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How Music Fans Can Help Working Musicians

Music and the people who create it give me a great deal, especially these days when the country is filled with far too much hate and greed.  They give us hope, heart and lots of joy.  Frankly, I don’t think I can make it through the Trump administration without it.  I suspect many others feel the same way.

That makes it more important that music fans do everything we can to keep the music flowing.

A few years ago, I became concerned that I was hurting musicians I loved by using Spotify to listen to their music instead of buying their albums.  I reached out to a few working musicians through their Facebook pages and one of my favorites responded with thoughtful advice (it was a personal note so I don’t feel appropriate to share who wrote it.)

Thanks so much for writing and for your thoughtful question.  The short answer is this - the best way to support the musician financially is to buy their CD at their show; next is through online and real world record shops.  A distant last is Spotify - the revenue is negligible.  What I do is research with Spotify and figure out what I really want, and then I go buy it, either on iTunes or at the show; it can be a great tool to discover music.  But we live off Spotify?  Definitely not. That's my two cents as a full-time musician!  I wish the world was filled with conscientious music fans such as yourself.

That brief response has had an enormous impact on how I buy – and listen – to music.  Since then, I’ve followed that advice. I started, without guilt, to explore Spotify but then I buy albums I like – first at their show, next at an independent store and then through Itunes as suggested.  

But it also launched a deeper inquiry for me.  I go to lots of concerts, several festivals each year and follow many of the artists I listen to on Facebook and Twitter. I look up the touring schedules of the performers I want to make sure to see and I get pop-up notices on my Iphone about upcoming concerts of musicians I follow.   

I’m convinced that, in some ways, we are in a golden (platinum?) age of music – for music fans.   But I’m not as certain that is also as true for the seemingly limitless number of incredibly talented working musicians.   One of my favorite musicians told me that his group tours nine months a year.  He wants to get it down to six.  Another tweeted that she toyed with quitting because she was tired of always being broke.  

While making music must be as joyful an experience and job that someone could have, it also seemed to me that the life of a working musician is, in some ways, a hard one.  Bottom line is that musicians are working people who have to pay the bills, need health insurance, and go to the movies and on vacations with friends and family (although could be that staycations are more relaxing for musicians who are constantly on the road) like every working person. When they tell you from the stage about the “merch”  table in the lobby of the theater, they are serious. Selling albums, T-shirts and posters aren’t vanity, they are an important part of how they pay the bills and make ends meet – whether for themselves as solo performers or for everyone (on and off stage) in their touring ensemble.

As a “conscientious music fan” I wanted to know what else fans can do to support the music and musicians that we love.   So I started asking musicians I met.  I believe that fans can and should do much more to support the musicians who give so much to each of us and the world around us.   Here’s my list:

Be a word of mouth promoter

Every musician I spoke to told me that the most important thing fans can do is to spread the word. In a world of overflowing choices and channels, a recommendation by a friend is priceless.  Getting one fan at a time can grow a fan base exponentially if we all do it.   I’ve brought friends to concerts of musicians who were new to them. They are now enthusiastic fans for life.

And, of course, use social media. Share their songs, albums and insightful interviews – tag them so your friends can follow them also.  Follow your favorite artists and like and share their posts.  

If you like it, buy it

As I mentioned above, buy their albums.   In addition to the suggestions above about the best way to do that, my first buying choice is now to buy directly from the artist’s website. It’s a little more expensive but well worth it since the funds go directly to the artist (thanks to Mary Gauthier for that advice!)

There are increasing number of opportunities to pre-buy albums.  Itunes charges only when the album is released but it still guarantees strong early sales.  Pre-buying I’ve done directly from artists is charged immediately. That can only help with cash flow.  Some artists are using Pledgemusic, Kickstarter and even doing fundraisers to generate income early to help with costs of recording and production.  You’ll learn about these when you follow their social media pages.                                                  

There’s nothing like live music

There are two reasons to go to their concerts.  First, there’s nothing like live music and second because there’s nothing like live music for both fans and artists.  And, given how much time they tour, I’d guess that live shows are a significant part of their annual income.  I go to festivals that feature musicians I don’t know to hear great music and discover new music.  I’ve been to Pickathon and AmericanaFest recently and each time was introduced to musicians who are now some of my favorites including Margo Price, Courtney Marie Andrews, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Brent Cobb, Kaia Kater, Yola Carter and many others. Next year, I’m adding Folk Alliance International’s annual conference to my mini-vacations from work.

Support advocacy efforts to increase compensation from streaming services

The new world of music streaming is upending traditional royalty schemes for artists and needs to be updated.  Musicians receive payment each time we listen to their songs on Spotify, Pandora, YouTube (in some cases) or satellite and FM radio.  As mentioned above, the revenue from Spotify “is negligible” and no doubt many have made them their primary music listening platforms.    

As fans we need to listen to artists about the needed changes in compensation practices, copywrite laws and how to eliminate other obstacles for fair compensation.  I follow two coalitions that have been mentioned by artists I respect:  the Content Creators CoalitionMusic First, and of course the American Federation of Musicians.  I’ve heeded their call by signing petitions and writing letters in support of the Fair Play Fair Pay Act that has been introduced in Congress.   I’m sure fans could do more – there’s millions of us and we’re willing.

Finally, don’t wait for new artists to cross your path - seek them out

I’m constantly on the hunt for new music and have come up with a series of ways I find great artists who I wouldn’t have come across any other way.  My tastes these days are tilted towards Americana (especially artists who interpret the world around us and lift up issues of social justice) but these ideas can be applied to any genre – or worldview.

1.   Follow your favorite musicians.  Every musician I love is also a music lover so I check out musicians they follow and who they tour with.

2.  Find your curators.  At the top of the list is NPR music. Tiny Desk Concerts, produced by Bob Boilen, is a steady stream of new music of all genres in the intimate setting of Bob’s desk!   NPR’s Ann Powers’ reviews alone will fill you with enough great music for a lifetime.  Americana Music Association sends a weekly email that has so much good music, it’s hard to keep up. Streaming radio stations Folk Ally and WMOT Roots Radio are regulars at my house (and KEXP's Sunday morning blues show is a weekend ritual.)  Finally, there are great music periodicals and websites to explore – No Depression, Bluegrass Situation and American Songwriter for me. 

3.  Discography hunting.  After Amy Helm released  her first solo album in 2015, I found myself wanting more.  (She is incredibly talented in her own right, but I’ve been a lifetime fan of her dad, Levon, so I knew there must be more.) I found a website with her full discography listing every album she had performed on and I started listening – and buying.  It has been a treasure trove of new music and now I do the same for other musicians I want more of.   And don’t forget that many musicians have careers before you found them so go back and buy their earlier albums. 

4.  Search through the record labels and music producers of your favorite music.  There are lots of record labels today – small and large. Recently, I’ve found great music by looking through the catalogues that produce Margo Price (Third Man), The Birds of Chicago (Signature), Rhiannon Giddens (Nonesuch), Nicole Atkins (Single Lock) and Aaron Lee Tasjan (New West).  And I do the same for record producers.  I’ll seek out any album that Joe Henry or Dave Cobb produces.

5.   And, of course, your friends. I have a few FB “music buddies” who are also seeking and sharing great music.                  

There’s probably other things we can do. But the most important thing for us to remember is that there is no way that the $15 we pay for a CD or the price of a concert ticket matches the value we receive from the art and music that fills our world.    And don’t forget – if you like it buy it!