the business

By Robbie on January 9, 2013

At a party last weekend, a reunion of employees from a place where my wife and I worked 20-some years back, I got to catch up with a lot of nice people I know hardly at all. I noticed that, by way of greeting, no fewer than four people within a half-hour asked me, "How's the music business going?" It's not the first time I've been asked, although it is the first time I've been asked so many times in such a short period. I have a friend who has a good way of dodging this one. When he gets on a plane with his instrument and someone strikes up a conversation about the business, he is quick to say, "I just build 'em -- don't know the first thing about playing 'em!" It seems no one wants to make small talk with luthiers.

There's a reason besides ill temper that many of us musicians scramble for the exit when we get "How's the music business?" Glovemaking, eleventh-dimensional non-Euclidean geometry, chimney tuckpointing, assertive vehicle manuevering on British roundabouts, mammal behavioral psychology (esp. female), Sudoku, every single foreign language, Renaissance shipbuilding techniques, astronecroscopy...the list of things that I know less about than the music business is a bit more extensive than this, but not by much. So go ask someone else.

Sometimes I wonder what sector of the music business I'd be in if I did know more about it. Is there a music industry career path, besides making the stuff, that offers a surer path to financial security, along with a reasonable degree of mental stimulation? It's true that there are a lot more musicians scraping by day-to-day than music lawyers. But lawyers by definition place a higher value on future planning and social adaptation than fiddlers. Once you correct for IQ and personal priorities I'll bet the earnings gap isn't that big. The music lawyers, promoters, label owners and personnel, agents, managers, etc. that are living very much better than people like me consitute, I believe, a very tiny and elite group.

I'm making this assertion after thinking carefully about the couple of managers and lawyers, the many promoters, the handful of performing-org administrators, the dozens of engineers, the fairly numerous worker bees of labels small and large, the six booking agents, the hundreds of sidemen, and the sundry sound-production and live tech and startup website nerds that I have dealt with directly in the last 25 or so years. Not a Mitt Romney in the lot! Not even a Mike Huckabee. True, the level at which I've toiled is dank and subterranean. I extend the scope of my mind's eye to include my more successful friends' business support. I see a good amount of body fat and six-figure incomes here and there, but not many people liable to be affected by Obama's recent hike in the top marginal tax rate.

Do some figuring yourself, if you like. Look at a booking agency's website, any outside the top percent or two. I'm looking now at the site of a very prestigious agency in Boston. There are 56 on the roster. Their top earners bring in about $300,000 a year. At the bottom are emergent or sproadically working acts bringing in very little. Let's say the average is $150,000. (Since many of these acts aren't exclusive to this agency, my average is generous.) 150,000 x 56 = $8.4 million, 10% of which is $840,000. After taxes, paying 18 employees salary and benefits, rent, travel, postage, web servers, phone...you get the idea. Nobody at this highly exclusive agency is living much better than you or me. 

A fair amount of speculation goes into the above calculation. But the outcome of that guesswork supports what I've seen of the people doing administrative and technical support work in the music biz -- A.I.G. they ain't. As a songwriter friend of mine once remarked, "If you had a high aptitude for business, would you go into the music business? Come on. Those guys are at IBM, or selling laundry soap. The prospect of being able to meet Courtney Love and wear sideburns and earrings to work isn't going to sway them." To repeat, approximately: the number of earring weirdoes that are rolling in the dough is not significantly larger than the paper-thin cohort of wealthy musicians. (Correct me if you have hard data indicating otherwise, please!)

Why is easy to see. The business is not just a wild, no-borders, moron-magnet crapshoot for performers, but for everyone wanting in. Whether you're a label head or a club owner or a songwriter, the average experience is that you give it a go for 5 or 10 years then slink away like a whipped dog. Half the agents I've worked with over the last 15 years aren't agents anymore, and I'd say about the same proportion of promoters and clubs have gone belly-up. Most of the labels that were operating then are of course kaput. It gives me a little pride just to be standing.

If someone in "the business" does stumble on a pile of loot, it's very likely one time only. The four commonest routes down which people proceed after a sudden agglomeration of music-generated wealth: stake it all on the proposition of lightning striking twice, then move on to a better business; thank your lucky stars, squirrel the booty away somewhere shrewd, and then move on to a better business; stretch yourself out as long as you can on the reputation gained by a single brush with fame and grow ungracefully older while working in a succession of smaller and worse venues, until you die prematurely; go through the money as fast and enjoyably as possible and then either move to a better business or die prematurely, depending on how thorough was your enjoyment.

There's obviously fame and wealth to be had in the music business. But it's had by a smallish fraction of workers at the top 1%. All in all, ignoring all of that and focusing on creating worthy music while meeting your bills and needs, year after year after year, is not a bad strategy. Not coincidentally, it's my strategy, along with steering mostly clear of the monolith called "rock" in favor of a smaller and older but steadier, more loyal listenership. If you asked me for advice, I'd...tell you to get out of music right away, because it's way overcrowded. But if you were determined, if you had to do the thing at all, I'd recommend the modest risk-averse approach. Keep it small, work at the quiet margins rather than the high-traffic high-glamour neighborhoods. Try to keep your bills paid, and not to take unseemly pleasure in the higher-risk players flaming out around you as you soldier on year after year....

Just as disdain for the question, "How's the music business going?", literally interpreted by its recipient, doesn't necessarily rise from discreditable motives, asking it isn't necessarily dumb or callous. Business, especially the business that derives from intangible, fleeting inspirations, is an intensely fascinating topic. Not only is it the only thing about music that interests a lot of people, it's the only thing about it that seems to make much sense. Business. Figuring out people want, making it, pricing it above material costs, pocketing the difference. Easier said than done, maybe, but eminently logical and graspable. Predicting behavior, designing structures, executing blueprints: all these concepts that underlie the conversion of music to money can be described, tested, taught, and learned. Whereas music itself, when it works, and even when it halfway works, is quite confounding and resistant to a complete accounting. Just as well ask how an electron can be in two places at once as ask a songwriter, in all innocent curiosity, "What do you do first, words or music?" It's only logical that something must be first; and if you can't answer that, how can you say why this cadence should resolve but that one shouldn't, why an oboe here and a clarinet there, and so on? Yet no honest musician can answer these simple queries, and they're not just being cagey. The questions just aren't honestly answerable; the answers are so partial and the process so unrepeatable that it seems not worth discussing.

If only everyone could avoid talking about the substance of music, its epidemiology and characteristic traits, and just go to the brute mechanics of turning a buck from it. But who has much of intelligence to offer on this, either? If the path to the masses were knowable, it would be well-trod. See "fraction of one percent" above.

There's really a remarkable dearth of illuminating things that can be said about music. But it's irresistible to try, anyway. It's the talking about the business that is so goddamned dull.

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8 comments

  1. avatar Nick Barber Posted about 18 hours later

    So - did you get a new agent then....?

  2. avatar Jeremy Posted 1 day later

    "Whether you're a label head or a club owner or a songwriter, the average experience is that you give it a go for 5 or 10 years then slink away like a whipped dog."

    This rang so true to me I lol'd.

    Thanks for blogging. It's the only one I read.

  3. avatar Dante Aufierro Posted 5 days later

    Stay tuned for another episode of "Don't ASK Robbie" in which our intrepid hero actually provides a considered response to "How's it going"!! Next week, see the counting house tables upturned when he is asked "What's up" by a sullen fourteen year old...All this on "Don't ASK Robbie"!

  4. avatar Jack Posted 5 days later

    A typical conversation on the breaks at
    the jazz brunch I've been subbing on this
    month is about what gigs we've all had the week
    before and, inevitably, how bad the biz is.
    "Things ain't what they used to be". "Nobody
    comes out any more!", "There's no clubs any
    more."...
    This Sunday I offered that 25 years ago when
    these problems didn't exist for us, isn't it likely
    that 50 year old musicians were saying the same things?
    "Are any of these young Capitol Hill hipsters
    (fuck I hate that word) coming up asking if they
    can download our music somewhere?"
    When musicians last this long the ceiling gets lower and lower.
    I think sometimes about trying something modern...
    Getting electric drums, starting a weird hip hop project.
    Then I look in the mirror and remember I need to make
    those fliers for drum lessons and get some more cards made.
    Things ain't what they used to be but, essentially, we still are.

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