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The Bottom of the Food Chain

From Behind the Pine Curtain

The Bottom of the Food Chain

“There’s not a moment’s rest at the bottom of the food chain. 

You’re always on the run at the bottom of the food chain. 

There’s never peace of mind at the bottom. 

We’re always running, running, running, running, running, running, running away.”

The Bottom of the Food Chain By iNFiNiEN

Normally I have a song in mind when I start a new column, but this time I had the idea but no song. So I went searching and discovered iNFiNiEN. They are a Philadelphia prog-rock band who to my ears sounds more like modern jazz than rock. What a cool discovery. Complex music, great vocals and smart lyrics. They are now one of my favorites. Just because I’m seventy and a folk/Americana artist doesn’t mean I can’t listen to a wide variety of music. I suggest you check them out.

DISCLAIMER: In no way should you infer from this writing that producers, studios, promoters, graphic designers, session players, bookers or managers are taking unfair advantage of artists.  Each one of these folks provides valuable services to our community. I am only lamenting the fact that while the aforementioned get paid for their services as delivered, artists on the other hand with the rise of streaming and the loss of CD sales income have much less opportunity to be paid fairly for the fruits their labors. 

So, this month we are taking about artists and where we stand inside the music industry. The idea for this column came from my visit last fall to Illinois and the annual Folk Alliance Midwest Region (FARM) convention. There were a lot of artists there as well as booking agents, promoters, managers, fans and many others. It was there, talking to others in the industry that created an epiphany for me: we (the artists) are the plankton at the bottom of the food chain in the ocean of the music industry. Everyone else; including record companies, streaming platforms, promoters, studios, agents, bookers, venues, and all the rest, are feeding off us. We create the product, yet we are often compensated less than any of the others.

I am not saying that the industry as a whole is taking advantage of artists, though some, such as streaming services, certainly are. Just as in social media, where, we the users are the product. In fact the average $0.004 Spotify streaming payout is distributed 80% to the artist and 20% to the writer. So unless you are the writer as well as the artist you will make even less. This means that it takes thousands of plays before you make any meaningful money. Compared to when we could sell CDs at shows for $20 a pop, in today’s streaming world you need 5,000 streams to make that same $20. I don’t know about you but it takes me a while to get that many streams, and when I play concerts, I sell few if any CDs as almost no-one has a CD player anymore. So that very significant revenue stream has virtually disappeared.

Because we are in such a position as artists, we should strive to do everything we possibly can ourselves. I personally create my own videos, maintain my own website (and a few others), manage my mailing list, do my own promotion where possible, and do my own booking. Yes, it is a lot of work, but I don’t have to spend my meager music income on those things. Plus, it gives me a few other outlets for my creativity.

The main difference between us and the higher on the food chain folks is that for the most part they get paid by the job; creating/maintaining websites, producing records, session work, promotion, booking, manufacturing and all the rest. They get paid when their job is done or in many cases in advance. But as an artist, we only get paid when we sell CDs/Vinyl, merchandise, get streamed, get radio airplay, secure music licensing, or perform. We are rolling the dice that our creations are interesting enough to others to induce them into spending their hard earned money. In addition, for every song we release we are in competition with the other 120,000 songs released to streaming platforms that same day. When we extrapolate that number, that comes to roughly 43 million releases a year. To sample even a tiny fraction of a percent of those releases is like trying to get a glass of water from Niagara Falls. How will anyone ever even know that your music exists, much less hear it?

The fact is that a new band better and even more creative than the Beatles were in their time, or name your own favorite band, might be releasing music regularly but unless by some astronomically unlikely fluke you happen across it, you would never know it existed. The greatest music ever recorded could have been released yesterday and no one would know. So much music and so little opportunity to be heard. Kinda scary ain’t it?

I wish I could say I had a solution, but I don’t. Music has quickly become a game where unless you have patrons then you better have a day job. I don’t mean that a day job is a negative thing,. Until, I retired from a corporate job, I funded my own music from the money I made doing work I didn’t really love. But, on the plus side, it allowed me to play the venues I wanted instead of the places where I was simply background music. It also allowed me to not compromise the art I was creating to fit into a pre-defined musical niche.

We once believed that when everyone was an independent artist with no gatekeeper to contend with the music business would be better. Well, we finally got what we wished for but the downside is that with the gatekeepers gone there is a gold rush of music creation. Just like the original California gold rush, where the real success went to those who provided services to the miners. Very few miners struck it rich or even covered their expenses, just as a very few artists earn much from the streaming game. To quote David Byrne and the Talking Heads; “Same as ever was, same as it ever was”.

So, my suggestion, and one I think you should consider, is to learn how to do as much for yourself as you possibly can. Create your own videos, create and maintain your website, record yourself, and do your own booking. Yeah, I know it is a lot of work and not directly related to your music dream but it is either that or spend your hard earned bucks to have someone do those things for you.

Once upon a time record companies and radio stations were the gatekeepers.They chose artists based on what they thought would make them money. Now the gatekeepers are each individual listener who pays a monthly fee for the opportunity of virtually unlimited access to music. From the listener’s perspective that is a wonderful thing, but from an artist’s perspective it ain’t quite so grand. In order to hear your music, first they have to find it. The old needle in the haystack conundrum.

In the end I guess the only thing I can say is to be careful what you wish for. We all dreamed of a day without record company gatekeepers but now that it has arrived it isn’t at all what we hoped for. I can only hope that streaming, at least as it currently is, is not the end of this progression. I cannot fathom what the next step will be but can only hope that it somehow gives more of the control back to the artist.

So up your skills by learning to do something you currently pay others for. Hopefully you can be not only plankton but also get a little higher up the food chain. Good luck and until next time.

Randy Lewis Brown can be reached from his website or via email. 

Randy Lewis Brown may be an over-the-hill, baby boomer and cranky old coot, but he is also an award-winning Northeast Texas-based singer-songwriter and self-proclaimed “performing philosopher”. Despite his years, and an early bedtime, he remains steadfast in attempting to decipher the intersection of spirit, faith, science and the human condition, always trying to maintain a sense of wonder and whimsy in his occasionally clever folk-Americana songs and stories.

Enjoy previous columns here: REVIEW: Randy Lewis Brown “Wind of Change”

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