Good Fans Listen; Great Fans Foster Creativity

CDs and stuff

Miranda Mulholland is speaking tomorrow (11/22) on “Redefining Success in the Digital Marketplace” at the Economic Club of Canada in Ottawa.  If you can, please listen to her speech (it will be livestreamed by Music Canada), but before then, please read below for why we think this is so important.

This past weekend, M and I took advantage of a rare free afternoon to go to the symphony.  One of the works on the program was a relatively new piece (2015) by American composer Christopher Theofanidis.  As I listened to the work (a really lovely one, by the way), it occurred to me that it does indeed take a village to create an environment where new music can be created – funding for the composer to write it and for the orchestra to perform it, and fans to pay to hear it live.

Now imagine what would happen if this (or any) composer wrote only what was funded by streams of his music on Spotify, with no other support and only a handful of people willing to pay to hear it performed.  Would he be able to compose at a high level?  Yet, this is what we are constantly asking musicians to do – to create at a high level, to tour and perform live, very likely at or below a subsistence wage.

I recently read a 2015 article from the Guardian, discussing how many CD sales and album streams would be required just for an artist to earn the US minimum wage ($1260 per month at the time of writing).  The writer included an infographic from Information Is Beautiful that I think is worth your read here:

Music Income Statistics

In particular, there are a couple of numbers I would call to your attention:

  • For Spotify, 1,117,021 plays are required just to make minimum wageOnly 2% of signed artists achieve this.
  • On YouTube, 4,200,000 plays are required.  Only 0.5% of signed artists achieve this.  (And these numbers assume that the music has been posted legally on YouTube – which is frequently not the case.)

Many music fans have transitioned to streaming their music because of the ease of use and the wide availability and variety.  If you read this site, you know that we often link to albums on Spotify.  I’ll be honest with you – I struggle with this, because I know that the artist will not earn a living from album streams, but I also know that people today are unlikely to buy music without hearing it first.  (I think the days of trusting a reviewer just on their feedback alone are sadly gone for good.)

For a long time, music fans – casual and otherwise – have had the perception that the musicians to whom we listen are making a comfortable, if not opulent, living.  However, artists such as Miranda Mulholland – who has already given one corker of a speech at the Economic Club of Canada in May, and will give another tomorrow – and Suzie Ungerleider (Oh Susanna, who touched on some of these issues in her interview with us) are beginning to articulate publicly what they’ve known for several years now: the digital age has been tremendously harmful to musicians, writers, and other creators.  The wide and often free availability of their work, coupled with the low income they earn from how most of us now consume music, has vastly diminished their earning power.  In other words, the digital economy has created a Value Gap (to use the term from Music Canada’s recent report) between the creativity of artists and the perceived willingness of the audience to purchase and support it.

Okay, but what can I do about this?

If you’re reading this post, it’s likely that you love music as we do, and have come to love the work of a variety of artists over time who have written and performed songs that are inextricably connected with memories throughout your lifetime.  You hopefully are earning a sustainable wage yourself, and you recognize that musicians, writers, playwrights, composers, and other creators have a similar right to earn a sustainable wage with the fruits of their creativity and labor.  So here is where you, as a fan, can start.  (Note: There are some great infographics on Miranda Mulholland’s advocacy page that have provided a starting point for these ideas.)

Don’t just stream it – save it and buy it.

So you’ve heard that terrific new album by Artist X on Spotify and you love it.  First of all, save the album on your streaming platform of choice (even better if you can do that on release day, as those numbers can really help the artist’s work get more exposure) – that’s free to you and costs nothing but a few seconds of your time.

Then, consider actually buying the album.  Take another look at the infographic above – it takes far fewer units sold in physical copy for the artist to earn income than from digital streams.  You also can hold that CD or vinyl in your hands; you can appreciate the artwork and lyric sheets; and you’re also supporting the store that carries that music (even better if you’re buying from an independent record store).  I’m old enough to recall spending hours as a child poring over album covers and lyrics while a record was spinning on my turntable – and that tactile experience enhanced my enjoyment of the music a hundredfold.  (Additionally, if your favorite streaming platform goes out of business, you won’t lose your music if you own a physical copy.)

Tell your friends about it.

This also requires nothing but your time and effort.  The vast majority of artists don’t have marketing teams; they market their own work (in addition to writing it, recording it, producing it, getting it burned onto CD, booking their live shows, etc., etc.).  But an engaged fanbase can be that marketing team – if you tell two of your friends about a great new artist you’ve heard, and they tell two of their friends, and so forth, that word of mouth can be a powerful help to that artist.  (If you listen to the radio, call and request that they play the artist’s songs, too – the more demand a station gets, the more likely they are to put that song into their rotation.)

Go hear live music (and take your friends).

Supporting live music is so very important for so many reasons.  Not only is live music a singularly wonderful experience, but it gives artists the chance to showcase their work and to share it with listeners.  Whether you’re attending a classical recital, a jazz club, or a rock concert, you’re guaranteed to have a one-of-a-kind evening that you just can’t replicate with a digital stream.  And yet, many people who listen regularly to music and consider it something they genuinely enjoy rarely if ever hear live music.  So… get out there and hear the music live!  While arena performances are super expensive, many of the artists we cover here play in smaller venues and hearing them live is quite affordable.  And when you go: consider buying some merch.  Don’t yet have the latest CD?  Buy it at the event.  Get a T-shirt (and then wear it places so you can tell people about the artist!).  All that goes to support the artist and their work.

Become an activist.

In Canada and the United States – and, I suspect, in many other countries – creators and government bodies alike are beginning to take a hard look at policies and laws impacting creators and their work, particularly around copyright.  Copyright laws are either woefully outdated in this digital age, or ineffective when it comes to protecting creators’ rights, or both.  Musicians, writers, and others are beginning to advocate strongly for changes in copyright law, but if we fans back up their advocacy work with some of our own, the squeaky wheel is far more likely to get the grease.

Especially if you’re in Canada, current copyright law is under review by the relevant boards.  Music Canada’s Value Gap report documents a number of reasons why current laws fail to adequately protect artists, and I commend that to your reading.

Once you’ve digested that, go over to the new I Value Canadian Stories website and use their tools to write a letter to your MP.  Be sure to highlight that while the flaws in current copyright law directly impact creators, they also impact fans… if musicians, writers, and playwrights can’t afford to create, what happens to arts and culture?

You and I benefit tremendously from the presence of music and the arts in our lives. 

For myself, music has been a literal lifesaver time and again – a refuge, a place of encouragement, a stress reliever.  Music has given me countless gifts in the course of a lifetime, and I feel so strongly that we as fans have it within our power to give back, and to support its continued existence, and to help foster the space and resources for artists not only to survive but to flourish.  Artists don’t need to do this alone – won’t you join us in this?

~ L


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