The Devaluation of Music...?

I haven’t read the book, but I question the premise; I don’t think that the digital age has led to a devaluation of music. If anything, it’s corrective for the overvaluation of music that was created when the recording industry created the expectation that someone could sing a song once and live off the royalties for life.


Um. Okay. Maybe go read the book and see what the argument is. That’s not how the industry functions. People don’t record one album and expect to be set for life. They have a life time of performing and putting out albums, most times. Most working musicians are not wealthy. But the digitization of music did drop the renumeration that musicians received from their actual work. The author points out that it actually has had a worse effect on indie artist than a band like Wu Tang, who by that time had a well established career and were generally set for life.


My point is that prior to the invention of recording, musicians needed to play live every time they wanted to get paid. And copyright law has only been expanded and extended to further protect them over the last century. So what if digital rights have made their work slightly less lucrative than before, overall it’s made it more accessible, and given more artists the ability to share their work. And they can still sing for their food, just like everyone else does.


Even when recording and pressing onto records or CDs was the norm, artists had to sing for their money for the most part. Courtney Love wrote an essay around 2004 about how the record companies were the real pirates and that the digital revolution at least had the potential for indie artists to get rid of the middlemen. Of course, in the meantime, “indie” artists got burned as the major record labels fled like rats from a sinking ship…


No, it’s been expanded to protect copyright holders, which until rather recently wasn’t generally the musician, but a corporation

People got to eat. This isn’t impact big name artists, it’s a serious issue for the working musicians, who both still play live shows and make sound recordings.

People can’t eat on unrenumerated downloads. Many aren’t getting paid is the point.

They do. That’s why they are professional musicians. It’s a job, like any other.


The copyright holders have always been the musicians. It’s automatic, from the moment pencil hits paper - they don’t even need to apply for it. But they just sell their rights to record labels. I’m not going to defend labels, but if the artists sell their rights, that’s on them. Lay down with dogs and you’re gonna get fleas.

Then maybe they should stop recording songs and just do live shows.

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Um. Okay. Yet to get an album out there, you need to work within the structure that exists, because those structures dominate the distribution networks, more often than not. And there are plenty of well documented cases of artists (especially black artists) getting screwed by the industry - selling their sound recordings for a one time fee, because who was going to give them a better deal?

You do know that there are independent labels all across the history of the industry, that have often been squeezed out of the ability to reach an audience, right? There have been endless alternatives forged, some successful, but given that the industry itself is huge and global, carving out alternatives is tough and not always

Many do. Many still struggle to make ends meet. I think you have a real pie in the sky ideal about what it’s like for many working musicians. And besides, not everyone WANTS to be a gig musician. Sound recording is it’s own art form, in many ways, allowing you to do things with music and sound that you can’t do other wise.


I see your point, and I know musicians who came up under the old system, but the distribution networks have changed, vastly.

Case study: I read about an album (Jónsi’s Go) and followed a link to check it out. The entire album was available to stream, for free, as often as I liked, without having to go through iTunes or whatever as an intermediary.

I could buy the DRM-free files right from the web site. If I wanted merch or CD or vinyl, there were links for that. (I wound up getting a CD via Amazon 'cos I was still using my car CD player at the time.)

Now, this is a bigger artist, so he did do an international tour. The friend I went to the show with bought me the DVD to accompany the album to pay me back for her ticket.

The DVD is region-free, says so right on the jacket. So the merch people only have to worry about one inventory no matter where the tour goes. I don’t know if it’s DRM-free, because I’ve never bothered trying to rip it.

Point being, this is a very different approach to marketing and selling than a traditional label, even one well-versed with on-line marketing.

An inconvenient truth about the music industry that’s been a thing since the days of cassette is that the people who make illegal copies are also the biggest buyers and promoters of music. A few artists have accepted that and successfully made it part of their marketing and promotion. Many more have done it unsuccessfully for various reasons.

And then there’s the ones who don’t get it (hi Metallica) and persecute fans.

Compare Garth Brooks going after used record shops with The Grateful Dead having a space just for concert recorders.


I don’t. I just don’t think the world owes them anything. If being a working musician sucks for some, then it’s no different than any other career.

Then maybe they should be in a different line of work.

Look, if the thing you love to do doesn’t pay the rent, you have two choices; stay poor or find a different vocation. Just because I love to knit doesn’t mean that I’m entriteld to make a living at it, or that I can complain about the invention of the mechanical loom and demand special laws be created to protect my ability to make knitting my career. I get to choose; do I love knitting enough to do it without remuneration, and stay poor but contented with the satisfaction that I get from my art form, or do I find another job that can support the lifestyle I prefer and relegate knitting to a hobby? That’s the choice musicians have to make too.


I see the recording industry differently because I lived in New Orleans. A typical week for me was to see a live show every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. In New Orleans at that time, all the artists made their money by performing. Very few of them had recorded albums and if they did, they made little money off of them. The blues artists, being generally older, had a lot of health problems, or addiction. Living off of performing assumes one is physically able to perform all the time. Playing late nights at clubs is not great for a musician’s health.

Fortunately, in New Orleans, the Tipitina’s Foundation helps these older artists with their healthcare, and this has kept these musicians, and their music, alive.


In addition to health issues, there’s also more risk to one’s instruments/equipment when performing than in recording.

Musicians do what they do for different reasons. I’ve performed with a taiko drumming group, but I’ve done a lot more recording.

For me, performing was a complex emotional rush (excitement and sometimes euphoria, combined with intense anxiety) and it is also exhausting (moving the gear, travel, unfamiliar locations, body under stress while performing, exerting oneself often in heat and humidity while trying not to look tired, generally not eating/drinking as healthy as one should). (In my case I didn’t have to worry about secondhand smoke or crazy drunks very much.) But aside from a few seconds of structured solo time, there’s not a lot of creative reward in it. I was working hard to bring other peoples’ music to life, and between rehearsals and performances and still working full-time, it didn’t leave me with the time and energy to do much else.

(Note, I was never paid for performing. The group charged for performances except for certain non-profits, but the money simply went into expenses… and in fact performers had to pay monthly dues as well to help cover those.)

Actually writing music, doing sound design, recording/producing it etc. are much more creatively rewarding to me and it’s much more personally sustainable.

Besides which, not all types of music are suited to live performance. I make music for headphone listening, mostly ambient or abstract electronica; not the sort of thing that works in bars and clubs. I’ve seen only a little bit of electronic music done live, and the entire process is very different from creating music in a studio setting.

I’ve self-released a couple of albums and charged for them – back when nobody was really selling digital downloads and streaming hadn’t taken over. They basically paid for the costs of having the CDs, cases and inserts printed, but didn’t actually compensate me or pay for any gear. I probably could have sold more copies if I’d put more time and energy into promotion (which I don’t enjoy) but I’m not sure it would have been enough to compensate for that time and energy. And if I’d gone looking for a record label, I might have been worse off financially even if more copies were sold.

Since then I’ve just given away my work and considered it a labor of love (though for next year I’m considering going back to an album format and giving Bandcamp a shot… and definitely not quitting my day job).


I know. I’ve been writing and thinking about this stuff for a while. But again, much of this is still built on the older, label based model for the initial capital outlay. that doesn’t mean that going forward that these new approaches won’t eventually dominate, but at this point, we’re still in a place where already having a reputation/fanbase is almost a necessity for making it.

Punk changed the game quite a bit, but it still was label based, and plenty of punk/indie labels just ended up functioning like the majors anyway, with regards to artist exploitation. There was also a round of corporate buy outs of both the independent music distribution chains and many of the most well established indie labels (though they often retained a lot of control over their individual operations).

So I guess that you and I shouldn’t be paid for your work either? I’m just unsure why so many people think that creative fields aren’t also real labor deserving of real renumeration. I’m not arguing here that all recording or working musicians should be Madonna rich. I’m arguing for being paid for the work people do.

Why? The problem is more often than not, people refusing to pay musicians for work performed. I’ve seen it happen, with my own eyes and every working musicians has either seen it or had it happen to them in some point of their career - they play a gig, for a promised payment, and then mysteriously, the money isn’t available. They literally DO the work and then they money isn’t paid out at the end of the night.

See, this is why I think you should actually read the Wu-Tang book here, as they address some of these key points we’re disagreeing about.

I also think there is a difference between gig musicians and recording artists, though there is overlap. I’d also guess that given the cities history and the strength of the music community there, shady venues that refuse to pay artists don’t last long.

Sure. And I don’t want to suggest that people shouldn’t do that. Music is such a deeply embedded aspect of human life, that we’re going to make music, in any number of ways

But I’d also say we live in a capitalist economy, and that it’s worth having the conversation about labor, art, and value.


Sure, there are lots of bad things that happen to all kinds of people. Heck, I’ve been stiffed wages before too. But I think you’re straying off topic; not paying people for work has nothing to do with digitization. Anyway, this is all a thread-jack from what people are reading to a discussion of copyright, and that’s my fault. I’ll fork this conversation so we can talk about it elsewhere (npi).

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It kind of does. Pay outs from streaming and downloads are substantial less. And it’s not like the nature of the labor itself has changed, the means of distribution has.

Roger that!


Moved to a new thread; hey, that’s a cool feature!


I see how those things intersect, and also how that intersects with bad behavior by labels, but I think we need to treat the issues discreetly, and I’m really just addressing how digitization has changed the way artists are compensated, which I thought was your original point.


Agreed! Glad it was included! Erases our egregious derailing of the other thread!


I’m not sure we can, though.

True, but I don’t see it as entirely separate from previous business models of selling music as a commodity, but a new iteration of it. It’s still sound recordings, but they are no longer “worth” the same as a physical product, even more so when people can rip a disc and throw it up online for free, generally on a foreign server, with no means of taking them down. Some artists have indeed embraced the digital era and freely put their content up for exposure. This model, though has primarily benefited those who already have an established fanbase.

But the question still goes back to art and value in a capitalist economy, I think. What do we consider work and how should people who make art for a living go about asking for support for their work. In the case of “real” art (ballet, orchestras, art museums, etc), we have a combination of state funding and charitable donations. For “mass” art, we’ve settled on mass production, funded by fans, mediated by corporations. The corporations that produce these products (sound recordings) have a long, checkered history of doing everything they can to not share the profits with the artists. We know this, because a number of artists, from obscure blues players to super stars like the Beatles, have commented on this phenonmenon. Downloads have become yet another corporate label driving down the costs of the end product, even in cases where the costs of making it have not gone down in many cases (not true in all).

Ultimately, a corporation should not be able to hold the copyrights to music made by individuals for anything more than they need for the distribution process. Maybe after a set amount of time, rights automatically revert to the artist and they can do what they like with it?

I’ll also say, that monetizing one’s work online isn’t just a music specific problem. How does one write or put up art to share in an age when we can all easily access any number of things freely. Having ideas and information found in all forms of art is critical to our public discourse. But people still got to eat. I wish I had easy answers, but I really don’t, other than artists being willing to talk about their work as just that, a form of labor that people derive value from, that should receive some sort of fair compensation. We’ve mythologized all manner of artists for so long, that we forget that they, too, are part of the capitalist system, I think.


A little out of date, but here are two articles by Janis Ian on music and the internet, the second a followup to the first:

I’m just putting these up here as a reference.


I would disagree with this somewhat. You’re correct that indie musicians have a far more tenuous grasp on their livelihoods than big names like Wu Tang Clan. But bands need to get their music out there somewhere, especially if they’re just starting out. If the record labels will do this, but essentially take all the profits, then what’s to stop the band from releasing samples of their own music, for free or for a nominal fee, with the expectation that it will contribute to building a fanbase in the near future?

Unauthorized copies are not cool though. The difference is if the band themselves is in control of how the music is distributed and publicized, or if some third party is ripping them off. The band should be in control of how they earn a living, and digital media can either help or hurt them, depending on how it’s used.