Musicians Are Worthless

The steady descent started with the first recording.

Think about it. What is music for us now? Music is the most readily available commodity in our lives. It plays on the subway trains from a caustic mixture of headphones, buskers, and inconsiderate narcissists and their varied speaker systems. It is in every shop, restaurant, grocery store, cafe, even on the street when cars drive past with their windows down. It creates a space for every individual with a set of headphones that is completely hermetic and cut off from those around them. It is on our laptops, computers, phones, soundsystems. It is purchased, it is streamed, it is unconsciously absorbed.

Picture a world of silence. A world where music was something that had to be experienced in person; where to hear something, you had to create it or be physically present when someone else created it. In the above picture, only the busker can claim any real connection to this form of listening.

Therefore, it stands to reason, that musicians for a very long time had a very tangible and valuable aspect to their work. They created music. They performed and create ambience for a party, they created music for all occasions - be it concert, congregation, or coronation. And as a result, they were invaluable to the society they filled.

Now, we musicians can’t understand why we’re not similarly valued. One of the most common complaints about musicians is the fee we’re offered quite regularly - that is, a rather metaphysical number of experience/exposure. And our retort? ‘Experience doesn’t pay the bills’. Then we share memes online that explain that when you pay a musician, you don’t pay £300 for two hours of their service, but for the years and years of practice and development. Or occasionally we celebrate when people respond with a witty retort to a gormless advertiser.

But rarely, do we actually question why we don’t get paid more. To be sure, musicians who have studied at any form of undergraduate or postgraduate level deserve compensation for their work, but fair compensation is unfortunately not included in the system we exist in.

Put simply, we don’t get paid because music doesn’t have value any more. Bollocks, you say. But I can’t hear you because I’ve just un-muted my laptop because the YouTube ad finished and now I can hear Kirill Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra play all of Shostakovich’s symphonies for free.

For free.

Yes, actual fact, music is completely free. Sure, there are some annoying waiting times (that can all be avoided with an ad-blocker), and sure quality isn’t that high, and sure we are therefore signing away our rights to not-be-ad-targeted even further. But apart from this, it is absolutely free. And therefore if it is free, how can we justifiably ask people to spend money on it?

If we take this understanding and concept as our starting point, only then as creators and performers can we start to think of a new approach, one with a real and concrete value that people will happily finance. If we understand that as classical musicians, our position in the world has vastly changed since the music we play was written, only then can we start to push for further developments. Since the advent of recordings, followed by radio, jukeboxes, Muzak, Walkmans, MP3 devices, and now endless streaming, we have been resilient - we have always been able to shake our fists at technology and blindly shouted ‘Don’t worry folks, this whole internet thing will pass!’. Except, it won’t.

Amanda Palmer gets it. In 2012, after splitting with her major record label, she launched a crowdfunding campaign that raised over USD$1.19M. And her music isn’t even that good… But her entrepreneurial attitude towards the industry allowed her to find a way to connect with her audience and fans, in a way that made them want to contribute. To summarise her talk (provided in the link), she finishes with “I think people have been obsessed with the wrong question, which is ‘how do we make people pay for music’, what if we start asking, ‘how do we let people pay for music?” Just the other week, Icelandic avant-garde singer Björk announced her new album will contain additional benefits for those that purchase it using cryptocurrency; whilst it has been almost ten years since Radiohead completely reversed the norm by offering their album In Rainbows as a pay-what-you-want model.

It’s time to wake up and realise that if we are to evolve with the dramatically changing landscape around us, that we have to realise that we have a starting point of financial worthlessness - and luckily, an incredible gift and product that can be nurtured and grown into something that not only counters the technological revolution, but works hand-in-hand in developing it.

This is just the beginning of the conversation. Now let’s get to work.