Musicians are getting screwed

Just about everyone knows how the major labels have screwed musicians over the decades. A gold record, selling 500,000 copies and grossing $7.5 million, nets the artist only $40,000 — which would be $10,000 each for a four-member band. Jazzy Jef, who co-wrote hits with Will Smith, recounts how, after winning a Grammy for a hit record, he went out to his car and cried because he only had $500 to his name.

But even with the opportunities afforded by the Internet and inexpensive home production, musicians are still getting screwed. In my previous post about live music, I calculated that a four-member band releasing a CD like Radiohead recently did, where fans could pay whatever they wanted, would gross a dismal $8,000 per person. Let’s take that same situation — only 38% of 10,000 fans willing to pay an average $8 per CD — with distribution costs. After deducting its 55% distribution fee, Amazon would give the band $13,680, or $3,420 per person (not counting their annual membership fee).

CD Baby is a much more musician-friendly distribution service. They take a more reasonable 40%, so the band would net $18,240, or $6,080 per person. Still, not a great deal of money for all of the time and expense in producing a CD.

Joni Mitchell says she used to make $15 a night performing in a cafe when she was an unknown songwriter starting out in the mid-1960s. That would be the equivalent of almost $100 today. But fewer and fewer venues are able and willing to pay anything. Bands are expected to pay for a portion of the door or the bar. That turned out to be $30 for a recent gig I played. Yet the equivalent gig for my band in the late 1970s was $90.

So if live music opportunities and the ability to make money performing are drying up, and if the potential for income from CD sales is low because so many people expect music for free, how are musicians to survive? Veteran jazz bassist Ted Wald was interviewed by David Carlos Valdez recently in New York [video interview]. Talking about the current state of jazz, he said “It’s more dangerous for the players than it ever was.” Not that there was a golden heyday when musicians could live easily, but it is harder to survive than ever before.

Some observers think that the implosion of the bloated major labels, with sales down significantly and pressure from the Internet, will herald a rebirth of great music and opportunities for musicians. I don’t see it that way. Everyone is bombarded now with easily accessible music, so how does any artist cut through the noise and get noticed, let alone get paid? The way I see it, musicians are still getting screwed.

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