There was a big kerfuffle last year when an NPR intern by the name of Emily White noted she had paid very little money for the music in her collection.
Commence Internet apoplexy.
The response that got the most attention was a long response from David Lowery, best known for his work in Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, who is probably one of the smartest guys in rock music, not to mention very knowledgeable about the economics of the recording industry. (His presentation at the EMP Pop Conference a couple years back was thoroughly entertaining and enlightening.) It is multiple thousands of words, Lowery’s response, but let me sum it up: Emily was wrong.
At the most basic of levels, I agree with Lowery, though my notions of why Emily was wrong had more to do with ethical considerations than econo-ethical reasons. Meaning, an illegal download is something done without the content creator’s consent. Lowery also suggested that the low rate of return of services such as Spotify and Pandora treat musicians unfairly, a topic he returned to in a slightly overhyped manner a year later.
My purpose here is not to address the idea of whether there is such a thing as "fair trade music." Instead, I want to look forward 10 years to when Emily becomes a parent.
OK, I don't know anything about Emily and her personal life. But even if she doesn't have kids, plenty of her friends will. And the question I want to address here is, what does that mean for kids music?
I think that most kids musicians would feel pretty lucky in that their fans (or, rather, their parents) actually buy CDs. Or iTunes downloads.
They are not looking on illegal downloading sites.
But things are changing quickly. With services like Spotify and Pandora allowing streaming of music for free (with varying types of controls), even law-abiding folks have ever-increasing opportunities to listen to their favorite music -- or their kids' favorite music -- without having to pay a cent. That's not to mention services like Bandcamp and Soundcloud which make it easy for musicians to share their music for free.
Not that all of them want. Justin Roberts has led the charge, kindie-wise, against Spotify. In an article in the Chicago Tribune a few weeks back, Roberts notes he gets about a half-cent per song -- that'd be 6 cents if Roberts put his latest album Recess on Spotify (it's not -- just the title track). He notes that "It's frustrating to see something that I spend a year of my life
working on and a large amount of money to make be almost completely
worthless when it comes out." And from that perspective, who could blame him? There are probably only a handful of albums I've ever listened to 150 times or more, which would generate the same net revenue that buying the album for $12 on Amazon would probably provide.
It should be clear that Spotify is not a revenue generator. It is, at best -- if at all, and it's not clear that it is -- a promotional tool that might generate enough money in a year for Roberts to have dinner out, maybe with his wife, but if so, then not at a very fancy place.
So he's taking a stand for purchasing albums. In an interview this summer with Kids Can Groove, Roberts said:
"I think streaming services like Spotify and Pandora are great for music
discovery, however, they are quickly becoming a substitute for people
actually purchasing recorded music and I find that troubling. As an
independent artist with a small but devoted fan base, I rely on people
purchasing recordings to pay back the expensive costs of making a
professional sounding record. Beyond that, sales of recorded music has
been one of my main sources of income as an independent musician.”
The problem as I see it, is Emily White.
Well, not Emily specifically -- I've never met her. But even if she's the exception now -- and I'm not sure she is -- she won't be the exception ten or even five or even fewer years from now.
The worst-case scenario is this -- music, along with all sorts of other entertainment, becomes increasingly commoditized. There are no more personal relationships with musicians as music becomes just another thing to fill an entertainment gap. And getting music -- entertainment -- for free or via all-you-can-eat entertainment buffets becomes the default mode of consumption, which works out OK if you're Beyonce or Lady Gaga or whoever else can afford to invest a million or two in generating a blockbuster, but not so well for artists in niche fields. (While I'd like to believe the fanciful scenario of Jennifer Egan's incredible prize-winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad
, I don't see kids music saving the record business.)
On top of that, kids' musicians face the additional challenge of recreating their fan base every 5 years or so as fans age out of their target audience. At least Beyonce and Lady Gaga (and even, it should be noted, fellow Spotify-hater Thom Yorke of Radiohead) have years of fanbases which slowly accrete.
Am I suggesting that every kids musician give up the ghost now? Are they all doomed? Well, no, but I think that the kindie world needs to re-think what they're doing. I'm not saying that kids musicians haven't thought of these issues -- and in many cases, folks will say "Der. Known that and been doing that for years now." And I know that what I'm about to say is easy for someone who isn't trying to make a living making music -- believe me, I totally get that. But here is what I think artists, even and especially kindie artists, will have to do to keep making a living.
1) You are not in the record business anymore -- you are in the music business: It may take a little longer, but eventually musicians will not make the majority of their income from selling records. They will have to make up the difference from streams, from concert revenue, merch sales, and the kindness of strangers.
2) You are not in the music business -- you are in the relationship business: How are you going to make money? You're going to convince families that they should let you into their lives. For a lot of artists, that's going to be through performing live. For some others, that may be through media for which music is secondary -- books, videos, apps, puppet shows. And for a handful, it may still be through selling records, either on CD or as bits. But I think artists will make most of their money through the connection -- intense connections even -- they make, especially in ephemeral, not-to-be-duplicated ways.
Why are Kickstarter projects all the rage right now? It's because people want to connect to and support the work of creators. In fact, while I the pre-order is the most popular type of reward for music projects, I think there's room to convince fans to contribute for the sheer joy of connection.
It is possible that some artists may also make their living through performing for non-paying crowds -- in libraries, for example, or in schools. But long-term success in the former is going to require that same connection that good artists have had for centuries. And success in the latter will increasingly put you, the artist, in the role of teacher of a subject. Can you tell stories that teach kids a specific subject? Is that what you want to do? If so, great -- if not, then you need to find a new venue. (And, while we're on that subject -- yes, you should find the venue.)
3) You are in it for the long haul: Finally, I think that it's possible that one of kindie artists' greatest hurdles is inextricably linked to one of kindie music's keys to long-term success. Kids musicians need to constantly find new audiences as their old ones age out. But at some point, those audiences become parents.
They become, in short, Emily White. All that time spent dealing with parents as the intermediators suddenly becomes less important as those 28-year-olds remember being 5 years old spinning around at a concert, laughing to a story told on CD, or watching a funny video on YouTube. I joke about how nobody becomes a parent and says with an awed voice, "They write books for kids?" because that's the situation we're in when it comes to kids music. What happens 5 years from now when the generation who grew up on Ralph's World's debut album, or Laurie Berkner's Whaddaya Think of That? , or Dan Zanes' Rocket Ship Beach , or Roberts' Great Big Sun welcomes a child into the world?
If that artist is still making music, it's possible that they could recoup the benefit of those parents remembering the joy they felt dancing to Justin Roberts at the Getty Museum on a bright summer Saturday afternoon. They could even recoup the benefit of grandparents remembering the joy they felt watching their kid dancing to Justin Roberts at the Getty Museum on a bright summer Saturday afternoon.
Those moments, moments that artists like Roberts and dozens of others excel at creating, are what will convince parents like Emily White to share their money.