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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Column: The death of Indie music

Why the independent artist is becoming a thing of the past.

April 9, 2014

The opinions expressed by The Maneater columnists do not represent the opinions of The Maneater editorial board.

For a long time, I believed in the concept of independent music. I believed in the power of an “indie” band (meaning “without a record label”) coming from nothing and succeeding based solely on talent, not money. I believed that if you worked hard enough, it didn’t depend on how little money you had, because talent is more important than wealth in the music industry.

I no longer believe that.

Maybe that mindset was too idealistic. Maybe my desire for it to be true caused disillusionment. Maybe it was just plain wrong from the start. But whatever the case, when I now examine the musical landscape, I know only one thing to be true: Music is a rich man’s game.

I didn’t want to accept this. For one, this takes away from the idea that music can be a form of expression rather than merely a way to make money. It also means that music, now and forevermore, will be increasingly commodified.

I came to this conclusion by taking the time to crunch the numbers. Imagine the financial demand of an up-and-coming indie band. First, they have to buy expensive instruments. Then, if they want to succeed on a national level, they probably need to focus more on their music and less on their jobs, leading to a substantial loss of income. They’ll also need to pay through the nose to record in a studio.

This simply isn’t feasible for a band lacking the financial aid of a record label. To be relevant in the modern music scene, it takes money. And money, whether artists like it or not, comes at the expense of creative rights.

Therefore, I am hereby forced to declare that indie music could soon be dead.

There are other factors at the root of the problem, too: Music streamers such as Spotify, iTunes, Pandora, etc. The share of the profits musicians get from music services such as these is heinous. But because the lines of legality in music licensing are so blurred, no one can do anything but sit back and watch.

When someone plays a band’s song on Spotify, the band get $0.007. It doesn’t take any knowledge of the nuances and intricacies of music law to see that this is outrageous. And the other streaming services aren’t much better.

Because digital streaming plays such a crucial role in music dissemination, this can often be the only money artists see from their musical efforts, besides tours and merchandise sales. Even if a band gets thousands of plays per day on every streaming service, it still wouldn’t add up to more than $10 or $20. This just isn’t enough for a band to support itself.

Music is a business now more than ever before, and just like any business, you need money to make money. But this principle squanders an age-old ideal, one so ingrained in the history of music that I don’t know if it will ever be the same without it. That is, the ideal of independence. Of doing it yourself. Of ignoring what the men in suits tell you and making art in the name of defiance.

When it’s impossible for a band to succeed without the help of a record label, it can only mean one thing: Commodification has tightened its grip on music so firmly that it has choked out indie music. As much as it pains me to say it, independent music is dying. And with the rising cost it takes to be an artist, independent music could soon be dead.

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Article comments

April 9, 2014 at 10:13 a.m.

Adam: I agree with a lot of the points you are making here. Particularly that it is becoming increasingly difficult for independent musicians to make money. However, there are increasing supports for independent musicians out there such as up and coming websites like Patreon and established ones like Bandcamp. As far as what you say about the rising cost of being an artist, I believe the opposite is true. Music equipment is far more affordable and accesible than in the past. Even if the price had risen I still believe it would not deter any independent musician from devoting themselves to making great music.

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