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Music Econ 101 - Supply and Demand

J.G.Thwaits, 28 June 2016

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You work hard honing your craft, you're committed, you're skilled at your trade; I can appreciate that, it's great and admirable, but it doesn't entitle you to a free ride to stardom, or even a lucrative career. Sorry to break it to you but being able to play music doesn't actually put you into a very rare category. Walking down the street it would only take you a minute or two to run into someone who plays guitar, or piano, or sings etc. The market is driven by supply and demand and the only two ways to stand out when supply is high are to undercut the competition on price or differentiate your product to offer something unique that people are willing to extra pay for.

The internet and subsequent ease of releasing music independently has caused the market to be saturated with choices and on top of that nearly all of it can be listened to for free! So where does that leave us? It's hard to undercut the price tag of $free, and even if you have something truly unique and desirable it's hard to bring attention to it in a sea of other choices.

There is hope shining through because almost all of this free music on the internet is actually paid for with ad money. How much it pays is a current matter of controversy but at least it's a source of revenue for the artist, especially if you have some ownership as a songwriter or publisher. If the consumer doesn't want to pay for it as a subscriber, they can just pay by listening to the occasional ad. Some people still buy cds or downloads but in a changing climate, I don't know how much longer we can count on those.

So what about playing shows? Can that still be a key revenue source? In that area I don't have all the answers right now but consider this: The average person has a limited budget to spend on entertainment; I would guess that expenses like internet service provider, mobile phone, video games, cable tv, and the occasional movie ticket are eating up most peoples entertainment budgets. Yes I count internet and mobile charges as entertainment, that's how we stream classic concert videos. This leads to my next point, If we have at our fingertips the ability to bring up some of the greatest performance videos of all time then why would we risk the extra time and money going to see a band that may be a dud play live in an unfamiliar venue that may be a dive? Many of us wouldn't risk it.

There are in fact many good reasons to risk it and go out into the world experiencing real events in real time with other real people. I encourage you to do it but I'm trying to make the point that some musicians have an unrealistic and idealistic view of how art should be produced and consumed given the current technological and societal conditions. Every time you play a show, not only are you competing with other live shows but you are competing with Netflix, YouTube, Cable, movie theaters, Facebook, etc. which all consistently deliver a high quality experience for a low price, and sometimes even free from the comfort of your own home. You'd better put on a pretty darn good show and do all you can to make it an all around memorable night for your audience, because they've got other good options.

Should you expect to get paid well for every show you do? And are other musicians who are playing shows for free or small fees just jerks who are ruining the business for every one else? I say no and no. I've seen how many performers there are out there lining up for a 10 minute open mic spot, I'm well aware of the millions of YouTube videos out there of covers and original songs; there are so many that you couldn't even come close to watching them all. Supply far outweighs demand, plain and simple. This business follows the same economic rules as many other industries, when it comes to sales, we don't get a free pass for being "artists". We have to work the hustle like everyone else. Unless you are already a hot shot who has a dedicated following built up that wants to see and hear a unique talent that only you can deliver, you will have to make your music available for free if you want to get heard. So many others have found a way to do this and you can too if it's that important to you. On the other hand if making money is the most important thing to you, you may want to consider another industry. People have proven that making money in music is totally possible, but I'm just saying, music probably isn't the quickest and safest bet.

I still believe music is this magical and wonderful thing. I consider it a blessing that I am able to get so much pleasure out of listening to music. It truly makes my life rich in ways that money never could, but we can't go around thinking we deserve special treatment for being wonderful musicians. In many societies and times in history there didn't exist a music industry, music was just something the community did in the home, in the fields, at times of celebration and they didn't expect to get monetary compensation for it, the enjoyment of it was reward enough. Let's keep focus on the way music makes us happy, then anything else we can get from it is just an extra bonus.

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