The Sky May Very Well Be Falling

Drew Kennedy | March 9th, 2011

But that’s why someone invented the umbrella.

Last month the quirky rock group Cake set a somewhat dubious record when they found themselves at the pinnacle of the Billboard 200 chart—they sold the fewest number of units for any act ever to do so. As expected, a wide variety of people took to their preferred or assigned vehicles of opinion to rehash the increasingly tiresome subject of the decline of the recorded music industry.

I (in taking to my preferred vehicle of opinion to rehash the increasingly tiresome subject of the decline of the recorded music industry) thought it was pretty cool, actually.

Cake–veterans of one of Rock’s most bombastic decades for the big labels–released the album Showroom Of Compassion on their own. In a recent interview, I heard John McRae, the band’s enigmatic frontman, describe the feat as more or less a positive negative—something befitting of a band that has always dabbled in the fine lines between opposing feelings, sides, or topics. They’ve been a hard working group for quite some time now, and as McRae lamented the fact that it has become increasingly more difficult to make a living off of records alone, he supposed that even he would be hanging it up at some point in the near future, citing the daily grind of life on the road—the only place to really make music money these days—as the main impetus for his revelation. Perhaps he would turn to farming, he said.

I think that’s cool, too. Both of these things, in my opinion, mean that there is a growing market share of success for small, independent-minded musicians to step up and grab.

Let’s face it—these days, if you want to make money in music, you’re more than likely going to have to take your show on the road. For many of us, spending even more time on the road than we currently do is nearly impossible; the bright lights and free beer that were once the allure of many of the music venues across this country lose a bit of their luster as performers age and start families. And so, as far as artists are concerned, we seem to be at some sort of new-model crossroads in the balance between life at home (not making money) and life away from home (making money).

I assume that somewhere along the line you’ve heard the old adage that says something akin to, “from great conflict comes great art.” In the past, it seems that such a statement was referring almost solely to an artist’s output as it pertains to his or her chosen medium. In the future, I think it will also refer to how an artist makes a living from that output (i.e. the conflict of wanting be home more, but still wanting to make your living through the creation of your art).

Artists are, first and foremost, creative people. The ability to make a living from one’s creations is, in my opinion, one of the most wonderful statements about the society that we are all a part of—people have always, and will always want to see, hear, touch, feel, and taste new and interesting things. Thankfully, there will always be people creating such things, and I think that these same people will be the ones who figure out how to continue to make said creations the main source of their income.

Time will tell what these solutions will be, but I get the distinct feeling that we are on the cusp of art, in all of its various forms, but specifically that of the musical variety, being propagated directly from the individuals involved in the creating of it on a widespread scale. I am more excited about what lies ahead than I have been at any other time in my short-lived career as a singer and a songwriter. If you want to survive through your creations it’s going to be up to you to figure out how to do it.

So, rain fell on someone’s head and that person eventually got tired of being wet—introducing: the umbrella.

I can’t wait to see the kind of creative things that are resting, perhaps yet to be conceived, just around the corner—I can’t wait to see the solutions to these problems that have the music industry in a state of panic. I’m not much of a betting man, but I’d probably be okay with dropping a few dollars on a wager that has the artists themselves playing the role of both creator and of problem solver…and I have a feeling that there are a few thousand ways in which they will do so.

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  1. Saving Country Music
    March 9, 2011 at 10:07 am

    Excellent, excellent article!

  2. Fizz
    March 9, 2011 at 10:09 am

    Well, it’s a negative for the record-company suits (the ones that still have jobs). You can’t sustain the executive lifestyle for long on those kinds of numbers, unless you find new revenue sources. For a while it looked like video games were the answer, but Guitar Hero, the supposed “magic bullet”, already suffered death by oversaturation.

    On the other hand, it’s a positive for independent artists. I think we all pretty much agree that sales figures alone don’t dictate quality of music, but face it, it’s pretty cool to see your name at or near the top of the BIllboard Top 200, especially if you’re used to being lucky to make it onto the Heatseekers chart. So kudos to Cake, even though I was never into their college-rock aren’t-we-ironic schtick. For a band that really hasn’t had a hit in over a decade to have a #1 album out of nowhere isn’t too shabby.

  3. Jon
    March 9, 2011 at 10:21 am

    “…there is a growing market share of success for small, independent-minded musicians to step up and grab.”

    Maybe, but there’s not much evidence that I can see to support the theory that the market share taken by small, independent-minded musicians is actually growing in either absolute or relative terms. Simply wishing and hoping that it’s so doesn’t really get the job done, and ten years or so along in this brave new world of allegedly unstoppable thievery, I’d sure like to see fewer people telling us that someone’s sure to figure out the solutions some day and more people telling us about solutions that demonstrably work.

  4. Fizz
    March 9, 2011 at 10:55 am

    The fish aren’t getting bigger. It’s just the pond is getting smaller. Still works out to a growing share for the little fish.

  5. M.C.
    March 9, 2011 at 11:26 am

    @Jon–Here’s a recent Billboard article where an indie-label organization says their share is larger and gives numbers–30 percent of the market, and 37 percent of digital sales.
    But as Fizz says, the overall market itself is obviously smaller, and major labels are putting out far fewer albums now than just a few years ago.

  6. Jon
    March 9, 2011 at 11:53 am

    Thanks, @Fizz, but I am not interested in content-free analogies, I am interested in actual data.

    @M.C. Bengloff’s presentation has to do with which labels qualify as independent with respect to reporting market share. Use one set of criteria to categorize them and you come up with one share; use another, and you come up with a larger one. But that’s not really relevant to the question of whether the indie share is growing or not; what tells you *that* is looking at data for independents across multiple years, using one consistent definition – and those aren’t given in that story.

    Here are some data that might be of some use; this comes from an interview with Tommy Silverman that was published in advance of this year’s New Music Seminar.

    “…there’s five times as many people making music now than there was 10 years ago. There should be five times as many great pieces of music coming through than ever. But the opposite is true. […] In 2008 there were 1,500 releases that sold over 10,000 units. In 2009 that number dropped to 1,300. In 2008 there were about 200 artists who broke 10,000 for the first time. Less than eight of them were DIY artists that broke on their own or on very small indie labels. [… ] Eight artists breaking on brand-new or on their own labels is pathetic!”


    I heard a presentation by Silverman last month that updated the number of releases selling over 10k for 2010 – it was down to 1200.

    Last May, the Digital Music News reported on these data served up by NARM:

    ” A total of 98,000 albums were released in 2009, and just a handful crossed the million-mark.  Perhaps more sobering, just 2.1 percent managed to cross the 5,000-mark, a group that made up 91 percent of total sales.”

    It’s fine to talk about fish and fishpond, but these are actual numbers, and they don’t give much grounds for indie optimism – or reason to think, getting back to Drew’s essay, that artists are on their way to solving the problems confronting them.

  7. Drew Kennedy
    March 9, 2011 at 12:07 pm


    I wonder how many indie artists selling albums in the 5,000 range report their sales figures to soundscan, which is where I assume those numbers are coming from?

  8. Fizz
    March 9, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    Silverman makes an unforgivable error in Jon-land by inserting his opinion into that statement (or theory, rather), by introducing the concept of “great.” There should be five times the number of “great’ pieces of music. Meaning? Great as in quality (which is subjective)? Great for Tommy Silverman’s bank account?

    Would it be fair to assume that in most cases, the biggest sellers come from non-indie labels? If so, it should be simple arithmetic. If you have a rapidly multiplying number of independent releases, and a variable representing major releases that’s headed in the other direction, it should be obvious that the independent releases are occupying a larger slice of the pie, whatever numbers you care to plug into the equation.

    And then there’s Mark Twain and his “lies, damned lies and statistics.”

  9. Jon
    March 9, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    Drew, everyone who sells their music through Amazon or CD Baby or iTunes or eMusic, etc. has sales reported to SoundScan. I’m sure there aer some that don’t get counted, but where’s the evidence of a thriving music economy selling hundreds of thousands of CDs below the radar? Think about it: selling 5,000 CDs means selling 50 CDs a show 100 times. Have you done that? I sure haven’t, and I haven’t sold 10 CDs a show 500 times, either ;-). Furthermore, I’ve got cuts on a reasonable number of “outside” albums at this point, and judging by my royalty statements, a lot of bluegrass artists – including some pretty big ones – are barely selling around that level, never mind at 10,000 or more.

    Things are certainly better in some respects for independent artists than they have been in the past, but I have yet to see much in the way of hard evidence to suggest that anyone really has their arms wrapped around a successful new model in a climate where record sales are tanking.

    @Fizz Look here:

    Year 1:

    Total sales: 1,000,000 units
    Total number of releases: 1,010
    10 “majors” @ 50,000 each = 500,000 = 50% market share (5% each)
    1,000 “indies” @ 500 each = 500,000 = 50% market share(.05% each)

    year 2:

    Total sales: 500,000 units
    Total number of releases: 2,005
    5 majors @ 60,000 each = 300,000 = 60% market share (12% each)
    2,000 indies @ 100 each = 200,000 = 40% market share (.02% each)

    Here’s another year 2:

    Total sales: 500,000 units
    Total number of releases, 2,005
    5 majors @ 50,000 each = 250,000 = 50% market share (10% each)
    2,000 indies @ 250 each = 250,000 = 50% market share (.05% each)

    And here’s another:

    Total sales: 500,000
    Total number of releases, 3,005
    5 majors @ 40,000 each = 200,000 = 40% market share (8% each)
    3,000 indies @ 100 each = 300,000 = 60% market share (.02% each)

    As you can see, the numbers that you plug into the equation definitely make a difference. In fact, they make ALL the difference.

  10. Fizz
    March 9, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    But I also notice you only plugged in numbers that supported your own theory. And your own experiences shouldn’t ount, since no one else’s are good enough for you. Maybe independent sales are better outside of bluegrass. Or maybe you’ve just got the reverse Midas touch.

  11. Jon
    March 9, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    But I also notice you only plugged in numbers that supported your own theory.

    I have no theory; I have a question, and the question can only be answered by actual numbers. Because, as I’ve shown above, contrary to your “whatever numbers you plug in” nonsense, the numbers make ALL the difference, and that’s true regardless of what theory is being dished up. An increased number of indie releases does *not* necessarily mean increased market share for the indie sector as a whole, nor does it mean increased market share for the individual indie artist. You’ve got to have real numbers to know what’s going on.

  12. Stormy
    March 9, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    The problem is that the rising cost of gas makes it difficult to go onthe road and make money.

  13. Jon
    March 9, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    I don’t know that that’s “the” problem, but it sure is a problem.

  14. Rick
    March 9, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    I was slow to catch onto purchasing single download songs since I don’t have a portable MP3 player, but now I’m hooked. If I hear new music that catches my ear, I will go to Amazon and listen to the song snippets from the album and purchase the tracks that move me. Typically that might only be one or two songs, but at least I’m not paying for filler songs I have no interest in hearing repeatedly like if I had purchased a CD instead. I just don’t purchase new release albums in their entirety any longer unless its from one of my favorite artists, and I only have a handful of those.

    On the other hand I’ll gladly pay $ 20 to go see live shows by artists I find interesting or unusual. I almost never purchase CDs at concerts as its the live show experience I find more valuable even as fleeting as it is…

    That reminds me, Zoe Muth is coming to Culver City’s Cinema Bar on Saturday night! I won’t buy her CD, but I know I’ll enjoy her live set.

  15. Waynoe
    March 10, 2011 at 10:04 am

    So now that we have cd sales numbers, what about the concert ticket sales numbers? Anyone have data on that?

  16. Fizz
    March 11, 2011 at 8:58 am

    I recall hearing an interview with Tim “Ripper” Owens, sort of a singer-for-hire in the heavy-metal world. He was talking about his new, independently-released music, and saying (paraphrasing), “If you like it, go to iTunes or Amazon and buy a song or two, and I’ll make as much from that as I would have if I were on a major label and you bought the entire CD.”

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