I think that a lot of people, especially people in bands, seem to think that they have a strong understanding of the history of popular music. People have this weird notion that things were better back in ‘their day’ whenever that day might be, and as much as they might be right (Who am I to say, I wasn’t there) I often am left feeling like they simply don’t understand how the industry has evolved. It’s not their fault – things have changed incredibly quickly in the last five years even and I think that very few people realize the full import of that.
A lot of this article was inspired by a pair of interviews that I conducted yesterday, both of which I feel loosely touched on this idea. One was with the legendary Charlie Benante of Anthrax who said, “Buy music, don’t steal it.” and the other was with Goatwhore’s Ben Falgoust who claimed, “I don’t care how people get my music, I just want people to hear it” Having these conversations with musicians who I respect so much got me thinking about the fundamental nature of where the music industry is headed and where it came from.
Now we need to remember that these two statements represent two ends of the spectrum and there are some important distinctions to be made. While both figures are well known musicians, Charlie Benante made a ton of money back in the 80s playing thrash metal, largely driven by gold and platinum record sales and his band, like every other, has seen a drastic drop in sales of late, and even though they are charting higher than ever, they are selling fewer records by an order of magnitude. Meanwhile, Goatwhore’s Ben Falgoust has guided his band into a reputation as the ultimate road dogs. In Falgoust’s world by the time his band was big enough to be opening for Danzig, piracy was running rampant. He’s a product of the underground and means to say for better or for worse. Unlike with Anthrax there are no real ‘career’ ambitions behind Goatwhore. Essentially, Benante is a professional musician and Falgoust is just content with the experiences he gets to have.
Don’t get me wrong, both positions are fine and totally have merit in and of themselves, and personally I would probably not fully agree with either one, although regular readers will know that I probably lean a little closer to Falgoust’s opinion. The fundamental thing that very few people truly understand is that the current climate that we have, where music is driven by the live performance and reproductions of content are a small bonus has actually been the state of the industry for the entire history of music outside of the twentieth century.
It’s actually a little weird to think about how the 20th century was this perfect time for the music industry. Right at the beginning of the century the phonograph was popularized and there was a need for records, and right at the end of the century we started to see the first touches of piracy. In the intervening years though we had for what will probably be the only time in history, a climate where music was manifested in a tangible physical format.
Now think about that, for the entire history of music the only real way to make money off of your music was performance. There was some income from transcriptions of work but that was fairly minor, if I understand correctly it was comparable to album sales today, if that. The very top composers and songwriters could get by, but that was it, and even they usually had to teach or perform in order to support themselves. Alternatively, they could be in the employ of a royal who gave them an annual salary, similar to how today there are salaried songwriters working for major labels.
That is not to say that there weren’t some good things to come out of the twentieth century. Charlie Benante is a distinctly twentieth century musician, but he has also been one of the driving forces behind Anthrax. His obsessive archiving of everything the band has done has paid dividends for the group in terms of re-releases. He’s one of the people who made the t-shirt sale such an essential thing to heavy metal and the music industry as a whole. He helped to show that in this brave new world where music has no concrete value that there are alternative paths to make money, hell Benante can even be credited with coming up with the concept for Anthrax’s recent set of playing cards! In the twenty first century music industry things like transcriptions have been outsourced, but there are whole new income revenues in terms of merchandise, something the composers of old definitely didn’t have, meaning in some ways it’s easier now to make a living as a musician than it was in the time leading up to the popularization of the phonograph.
Furthermore, I’d also like to put I a gentle reminder her that we are all suffering from a sampling error. For every Pat Benatar and ABBA there is a Shebang and a Diamond Head – bands who never got to make a living off of music, bands who formed the vast underbelly of the industry. Of course we remember the big bands, because many of them were the great ones. They made a lot of money because they were famous. We tend to forget the thousands of bands who slipped through the cracks. If you need a reminder of this, go through your parents or grandparents LP collection sometime and look at how many bands you have never heard of. The music industry has traditionally been unkind – we all need to get over that fact.
As bleak and fatalistic as this article might seem, I really don’t mean it that way. The real message I want to get across here is that we need to collectively get over the hangover from the twentieth century and realize that all good things can’t last forever. The twentieth century was a great time to be a musician and the music really thrived because of it. Now though we have to wake up and realize that someone mixed something weird into our drink. The fantasy was great while it lasted but now we need to cut our losses and move on. We have a lot of new markets now, and we should place an emphasis on taking advantage of those rather than trying to sell CD’s. So come out from the past, embrace the now and fall in love once again.
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