I took up guitar in 1967, when Lyndon Johnson is president, gas is 33¢ per gallon, Sean Connery is James Bond, 911 systems do not exist, no place in the world has a law requiring you to wear a seat belt, the hand-held calculator has not yet been invented, the BBC still broadcasts in only black & white, the Andy Griffith Show is the number one television show, and “Strangers in the Night” by Frank Sinatra is the Grammys song of the year. A first class stamp was a nickel, Federal minimum wage was $1.40 an hour, a brand new VW bug was about $1,800 and you could buy a pretty decent house for $25,000.
We had not yet sent a man to the moon, there were no cell phones, and computers filled entire rooms. There were no VCRs in homes anywhere; no answering machines, phones in homes used dials, and booths with pay-phones in them were everywhere; pop-top drink cans hadn’t been invented yet, and the Big Mac was still not on the menu at McDonald’s.
A lot has changed since then, as you can see, including how recorded music is “consumed” by music fans. In 1967 virtually everyone that bought recorded music bought vinyl records, either in the form of a 45rpm single or a 33⅓rpm album. Singles cost 39¢ or 49¢. (They were called a “single” because they had a single song per side, although the “A” side was usually the song that was being played on radio. This was the “single” that people were buying, and the “B” side was often a “throw-away” track.) Albums cost $3.98 to $4.99 normally, and had between 4 and 6 songs per side. In 2017 dollars a single would be $2.86 to $3.60 and an album would be $29.21 to $36.63. But our habits and expectations as music consumers has changed – a lot.
We had 8-track tapes, cassettes, then CDs, then MP3 downloads, and finally streaming. Vinyl is making a comeback of sorts, at least for albums, but the prices tend to be in the $20 to $25 range for most releases, rather than the inflation-adjusted price range, although some are nearly $50. But not everyone is buying vinyl. Some are still buying CDs & MP3s (average $10 per album), but most folks now want unlimited streaming at $10 per month or less (you know - free). While this seems to be great (at first glance, anyway) for listeners, it is not so good for the musicians. With most streaming services the artist and/or record label get a fraction of a single penny for each stream, and this means that a million plays will bring in just under $5,000. Sounds like a good chunk of change until you realize how hard it is to get a million plays, and the cost of making the recording.
It is possible to spend $5,000 to get a really good sounding recording of a single song, if you want it to complete with the majors. But let’s say we can get it done for $2,000, it’s totally possible. A million streams would give us a nice profit, right? Well… there is the cost of promotion to try to get those million streams. These days it’s called “playlist payola” and unlike radio payola, it is not governed by any laws. The typical cost is around $2,000 per song to get on a playlist with tens of thousands of fans, and up to $10,000 per song to get on the most-followed playlists. This simply is not possible for the vast majority of musicians. So, the power of a great song is not enough. (I’m not certain it ever was, but there are many who will argue there was time when a great song was all you needed.)
So many, many songs that might be truly enjoyed will go undiscovered, and the artists that created them will stop making music because they cannot even break even on their music career, let alone pay their bills. Some will argue that these artists should get a day job and make music as a hobby. Some musicians will do just that. Most will not. Even pursuing music as a hobby is a vastly time consuming endeavor, and trying to do that while having a day job, a family, maintaining a home, and staying healthy will simply be not worth the effort for many musicians. And that is where it becomes not-so-good for the listeners. Maybe they love a certain musician’s one and only release which absolutely touched their soul, but they never bought the MP3 or CD because they could listen to it all the time for free or even as part of a paid streaming service. The listener is craving more music from this artist, but it never comes. The listener might say “Well, I would’ve gone to see them in concert if they had just come to my town. I might have even bought a t-shirt. Why didn’t they tour?” Because touring is expensive, and requires a lot of money up front. Money the artist did not have because they never had the “magic million” streams, or even if they did they were in debt from the PR (payola) campaign. Money they didn’t have because no one bought CDs or downloads, which have at least a little profit margin.
Oh yeah, some “DIY” punk band is going to say “We toured for a year in a $700 van, sleeping on fans’ couches or on our amps, eating Ramen noodles, and would only shower when it rained…” or some such nonsense. Good for them, but the vast majority of people cannot live like that, nor should they have to exist in such a way. Some might try touring like this (most won’t) and after a short time decide that they’re better off stocking shelves back home, or answering phones or selling insurance, or whatever. They may try to do music on the side, but time with the family, time to mow the lawn (can’t afford a service with what they’re spending on the new recordings), and time for recreation will be so rare that they will have to give something up. It will be music. It will be music because there is no return-on-investment. Not a financial return, nor an emotional return, but the exact opposite. It will have been a drain both financially and emotionally for so long they will gladly give it up and never look back.
Granted, there will be few that can balance it all, but it should be an option rather than mandatory. Yeah, there will be the rare few that get noticed by a mega-label and turned into superstars and household names, but that artistic middle-class is essentially gone. That’s where the vast majority of music that I truly loved came from, when I first discovered music. Those working artists, not stars but able to pay the bills, they made the best music for me, and I supported them by buying their recordings. I still do. I seem to be in the minority.
So that’s what all of this verbiage is about. 1,182 words (more now!) to ask you to support the musicians and bands you like by buying their music. And please go see them live, even if it is a venue that you’re not overly fond of, because with your support they might be in a cooler venue next time. Buy a t-shirt. And most importantly tell your friends to do the same. You have a band or musician you like? Tell people!! That is an awesome form of support and it costs you only a few seconds of your time. Thanks.
Until next time, live well & rock hard.