How new opportunities are paving the way for middle-class artists
"We are in a very interesting time in the world where, previous to 15 years ago, there were only artists that were at the top 1% making a ton of money and … then everybody else was at the bottom not making any money whatsoever," Alan Watson, the Student Services Administrator at NYU Tisch Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, says. "Now we're seeing a lot more 'middle class artists' that are able to make a pretty solid living from creating music, building a following, and that following supporting them."
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Let's say an artist has 100,000 followers and every one of them pays $10 per year. This would bring $1 million — a sizable annual income for that person to live comfortably and continue creating music. If before you saw people going into music to become music teachers, or be in a wedding band, and that was how they would pay their bills, now these traditional pathways are shifting.

"We have students that graduated that are now bedroom producers [and] have a great following on Spotify [which] is paying enough to that student to live in New York City and just make music and tour," Alan continues. "While people historically criticize Spotify for not giving artists their fair share, they have actually been a better vehicle for the middle class artists to emerge. Artists can be completely independent, take a bigger share of their royalties, and sometimes use that leverage to get a better deal."

Speaking of Spotify and other streaming services: according to Pitchfork, label revenue from sales and licensing of recorded music totaled $19.1 billion globally in 2018, with people paying for subscriptions to streaming music platforms responsible for much of the rise. The article also writes about the recent survey conducted by the nonprofit Music Industry Research Association, which discovered that for 2017, the median income for an American professional musician was around $35,000, of which $21,300 came from activity related to music.

"There is a real demand for music in story-telling content, at the same time there is a real downward pressure on wages, and a decline in the value of everything that music makers do because of the excessive supply of them," Pete Anthony, one of the most respected orchestrators and conductors in the Los Angeles film music industry, tells me. Considering the expansive music available in streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music offering access to all of this music for a minimal monthly fee, the value of work has gone down.

Live shows turned out to be the most common source of income in 2017. With the current pandemic and social distancing measures cancelling live shows, this leaves a lot of musicians questioning how they will be earning revenue. Open Mike Eagle, one of the interviewees for the Pitchfork article, said that "the streaming model is built for people who have millions of fans, not for people who have thousands of fans."

Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired and a great visionary, would probably argue this statement. A strong believer of the "1000 true fans" concept, he states that you don't need millions of customers, clients, or in this case listeners to be successful, all you really need are a thousand fans that will do anything to support you as a creator and your craft. This is exactly the theory that the 'middle-class artists' have been relying on for the past decade.

"I think for a lot of classical musicians there's this idea that if they can get that ONE position, they'll have $40,000-$120,000, to give them a sense of stability," Sean Patrick Regan, a third generation bagpiper in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, says. "But the number of people vying for those positions is significant, way bigger than the actual number of positions themselves. I find value in bagpiping being a multiple stream of income lifestyle, especially these days, when people are getting laid off and businesses are closing left and right for who knows how long." Sean balances teaching at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania (his alma mater), completing a Master's degree in bagpiping, playing gigs both as a soloist and with several ensembles, instructing multiple pipe bands, and having a studio of individual students every week with being a father and husband.
While it might seem that the possibilities are certainly expanding, Pete says that the financial opportunities are not expanding at all — they are contracting. "[However], the point is that even with that it is still business," he states. "It's just that you're going to have to work a little harder, wait a little longer, and make a little less." However, if it is what you're passionate about, if it is what you have to do to be happy, the professor is sure that you will still be okay.

"[It] has never been easy in the music industry. Some of our students have come here thinking that our connections will help them, but you still have to apply to your internships, you still have to apply for your job. Our students intern and they bust their ass in these internships to become the best intern they've ever seen because that's how you get a job," Alan shares. This comes as no surprise: there was a senior who completed 11 internships before she graduated, which let her see what jobs she actually liked and because of she already has so much experience, she is much more likely to get the offer.

With more opportunities comes more competition. "I realized that there are so many things that other people can do better than me, and why try to do something that someone else can do better than you [when you can] really seek out finding your voice when it comes to writing music," Matthew Wang, a film composer working in Los Angeles, thinks.

At the same time, "there are a ton of different jobs in the music industry that nobody really knows about when they're 17 or 18 years old," Alan mentions. At Clive Davis, the first and second year curriculum focuses on helping young musicians understand the whole spectrum of possibilities and everything they can learn. Watson had a senior who was working full-time his entire academic year as the Head of Content for a VR company that specified in arcades. The job turned out to be a perfect fit for the student, even though this wasn't the typical music job he was looking for at first.

As technologies advance everyday, musicians are finding new creative ways and platforms to earn money. "I would say that even as technology develops, many of the foundational principles of music performance, education, and business remain the same," Sean notes. "It is just that the medium through which those things are communicated is modified. Having a firm grounding in the practical application of music and good patterns set up for yourself from a professional perspective will allow you to address whatever changes in technology and business."

The musician himself has implemented online lessons as part of his teaching routine thanks to online video chat platforms. Although a lot of people don't view bagpipes as an instrument that can be taught through video call, Sean described the process to be different, not difficult: you don't need a video to teach someone, as most mistakes can be heard.

"There are always going to be middle-class artists that are actually making money from their music, and maybe they supplement it with one thing or the other, but eventually you snowball, and you try to grow that snowball a little bit bigger, and hopefully that's planting seeds for future income. Ultimately, I think [getting a job] is easier [now], but it's got to be easier for the right people," Alan explains. "If you don't have the right mindset to join and be adaptable and savvy about your choices of what you want to do, it's going to be hard."

"Now is the best time to be able to make a living in music. There definitely was way more money to be had in the 90s and before that from CD sales and other aspects of the music industry, and right now it's harder to make millions of dollars as one individual, but it's way easier to make a pretty stable standard income," Matthew elaborates, adding that there are also many easier ways to break into the music industry now than before.

"It's very easy to get your music on Spotify, and because of that, you have to figure out how to make it shine. If [you] post a music video on YouTube and [you] want people to watch it, [you're] competing with not only people from your music school: you're competing with Beyonce, your best friend, Jimmy Fallon, and a clip from the New Avengers movie. You're competing with everything!" Wang concludes. "That can feel so defeating, but at the same time that is the point. Invest the time in your creativity and try to find your unique voice. Figure out what instruments you like, how you like your productions to come off, and when you are fully confident that you've created music that defines who you are, release it into the world. Not everyone is going to like it, but if your unique artistic voice shines through, those who listen to your music will stick around."
Just before publishing the article, Sean shared his further thoughts: "Now, perhaps more than ever in our lifetime, people need to be reminded of the role that musicians, as well as other types of artists and gig workers, play in our day-to-day lives. The quality of the music that you hear while on hold, or in the elevator, or in your car, or that features in the show your kid is streaming, or that you hear in a parade, or concert, or movie... is determined by the quality of arts education and resources available to current and upcoming PEOPLE, not just artists, including everyone down through young children in kindergarten and infants in the nursery. Even, and ESPECIALLY, that tone deaf kid in middle school who is never going to be a professional musician but who will appreciate music better if they are exposed to it at home and in school. What we do to support our professional artists and educational programs over the course of this year and the next (2020-2022) will directly determine the quality of music that we hear, and programming that we take in, for the next 20+ years. If we do not do things to aggressively support the arts right now, there will be a massive loss of people who leave the arts—or who never enter them—in favor of steadier employment."
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