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Digital Killed the Recording Star?

Updated: Feb 7, 2021

In the dim, dark past it was said that video killed the radio star, but in the digital age it’s horribly unclear who exactly has killed whom. That said, it’s pretty clear that something is rotten in the state of local, original music..

Here’s the state of play from the perspective of an unsigned, as yet un-famous songwriter and recording artist.

I’ve read a stack of blogs and articles lately telling me that I can ‘make thousands by selling my music online’. I’ve read blogs peddling the merits of various online distribution platforms. I’ve read articles by marketing ‘gurus’, stating that anyone can market their music online and that synchronisation can make me a millionaire. I have to say… I’m not convinced.

The digitisation and globalisation of music, once touted as a huge opportunity for emerging recording artists to engage directly with the global marketplace — cutting out the complex and often one-sided contracts, the agents, the managers and even the recording labels — has not, if we are honest, created an even playing field for musicians. In fact I would (perhaps blasphemously) say, that the ‘spotification’ of music distribution has made getting played and getting heard more, not less, difficult for local, original musicians.

The endless, exhausting marketing hustle.

Sure, most of us who are operating in the digital music world (and I must stress that there are many, very talented musicians who are not), know that in order to be part of the ‘new’ industry; we need to know how to ‘work it’. We understand that every musician who seeks to be heard, but who doesn’t have access to huge cash injections to fund promotional campaigns, has to hustle.

We have to understand the distribution world — how to get ourselves uploaded to all the digital platforms, played on digital radio, blogged and reviewed by the anonymous online ‘influencers’.

We have to get super savvy with social media. We have to post, tweet, Instagram and snapchat all bloody day to reach an audience; to build a tribe. And we do. We spend inordinate amounts of time, often over and above our day jobs (be honest, how many local, original, unsigned musicians do you know that don’t have one to fund their musical habit?) marketing ourselves until we’re blue in the face.

But the problem here is, we’re artists. What we really want to be doing with our time is making music, not sitting at a desk writing blog posts, or staring at a device trying to figure out how to say ‘buy my album’ (without saying buy my album, because no-one wants to look egotistical) in an interesting way, in 140 characters or less..

A democratic music market?

Every day musicians are hearing how the music streaming marketplace has made our lives so much easier. It’s so easy to get heard these days. People from all over the world can find your music online. We all now have an equal chance of making it in the music industry. Hallelujah - streaming has democratised music!

But has it? Speaking purely from personal experience, I don’t think so. Perhaps for major recording artists the digital marketplace provides a new avenue for raising revenue for their music. Even for the emerging but popular artist, with a young and digi-savvy fan base, streaming revenue can add some (limited) value to a release. But for the unsigned, original recording artist who operates outside of the ‘youth pop’ digi-sphere, the truth is, what it’s really done is created a divide; a schism in the system, which has stripped away some of the few mechanisms smaller original artists had to monetise their craft.

Often we talk about ‘the 1%’ when we’re talking about global wealth distribution. Broadly, the 1% refers to the top echelon of society that holds a disproportionate share of capital, political influence, and means of production. I would argue that, in a sense, many streaming services mirror this — whether by accident or by design.

Popular international artists, with global followings, powerful representation and major marketing machines, still, and perhaps always will, receive the lion’s share of the streaming royalties, while local, original artists receive precious little. It’s a kind of musical Darwinism… only the strong (popular and well-marketed) shall survive; the small, independent voice drowned out by the global music marketing machine working on behalf of the recording industry and major labels.

Yes. Famous musicians work ridiculously hard. They tour. They record. They promote. But there are very lucrative commensurate rewards. Less so, for the not-so-famous.

In fact, in speaking to and working with a number of recording artists in Perth, Western Australia, it’s clear to me that local, original musicians are some of the hardest working humans in town. Many of them have a full-time day job. They write, rehearse and gig their original music. They graft, pound pavements and pull in favours to get local venues to give them a look in (after all — cover bands, low paid ‘open mic nights’ and DJ’s are far easier to sell to the traditional Perth pub punter and the venues that cater to them). They self-organise and self-fund tours and half the time drive the tour bus themselves. They market and publicise gigs until the wee hours of the morning, before getting up the next day to do it all again. Their weekends are consumed by music — creating, rehearsing, playing, and recording. I know a few local musicians who barely see their families, and have to schedule vacations and ‘home time’ around their music commitments.

The dirge of diminishing returns

Add to the effort, energy and financial drain of self-managing a band the cost of recording, which most often includes not only the recording, mixing and mastering costs — but also the cost of marketing the ‘product’ post production. Some artists also pay session musicians to rehearse and record (those not lucky enough to have collaborative bands who will work for a share of royalties — in the knowledge that the split itself could be meagre). Grants are increasingly hard to come by. I know a few local musicians, including ourselves, who have leaned on parents and loved ones to contribute to their albums, or crowdfunded their release. It can take years to make that money back through gigs and album sales.

And at the same time, fewer and fewer music purchasers or listeners want their music tangibly. The days of going into a store and buying a CD are almost over. Many people under 25 have never purchased a CD. CD stores are closing their doors — and only the very niche and quirky seem to have survived the digital download disease and the streaming sickness. Some stores have diversified — now selling clothes, urban giftware and vinyl to supplement dwindling CD sales. Like videos and cassettes, we will soon see compact discs go the way of the dinosaur. A few artists have turned to producing new vinyl, capturing the growing ‘retro’ market — but the high costs of production and freight eat into already meagre profits.

But for local, original musicians, the selling of physical product at gigs and on tour has traditionally been one of their few real sources of revenue. Often venues, particularly when dealing with original music, will offer a door deal only, and won’t directly pay musicians for their art. So for bands and artists to make money from gigs they have to do two things — market like crazy to get people paying on the door, and sell (physical) product. Difficult when there is no product to sell.

While it would seem that in the online world there is no shortage of opportunity, there is also no shortage of competition. Amongst the many millions of songs on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Tidal and other platforms, how do you get your song heard? If you don’t have a marketing budget because you’re still paying off your recording… how do you reach people? If you don’t have 8 hours per day to be online ‘selling’ your sound because you have to have a day job to fund your music habit, who’s going to hear it? And how on earth do you compete with the ‘studio machine’ that backs its artists with the power of money and massive marketing?

Even our stalwart local content advocate, the ABC has, in the last couple of years, cut some of its few locally and nationally produced radio shows that showcased local music; so it seems that even local and independent radio is finding it hard to compete. Meanwhile commercial stations, as ever, pay homage to the globally famous, and largely ignore local talent.

So while I agree that it is now possible to completely self-publish music, I’m not convinced that it is easier now to ‘get heard’, as a not-so-famous Australian musician in a globalised, digital industry. Is the digital music industry really as egalitarian as we are led to believe, or is it still a case of famous floats to the top while the rest of us bottom feed — singing our hearts out, waiting for the ‘big break’ that we can ill afford to fund?

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