Sunday, September 18, 2011

Playing for Grins - a Scattered and Not Very Well Organized Look at Music in the New Age

(I apologize  for the rather scattered and unclear arrangement of this piece.)

A few months ago, I went into a music store owned by an acquaintance in town. He asked me if I was playing. I said some, but that the slow economy had, unfortunately, caused several of the places I played to close. I asked him if he was playing.

"No," he grumbled. He gestured toward a drum set on the floor. "Those are my drums, and I'm selling them, because no one is paying more that $100 for the whole group to play. That means I get $25, and I'm not hauling them around for $25."

He then went on to talk about all the people he knew who we "playing for grins," meaning people playing for free. "Every time someone plays for free, they are putting someone out of work," he said.

I have been contemplating this for some time.

I do see his point, that if people are willing to play for free, then why pay someone to play. But I also see that a lot of places that used to have people playing are now just playing the radio. Part of the reason for this is that ASCAP agents come through town now and then and present large bills to restaurants, clubd and other venues, because they have people playing "cover songs," meaning that they are playing music composed by other people. ASCAP is an agency whose job it is to collect money for composers whose music is being played.

The problem I see here is that the business side of music has removed the artistic side of music. That is that people are so conditioned to want to hear songs they are familiar with played in relatively the same way as the version they hear on the radio. The music industry is a business that exists to make money. Therefore, they listen for people who play in a relatively same way as what is popular in sales, and they look for clones. It is a self-feeding cycle of people copying each other for the goal of getting rich, and those of us who play music to express ourselves are sitting on the sidelines.

This is only partially true, however in this day and age as people have instant access to music. People can record and distribute their music world-wide, completely bypassing the music industry. The music industry itself is suffering, because this same tool that makes it easy to record and distribute has allowed people to download music for free. I have seen statistics that something like 90% of all music that is distributed is through people downloading or copying music. One person downloads a track, and dozens of people copy it.

The other problem with the business of music is the old-style distribution system: In the old world, there were some musicians in each town who provided the music for ceremonies, and so forth, and were provided for. In the new world Jason Bieber sells 5,000,000 albums, or something, and the local band sells a few CDs to their families and friends, and a few devoted fans.

But enter the new age:

There are now tools, such as Bandcamp and Soundcloud and CD Baby that are devoted to the independent artist. People like bassist Steve Lawson. He has made a decent living for himself through these tools and a lot of ingenuity.

Bandcamp and Soundcloud are free sites that musicians may upload their music to, set their price and promote as they can. When they sell tracks, Bandcamp takes a small cut and then sends the rest of the money to the artist.

The Bandcamp artists set their own price, and one of the options is to allow the purchaser to name their own price, even to download the track for free. This is the choice that Steve gives to everyone. I have read his comments and blogs (check out and he has said that people pay an average of over $1.00 per track they download. Some download the music for free, and some pay more. So, thinking creatively, this is possible. Steve has said that when people get his music for free, it is getting the music out there and will ultimately result in more purchases for him, and more people showing up at his shows.

So, the shows. Last year, he tweeted that he was ready for his North American tour, so if people were willing to offer their houses for concerts and for him to stay, to let him know, and he would arrange his tour around the offers. And he made it work. He spent a couple months criss-crossing the US doing house concerts. Some were even streamed on the internet. People could watch for free, or there was a little link to pay what you wanted for the concert.

Steve further utilizes the internet by offering music lessons around the world via Skype.

Steve is just an example of one musician who has capitalized on the possibilities out there to play music. He shows that the old model of signing record deals and playing at clubs and so forth is not the only way.

So, what about the musician who plays for free? If no one is paying for music, should we all just sell our instruments and sit at home? Can we only play music that people "want to hear" - as so often is the justification for playing only music by other people.

The bottom line is that we all got into musical performance to be expressive and artistic. We had things we wanted to say, using music (or any other medium.) Then we wanted to make a living at it.

At a very early age, I learned that music that paid meant I had to play music I did not want to play. I was playing the same pieces over and over and over in pit orchestras for musicals, and playing songs that I could not stand when I first heard them over and over and over. So I got a job to support myself, and have had a great musical career in which I have almost always played what I wanted to play at the time. I have composed my own music, explored the sounds and emotions that I wanted to explore and loved every minute of it. Many of my friends who have depended on their art to make a living have been very frustrated with their lives of performing that most often has resulted in their not playing music they like at all. They burn out on their music and resent the world that will not provide them the opportunities they desired.

I truly 'play for grins' in the sense that I am happy to play, and enjoy it very much. I don't make much money at it. I sell a few CDs every month, and occasionally get some money - a lot of what I play is for fundraising. I love to play for charity events that help organizations earn money.

I did stop playing bars and clubs and the likes when the economy went bad, so that people who needed the money to live from would benefit from these opportunities. I left the clubs, giving them the names and numbers of people who earned their living from music.

So, I guess we can have a world mostly devoid of music if people won't play without getting money. We could have a world where the only music we hear is what the music industry dictates we should be listening to, or we can have a world full of unique sounds and expressions on street corners, and other more unusual listening places.

I am sorry my friend chose to sell his drums to protest not being able to earn money. But was he truly expressing something unique in the world, or just being a pawn to the music business, at whatever level.

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