You know the kind of people who say “I’d never bring a child into this world?” That’s how some people feel about bands. That’s how I felt, for about five years. My first band—complete with the Rolling Stone music director handling management, and the ex-Napster COO ready to handle legal—melted down so “unexpectedly” that I fled to Washington, D.C., to write and to study political theory. Screw the music industry, I thought. This is doom.
But a funny thing happened on the way to becoming a Beltway Boy. I had a chance to move back to Los Angeles, and I took it. I hooked back up with my drummer. And we started writing new songs. And we started a new band.
And somehow, strangely, my life isn’t over yet.
That’s not to say there aren’t head-check moments. They happen every day. Shouldn’t you call it an early night? Shouldn’t you spend this time catching up on email? Doesn’t that riff rip off Capital Cities?
And then the big one: Isn’t the music industry more screwed than ever?
Fortunately, I have legitimate professional reasons to read up on the endless Internet debate at the intersection of music policy, music technology, and musical artistry. And the more I keep tabs on the dueling judgments of people like industry lifer Bob Lefsetz, ex-Gang of Four bassist Dave Allen, Talking Heads guru David Byrne, and the University of Georgia’s David Lowery (ex-Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker), the more I realize that the so-called demise of the music industry can actually work for musicians as a moment of liberating grace.
And for the rest of us, it can open our eyes to a form of economic life that doesn’t fill us with resentment or depression.
All our leading music commentators are making a serious effort to understand why the music business has been upended and what ought to come next. But as forceful as their arguments may be, my attention returns again and again to the upshot of the disruption at the system level. What we find there is simple, yet remarkable: a ton of obscure and insignificant acts at the bottom—as expected—and, at the top, a growing number of struggling would-be blockbuster acts.
Not just in supposedly self-marginalizing rock music, either! Right at the epicenter of big time pop, music is foundering as a wealth enterprise. Even the most over-the-top stunts aren’t pushing celebrity musicians’ numbers up to where the industry hopes. “Pop music has evolved into a lifestyle condiment,” sighs Steven Hyden at Grantland. “Technology can't change this, it can only expedite it. This is not a new story. What changed in 2013 is that the endgame can be viewed with greater clarity if you choose to see it.”
At the same time, great sadness awaits those going into the lifestyle condiment business. In a post entitled “Hipster Death Spiral,” Lefsetz mocks the cognoscenti touting music’s answer to microbrews. “Don’t I know that I should be championing the obscure? That anything successful is not worth paying attention to?”
That’s so twentieth century. When we were one cohesive society. Now it’s every man for himself. And either you pop your head through or you’re irrelevant. Even worse, you can be famous and irrelevant. All that counts is the mainstream. If you’re not attempting to be known by everybody, if your goal is the niche, it’s almost like you don’t even exist.
And if there’s one thing we’re all trained down to our bones to fear, it’s being stuck in a life where we seem not to exist.
Believe it or not, though, music is one of the last culturally dominant rich people’s games where those on top often lose it all. In national politics and global business, the safest place to be is the pinnacle. Insulated from ruin, networked into success, failing upward and retiring in splendor are commonplace. Only the most egregious sexual and ethical errors will destroy your career—and sometimes not even then.
Music is far less forgiving. In that industry, the financial churn that helps democracy thrive is alive and well among current—and former—stars. It’s easy to squander your wealth. It’s easy to lose the support of institutions, audiences, and even fans. And it’s fiendishly hard to generationally empire-build. For Trumps, Hiltons, or Cuomos, passing power or money onto the next generation requires no more than time and effort. For the music elite, it’s a roll of the dice at best. How many kids of A-list musicians have maintained the wealth and status of their parents?
It’s financially bad news for the Francis Bean Cobains of the world. But the forever-shifting fortunes that define every level of the music industry offer a model for sane living in an economy that seems ever more sharply divided between big winners and big losers. Unless corruption and patronage are endemic in an industry (heads up, politicians), it’s possible to grow and sustain what old-school economists call “middling fortunes.”
Those at the bottom mostly hustle in obscurity. Those at the top mostly slip down the greasy pole. And those in the middle mostly plow ahead, refreshed by the repose of spirit or soul so hard to find at the top or the bottom. “There is nothing keeps longer than a middling fortune,” wrote master French moralist Jean de La Bruyère; “and nothing melts away sooner than a great one. Poverty treads on the heels of great and unexpected riches.” The changes wracking music are really just restoring the natural landscape of any free industry.
But what about that technology, you ask? Even if you rise up or slip down to “working musician” status, won’t the Spotifys and YouTubes ruin your income stream?
Not if you focus on why we’ve even still got a music industry. People want to be moved. Yet sculpture, architecture, painting, and even film are letting down masses of people every day. Music anchors and unites creative endeavors in a way no other art form can.
Wake me up when you rise to that occasion. With a little luck and a lot of hard work, I’ll meet you there.