Hey… can you help an artist out?

Several weeks ago I wrote a column about bluegrass financing (save all your oxymoron jokes for another time!), and we got into an interesting discussion in the comments section below, which I’d like to pick up on, expand upon, then possibly distort, exaggerate, and then just make up a bunch of stuff.

The recent celebration of National Record Store Day was very exciting to anyone who lives in an area that’s either hip enough or outdated enough to have one of these stores nearby. National Record Store Day reportedly generated slightly more interest this year than the National Video Rental Store Day. In fairness to National Video Rental Store Day, it’s scheduled on the same day as Men’s Sock Garter Day, so they ended up competing for national press coverage.

I love that we’re taking the time to honor and appreciate any outlet for the purchase of music in the “hard copy” form. Many of us bought some memorable and influential records in places like that, though, for many bluegrass fans, a lot of the music we were interested in had to be ordered through the mail anyway (thank you County Sales!). The fact is, though, even with the revival of the LP, the purchase of music in the hard form is declining rapidly, and the CD may someday soon join the 8-track in the “Music Formats Through the Years” display at the museum. 

We who play bluegrass music for a living are in some ways the luckier ones (and how often do we get to say that?), at least for now. We play for audiences who are old enough that they still buy CDs, and we play for some fans who often understand the struggle of making a living this way, and who buy CDs from the artists just as a show of support. These fans have no idea how appreciated this is. Still, we all see the decline. Our target demographic is now people who are old enough to still buy CDs, but not so old that they can’t physically make it to the record table. The numbers of both these groups will continue to decrease, I’m afraid.

We are now in the world of the download and the streaming service. Even the download is in decline, giving way to streaming. There is a complicated discussion related to streaming that I don’t have the time or the energy for today, but I’ll just say that though the payout for artists is terrible and needs reform, it is, unlike the unauthorized YouTube clip, paying something, and there are ways to increase those numbers that are worth pursuing.

Let me also add that there is a substantial difference between what streaming services pay artists and writers for music streamed from a paid subscription than from the free service. My own view is that there should only be a paid option, but others would counter that the free streaming is similar to terrestrial radio (you have to endure advertising and you can’t simply listen to whatever song you want) and we get that for free. Again, it’s another discussion for another time, but we can at least say that if you do stream, subscribing to the service is definitely more supportive of the artists.

Even before streaming and the download, many bluegrass artists have felt, with some justification, that large numbers of fans don’t really understand the importance of the live CD purchase to the artists, and they don’t want to explain it from the stage because it would sound like a guilt trip, plus it just makes for tedious stage patter, right up there with the “Chinese folk song: Tu-ning” joke.

This is where a list in the comments sections from Gary, a Bluegrass Today reader, led to an interesting conversation. Gary decided to rate, and then ask for opinion about, the ways of purchasing music that are most beneficial to the artists, listed from least to most financially helpful (#1 is most beneficial):

  1. Streaming their music on a free subscription (and that this is pretty much zero)
  2. Streaming their music on a paid, premium subscription
  3. Buying a physical CD from a store (do they do that with bluegrass music any more?)
  4. Buying a download of an album from a site like Amazon or iTunes
  5. Buying a physical CD directly from the artist
  6. Buying a download of an album directly from the artist

There were several good issues raised here, and I pointed out that this order changes quite a bit depending on whether an artist is with a record label or not. I thought it was very astute of Gary to differentiate between paid and free streaming.

I think the part that’s most misunderstood by a lot of fans, and that artists on record labels would like you to know, but are reluctant to tell you, is this:

99% of artists signed to a recording contract will actually make zero on the purchase of a CD from another source, other than a direct sale through the artist’s own web site (in which the artist or contracted party actually ships you their CD). The purchase of the CD will contribute a very modest amount ($1.00 is not unusual) toward the repaying of the artist’s debt to the record label for recording and related costs for the CD production. That’s all that purchase does. You can imagine that from the artist’s point of view, there’s a substantial difference between zero and  the $9.00 or so that is usually earned from a live sale.

The same goes for downloads, depending on the contract: some artists receive download royalties right away, others do not, but in either case, the download payout is minuscule  compared to the live CD purchase.

To be clear, if the artist is releasing the CD on his or her own label, they are making money from the Amazon or CDBaby purchase, though after a commission is paid. Some artists offer downloads from their own web site of music that they own, but in my observation that’s most often used to offer free tracks for promotional purposes, with most artists providing links to iTunes or other services to download their music.

In any case, when someone comes up to an artist’s CD table and says, “are you on iTunes?,” or “can I buy the CD online?” artists will usually respond, “sure,” because in fact they’re happy for any sale, but what they might really be tempted to say (but never would) is, “sure, if you want to insure that my daughter doesn’t get new shoes this winter.” 

When artists are asked “are you on YouTube?” you may observe them just pretending they didn’t hear you, or they may say, through clenched teeth, “who wants to know?”

Here is a revision of Gary’s list, which was an excellent start, with some expansion, and with the disclaimer that the value of a download vs. the value of streaming is a grey area up for debate, and that some of these would change positions depending on contract. This is a assuming the artist is signed to a record label. Again, this is from least valuable to the artist to most valuable:

10 – Taping the show without asking permission, then putting poor quality video up on YouTube, then walking up to the CD table, buying nothing, but engaging artist in lengthy conversation about meeting Jimmy Martin in 1974.

9 – Putting the artist’s current single that you really like up on YouTube so all can enjoy it, then emailing artist to send the lyrics so those can also be uploaded.

8 – Buying CD from artist while telling friends and family who are also standing there, not to buy it because they can copy yours (I realize this pays more than some below, but it hurts more)

7 – Buying a CD from any third party source: retail store, online vendor, etc.

6 – Download of album.

5 – Streaming album from free service.

4 – Streaming album from paid subscription (and following and sharing artist page).

3 – Direct purchase of CD from artist.

2 – Direct purchase of every CD on table from artist.

1 – Direct purchase of every CD on table, paying in $5.00 bills and handing the artist a bouquet of flowers (hey, it could happen).

Note that if it’s an artist who is releasing his or her own music, they’ll make more in every category, and items 7 and 6 would be further down the list. Bear in mind, of course, that no one expects you to do a bunch of research, and know the intricacies of an artist’s recording contract, or whether the music is self-released or not. Many of your favorite bluegrass artists are on labels, but some are not. To take the guess work out of it, though, the in-person CD purchase is still always the best for the artist, in any case. You just can’t go wrong there. Flowers optional.