By Liz Georges
For a while in the 1990’s, my best friend and I ran a DIY music magazine. Record labels sent me CDs. I didn’t pay for a concert ticket for almost five years, and I got to talk to all the artists I most admired about their craft. I learned a lot about how the music industry worked. Making it meant getting a record deal — the artist placed his trust in the record company to market and sell his music, so that he could focus on creating it. It’s an arrangement that should sound very familiar to most visual artists. It’s the same principle that drives most representation agreements with galleries.
When the digital music revolution began, everything changed.
Online music sharing sent the record industry into a tailspin. Artists chose sides. Some embraced the new technology. Others decried it. Everyone was confused. Record labels, desperate not to lose their dominance, resorted to all kinds of draconian legal means to assure the continued economic viability of their product. But there was no turning back the clock on file sharing technology. The Napster apocalypse had destroyed the tried and true economic model for music industry success. Over a decade later, musicians still have the same question: just how does one make money as an artist in this brave new world?
To answer that question, in 2010 the Future of Music Coalition initiated an epic research project that surveyed musicians from 25 different musical categories using several different vectors including oral interviews, online surveys and even review of participants’ actual financial records.
The findings of the study were eye-opening, and instructive. Many of the protestations of doom for musicians and the music industry in the post-apocalyptic era were shown to be myths. Most importantly, the study identified no less than 42 different revenue streams that are available to someone trained in music, including everything from old school income like royalty payments and record company advances, to revenue sources that no one had even heard of a decade ago, like You Tube partner programs and persona licensing in video games.
The new landscape for musicians after the Napster apocalypse is diverse and surprising. The mythical band that makes all its money off of touring? Of those musicians surveyed, 42% hadn’t played live at all in the prior 12 months, and those artists that did only recognized about 28% of their annual income from touring. Among those making a living full-time from their music, few sub groups recognized more than 20% of annual income from touring.
It is true that most musicians aren’t making much money from selling their music — but digital sales among most musicians in most genres is reported mostly as increasing over the past five years, with things like satellite radio and the iTunes store actually becoming legitimate revenue sources for a number of artists. Branding is becoming more important to some musicians, and fan-funding (yes we’re looking at you, Amanda Palmer) is increasing.
What does all this mean, and why should visual artists care?
There has been much whining by bloggers about the purported death of the gallery system and the rise of market-warping hedge funders skewing the environment for intelligent collectors. And yet, for all the hand-wringing and bloviating about how messed up the gallery system is or how hard it is for an artist to even get representation these days, the art world has not suffered near the kind of upending that the music industry has. And yet musicians survive and even thrive in the post-Napster apocalypse. Why? Because they were willing to be creative, not only in their craft but also in their revenue streams, embracing the new ways of making money.
The full evolution of the traditional apparatus that supports visual artists has yet be realized. But with emerging technologies, social media, and online retailing (to name a few), one thing becomes clear — change is coming — and when one thing disappears into the void, another thing will emerge to replace it.
As such, artists can’t depend on the gallery system to bring them wealth and fame anymore. The challenge now for visual artists is to exercise creativity, not just in their artistic practice but in how they sustain their livelihood. It’s up to artists to find the income streams that are available to them — the ones that have always existed but they’ve never tried, and the ones that are so recently invented that no one’s ever tried them. If the music industry can teach us anything from its experience, it’s that even if the apocalypse happens, what comes next need not be a zombie-filled wasteland.