…and some something about musicians

tl;dr if you care about music and musicians, and you have some spare money, now would be a good time to send it their way. You could buy recordings, subscribe to support people on platforms like Bandcamp or Patreon, hire them for a lesson or studio work if you are yourself a musician, or just give them money. A list of resources will appear at the bottom of this post.

This post is mostly addressed to my bourgeois friends and readers who are on salary and have secure employment.

A lot of people are about to have a lot of financial hardship. That sentence is supposed to end “because of the virus,” but it’s really not true. It’s because of how capitalism works. Tim Wu has a great piece in today’s NY Times about American Airlines squandering their profits and now expecting a bailout despite continuing to screw over workers and customers. And that’s pretty much every industry. I understand how someone living pay check to pay check doesn’t have cash reserves. I don’t understand how a corporation raking in millions of dollars does not. Well, I do, I just don’t approve. Ditto for the corporate welfare that’s happening right now. That money should be going to individuals and groups affected by rapacious profit seeking rather than those who have benefitted from it.

One group I am particularly aware of is musicians because I happen to know a lot of them. Most of the professional musicians I know make their living through touring, lessons, and other for-hire work. All of that is drying up fast–even lessons, because many people who take music lessons are also living pay check to pay check and have to cut back. Markus Reuter, with whom I’ve been taking touch guitar lessons (and will continue to) just posted a GoFundMe. For reference, he’s a prog rock musician, has toured with King Crimson and Devin Townsend, and is one of the best in the world at what he does. And he estimates he needs €10,000 to get by in the next six months. Chris Bates, a friend from high school who is a pillar of the Minneapolis jazz scene, just made a Facebook post asking people to buy his back catalog of records.

I’m seeing a lot of talk about live-streaming gigs for income. To me, this is a bad idea. The business model didn’t work in the first place, and it’s not something you can just wake up and do well.

But the real problem here isn’t a virus drying up a gig economy. The real problem is the gig economy itself. One person who has figured this out is Steve Lawson, who is about as niche a musician as you can get: solo, free improvised bass guitar, in the tradition of house concerts. I am not making that up. He’s a virtuoso in the old fashioned sense, but exceptionally, he is also a very skilled writer. Steve has set up a subscription service via Bandcamp with about 250 subscribers (yes I’m one–I also support a bunch of other musicians this way, and a few on Patreon). I’ll let him explain how this works and why this is a better model:

right now there are two places that do that better than all the others combined – Bandcamp and Patreon. It can be a massive struggle to get your listeners to care. People with huge audiences that are vaguely interested in you can find that their core audience who actually care is tiny

Focussing on that audience and its growth can feel insane. Like, why wouldn’t you try and reach out to the 500,000 people who’ve watched your stuff on someone else’s channel YouTube? Because the clickthrough rate to buying music from YouTube is appalling. It happens, but it’s not a solid strategy.

If you want and need a bunch of people who will sustain you, you need to work at it, and that may initially be really small. I have a HUGE diffuse audience of people who know my stuff through YouTube, ScottsBassLessons, Bass Guitar Magazine, radio etc. But I have 250 subscribers who sustain me, materially and spiritually.

Growing that 250 is what matters to me. Feeding them, nurturing them. So almost all my output is subscriber only. I could stick it all on streaming platforms or YouTube and it’d be worthless. There’s enough stuff of mine on YouTube sending people my way. I’m building the tribe. So many things about what I do are utterly specific to how and why I make music. They’re things that rely on me having had a 20 year career, an incredibly high rate of production, being a writer and audio engineer, collaborating widely. NONE OF THAT HAPPENED BY ACCIDENT.

Steve’s case is a personal solution, and it makes sense for him, but it points to the structural problem. The ideal model for supporting the arts, as far as I can tell, it essentially patronage at a cultural level. Rather than per-item sales, or per-gig payment, some kind of sustained income allows people to create freely. I don’t have a brilliant solution mapped out, except to note that most orchestras don’t turn a profit and essentially exist on this basis already. In the meantime, it’s on us, people who care about the arts, to support the arts.

(Some of you are closer to writers, or visual artists, or people who work on film sets–if they’re in the gig economy, they have the same problem, so be generous to them!)

…and don’t forget to give some money to your local food shelf as well.

This list will be updated as I come across more stuff

change.org petition for freelance artists to be paid

COVID-19 Freeland Artists and Writers, CANUCK EDITION

Virtual Music Events Directory

Steve’s top tips for running a live stream gig

Sweet Relief Musicians’ Fund (US)

American Federation of Musicians