Should musicians be beggars?

This is not necessarily going to be the most pleasant post I have ever written. Sometimes, what I think I need to say is not very pleasant. My goal is to tell the truth and also be helpful. This piece of writing is mostly geared at other professional musicians.

Before I start, I want to say something: I am grateful. I am grateful for those of you that have supported me and my music for a decade. You have done so even though I have made mistakes. To start, I have made musical mistakes. Not all my music has been good music. Sometimes, it has been flat out offensive to some of you and you have nevertheless stuck with me. Nor has all my writing on this blog been good writing. I wince when I think about some of the things I have written here. Many of you probably smiled and ignored and hung around anyway.

In spite of numerous mistakes, I have been fortunate. I sort of pinch myself actually when I think about it. For years, my music has supported my family well. After I sold Vitabase, music became our primary source of income. I can’t explain how that happened and I don’t deserve it. There are numerous and far more qualified musicians that have not had that success. I want you to know I realize that success in music is incredibly difficult and elusive.

As an example, I was researching a family group this morning that I have admired for years. They have way more creativity and talent than I do. We started at the same time and before long, they were doing mainstream PBS specials in a big way. I have been widely played on Christian TV internationally, but very little in the much larger mainstream PBS market. Because of their huge exposure, I just expected that they would grow fast. However, when researching them this morning on social media, I was struck by the fact that they are still struggling to get traction. In fact, there are quite a few signs that they are floundering.

I bring those guys up to make the point that music is a hard way to earn a living. What you see is not always reality and sometimes what you think of as “making it” is actually not. Getting concerts on TV does surprisingly little in the way of feeding your family. A video with a million views will not get you an early retirement. I have both of those things in my credits so I know I am speaking truth. The truth is that making a career in music is harder than just getting some PR notches in your belt.

Because it is so hard, we are seeing a trend toward musicians asking for money. Lots of musicians are going to platforms like Patreon to raise funds to produce music. While either a label or the musician has traditionally fronted the cost of production (studio time, etc), many of today’s musicians are attempting to crowdfund that cost. Honestly, some musicians are even going way beyond that. I know musicians who seem to start a start a new fundraising effort every other day and sometimes not even for music production.

I am wary of that trend for a few reasons. First, I am a capitalist. It flat out does not feel right to me to ask other people to give me money just so I don’t have to take any risk in my music business. Now I know that some musicians might tell me that they don’t run a music business: it is their music ministry. In my opinion, that is a smokescreen. What you call it does not change what it is. If you are trying to feed your family with your music, you operate a music business regardless of your motives, and in business, you have to take risk.

The second problem with the trend is that it bypasses the checks and balances of a free market which acts as a filter to separate the wheat from the chaff. Let’s say that I invest $10,000 to produce an album and I sell 100. What should my response be? I either need to improve my music or whatever else is broken or I need to go do something else. That is not what I am seeing today though. I see struggling musicians just decide that if they can’t pay for an album with sales, they will crowdfund their next album and play with someone else’s money. I don’t really respect that very much.

For those two reasons, you are not going to see me asking for money to fund projects. I believe that if I have to raise money to produce music because I cannot sell enough to cover production costs, I am probably in the wrong business. That does not mean however that I am saying that everyone that does crowdfunding is wrong. Let me be clear: some of the people that do crowdfunding are better musicians than me by far and some of them are far more well known than me.

In fact, the group I was discussing a few paragraphs ago is on Patreon, though very honestly, their campaign is not doing very well. That brings me another point: if you do decide to move toward that business model, don’t expect it to be easy. It is not. If the group I am referring to with thousands of hours on broadcasting on PBS can’t raise $1000/video on Patreon, that is not a good sign. The problem again is barrier of entry. Anyone can throw up a campaign on Patreon and many (too many) do. There is a glut of fundraising going on not just in music, but in pretty much everything. Just open Facebook if you don’t believe me.

Some of you might point out that for centuries, famous composers had patrons that supported their music. You could argue that crowdfunding is just a new twist on the patron idea. I get that. That is one of the reasons I am avoiding dogmatism on this. I also know that if you are a Christian musician in 2017, you are dealing with trends that are bigger than you. Good church music is in decline even while churches themselves are in decline. I should also mention that I am thinking more of performers and recording artists than writers as I write this. I am not sure at this point that more than a tiny handful of Christian music writers can even really survive on publishing royalties today without some form of patronage (or another job).

It is complicated and I acknowledge that from where I am, it is easy to tell you not to ask for money to fund your music business. If you operate differently, I won’t judge you and we will stay friends. These are just my thoughts.