Feature: Musical Global Warming – The New Environment for Independent Music
By Chris Reinbold, Staff Writer
Today’s music industry is a hurricane of change. Revenue from physical music sales continues to fall after being overcome by digital sales. Digital sales are also falling, as streaming services like Spotify are growing in popularity and usage. As a response to the decline of money made from sales, artists are looking to live performances as a means to an end, also selling merchandise in the process. Licensing music for use in advertisements, TV and movies, or synchronization licenses, are also inflating in importance for artists looking to sustain themselves. While gigantic artists like fun. and Taylor Swift can easily live comfortably and exploit their music for their personal gain, what about the little guy? The world of a mid-level touring musician is being shaken up in a multitude of ways, some positive and some negative.
Touring is key. If a mid-level band wants to make money, instead of lose it, they have to tour. Now, touring for a month out of the year will not cut it. They have to be away from home for months on end, multiple times a year. Ska-punk band Survay Says! spent 208 days on the road in 2013 and 181 days in 2014.
“Bands want to tour more comfortably. It’s no longer about filling a station wagon with everything you can and then hitting the road,” said Defeater and Alcoa frontman, Derek Archambault. “Bands have it in their heads that they need a big van or a Sprinter.” When living half the year on the road, there has to be some level of comfort for the performers who are already away from loved ones and their homes. While most mid-level touring musicians hold down jobs when they are home, they can manage to make a decent living off the band.
“When I first got involved with music, nobody had any thoughts of making a living off it… Around 2000 is when bands were starting to make a living wage while on the road, making the same as someone working at a coffee shop,” said Ray Harkins, host of 100 Words or Less Podcast, head of business affairs for No Sleep Records and vocalist for California melodic hardcore legends, Taken.
Even with more bands able to make a living off touring, most musicians hold day jobs when they are not on the road. “I never looked toward [being in a financially stable band] as a goal,” commented Harkins. Harkins worked at an independent record store throughout Taken’s hey-day. He was able to be gone for months at a time to tour and would slip right back into the work schedule upon his return.
Archambault has a very similar story. “I had a day job for the first five-and-a-half years of Defeater. I was a full-time record store clerk and manager.” He now lives off his music, which he said is “much harder than one would imagine.”
It is not only musicians within the niche independent music community who hold down day jobs. “I’ve never drawn a real income from the label,” explained Chris Wrenn, owner of renowned Massachusetts hardcore label Bridge 9. “We have six or seven people that work at Bridge 9 and we are able to give them competitive compensation, health benefits and stuff like that.” Wrenn has drawn his income from other, more profitable ventures--he runs Boston sports apparel company Sully’s.
Managing a label or playing in a band is typically a labor of love; it is a passion for those involved. Although there has to be income in order for the entity to remain, the focus is not entirely on the money.
In addition to the ups-and-downs of touring and sustainability, technology has had a profound impact on the music industry as a whole, let alone the independent music industry. Big studio-quality albums can be made for a fraction of the cost and a radio-ready song can be recorded in a basement with a MacBook. Beck’s 2015 Grammy Award-winning album Morning Phase was mostly recorded in the artist’s house. Independent labels do not have to shell out stacks of money for a well-produced record and bands even have the ability to learn about production, engineering and producing albums themselves.
This a double-edged sword. The negative: there is a lot more noise to sift through. “The barrier to access is much lower now… Just because you can record your own music doesn’t mean that anyone will listen or that anyone will care,” said Harkins. “The problem is, ‘How am I heard?’ I don’t envy anybody that is just now trying to start a band because there are nine billion other people trying to do the same thing.” However, people can be creative. “People can be authentic about their creativity and put it out there; that’s awesome!”
Even with the technological advances, it is still difficult to gain traction without some label backing. “Labels still have relevance. In fact, they may be even more relevant in independent music. People trust their tastes. When someone sees a new band signed to Bridge 9, they have a general idea of what to expect,” commented Wrenn. “But the good bands always seem to find their way and fight through the noise.”
Independent music has been just as rattled by the advancements in technology as the mainstream industry. Smaller artists cannot rely on what were already relatively modest album sales shrinking even more. It is imperative to grind-it-out on the road in order to sustain a living through their musical endeavors. The growing field of synchronization licensing has a higher barrier of entry for mid-level bands, hindering their progress in breaking into the field.
“I don’t have the recording means to do anything with publishing [music full-time], like writing songs for other people or anything. I’ve always been interested in it, but have never had the opportunity to do it,” said Archambault. Independent music has never truly been about longevity, but with more bands able to tour and produce music, it has to adapt just like the big industry machines.