Column

Easy Ed's Broadside

Exploring music without a map.

Since 2009, Ed has shared his thoughts on ND about music that touches him, and rambled hither and yon about what else is on his mind.

Easy Ed's Broadside

Exploring music without a map.

Since 2009, Ed has shared his thoughts on ND about music that touches him, and rambled hither and yon about what else is on his mind.

Musicians: The Haves and the Have Nots

Amen, brother. The relative hours per week I put into, and compensation I get out of, my day job (designer) and my music career (singer-songwriter) put me in the category of an amateur musician, but I know a ton of musicians who are indisputably professionals, and it's brutal out there for them financially. We're talking about people who have put in thousands of hours to get to where they are, and who practice their craft at a ridiculously high level.

Anything that brings attention to this horrific inequality gets the thumbs up from me.

Dale, my thoughts are with you.  I cannot imagine the financial hardship that most singer/songwriters endure and in my not so humble opinion the unknowns (have nots) are much more accomplished artists than the crap that gets shoved down most folks throats.  I will continue to support this group as much as I can with CD purchases and attendance at the small venues where they appear.

Strictly amateur, but I know what it must take to keep playing while trying to pay the bills. Makes me glad my playing is just for fun. A day job is so much easier to keep at, than trying to make it as a musician. I envy those who have heard the call, but I couldn't take the frustration.

And I'd still rather see any of  a dozen local musicians live, and purchase a CD at the show, than pay a small fortune for  anyone on the list.

Amen Daniel.  I was relieved to see that I don't own a single CD by anyone in the top 30.  Such rotten fruit.

Great piece, Ed, and worthy of further exploration. Think of Michaelangelo spending huge amounts of time cultivating patrons, or Shakespeare having to rip off plays for the Queen's pleasure. Perhaps the wandering minstral who was, as W.S. Gilbert said, "A thing of threads and patches," is the best model of all. It seems that artists have always suffered for their art. In the case of reaching for greatness, perhaps suffering is a minimum criterion. Meanwhile, your list proves the value (financial and in celebrity terms) of finding a popular common denominator which makes one's work both accessible and, in most cases, not eternal. I don't see Bob Dylan on that list, although I understand there's a serious effort afoot to garner for him a Nobel Prize in literature. Meanwhile, Ben Yagoda's The B Side suggests that with songs, as well as most other art, will be lost to the future because they don't deserve to last. Thanks for the fine column.

This is what is called a Winner-Take-All economy.  It happens in a lot tech dominated industries where the work product is easily and cheaply reproducable.  When every town had a Vaudeville house or two, they needed a lot of performers to keep things going, and theatres needed lots of actors before there were movies and the same cast could be seen every hour everywhere around the world.  The difference in quality between the most successful performer and the day jobber may be very small, but today if everyone wants "the best" they can get it.  That leaves the next best scrambling.  It also implies that a competitor has to work very hard for a shot at the gold ring that is very valuable, but the odds of success and any payback at all are minutely small.

I also like your suggestion about a pool for artist health insurance - perhaps it could come from licensing fees that are broadly collected.  I suspect that while the individual artists on your list a doing very well for themselves, the numbers you show are gross a before taxes.  Only a fraction of that gets to be enjoyed by the named individual.  For many on your list, success has been life long.  For maybe a third of them, and probably more than half of the next 30, success will be fleeting and they would be well served by saving most of their current gains.  I remember Ringo Starr saying on the Beatle's first tour of America that he would open a beauty salon with his earnings after the fuss died down in a year or two.

 

Actually I think that the net to these top 30 is quite large in terms of actual dollars.  Also don't assume that because they are "successful that they are better, more accomplished than those less successful.  I can assure you that they are not.  I would think that anyone who is a member of this site would realize that.  Most of the artists promoted here are veritable unknowns to the unwashed masses.  It is possible that I misinterpreted your post and if I did I apologize but it appears that your posting is contrary to the spirit of the article.  These struggling artists are not stuggling because they are less talented.  They are struggling because the deck is stacked against them.   It always has been and probably always will be.

 

Taking your qualitative point that music is desirable as such, a better model than an industry cross-subsidy and which avoids the question why non-US artists whose home country taxes support local free at point of use health care should subsidise the system the US has chosen to have, is the Canadian (possibly less so now than it was) approach of higher general taxation coupled with a system of grant and other support for start-up musicians especially when it comes to helping them succeed overseas.

In the end the artists higher up the table are simply the ones whose fans buy more of their music.  Why should a teenage Belieber's pocket money be partially siphoned off to subsidise someone whose music she/he hasn't even heard of.   

A better source of subsidy would be the intermediaries who suck money out of the fan-artist loop whether it's the record companies, the streaming services (inc Google/YouTube) or even the bar and restaurant owners unwilling to fork out even the minimum wage for the entertainment.

It's not going to happen and the main reason it's not going to happen is that way more people want to make a living out of music than there are livings to be made and there are enough self employed interns working for nothing or less to provide a base level of entertainment.  Sad but true.  As "discerning" (read know what I like and happy to pay for it) fans the best we can do is try and make sure we cut the middle people out wherever possible, buy direct.

 

The fact that the teen doesn't know the struggling artists his money is supporting and so this is unfair to the teen is a specious argument.  I paid a lot in federal income taxes for 2014 but I have no idea where my dollars are actually going.  You could draw up a typical pie chart of federal expenditures but even that doesn't really tell you where my dollars are going.  I dare say that at least some of my money is being spent where I don't want it spent but that is the nature of taxes and fees.  Unless you go to a show and buy a CD then almost all of the time an artist has some marketing arrangement which sucks dollars from their pocket.  I buy a lot of CDs and most of the time you have to go through Amazon.  This is the arrangement that the artists or his management team has decided is the best way to sell their CDs.  The marketing companies do serve a purpose.  And attacking the distribution channel does absolutely nothing to correct the gross unfairness of the gross concentration of great wealth in the hands of a very few muscians, some of them absolutely horrid.

Inspired by the quote "I cried because I had no shoes. Then I met a man who had no feet."

"I starved because I was a musician. Then I met a man  who was a poet."

 

 

Love your quote, man.

Man, I remember two shows I went to see a long time back when I still lived in Minneapolis. One was an in-store appearance by Big Sandy and the Fly Rite Boys, the other the Bottle Rockets.

Big Sandy was way late for their show and folks were milling on the sidewalk outside of the store on Nicollet Ave. When they finally arrived, it was in an old yellow school bus with hangers strung across a rope with their clothes on them. It was a beat up piece of sh** bus and I remember how sad I felt that these talented musicians traveled is such poor conditions.

Around the same time the Bottle Rockets were playing a bar on the West Bank of MPLS. They too, were late because their van had broken down in the inclement winter weather when they were trying to get to the show from Chicago. 

These and other bands are so much better than the ridiculous conditions they travel in. At another show, the Bottle Rockets again, Brian Henneman broke a string but luckily had a second guitar with him. He asked, since they had no roadie, if there was someone in the audience who could change it. My friend Ernie Batson (Mighty Mofos, Hypstrz) raised his hand and the crowd cheered since they all knew who he was. At that show, the Bottle Rockets stopped playing until someone in the crowd bought them a round of tequila. Which many folks were glad to do. But it was indicative of their financial straits.

Anyway, there're probably a million similar stories. Talented people who make our lives better living in crap conditions.

Any way at all to change this, count me in.

Mark

 

"there is simply a staggering amount of money in the hands of just a few"...yep...that probably summarizes more than just the music business, Ed.  That's partially because of the "income redistribution" that has gone on over the last 4 decades, eroding much of the middle class along the way, but I digress, and that doesn't keep us on the music track does it?  things never were great for the majority of musicians out there, even when there was a middle class...

Another fine piece Ed...glad that you made the deadline...interesting track form the Kit-Kats too...

Jim, you hit the nail on the head.  The plight of these talented but struggling musicians mirrors society at large.  Would anyone suggest that these singer/songwriters don’t work hard or that their financial condition is simply their just desserts?  Of course not.  They slave at their art in terrible conditions with the only real compensation the adulation of a few hardcore fans such as myself.  I continue to curse the unfairness of all of it.  The errosion of the middle class which started over 30 years ago has also effected the music biz over the same period maybe even earlier.  In the late '60s and early '70s there was a lot of diversity in music.  Even the underground music scene seemed more robust.  Struggling musicians didn't struggle with the same desperation that happens today.

Griffheel

A world where Molly Cyrus makes more money than a coffee shop waitress is out of balance. But, hey, it's also a representation of democracy. The masses voted with their hard earned ducats and bought her records.....

This posting really struck a chord with me.  I’ve been fighting a war since 1970 promoting virtually unknown artists, the” have nots”, to people who only listen to the “haves”.  In the past 45 years I’ve lost battle after battle but I still remain unbowed.  The latest example of this was a trip down to Charlotte to The Evening Muse to see Rod Picott and Jess Klein.  We paid $10 a ticket.  I have a musical library heavily geared to the singer/songwriter.  These two are amongst the finest singer/songwriters I’m acquainted with.  The audience consisted of 30 or so folks.  I wanted to scream and beat my head against the bar.  How can this be?  30 people?  This, while mega venues continue to be filled for acts that haven’t done anything new in 35 years or make a living off of doing covers.  I still scream out inside my head “How can this be?  Why are the masses attracted to such crap?”  Now back to Jess and Rod.  I don’t know what the arrangement was with The Evening Muse but the total gate was $300 or so.  Why do we persist in starving these superb talents?  I will continue to promote what I think is good to the unwashed and hope for a convert along the way.  I like the concept of the “haves” providing health insurance to the “have nots”.  They certainly have the money to do so but I doubt that this concept will gain any traction.  The nature of wealth is to keep as much as you can.   Not that there aren’t exceptions but generally the wealthy fight to keep every penny.  Otherwise why are there so many tax cheats amongst the “haves”.  I have a cousin who is a multi-millionaire.  Even with all of his wealth he is still registered as a resident of Florida which has no state income tax.  He hasn’t spent 10 nights in Florida in the past decade.  He owns a condo that he almost never uses.  I’m firmly in the middle-class or what’s left of it and pay state income taxes.  This money, if left in my pocket, would mean a lot to me.  The tax savings my cousin accrues from lying about his state of residency, in the whole scheme of things, means very little to him.  Sorry for the verbosity and multiple tangents but I think it is all somehow connected.

Nice to wake up this Saturday morning to discover this post has struck a chord with many of you. Appreciate your comments. Let me add a couple of additional thoughts and clarifications. While a vast majority of those thirty artsist on the Forbes list are not ones that I listen to or in some cases even recognize, I do not begrudge any of them for being able to tap into a motherlode of money. Someone mentioned Miley Cyrus...I like her. And I like Taylor Swift too. There's no need to take a swipe at popular muscians just because they perform music that we might not like; I embrace all art, whether I get it or whether I don't. The other thing is that while I would like to see a flatter music economy that benefits, supports and encourages more musicians...it won't happen in my lifetime. We are entrenched in a free market system of trickle down economics, and a societal shift to value and subsidize the arts will move at glacial speed. But one thing I do know in my heart, and someone also brought up, is that this concentration of wealth in the hands of a few is a problem across the spectrum and there will come a tipping point where the 'have nots' will join together and force us all to address the failure of an economic nightmare. They used to call that a revolution. 

"They used to call that a revolution. "

  And now they call it a riot, senseless violence, gang warfare, hooliganism, vandalism and, if it still keeps going, terrorism.   The front line may move but the reaction remains the same. 
     

Whoa, wait a minute now.  Don't confuse what has happened in Baltimore with deep societal problems.  A democracy is absolutely dependant on a robust middle class.  The absence of a middle class in most of Central and South America is the basic reason that democracy has not thrived in those countries.  What can happen where virtually all the money and power is concentrated in the hands of a very small plutocracy is that the masses push for change, violenty or nonviolently.  Stop now if you are about to call me a communist.  I'm not.  I'm a realist.  You must be aware of the struggling middle class in this country.  It continues to shrink as middle-classers slip down the economic ladder.  Adjusted for inflation those in the middle class are actually making less than their counterparts did 30 years ago.  The wealthy are much more wealthy when adjusted for inflation when compared to their counterparts 30 years ago.  Back to Baltimore.  I agree that those taking part in the riots were thugs.  There is no other rational way to come to another conclusion.  But that group has little to do with economic policy and politics in this country.  The whole race thing and the blight of many inner cities is a discussion for another day.  All that has nothing to do with this post.

I wasn't referencing Baltimore.  This was the language used by the Thatcher government to denounce striking workers during the 1980s and again to attack those demonsrtating against the poll tax in 1990.  The same language was used against students protesting a tripling of tuition fees in 2010/11.  Only when a revolution is successful does the nomenclature change.  

On the whole musicians won't revolt because (a) they're doing what they want; and (b) in most cases they have the choice of doing something else.

RP N10,

My apologies,  I misunderstood your reference.  You are correct.  The winners always get to write the history books; one of the perks of victory.  I wouldn't suggest that musicans could initiate a successful revolution.  There are way too few of them.  Any reference I've made in this post to revolution or revolt was made in regards to society at large.  If the middle class continues under assault due to politics and bad economic policy then something has to give.  Unlike the struggling muscians there are a lot of middle class folks in this country.  The wealthy have to come to the conclusion that it is in their best long term interest to support more progressive tax policy.  Unfortunately our tax policy has become more and more regressive as CEO pay has spiraled out of control.  This society cannot long support CEO compensation at 350 times that of the average worker.  This is simply wrong by any calculus.  I could go on and on.

No apology necessary.  Like you I could go on and on and I suspect find some areas of agreement.  But as you said earlier - and I agree - this isn't the forum for that discussion, except in the frame of reference of Ed's piece with regard to the music industry. 

Thanks RP N10.  You are correct; this isn't the proper forum for all of this.  I just get carried away. 

Carried away?  Maybe, but with your heart in the right place...good commentary from everyone...Ed and RP N10 have simply acknowledged the obvious...historically, there are no exceptions to the rule that severe economic dipsarity eventually leads to conflict...what you call it is determined after the fact...

To the NC folks, the Art Pope commentary and links are both hilarious and disturbing, but I guess it is a comfort Indiana isn't front and center this week...for the record (reference Easy Ed's Broadside of two weeks ago), the legislature here is touting all the great legislation they passed in the current session with a newsletter...which makes no mention of the now deceased RFRA legislation, what a surprise

...and Chip Robinson's CD remains unavailable here as well...

Hey Jim. I sent you a private message. Check your email associated with your NoDepression account. Hal

as always another thought provoking article from easy ed. no need to rush these stories out quickly as the wait is going to be for the best. i agree it is hard for the lesser known artists to survive without being very creative about income. personally i still enjoy the chase. i love discovering new artists quite off the radar making great music. once i find them i'm off and running. i can buy all their music,see them live, and pass on the word to my friends about another glorious artist out there. i will use mike june as an example later. in some ways the current situation seems to have brought together a real community of artists looking out for each other in any way they can. the connection between the fans,{buyers of music}, has moved closer with the likes of pledge music,indie go go, and kickstarter. sites like bandcamp provide a space to get the music out and seriously pay the musicians. sites like no depression spread the word to the masses. o.k. not quite that many,the health care thing is an issue. i'm canadian so i know we are a bit luckier on that front. numerous musicians have had this issue. peter case,jason molina,and alejandro escovedo to mention a few.in these cases the community rallied around them which was very inspiring. back to mike june, discovered him somewhere,went to his site bought all his music, donated to his next album, passed his name and a song onto my friends, and will try to catch him out on tour somewhere. check out his song- talkin' revolution blues. keep the faith!

I try and buy discs at shows I attend putting the $15 in the artist's pocket.  I've got a print from Jon Dee Graham hanging on the wall and my wife has jewelry made by BettySoo.   Support live music! Support the arts! Support the artists. If we don't do it who will?

This might only make sense if you live in NC but Chip Robinson's guitar has a sticker that reads "More Art, Less Pope".

http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/politics/a31958/the-pope-of-north-carolina/

say hal, have you had any luck getting chip robinson's-mylow cd? i have looked everywhere and can't find it. would buy a cd or download if i could find it. any hot tips? thanks!

Hal, very clever the Art Pope reference.  He is the best example of the people that are ruining the great state of North Carolina.  I've lived in this state for  51 years and once was very proud of our people, infrastructure and education system.  It is so sad to see how we've fallen.  And that's thanks to scum like Art Pope.

I remember hosting a house concert a few years back, with Cara Luft (http://caraluft.com/).  Cara is a very talented musician, founding member of the Wailin' Jennys and very hard working touring performer.  She drove up to my place (after a detour, there having been a windstorm knocking down trees on our road and taking out our power, but we had a generator) in her little Toyota Matrix, having driven some 1500 miles from Winnipeg to Toronto for her little house concert tour.  Solo. She had equipment in part borrowed on good terms from the music equipment store where she had what constituted her part-time day job in Winnipeg.

Good turnout for us, 30 or so folks, and Cara stayed the night before moving on to the next date.  In the morning over breakfast she counted up the take. Quite hard-nosed for a musician, I thought she was.  Very clear on what constituted a worth-her-while take, given expenses and downtime while travelling.  We made the cut, but barely.  She may have just been kind. 

Thinking about it very nearly broke my heart, "it" being what a talented musician needs to do to barely make a living.

And she's Canadian, living in Canada when not touring abroad.  She doesn't have to worry too much about things like health care.  This is something she has in common with almost the whole western world, aside from the USA.

Others above have mentioned the difference being Canadian makes in this regard. But this is only one manifestation of a truly frightening situation, perhaps mainly but not only south of the border.  Pardon my digression, but the plight of musicians is really only one little corner of the bigger problem.

The increasing gap between "haves" and everyone else is really scary in Canada, and it's especially so in the US.  It's easy to point to "thugs" as the source of rioting in Baltimore and all those other places. I'm sure that in some ways that's true -- but I'm absolutely certain that it's nothing new.  It's that very group that many revolutionaries of the 19th and early 20th century identified as the fundamental source of revolution - the lumpenproletariat.  Bakunin (a leading anarchist) thought that "the revolutionary archetype is found amongst educated unemployed youth, assorted marginals from all classes, brigands, robbers, the impoverished masses, and those on the margins of society who have escaped, been excluded from, or not yet subsumed in the discipline of emerging industrial work" (in the words of Thoburn). 

Think about it -- if you have no income or prospects of a settled life, if at every turn you are confronted by authorities dedicated to controlling your behaviour, if you live a life defined substantially by racism, poverty or class (or all three), just what are you going to do? And how long are you going to wait?

 

Very thoughtful and precise. Thanks for this.

@Ron...your comments are the perfected and articulated companion to what my heart felt as I posted the column. Thank you for sharing, and for shinng a laser light into the heart of the matter. 

Precisely. Thanks for all of that.

Excellent points Ron.

 Several on this post have drawn the same conclusion; the plight of our beloved Americana singer/songwriters in the USA  is but a microcosm of society and its ills.  It is all very discouraging.  I don’t know what it will take to bring the unfairness of our current economic policy and politics to the awareness of those in this country who have been taken for fools.  At this stage the moneyed elite have obscured the real problems in this country with divisive issues like race, guns and religion.  So far those like the Koch brothers and their support of the Tea Party have succeeded in drawing attention away from the important problems faced by this country and divided us with these social issues which, in the whole scope of things, actually mean very little.  The progressives have done a very poor job in drawing attention to the problems that are tearing this country apart.  A day of reckoning is coming though.  When huge swaths of the population suffer such that they can no longer embrace the American dream, can no longer expect their children to attain a better life than their parents then the change will be forced.  It is one thing when the suffering is borne by the traditional poor but quite another when the educated middle class begins to slide into poverty and can no longer expect a better tomorrow. 

Regarding the inner city riots, these are fueled by frustration and hooliganism but really cannot be construed as a revolutionary act.  The inner city problems have been exacerbated by our epidemic drug problem.  For many of those citizens they live in communities with only one industry – the drug trade.  The only hope of improving their lot is to participate in this violent vocation.  In reality they truly have few options.  When these riots ensue they tend to make matters worse as the damage to the community only exacerbates local ills once the smoke clears.

I would argue that  the necessary changes must come at the hands of the middle class.  It is up to them to finally say “Enough is enough.”  I believe that this can be achieved by non-violent means.  We still possess the political apparatus to force changes in our destructive politics and failed economic policies.