Music is and always will be one of the great mysteries of human evolution. It is found in almost every human culture. Around 500 BC Pythagoras took what could be considered the first steps towards music as an art form. He created scales, and structured music in a way that allowed broader interaction. Musical performances in exchange for money, goods, or services, has no doubt been a practise for millennia. Album sales and royalties have been the major source of income for artists over the last 150 years or so. But since the dawn of the internet album sales have declined dramatically.
Digital sales have increased but have not come close to the level of physical album sales seen pre-internet.
What does this mean for artists?
Lower album sales haved forced artists to rely on alternative methods for generating income. Live performances have become one of the main revenue generators. Back in the 60s and 70s massively popular bands like the Beatles and Steely Dan made their money almost completely on album sales. Would they survive today? Probably, but from anecdotal evidence they would have made about 75% less.
The vast majority of professional musicians surviving on albums today will not be able to rely on album sales in the future for their income.
Musicians like Amanda Palmer and Gramatik have championed new methods of making money. In Palmer’s case she simply asked her fans for money. Gramatik gives all his music away and makes his money by touring. The Wu Tang Clan famously released one copy of their album and sold it for $2 million.
In the future we will have an app that presents us with options like ‘Hip Hop’, ‘Pop’, ‘Raggaeton’. This app will use its machine-learning algorithm to create a song in the style of your selected artist. One could argue that this is already happening. Most of the top chart hits are penned by an elite group of song-writers. They churn out hits for Mr Bieber, Selena Gomez, and Taylor Swift. Yet, this is not a modern phenomenon. Music houses in the 40s and 50s pumped out thousands of songs written in the styles popular at the time.
We should encourage the outliers, the renegades, and the true artists. In the future we won’t need to buy music from Justin Bieber because we can call up a song in his style on our app.
We must embrace what Kevin Kelly calls 1000 true fans. To survive as an artist in the future will require a hardcore audience that loves your work so much they will always pay for it.
Mozart made his money writing music, giving concerts, and teaching. No musician in his day could afford to simply create music and send it out in the world (via musical score, for example).
We are coming full circle where engaging the audience is much more important now than it was in the heyday of album sales.
What should an artist do to improve their survival chances in the future?
1. Make the internet your weapon. Social media, websites, and youtube are just some of the tools are your disposal for
2. Give your music away and rely on touring
3. Ask your audience to pay for your music.
4. Create an experience for your listeners. Use technology to provide more interaction than than an album along provides.
As technology improves the manner in which we consume music changes. We must use this technology to provide us with opportunities. We must take advantage of all that is has to offer.