True Or False? The Latest Stat: Less Than 30,000 Artists Are Actually Earning a Living

Digital Music News published and article titled The Latest Stat: Less Than 30,000 Artists Are Actually Earning a Living… which has been causing a lot of excitement. The problem is, that the people discussing the article don’t appear to have actually read it, or if they did read it, they did so while asleep, because they’ve managed to get everything wrong. Let’s take a look at what was actually written, and what it really means.

Digital Music News interviewed Ian Rogers, the CEO of Top Spin Media, and Ian shared some stats with Top Spin. The stats in question appear to be American stats, keep that in mind, as I’m going to be talking ‘Merican part of the way through this. Now Ian got his stats from Ian Hogarth, the co-founder and CEO of SongKick. SongKick provides a service – if you sign up you get customized event alerts telling you when bands you are interested in are touring your area. They also provide an event calendar, and a way to buy concert tickets. In other words, SongKick is in a position to know a lot about bands that are touring, and the venues they are playing. So the numbers quoted have a rational basis. To quote the article directly:

More specifically, the number is between 25,000 and 30,000, and the original source of that calculation is Songkick cofounder Ian Hogarth.  Essentially, Hogarth analyzed his database of bands by the types of venues being played, and the likely incomes associated with that level of venue.  “You can decide that number is slightly lower or slightly higher, you can argue about what the definition of making a living is, but it’s probably on that order of magnitude,” Rogers told the audience at the Canary Hotel in downtown Santa Barbara (see video below).

Neither Ian Rogers nor Ian Hogarth are claiming that these are exact figures. What they are claiming, is that by working with numbers from a certain database, taking certain factors into account, that these numbers are probably close. Both men have experience in the industry, and I suspect that the numbers quoted do have some foundation in reality. However there are some problems with the numbers that they article doesn’t mention.

Percentage of Professional Musicians per General Population

What is the percentage of professional musicians per general population? No one knows. For that matter, there is no fixed definition of a ‘professional musician’, some argue that if you are paid once, you are no longer an amateur (just like having sex once makes you no longer a virgin). Others argue that you have to be capable of making a living from music to be considered a professional. I don’t think anyone would argue that if you are making your living as a musician that you aren’t a professional.

The population of the United States is 310,232,863 (July 2010 estimate from the CIA World Factbook). This indicates that the percentage of professional musicians in the United States (assuming that ALL professional musicians are in Ian Hogarth’s database) is between 0.009% to 0.010%. That doesn’t sound like a lot, does it? Another way of putting it is that there is approximately 1 professional musician for every 30,000 citizens. That sounds low, but consider, how much do you spend on entertainment in a year? Subtract videos, computer games, etc, etc, and now how much is left for music? Not a lot.

And of course there are costs. So say each of those 30,000 people each spent $5.00, that would give you a total of $150,000.00, but then you have to subtract things like venue rentals, manager’s fees, etc. Play with the figures – maybe everyone spent $50.00, but $40.00 of it went to ITunes. Or maybe they bought Compact Discs or Vinyl. The point being that there is only a limited amount of money available to go towards music as a subset of entertainment, some of it goes to concerts, some of it goes to recorded music, and some of it gets diverted to beer.

How Complete is their Database?

This I don’t know. I know that I’ve looked up several professional musicians who are based in the United States. Some are there. Some aren’t. Some of the information is so outdated that it’s a joke. I wonder if Carla Ulbrich even knows she has a page there? Or Heather Dale? Both are full time musicians, but you wouldn’t know it from SongKick. Disclosure – I know, and like both of these ladies, and yes, you can buy their music on ITunes. Here’s Heather’s website, and here’s Carla’s website.

What About Other Forms of Income?

A lot of artists that I know love ITunes. If you have a Mac, and use Garageband (and most of us do) you can record, edit, and upload your tracks directly, without needing to be signed to a label. This also means that you get to keep all of the cash, rather than splitting it with your label, assuming that they are willing to give you a split in the first place.

A lot of artists sell compact disks and digital video disks at concerts, which is another important source of revenue. Some sell tee shirts or baseball caps. One woman that I knew used to sell kisses. Seriously. She had the most incredible red lipstick, and for $5.00 she’d kiss your shirt. Since she was young, and attractive, she often had a line up of guys (and some girls) wearing white tee-shirts willing to pay.

How Do The Numbers Compare Historically

This is the point where the article falls flat. It gives us a single set of numbers, but no context. Are the number of artists making a living up, down, or the same? My personal guess would be that the numbers have dropped in the United States because of the Recession. If your customers don’t have money, they can’t spend it buying concert tickets to see you. But I could easily be wrong. Maybe the stress is causing people to look for more entertainment, and the number of artists making a living is up (a similar thing happened during the Great Depression, when new types of entertainment flourished, such as the pulp magazines, and talking movies).

The current Recession may have driven an increase in the number of artists trying to make it. After all, if you’ve been laid off from your job, why not pick up your guitar and try to make some money?

The problem is that we don’t know. We have one set of numbers, which we know are incomplete, and nothing to compare them to, which effectively makes the numbers useless. If Ian Hogarth updates his numbers next year, that would give us something to work with.

The Rest of the Article

I just about choked when I read these two paragraphs.

Meanwhile, the costs of actually marketing music effectively is increasing.  “Technology has allowed the cost of production to come down, and the cost of distribution has come down,” Rogers relayed.  “But the cost of marketing has come up, because you have empowered consumers and unlimited choice.”

Not only that, successful marketing is extremely time-consuming, resource-consuming, and the results highly unpredictable.  Welcome to the new music industry, one whose real dynamics are just starting to come to light – and forcing entirely new approaches and expectations.

The cost of marketing is increasing? How? I know people who are ‘making it’ because they can now afford the marketing costs, which they couldn’t before. And he complains about ‘empowered consumers’, where I would think that he would be happy that consumers are now more easily able to find what they want.

As to the second paragraph, what has changed? Successful marketing is always a crap shoot. Some things work, some don’t, and some that work right for Jeff won’t work right for Fred. It’s always been this way, and it always will be this way. That’s why people like Stompin’ Tom Connors have made it. In addition to being an incredible songwriter/performer, Stompin’ Tom is a natural marketing genius. Oh, and SongKick says he hasn’t performed since August 2004. Wonder if Stompin’ Tom knew that on September 4th 2010, when he played at MacDonald Island Park, Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Conclusion

OK, so the original article got you all excited. As I’ve demonstrated above, without further numbers, the original is effectively useless. Things might be worse, but they might be better too, and we just don’t know.

But, it would be really useful to have better numbers. For over a century we’ve seen a series of panics, ranging from the infamous 1906 John Philip Sousa letter to the United States Congress complaining about Recording Machines:

These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy…in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.

to the current panics about file sharing. Each time disaster is claimed. Each time numbers are produced, appearing like Athena did, born fully formed from Zeus’s head, with little or no explanation of where they came from, or how they were produced. This is the first time that we’ve been given a reasonable explanation.

Regards

Wayne Borean

Tuesday November 16, 2010

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