The Music Industry Is Getting Brokener And Brokener

The world has changed, they said.

Creative industries have been democratized, they said.

There are no more gatekeepers, they said.

I call bullshit.

No, you no longer need a big record label in order to be discovered (although it’s worth noting that Justin Bieber had a mere 70,000 YouTube views when Scooter Braun and Usher found him, and Lorde signed with Universal three years before she released her first album). And yes, you can crowdfund, and, yes, your crowdfunding campaign can go huge.

But that doesn’t mean things have become easy. In fact, the opposite appears to be true: things have become very, very difficult.

First of all, streaming makes it hard to make money -- like, really hard. How hard is it? Back in 2010, David McCandless at Information Is Beautiful created a powerful infographic based on info from The Cynical Musician.



In that post, Faza pointed out that, in order for a solo artist to earn U.S. minimum wage ($1,160/month at the time), she could sell 143 self-pressed CDs. Or 1,161 retail album CDs, assuming a high-end royalty deal. Or just over 12,000 track downloads on Amazon or iTunes. But to make the same money streaming, she would have to get over 1.5 million plays per month on, or over 4 million plays on Spotify.

How’s that democratization workin’ for ya now?

The numbers aren’t great. But that’s not even the worst of it. Last June, YouTube forced a new contract on indie musicians (available at Digital Music News under the title, “F*&k It”).

Two weeks ago, cellist Zoë Keating shared all of the issues she was having with the new contract. It contains provisions requiring her to upload all of her catalog to both the free and premium music service, forces all songs to be set to “monetize,” forces her to release new music on YouTube at the same time as any other channels (prohibiting her from releasing to core fans first on Bandcamp), and more. If she doesn’t agree to the terms, her YouTube channel will be blocked. But her biggest issue is the total lack of choice. She wants to be able to decide which songs to release where, when, for how much money, and asks the obvious question: “Is such control too much for an artist to ask for in 2015?”

Keating seems genuinely distressed by YouTube’s move; others are downright angry. Cory Doctorow wrote a post about it titled “Google strong-arms indie musicians into accepting brutal, crowdfunding-killing deal for streaming service.”

Any potential YouTube competitors, he points out, are hamstrung by the need to have infrastructure in place to deal with copyright issues -- infrastructure that can cost hundreds of millions of dollars. “And now that Youtube doesn't have to compete with other services for access to artists' materials, they have stopped offering attractive terms to indies -- instead, they've become an arm of the big labels, who get to dictate the terms on which their indie competitors will have to do business.”

So, meet the new music boss. You are just as unlikely to succeed. You are just as limited in your ability to set your own terms. You are just as bullied as you used to be. And you make a lot less money.

All the resources, wealth and power of the music industry are still concentrated with a select few at the top, and the majority of people are forced into a dynamic that renders them disempowered, frustrated, and angry. This is an unhealthy state of affairs for an economic system. But when systems become that imbalanced, their trajectory, inevitably and inexorably, tends toward revolution.

Ironically, the last music revolution was embodied by the creation of YouTube. Don’t you wonder what the next one will look like?

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