Give it away, give it away, give it away now

Chris JonesWe’re lucky in the bluegrass world. We’re still playing to audiences that actually buy CDs. Some artists in other genres aren’t even finding it worth the trouble to throw a box of them on to the bus before heading out.

What’s happening is that the demographic groups who still buy CDs are now outnumbered by the demographic groups who don’t. People who wait tables have a similar problem with the kinds of people who tip well, versus those who don’t.

The last time a thorough market survey took place, it was determined that the only reliable CD-buying consumers left in the world are 43-year old women earning between $46,000 and $48,000/year. They prefer Japanese-made mid-sized SUVs, and usually own one small dog named “Chuckles.”

As you’re probably well aware, the way music is delivered to the public has changed—and is still changing—dramatically. Remember when the CD man used to come by twice a week, wearing that white uniform, delivering fresh music to your doorstep and taking away your empties? I’m afraid those days are long gone.

Today, of course, we live in the world of the download, the digital streaming service, and lastly (and leastly) the illegal sharing. Some listeners aren’t even bothering with any of the above, preferring instead to simply hum to themselves, just a little out of tune.

The downloads aren’t so bad for artists and record labels. People pay about a buck a song, the label makes some money, and if they’re nice about it, the artist may get a little percentage too.

Those that are using satellite radio as an alternative to buying CDs, are at least helping artists and labels out by contributing through their subscription fees to performance royalties, as well as writer and publisher royalties.

The same can’t be said for the streaming services, I’m sorry to say. I recently decided to actually read my statement (my first mistake), and I saw that during the quarter in question, one song of mine had received over 19,000 plays on one of the streaming services, for which I was paid approximately 80 cents! I can’t look up the exact amount because I ripped the paper into tiny little pieces and used them as barbecue kindling.

In a recent Bluegrass Today article about recording artists testifying on this very subject before Congress, Rosanne Cash reportedly told a congressional panel that all of her songs received over 600,000 plays in an 18 month period, and she received a payment of $114 (payable in cash or in Arby’s coupons).

Still, with those striking numbers, the digital streaming services are lobbying to pay even less than that. Pandora, for example, argues that they’re already paying out the majority of their revenue in royalties, and that’s a hardship. I guess the obvious counter to that is that they should come up with a business model in which they, you know, generate some revenue. The fact that they’re making artists’ music available for almost nothing is a big reason people are choosing not to buy the music directly.

The digital streaming services are delivering a sort of one-two punch to artists by this way of doing business. But, the question remains, can we do anything about it? Even if they charged more and paid more for the use of musical property, people would still be able to get their music for free by sharing it illegally. It’s extremely easy, and there are few negative consequences, aside from the little tear in the corner of that banjo player’s eye when you acquired an mp3 of his new instrumental without paying for it.

In the end, it may come down to educating people and encouraging them to do the right thing.

I heard an interesting interview with one recording artist (outside of our genre) who had made the decision to simply give her music away on line. Instead she asked for donations, which was apparently working well for her. Is this where we’re headed?

There’s no doubt that consumers of bluegrass and other forms of music need some enlightenment on the subject sometimes. They mean no harm, I think it just never occurs to some fans how important the live CD sales are to an artist’s livelihood, especially in our music.

I have had fans stand at the table, and one will say to the other, “I’ll buy this one, you buy that one, and we’ll just tape them for each other.”  I would casually say, “I didn’t hear that,” and the comment wouldn’t register with them at all.

I’ve sometimes tried to let people know, in a subtle way (by whispering it to them in Pig Latin), that almost no money trickles down to artists on record labels when the music is purchased on line or anywhere apart from the artist’s merch table. It’s understandable that people wouldn’t know this, because it would require understanding of how artist’s royalties work, and that would be too long and tedious a discussion, especially during an on-stage CD plug.

People may just have to start viewing the direct purchase of CDs from artists as an act of support or even kindness. I know from comments that I receive that some already do.

Otherwise, we may have to resort to selling baked goods or obscure musical accessories (we’re now working on a mandolin case cover cover) to eke out a living.

At times like this, I think back to Don Reno and Bill Harrell, who made this point in a musical way (to the tune of Little Paper Boy):

Please buy a record from us
So we can get some gas for the bus
We haven’t eaten since early this morn
We’ll starve to death as sure as you’re born