath this, the industry flourishes, experiencing genuine growth after nearly 15 years of contraction. Consumers are experiencing music with a freedom and availability never thought possible and artists are reaching new audiences, at the far reaches of the globe.
The changes have happened in the offices, in software development, in negotiations and licensing, in marketing and in the behaviour of consumers. Musicians themselves have continued doing what they do in largely the same way. Writing and releasing music, performing, attempting to connect with an audience and actualise their dreams.
But what do those dreams look like? Is the new model still lumping large amounts of cash on under prepared 20-year-olds, only to leave them broke and destitute when their style comes off the boil? “You might be successful, but it won’t last forever!” was the cautionary tale being told to every aspirational musician. A story that included a select few “making it” after years of getting nowhere. Transforming from broke musicians in to audacious rock star within months. Blowing their fast and furious income as soon as it came in. Attempting to fill some deep dark hole with consumer items and ultimately changing everything about their personality that made them an interesting musician.
The idea was that some gatekeeper, an A&R stooge in a pinstripe suit, would give them access to untold fame and wealth, but like a willow wisp, it would evaporate before the musicians eyes, leaving them with nothing.
It’s a story that was told to us over and over, since the 50s with the popularisation of contemporary music. There are so many cultural elements in this tale. The idea that young people aren’t responsible with money. That there is an industry just waiting to screw musicians over. That fame and fortune, by nature, are fleeting and that there is no sustainable future in show biz.
Cynically, hidden in this narrative is an awkward voice asking the musician to give up on their dreams. It asks them to do “the right thing” and to put their time and effort into something less egotistical, less self -indulgent and less reliant on luck.
The voice asks them to lose faith in their own greatness. It asks them to “get a real job” and spend the rest of their years wondering what might have been. Work for a reliable company, take their four weeks annual leave and (just some of) their 10 days sick leave. Don’t get sacked! Do the right thing now and postpone your vanity projects until you no longer have the energy or the passion. The voice asks for all this and then claims that it isn’t a big ask. It asks for this and claims it has the artist’s best interests at heart.
But something major has happened. A dramatic shift in how musicians earn their money and how consumers pay for it. The above story was formed in a time when consumers bought a lifetime licences to listen to albums, EPs and singles at the time of purchase. Included in the cost of a vinyl record, CD, commercial cassette or digital download was this permission and the expense it incurred. So when an artist sold an album to a fan, the fan parted with a large sum upfront and then immediately stopped paying.
Streaming doesn’t operate in this way, streaming is like renting, where the consumer pays for the music as they use it. This changes the way a musician is paid. The musician can no longer expect a large amount of cash upfront. The turnover is slower for the record label too, so the chances of a big meaty advance have all but gone. However, their intellectual property (the music) will keep paying them dividends for not only the rest of their life, but up to 70 years after they die. If they make music that matters to people, that connects with people, that moves them, fills them with joy or helps them get through the hard times, music they want to show their children, music that they’ll listen to for life, the musician will continue to earn. Continuous income not just for the musicians life, but into their children and grandchildren’s lives.
Previously, albums were very expensive to produce and release. With the advances in recording technology, software and digital distribution, it is now possible to make a hit record with very little to no capital, which also means no debt (or no advance to pay off). It’s also possible to make a living without having a hit record. The internet enables creators of niche genres to connect with their small, sparse audience on a global scale, consolidating earning opportunities and retrenching middlemen. With transparent streaming figures they also have a somewhat predictable income.
So when an artist builds their audience organically, creates a quality catalog of songs at low cost, and builds their passive income to a point where they have a reliable revenue stream for the rest of their days, I’d say that’s better than a real job. It’s better than four weeks paid holiday and 10 days sick leave. It’s better than making sure you squirrel enough into your superannuation. It is your super, It is your property, it is your job and you can’t get sacked from it.
Arlo Enemark has spent over eight years as a music industry professional. Working on content strategy, A&R and digital distribution for labels and artists with Xelon Entertainment as well as being label manager for dominant Aussie club label Medium Rare Recordings.