It’s never been easy to make a living as a musician. But there was always a dream: to become a star on the strength of your talent and your music. The Internet is a rude sandman, however, and today that dream is a lot more convoluted.
No longer can a would-be rock star follow the once-accepted checklist: (1) sign with a big label, (2) get a hit, (3) buy mansions and cars. The number of ways a musician can make money is now varied. The question, for many musicians still trying to make a go of it in the industry, is whether those many sources can add up to something sustainable.
In 2010, the Future of Music Coalition, a nonprofit group that advocates for musicians, decided to survey more than 5,000 musicians to find out the answer to that question. The study, which is ongoing, has found 42 different sources of revenue for musicians. Fifty-six percent of respondents felt the Internet made it possible for them to manage their own career. Sixty-four percent said it also made the music world more competitive by creating “an overwhelming amount of music that consumers are now also bombarded by,” says Jean Cook, one of the study’s authors.
At this year’s South by Southwest music conference, I spoke with many young musicians who are navigating the new reality of the music industry. And as the Future of Music Coalition’s report suggests, many musicians are questioning the entire checklist, starting with the very benefit of a major record label. Raka Dun and Raka Rich, of the Oakland, Calif., duo Los Rakas, release their music via iTunes, but you can also download a free, legal version of their new EP, Raka Love, via Bandcamp.
“Even though people go on iTunes and support our music, we give it away for free and then the shows — the touring, the shows, the merch — is where we get our income from,” says Dun. Add licensing of the group’s songs to movies, TV shows and commercials to that list, says Rich.
Japandroids, another young duo, put out their music via a label — the group’s sophomore album, Celebration Rock, comes out on Polyvinyl Records in June — but drummer David Prowse says selling music is nowhere near the top of their list of priorities.
“It is pretty funny, ’cause a guy from our record label is standing right beside me and he probably doesn’t want to hear this, but we don’t really care whether we sell records, you know? We just want people to hear the record,” Prowse says. The Internet has done the job of exposing Japandroids to a wide audience — just a few days before it arrived in Austin to play at SXSW, the band played multiple shows in Brazil. “We’re definitely living our dream. I mean, we’re incredibly lucky to get to do what we do.”
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