I got to see a good friend play in his new band in Washington DC the other night. I get the sense that many of the folks playing in DC bands aren’t particularly worried about making a living from their musical skills. I overhead a conversation about the band my friend plays in: “The lead singer’s with the Brookings Institution. The guitarist is with Energy, and the bass player’s starting on the House science committee. Oh, and the drummer’s just a drummer.”
In other words, with the exception of the drummer, these guys are okay if they don’t make it big. (Which is probably a good thing.)
Increasingly, making it big in American music doesn’t guarantee making a living. Chris Arnold has a terrific story on NPR about the Dresden Dolls and the financial struggles associated with being a widely known, critically acclaimed, popular band. While the Dolls have a number of CDs and DVDs available in online and conventional record stores, they only make about a dollar per CD from their label. They’ve toured with bands as big as Nine Inch Nails, but they generally lose money on those dates, because they make about $1000 per date, and paying their road crew costs twice that. Despite being more “successful” than the vast, vast majority of bands, the two members of Dresden Dolls pay themselves a montly salary of $1500 each.
One musician who finds these numbers hard to swallow is Jonathan Coulton. Coulton writes and records quirky, geeky, strange and funny songs about evil geniuses, lovesick giant squid and zombie officeworkers. The songs are released under a Creative Commons license, which lets fans all over the Internet remix his songs, film videos and generally mash him up in various different configurations. Last year, he recorded a new song every week, played lots of sold-out gigs (usually a hundred or so fans, not the couple thousand the Dresden Dolls can attract), and sold CDs of his freely downloadable music via CDBaby.
Coulton points out that he’s making more money that the Dresden Dolls.
But how depressing is that? They’re like, a real band with a label and everything. I make more than that, and I have no idea what I’m doing. How can this be?
I’m not sure whether it’s depressing or inspiring. Certainly it’s a drag for the hundreds of musicians I respect and support, who’ve got album deals, tour, but don’t headline stadiums. But the experiment Jonathan’s undertaking may help prove that it’s possible to make great music and make a living without buying into the insanity of the modern music industry. The fact that a band like Dresden Dolls has such difficulty making a living suggests that the right approach to the music business might be to embrace the insanity.
Jane Siberry has been embracing insanity for a long time, probably ever since she gave up a career in microbiology to become a quirky new wave/experimental/folk singer/songwriter. She’s recently rechristened herself “Issa“, and her record label, Sheeba, sells music under a decidedly unconventional model: you can pay the suggested price for a downloadable track, or you can pay what you’d like for it, including nothing. According to the statistics on the site, 80% pay the suggested price… and 14% pay more than the suggested price, leading to an average price paid per track higher than the suggested price.
Coulton’s pricing model isn’t quite as flexible – generally a buck a song, with roughly 1/3rd available for free. He sells ringtones, t-shirts and adorable web ads/sponsorships a well. You can get the vast majority of Jonathan’s work for free by following his blog… but it still sells really, really well. I tried to purchase the $50 box set of Coulton’s Thing a Week project for my wife for Christmas – the site sold out, restocked, and sold out two more times before the holiday rolled around. Someone’s dropping major change for music they could theoretically get for free.
I hope Coulton and Siberry/Issa succeed, not just because I love their music, but because I’d love to be able to be happy for friends who want to make a living as musicians, rather than wondering when reality will crush their dreams and leave them disillusioned and bankrupt. It would be wonderful if, a few years from now, the folks who sign major label deals are considered crazy, while the ones who publish music under open licenses and let people choose to pay are the sane ones.
It would indeed be wonderful. Remember what Yoko Ono said: dream we dream together is reality.
(Now we just need the CDBaby-equivalent for writers to blow open the bottleneck on another art form.)
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