Wow, here comes an unexpected and very long rant - please understand that I believe that confronting the realities of our industry is inherently a positive thing even though situations described may be negative. TL;DR: it’s lots of people’s fault, and maybe yours, kind reader. This isn’t inevitable and we shouldn’t act like it is. But if you are the kind of person who is easily discouraged and often filled with doubt - and I guess by that I mean everyone who does this - you shouldn’t read this at all. In fact, nobody should.
First you have to ask what value is. If it means something people want and don’t want to be without, music has lots of value. People just don’t want to pay for anything. The burden of blame for that comes from three places:
Shortsighted and/or ignorant consumers who don’t know or care where things come from and just want what they can get;
Content distributors who want to monetize other people’s work for their own profit regardless of legality or any consequence;
And composers and artists who accept this situation as if it’s inevitable and can’t be changed - to be blunt, mostly not-great composers and artists who will take little money for their little work, maybe because they don’t know better; but also established and higher-quality composers who accept being forced to compete with bottom-end stuff because nobody wants to anger consumers who don’t want to spend money and have nothing at stake but desire.
I’ve seen posts in many places on the internet lately about opportunities for work and how we as composers/musicians need to work smarter and harder but that things are out there if only we are willing to find them. I think this relates to how we contribute to our own difficulties, though.
I don’t actually agree about the opportunities. I began working at this and related fields at a time when the concept of actual careers and reasonable pay was still a thing.
It seems to me that a lot or most of folks trying to work in music will find themselves in cattle-call situations that are referred to as opportunity but are mostly opportunities to be exploited by other people who are clawing their way in on a slightly higher level. The things that younger folks are being asked to accept are often surprising to me.
It could be because the system is overpopulated, due to the illusion of opportunity that newly inexpensive technology brings - or it could be, as it has been for many years in the classical performance world, that the profit-driven education system would be working against its own interests if kids were taught early on how very unlikely it is that one could make a living at this, which leads to at least somewhat educated hopefuls being thick on the ground - and actual, genuine competition, the process of good stuff rising to the top, diminishing, because the issue winds up being who will do a gig in a vaguely acceptable manner for the least amount of money, if any. One need look no further than the library music business. It used to be a place where hard work and quality would pay pretty well, but now it’s utterly saturated and the value of the work has fallen, along with its general quality.
What’s my point? Often when I’ve said these things, much younger media types - content distributors - have dismissed it all as bitter-old-dude stuff, complaining about how stuff used to be better - which is funny, as they stand to benefit the most from a disposable low-cost content source with little sense of self-preservation. They talk about the new model and the gig economy as if anything new has got to be better (because eww gross old people and they’re all greedy and this is the future), and unfortunately they convince many young composers and musicians that this state of affairs is not only inevitable, it’s beneficial to them because it broadens the field of opportunity and grants the aspiring person flexibility and new things every day and there’s just vast, vast potential, and young composers need to just get on this bandwagon or they are hopelessly old-fashioned. And if you don’t make it it’s only because you aren’t hustling enough and you aren’t spending enough time on your social media presence and your networking. Any of this sounding familiar?
Well - to me it’s kind of sociopathic to act that way. Here are a few points:
The new model is the old model except without paying people who actually create content, leaving creators to generate money from other places or not at all.
The gig economy is what happens when companies don’t want to pay benefits.
The only inevitable things about the current situation are the ones that people accept blindly so that others with fewer scruples can continue to benefit parasitically from them.
Another thing negatively impacted by the devaluation of music and a glut of cheap composers is a broadening gap between okay musical gear and great musical gear. New folks don’t have any money, so they get what they can afford - which is why when I just googled “best audio interface 2019” everything was basically prosumer - not one thing that sounds terrific (yes, that’s my opinion, but I have years of experience to back it up), and lots of stuff that’s cheap. What should have come up given the rate of advancement in audio tech is at least some pretty great gear that’s less money than it used to be - but it’s not as much better as it would be if musicians had any money at all. (And I’m aware that a search like that is very general, but what it returns is a fair representation of where the market’s attention is.)
Social media as a marketing tool for any of us to me is usually at best a way to get unfiltered random lowball work and at worst keeps us from spending time in our craft - and our craft is not having a good pitch, though that’s helpful: our craft is making good music. It’s true that you will get work via people who know you. And sometimes social media can introduce you to people; but it seems to me that you are mostly introduced to people who do the same thing you do and are thus your competition. I live in a city with a reputation for being a music capital, and the local social media is flooded with posts saying “I’m really cool if anyone knows of any gigz hmu”. Really? What the new model has brought mostly is noise and viewer fatigue, generalists, fans rather than experts, a deluge of epic drum libraries, and survivorship bias.
By that last I mean the error in judgement that says that if other people don’t succeed at something and you do, it’s because of some kind of inherent rightness to your approach - when in fact it may mean that due to the giant pool of people who also want to do what you do, you were selected at random, or only that you were willing to give too much away - and content users love creators who undervalue themselves. And neither of those two is good for the musician or the industry or the general quality of work or the state of innovation. And beyond all of that, the system in place now is put there by people who want content and to be able to monetize it at little or no cost to them, driven by two forces: content sharers (begin with Napster which was outright theft but continued by every single streaming service there is, whose business model is based on the fact that there was no copyright law concerning streaming so that somehow meant they didn’t have to pay anyone anything or at least very little) and industry leaders (with no vision for protecting artists and a morbid fear of displeasing broke teenagers).
And another few points:
When someone from another economy than mine or at another point in their path calls me greedy because of the things I’m talking about because they have to live with less and everything is an uphill struggle, I think two things: one, I’ll bet it isn’t that way for everyone there, though that isn’t necessarily your fault, cranky Internet dude- or maybe that’s just everyone immediately around you; and two, how does my wanting more for composers negatively impact you? I want for a composer who lives anywhere in the world in any circumstance but who can manage to generate good and good-sounding material to be able to benefit from that in a way that’s better than scrabbling for crumbs at the table of the wealthy. That’s not what’s being derisively called “entitlement” these days - it’s fair: the composer is actually in the traditional sense entitled to their share of the benefits. Yes, I want more from things, because I’ve gotten there first-hand. Twice in my life - once because of a score for a kid’s tv show that was wall-to-wall music and once for a multi-platinum album that I co-produced - my life was changed by royalties. The first time I bought gear with it that enabled me to do record and film work, and the second bought me a house and gave me a retirement fund. I’ve heard arguments that were literally that I just want to keep what I have, like it used to be (well, yes, I do) and that I just want to keep taking advantage of the old and broken copyright system and get royalties forever - hold on a second, am I saying that a composer has said to me that I shouldn’t want to keep getting residuals for something? Yep, several. That sounds weird, but it’s true. Some have said that copyright quells innovation. Well - no. What quells innovation is multitudes of amateur or mediocre composers flooding the market with their attempts at “epic music” that they are willing to give away for a little acknowledgement and “exposure” because they have not yet learned to value themselves - and there may be precious little to value, if what they have mostly is a wish to be heard and to be seen as a composer. And the other things that quell innovation are good composers starving, bad education for profit, and clients with tin ears who want and need music but don’t know good music so much.
Sure the “old model” was/is rife with abuses. Changing that would have been the way to go, but people do love new things that they think they are in control of. That’s not a young people thing - millennials aren’t destroying things. That’s just a people thing.
I don’t want it to be even less likely that this could happen for a young person than it was for me, and I know very well how unlikely it was for me - success is a matter of right place right time, how people see you, if you are prepared, if you deliver, if the people you work for are inclined to support you, and if this happens repeatedly - and also if you can survive when it isn’t happening.
So when someone says that wanting fair compensation for successful content is greedy or old-school or entitled or whatever, then what I think is that this person either stands to benefit from my not doing well (or wants to feel like they can compete with anyone if only the playing field were “leveled”), believes something they were sold, wants to affirm their negative worldview at my expense, or truly has no real skin in the game, and it’s noise. And when what passes for opportunity for new, upcoming and transitioning composers these days is most often a general call for people to compete based on money alone, where the system really only benefits the short-term interests of clients and those who feed on content creators, I don’t always see that as opportunity, unless it’s an opportunity to advocate for change.
In the sense that there is opportunity out there for someone who has ability, presents themselves in a good way, knows how to use all of their gear, knows how to listen, is open to doing things in new ways, is unencumbered by absolutes or preconceptions or unreasonable habits or limited ranges of what they will do, exhibits mental fitness, and can financially bear the risks and investments needed, I agree that there’s generally something a talented person can find to do even if it isn’t their first choice.
My advice to young composers who want to do more than get by, who want to be hired for the best kind of job - the kind where the job description literally has a picture of you next to it - is that you avoid cattle-calls. It’s more fruitful to hone your craft, find mentors, and get to know people at school or around you who do things you want to be involved in. Do things because you love to and when money isn’t so important, so by the time it is, you have experience and credibility. When people ask you to do something for nothing (which includes exposure), know that they won’t ever want to pay you for anything, and yet they will always have money for other things that are “important”. This may color your view of them and change your desire to devote your energy to their project. Or you could decide to view it as a means to an end. All I can say is that when we accept giving people real value for nothing, we make it harder for everyone else who is good at what they do. Never tell yourself the lie that real artists only care about the art and involving money is somehow vulgar or proves you to be a hack or something - you will find that the people who originate that are people who want something for nothing, who want you to feel lesser so it’s easier to get you to do things for them. But they go home with money, don’t they? Maybe you want to do something so you can prove you can do it - not to get more work from the lowlife who wants you for free, but to show other people afterwards so they will pay you. Of course you can make that choice, but it’s important to have contracts in place anyway, and a limit to the work you will do. Prefaced maybe with a conversation where you say that of course you know from the talking you’ve done so far that everybody is on the same page, and they know what they want and have communicated it to you, it’s just something you’ve learned to do every time just to prevent extreme cases. (Even if it’s your first time, you can say that.) Oh, and if you haven’t talked about what they want to do with music and what role they want it to play and so on, then why haven’t you? People who haven’t thought about stuff love to be vague and have options thrown at them. Great for them, lousy for you. Some clients think that the moment of them saying thoughtfully “no, that’s not quite it, but it’s closer”, and saying nothing else, constitutes some kind of artistry on their part, and it’s pointless to try and talk them out of that - but you still have to ask questions. And if they don’t have time for that they don’t have time to have you work with them.
If you made this far, I hope any of this was helpful.