I've been invited by Sonicbids CEO Panos Panay to speak on a panel at SXSW later this month entitled "Artist as Entrepreneur," and as I've been thinking about the subject, my attention was drawn to this recent post on CD Baby's bulletin boards (it was first posted elsewhere). Katie Taylor, the artistic director of Opera Theater Oregon, is worried about the rising perception that art--particularly music--should be available for a very low price or free.
To change this perception, she argues, artists need to convince the general public that there's a fundamental difference between a casual hobby, like a basement-band jam session, and actual art. As she explains, putting on a high quality show for the public is more like planning a wedding. It takes tons of time, talent, and preparation. This kind of art can't continue unless the people putting it on can earn a living wage. And the only way for them to earn a living wage is for consumers to be willing to pay, either through taxes and public funding or directly out of their pocket. If the general public continues to view art as a low-value option that should be available for free, then all art will descend to the level of basement-band jams, and society will be the worse for it.
I've been in both basement bands and "real" bands that are trying to sell recordings and charge for gigs, and there is a hundredfold difference in the amount of effort musicians put into each kind of band. Unfortunately, most listeners are completely unaware of the difference. (It's probably the same for all kinds of art.)
In the case of music, there's a core audience--I'll be generous and say it's around 1%--who understand and care deeply about music, who use their ears more than their other senses, and who couldn't live without it. The other 99% attend shows and buy CDs for other reasons--to fit into a peer group, to stave off the boredom of another evening at home watching TV, to attract a mate, and so on. This isn't conjecture--a Columbia University study I've cited several times strongly suggests that a particular song's popularity is influenced primarily by the opinions of others, and has no relationship to its objective quality (as measured by a control group where listeners voted without being able to see how their peers were voting).
Art's not food. It's a luxury, not a necessity. Which means that the only way for an artist to make money is to draw some of that 99% who feel they don't need it. Somehow, you have to convince them that your art is different, and is worth paying for. And the only way to reach that tipping point is--here's an evil word--marketing.
There are many ways to market your music, including some that seem more organic or "honest" to some artists because they rely primarily on word of mouth. The Internet and the rise of digital music has made it easier than ever to get the word out--MySpace and CD Baby are the bare-bones minimum for starting bands, and there are dozens of other online services that help accomplish specific tasks, from licensing your music for commercial use in film and TV to helping you get gigs.
Or, if you're still too lazy or pure to market yourself, there are plenty of organizations that will help you. Just the other day, I talked to a new company called The Republic Project that will create a digital marketing and distribution plan for semi-established bands in exchange for a cut of pre-release sales. The highlight: they're giving artists handheld digital video cameras so they can create videos of their recording sessions. Then Republic will post these videos online in hopes of building fan anticipation for a new album. It may not work, but making this kind of marketing effort is vital.
My point: the inherent value of art to the creator is very high--I value the experiences I've had playing music more than many other things in my life. But the inherent value of art to the consumer is almost zero. This is jarring to a lot of artists, but must be acknowledged if you expect to make money with your art in this cold commercial world.
If you build it, they won't come. If you build and market it, you have a chance.
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