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June 2024
Vol. 23, No. 9

Smoke Signals

How to Solve the Music Business

by Jeff BerkleyMay 2023

Well, I guess it finally feels like we’re back from the pandemic for the most part. Not everyone is comfortable with live shows yet, but I’d say we’re 80% back. Sorry for the math.

We’ve returned to a music business that was already in flux. Life is change. Everything must adapt to survive and that’s what’s happening now.

I don’t mind saying out loud that I’m 53 years old. I only say that because people my age remember a different music business. I’m not gonna come close to saying it was better. There were so many obstacles to amazing, authentic music. Just getting your music recorded or released was beyond reach for most much less getting it heard. The business was presided over by record labels and management companies who would arbitrarily decide what to lean into. Radio was run by “consultants” who were just trying to figure out how to sell ads.

BUT: There was a way to sell music. Folks would buy music and cherish their collections like gold. Musicians could make a living wage and support a family and feel like they were worth something to society because there was actual monetary worth attached to albums, 8-tracks, cassettes, and CDs. Is that okay, though?

Should art be only worth whatever money you can get for it? Of course not. Actually, the more I think about it the less I want my music to have some limiting cash amount to give it importance. I want people to judge it on the way it makes them feel in their heart. Money and consultants and businesses don’t work that way.

But dammit! Those pesky bills! I keep trying to send a song to my bill collectors as payment, but they just don’t take that currency. They actually want money.

So many of us have devoted, our lives—and all of our energy—to becoming pretty damn good at this. I am in the business of playing music for people and having them pay me money for that. I like to think that I give them their money’s worth, something to think about, as well as things to feel and talk about with each other. Is that worth money anymore? It’s probably not up to me to decide, but we still need to live in this world and make it from month to month financially.

Like it or not, the monetary value of music, musicians, and art has been slashed! For better or worse, music listeners pay Internet database companies to hold their music for them so they can hear it wherever and whenever they want. It pretty great, but it’s all for a small monthly fee that we artists and music makers don’t get any of. This obviously has its pluses and minuses as well.

The playing field has never been more level in some ways. Radio, radio consultants, record labels, and business people don’t have as much to say about what becomes popular anymore. If you can get your music out and get it seen on the Internet, you can have your music heard. If it strikes a chord with the culture, it will take off! You probably won’t get paid much for that. You may have other people pay you in other ways around the music business, but your actual music really isn’t worth much. At least not monetarily.

So back to that nagging question of our bills and how to pay them and still be a professional musician.

This is where I think it helps to not have experienced the way the music business was in the past. In other words, younger folks who weren’t around for the old music business model don’t have this chip on their shoulder. They weren’t devalued. They have only known the way the business works now. That’s the way we older folks need to be thinking. Forget about the way things have worked in the past. That’s over. There’s no reason to feel badly about it or feel slighted in any way. The culture has changed, and we need to change with it. “Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command! Your old road is rapidly aging! Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
‘cause the times, they are a-changin’” Fucking Dylan keeps being right! It just works differently now. I believe there is a way to move forward, but we just have to change our model.

I should pause here and say that I believe there is still a way to make a living playing cover songs in bars around town. Folks love to hear a great cover band and bars can sell a lot of liquor around that idea! Thank goodness that part of the business is still thriving. So many of my friends and music family make their living that way. However, making a living writing, recording, releasing, and touring with original music is a different story. Thing is, The Biz part of that has never been a picnic.

The idea of being a “professional” musician has changed. There are so many young people I know who don’t even think of musician as a job. It’s something you do when you get off work. I actually meet lots of wonderful young musicians, who feel like making money at music makes it dirty somehow. I don’t think I can argue with that. Having to make your living at your art changes the art. There’s no denying that. Wouldn’t it be cool if we didn’t have to think of turning art into money somehow?

For me, at my age, with what I’ve seen in my life, that sounds shitty in some way. It sounds unfair. It sounds like I spent all this time and effort, without some kind of pay off. The thing is that’s true. So okay, now what? Well, that’s simple. Get over it and move forward. Stop blaming what’s happened and figure out where you are. We can’t keep trying to revive this old and dying idea of what the music business is supposed to be.

Music still creates love and magic in people. That will always be true and as long as that’s true, people will be clamoring for it. People will always want to hear a world-class musician playing for them. They will always be moved to spend money on it if there’s a clear, concise, and clean way for them to do that. Right now, things are a bit up in the air. It’s the wild, wild west out there, and if you can find a way to monetize your art, go, go, go!

I think things are just gonna have to change with regard to recording, releasing, promoting, and touring. I don’t know how it’s going to change. I think it’s going to be less about traveling and more about affecting your area. We are all Southern California artists. There are tens of millions of people here. I’m not sure we have to travel anywhere to create excitement and make a fan base. I think the answers are still out there to be discovered. I think that there is a way forward. I think there is a lot of money out there that folks might donate to a nonprofit organization that puts out music. A place that allows musicians to spend their time making music. That’s the way record labels and management companies worked in the olden days. All the money came from sales of music. Now the money would have to come from benefactors or t-shirt sales. Or some other places. So okay, let’s get to it. There are literally millions of people, much much smarter than I am who can figure out the details here.

So, It’s time to get up off the mat. Let’s get over it and figure out the way forward together. We have to completely obliterate the memory of whatever the music business was in the past and lean into the magic of music again. It’s gotta all generate from that. That’s where it came from before. Rock ‘n’ roll happened, and it created excitement as well as a whole industry around it. It got all screwed up—based on all the wrong things—and now we have the chance to start again. Let’s not screw it up this time!

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