Misinformed Audiences & The Musician’s Facade


I think people are innately good. People like to do good deeds, want to be generous, are thoughtful and caring – but only when they know how to be. Sometimes, people act based on misinformation. And when it comes to how the music industry works these days and how musicians make their living, people are completely uninformed.

I was recently having a conversation with Neil Whitford, my Toronto guitarist, who is one of the most diplomatic and intelligent people I know. He said something that has really stuck with me. He said that he believes it is the responsibility of the artist to educate the public about the music industry.  And right now, if we may feel invalidated, that is because the public simply doesn’t know what really goes on off stage.

We musicians seem to always be griping about the state of the music industry, about how hard it is, how audiences don’t appreciate our work, how people have no problem spending $9 on a beer but will complain about paying a cover, and would rather pirate your album than buy it, thinking that just listening to it for free is at least some “exposure”… and … isn’t that all musicians really want?

Well, no. Just like everyone else, we want to be respected and it seems that this era of music is void of the same cultural respect that our parents remember.

You wouldn’t believe how many times I have been told after a show that I just need a label and then I would be famous. I appreciate the intent behind that comment but it is naive. Such comments make it apparent that musicians have not been sharing the facts of music-life with our audiences. We have not been honest about our situation. In fact, what we are are very good actors.

I believe that you should not be angry at someone for something they are doing that is hurting you until you have told them and given them a chance to change their behaviour. I think our society is hurting the music industry without intention or awareness.

And who is stopping this flow of information? It is the musicians themselves and their vanity that stems from the pressure felt to seem on top of the world at all times, no matter what.

Although we all struggle, with the decline of the music industry there are no longer labels out there ready to pick up an emerging artist with great talent and invest money into their career just because they believe people will buy their album and come to their shows once the label has put in the marketing power to gain exposure. And they are right to act this way because it is true: people do not buy music the way they used to, so all facets of the industry are struggling and have had to cut back immensely.

But back to the artists, this means that these days we, the musicians, have to build our following first, before any label will ever pay any attention to us. Thus, we feel as if we can never let anyone know how hard it is for us. Life is always great (?) and our careers are always skyrocketing (?) because, if not, who is going to help us further our career? What label or booking agent is going to put their neck on the line unless the future looks pretty much guaranteed? Sure, everyone wants to be the first to discover the newest talent, but believe me, they feel much safer jumping on board when that talent has a serious track record.

So you, the public, don’t ever get to see the truth. We are masters of the facade. Never tired, never in a bad mood, never complaining, never broke … although we usually always are – dead tired, grumbling and broke. In a way, we pretend to be superhuman. But this is ridiculous! And I am realizing that I can’t keep up this façade. I, like all musicians, am human and – although I love what I do more than anything – I feel the need and the responsibility to let you know just what this career entails so that maybe you won’t be so put off by paying a cover, or buying a physical album so that we can keep doing what we are doing.

It’s not all about money. It’s about validation, respect and appreciation and in our screwed up society the tangible form of these concepts is money. You demonstrate your priorities and what you believe to be more worthy by where you spend your money.

Ask yourself where you put that worth. Is it on the newest Toms? Is it on your favourite bar? A new purse? Some special brand of bottled water? Cab rides?

And don’t think I am above this. Even being a musician, I am asking myself the same questions because this needs to change.

Somehow music has become an unappreciated “backdrop” to our lives. Although we love and need it and can’t imagine a day without the soundtrack to our bus or bike ride, somehow we still don’t get it. We don’t realize how much of a necessity music is in our lives and therefore, we unintentionally take the people who make it for granted, casually assuming that validation in the form of clapping is enough. It isn’t.

We don’t realize just how much experience, pain, concentration, strength, courage, ingenuity, tears, disappointment, criticism, heavy lifting, coordinating, trial and error, debt, sacrifice (in love and life), and personal financial investment… goes into making that music …

How many sleepless nights, colds, hours in cramped cars, long repeated rehearsals and more that go into taking some notes, emotions, words, combining them and turning them into songs that eventually land on the stage in the form of a cohesive piece of work that, when combined with other songs – each of which required the same painstaking dedication to be born – becomes a smooth, integrated concert that seems to flow effortlessly … for your entertainment.

These songs then end up on an album that sells for only 10 or 15 bucks at the merchandise table.

But what actually went into that process?

Well, the songs have been written so what’s next? We need to record. Well, that’s easy nowadays, isn’t it? No, it’s not. Really.

First, create a reasonable budget, and find a producer, which on the low side of things is going to be about $10,000, and that is only if you can find someone who – although they have already invested tens of thousands of dollars on equipment and a studio (whether rented or owned) – bills you less than they deserve to earn because they just truly believe in you and your music.

You still need the people who play on your album. Let’s hope you’ve made friends over the years with exceptional musicians cause you’ll be needing friends here for sure. Perhaps you are extremely fortunate: surrounded by musician-friends who want you to realize your dreams and believe your work deserves to be put in the world – so they agree to play on your album for only a small fraction of the pay they actually deserve. So, now we are at about $12,500.

Let’s skip over all the technicalities of recording. All I need to say is – as much fun as it is, it is no easy endeavour. It is a tedious, slow, and demanding process.

Okay. So we have 10 songs that are awesome and we are so happy about. Hmm … now we need (at the very least) to get it mastered. This is what makes it sound like what you hear on the radio: loud and big! What sucks is this also costs money, so once again you need to find yourself someone equally hit by the decline of the industry who desperately needs all the business they can get. So they have a special “indie” rate which is, say, $2000 for the whole album. (Keep in mind you can easily spend $1000 per song if you wanted to.)

Now, we’re at $13,500.

Then there is the actual CD.

We need graphics. It has to look pretty. Hire a designer for $1000.

We need to manufacture say 1,000 for our first round That’ll be about $1,800.

Now we’re up to $16,300 and this is most likely coming out of the pockets of … guess who?

No, not the label. The artist. Even if you do have a label and they pay for it, this sort of cost is recoupable (for the label) and the artist will have to pay it back eventually.

And then there is press because nobody will buy your album if you don’t promote it. So that’s what? Maybe $3,000 for 3 months. Now we’re creeping up to $20,000.

But don’t think it ends there. Remember, there are costs to playing live to promote the CD: travel costs for you and your musicians, food, accommodation, rental cars, gas, staging, lighting, sound, instruments, insurance!!! etc. And don’t forget, venues take a big cut of ticket sales. The artist is likely only taking home somewhere between 50 to 75 % of the door.

Just to be fair, however … If you happen to be Canadian like me, you are lucky enough to have the slight possibility of receiving a grant that will help cover some costs. But do not think this is easy either. The grant writing process is tedious and time-consuming so a lot of musicians find it too daunting or are stretched too thin to add this to their plate, so they have to hire professional grant writers who charge 15% of whatever the grant total is. And that is only if you are one of the very fortunate applicants. There are many more who are turned down.

Then as you get bigger and busier, you realize you can’t do everything yourself. You can’t book shows, write songs, coordinate rehearsals, bookkeep, plan routes, plan recordings, design websites, graphics, etc ., so hopefully, you find a manager who can help. That’s another 15 to 20% percent of your gross income. Then you need to find a booker and when you do, there goes 15% of gross revenue from all shows.

Then there is the label. Let’s just say you paid for your own album, as I have done, and score some licensing deals (sorta like the label rents your album from you for a period of time). You then have to buy your albums from them, to sell at your shows, so you can net about half of whatever album sales you make at the concert. See? Things aren’t sounding so rosy anymore, are they?

Oh, but what about iTunes and Amazon? Well, that’s another story. Just take a look at this graphic breakdown from informationisbeautiful.net of how online sales pay the artist …

Badabing badaboom, hocus pocus, what is the average annual income of the Canadian indie artist?

Drum roll, please…

Between a whopping $7,228 and $9,336.

Read more in this disheartening article from the National Post.

So, my friends, I don’t mean to gripe.  Well, I am —  but that is not the intention of this post.

Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do more than anything and the people I know around me can surely attest to that.  There is nothing that makes me happier than playing on stage or hearing my ideas come to fruition, rehearsing or writing by myself.

My intention is to inform you because I believe that if the public knew more, they would want to be more participatory rather than passive music consumers.

You’ve heard it time and time again, but the arts are an integral part of our society so please don’t neglect or take them for granted. Please take the time to show your appreciation and respect for the artists you love.

I love you all.  There is nothing more fulfilling than feeling the reciprocal energy between me on stage and you the audience.  We develop a relationship in that short period of time and that for me is incredibly important.

With that, let me close this with a few tips on music consumption:

1. Come out to concerts if you love the music. Remember, a music career cannot exist without a physical audience.  Show your support in person, not just online.  Music is about connection and so much of that is missed when you miss the live aspect.

2. Remember that 10 to 20 bucks isn’t much for an album or entrance, that you spend that on a few coffees, a beer or two, entrance into a club on the weekend, a night out at the movies with popcorn.  Instead of buying 2 beers or one cocktail, buy a CD for yourself or as a gift.

3. Buy CD’s off stage rather than downloading via iTunes/Amazon because, as shown in the diagram, online sales help the big companies more than the artists you love.

4. Don’t assume that it’s all good for the artists.  Even if what you hear is, “Everything is AMAZING!”, I promise you there is a lot you are not hearing.

5. Take the time to interact with the musicians you respect, follow them on their social media sites and spread the word to your friends.

Now that labels require some sort of proof that an artist is successful on their own before investing in them, the first thing most labels ask these days is, “What are your social media numbers?”  They assume this to be a good representation of future success. Although more followers on Twitter or likes on Facebook or views on Youtube don’t necessarily mean more talent, don’t assume that these things are frivolous.  As much as I wish they didn’t, let me tell you, they matter.  They really do.  So like, follow and share;  share their videos, their name, and help them get exposure, and then let their work speak for itself.

6. Call your radio stations and request the music you want to hear. Don’t let the radio dictate what you like.

Anyway, I hope this clarifies a few things for you and thank you for taking the time to read this!

Also, please chime in on this as I would love to hear your thoughts.

And, if you have any links to information pertaining to this blog, send ’em on over!

I love you all loads!