November 7, 2009
Whither Music?By Mark Butterworth
There are many amazing things that a fellow in pajamas in the comfort of his home and in front of a computer can do to communicate his ideas, his feelings, his peeves, analysis, faith, loves, and hatreds; but some of the things he cannot do is make anyone read his blog, his book, listen to his music, or watch his movie.
Furthermore, unless he is very wealthy or famous, his music or his movie will be made for a pittance and show it, which will make its appeal quite narrow and small.
I'm a musician and composer. Over the course of the last year I set about a recording project that was as simple as I could make it. I composed a group of songs for alto and soprano voices accompanied either by me on guitar, or very simply on piano to be done by a studio musician/engineer or with MIDI, a computerized way of playing a sampled piano.
Studio costs ran $68/hr at the best studio in my town (Sacramento), and I expected the cost for the singers to be at least $100 per song or session (two to three hours).
I never completed that project because I had more difficulties than expected, and after spending over $1,000, I had little to show for the effort. Even so, I completed two other pieces with an opera singer/student for around $700.
That's pretty good. Most times to do a quality, professional job, it will cost at least $500 for a simple bit of work. A single song can easily take five hours of studio time ($340), not counting anything else.
While I was in the studio doing some preliminary work, I was telling Craig, the engineer, that the night before I had been listening to Paul McCartney's last album, Memory Almost Full, and was impressed with the studio production, the rich layering of sounds, the use of different tonal textures and instruments, and how well put together it all was, like a true Beatles production. I told Craig that listening to it inspired me to want to do something similar and create some pieces with that depth of sonic fields, and while I was thinking to myself how lovely that would be, the realization occurred, "Yeah, I could do something like that if I had half a million dollars to spend in the studio!"
While I'd been listening, I'd forgotten about the cost of what it takes to work out crafty arrangements in the studio, the additional musicians needed, the numerous trials and errors in getting things just right, and the time spent searching for the best idea, a particular sound, the right production technique or style.
I couldn't possibly hope to come close to that level of production as McCartney's, which brings me to my point.
Recorded music costs a lot of money, but recorded music isn't making any money.
Here are a few facts:
Barbra Streisand just hit the top of the charts a while ago with 180,000 in sales. The company earnings is somewhere between five and six dollars per album. At best, Sony made about $1mm for a record that cost at least $500K, so that doesn't even begin to cover overhead.
I don't see how it's possible for record companies to pay for high-production-cost products except as a loss leader of some kind.
For example, in 2008, Guns N' Roses finally released a long-awaited album -- thirteen years in the making, estimated to have cost between $13 and $30mm -- and promptly sold a mere 2.6 million worldwide. Where did those production costs come from? Did Geffen records pay them or did Axl Rose? Would either of them be so stupid as to bear that ridiculous cost for such a mediocre album?
I'm certain no record company today would front that kind of money.
As quoted above in the Chicago Tribune, here's where the situation leads:
So, if I wanted to do a simple rock-and-roll album of ten songs, it would probably cost me at least $10,000 for three or four instruments and a singer. The music would tend to sound similar from one song to the next due to the similarity of instrumentation and soundscape. I could use MIDI and samplers to bring more variety and texture to the tunes, but we're talking about more studio time and, of course, more money.
Yes, I know people have home studios and are cranking out tunes by the millions and putting them on their Facebook or MySpace pages, but nearly 100% of them are crap.
Crap, you say? Why? Talent often requires a good deal of instruction, competition, and criticism to develop to the point where it becomes good enough to interest others. Hobbyists don't get that. Hollywood does a good deal of development, and yet 95% of their movies are nearly unwatchable now, and never has so much money been spent on film except for one thing -- the writing. Old Hollywood often spent 25% of a film budget on writing alone. Even the best-paid writers now get nothing like that much.
One hundred thousand or so books a year are published in the USA now, yet millions more are written...and of those 100K, few make money.
Eric Whitacre is an acclaimed modern composer, but he's known only to choral groups. Because of his fame in that niche, he recently did an amazing thing through the internet. He conducted dozens of singers around the world through their computers so that they recorded their vocals as solos and e-mailed them to him. Then he put them all together as an international choir.
Observe the stunning result.
Yes, this shows the power of the internet and what can be accomplished, but it was accomplished only because Whitacre was already famous and his music loved.
The home recorder has no such fame or resource to induce so many others to volunteer for him.
One of the things some companies are doing is buying groups for a lump sum. A company will pay someone like Prince oh, say, $200mm and thus own all the revenue that Prince generates through records, concerts, and ancillary sales of any kind.
It's sort of like the old movie studio system, but I find it hard to see the incentive for a Sting or a Prince to work very hard after he's been paid.
New musicians and groups will want to get signed and bought, but how long will they go to work knowing that nothing they do henceforth will earn them a future dime?
That business model strikes me as odd and relying on people who are stars, but fading in value.
It looks like the future belongs to live performance or to selling goods that have a limited audience, like special fan clubs that come with perks for members.
Music will be almost free, but personal appearances and concerts are a limited supply.
But what will happen to the records with high production values and expensive personnel costs? Is everything going to sound like a garage band, a techno computer band, a drum machine rap group, or a hip-hop, R&B mix-and-match, sample-patch thing?
I can compose music for concert pianists and symphony orchestras, but I can't pay the cost of such musicians to reproduce my work, and so I try to keep things simple and within my budget.
Barring from a freak event, my simple compositions will never generate the kind of money to step up into a bigger league, and the same is going to be true for many more.
Even a hit record today is unlikely to create the kind of money that will lead to more extensive work.
There will the occasional viral video or music piece that suddenly springs up to amaze a great many, but the creation of carefully, expensively crafted works of art requires much more than access to an ISP.
It's a strange time for musicians, like it is for so many writers, as the traditional organs and commercial streams dry up in the midst of an abundance of talent and ambition like never before.