Monday, February 26, 2018

Neil Young on Music Economics

The economics of the music business are a perennial item of interest as that was one reason I retired (cough*went on strike*cough) as a professional soloist. Over at Breitbart they have an article on Neil Young's views on the matter: Neil Young Blasts Google in Epic Rant: They Don’t Pay Musicians a ‘F*cking Cent’
“Today, in the age of FaceBook, GOOGLE, and Amazon, it’s hard to tell how a new and growing musical artist could make it in the way we did,” Young wrote. “The Tech Giants have figured out a way to use all the great music of everyone from all time, without reporting an artist’s number of plays or paying a fucking cent to the musicians. Aren’t they great companies!!! It makes you wonder where the next generation of artists will come from. How will they survive?”
On the other hand, Neil, I don't know if you have noticed, but some artists are doing rather well. The top three last year were:

  1. Sean Combs, $130 million
  2. Beyoncé, $105 million
  3. Drake, $94 million
So what is Mr. Young doing wrong? The fine arts are a very awkward area for social justice ideologies. They assert the underlying principle of economic equality, but the only way to achieve that in the arts is to tightly control all artists' earnings as they did in the Soviet Union. Because even if you hinder artists by making them conform to rigid aesthetic criteria such as "socialist realism" the talented few will figure out how to make great art notwithstanding. It is always the case that, in the arts, there are a tiny minority who excel and the vast majority who merely do journeyman work. In the Middle Ages when most artists were anonymous and there was only a rudimentary free market in the arts, no-one made much of a living from it. With the Renaissance came wealthy patrons with developed tastes and artists, even musicians, started to have some earning power. This system lasted up into the early 19th century in music with Mozart and Beethoven being the first to start to move away from noble patronage. Schubert is an example of a great musical talent who made virtually nothing from his music.

With the 20th century came entirely new income streams. Commissions from wealthy patrons were rare apart from donations to musical institutions, such as opera and concert series. These institutions would pass on a few crumbs to composers now and then. More and more governments, especially in Europe, set up bodies to grant money to artists and institutions.

But something else also happened in the 20th century. Due to the development of recording technology an entirely new way of commodifying music was developed. An early recording artist like Caruso could make more money from recordings than from concerts because he could only give one concert a day, but he could sell thousands of recordings. By mid-century recordings of popular music were, for the first time, outselling recordings of classical music. By the time Elvis Presley and the Beatles arrived, the economics of pop music dwarfed classical music entirely.

So now we have the top ten musicians, all in popular music, earning between fifty and over one hundred million dollars a year. This is many, many times what musicians were able to earn in previous eras. Doesn't that shed a rather ironic light on Mr. Young's remarks?

He should have been saying something like, "wow, musicians now can become fabulously wealthy, wealthier than even the richest potentates in past eras; the only problem is that some technology companies make even more money!"

The interesting question that comes to my mind is exactly how does one earn over $100 million dollars in the music business? Details, please.

Sorry, Neil!


Christopher Culver said...

Neil Young seems to be referring specifically to royalties per play, and he’s right. Those three über-rich musicians you listed have, after all, made most of their fortunes from savvy licensing deals and business investments, not individual plays of their tracks. The linked article even notes that:

"[Combs has] done quite a bit more than get close: Diddy is the top-earning musician on the planet, pulling in a career-best $130 million pretax this year. His total got a boost from his Bad Boy Family Reunion Tour, his Ciroc vodka deal and the sale of one-third of his Sean John clothing line for an estimated $70 million."

Sure, some musicians today can, with lots of luck and marketing savvy, turn their musical endeavours into a springboard for lots of non-musical income streams. But what about ones that don’t want to flog vodka or cognac or a garment brand, they just want to play music and issue some recordings?

Bryan Townsend said...

One artist in the top ten is Paul McCartney with, if I recall correctly, earnings of $71 million last year. I think that most of his lifetime earnings actually came from sales of recordings. But you are absolutely correct, the current big stars are making a killing, not from music directly, but from related businesses like headphones, clothing, endorsements, etc.

I guess you can boil it down to monies that come directly from performance, ones that come from the sale of recordings whether streamed or not and ones coming from commercial tie-ins of some sort. Each step is further away from the aesthetic experience itself. What is really remarkable is how adroitly commercialism has managed to commodify the most evanescent of arts: pressure waves in air!

I take the very odd position that I don't want to commodify what I do as it seems to be a crippling distraction. That's wwaaaayyy out there, I know!