CMU Opinion

The end of live music?

By | Published on Friday 9 March 2018

Grizzly Bear

For years, when artists have complained that they’re not earning enough money off their recordings these days, people with little knowledge of the situation have snapped back that they should shut up because they’re all earning massive amounts from touring instead now.

For the most part, that’s not true. Although I don’t think I’ve heard any artist put it in quite the blunt terms used by Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste this week. He told followers on Instagram that “there’s no value in [putting on] live music anymore”. Talking up Grizzly Bear’s current Australian tour, he began an Instagram story by saying: “Music industry [is] fucked. Just found out, despite huge crowds down under, we’re basically losing money”.

“People always ask, ‘Why aren’t you coming to Perth, Singapore, Quito?” he went on. “And I’m trying to explain there is no value in [putting] on live music anymore. We feel it’s important to bring with us the fullest show we can, with all live instruments and a good light show. But now, when you cut out record sales and [the fact that] we haven’t had a car commercial in ages, we literally lose money”.

I know you’re all starting to lose patience already, what with the ‘boo hoo, our run of car advert money dried up’, but stick with it.

“The evolution of the music industry is, in my opinion, destroying bands that play music that are mid tier or lower. Nobody cherishes or puts any value into the craft that goes into songwriting or studying music! Yes, pop stars write hits. Yay! They also get branding deals and [corporate] gigs. But when you are dealing with a dying industry and you actually care about a real live show and you aren’t a star, there’s not much you can do”.

Ending in a hyperbolic crescendo, he told fans: “Enjoy it while it lasts. I think we’re about to enter a live music drought”.

As with anything presented in simple terms, the truth is somewhat more complicated. Making money out of music has never been easy, but at any one time you’ll find plenty of artists doing just that. Though the mega-bucks are made by a small premiere league of acts, as has always been the case. And they are still there earning all their millions.

For everyone else bringing in enough money to both live off and power the machine can be challenging. However, it was probably the traditional mid-level acts – who had made a decent living from their music in the CD age – who saw the biggest change when record sales crashed in the 2000s. It is certainly true that for those artists, touring has become an ever more important pursuit, making up for lost record sales income.

That’s not to say going on tour is a simple way to make money. Economies of scale mean gigging only really becomes lucrative around a certain size of venue. At the grassroots level it can be hard to profit from even a sell out show. Quite how profitable touring can be, even once ticket revenues mount up, depends very much on the show you put on, and how much it costs to set everything up and move it all from city to city.

Arguably, as touring has become an artist’s key revenue stream, and therefore more artists are touring, said artists are under pressure to make their shows stand out. As artists invest more in their shows so to stand out in that way, audience expectations increase. They want a show beyond the band just turning up and playing their songs. And that costs money.

Meanwhile at the top level of live, the big name artists have been slowly increasing their ticket prices, partly due to increased costs, partly due to one-upmanship, and partly due to the knowledge that fans will pay higher prices on the secondary market anyway. This not only means that consumers have less money to spend on smaller shows, it means that big acts have to ramp up their production values to justify the higher price, again raising everyone’s expectations about what a live show can and should be.

In the last ten years, I’ve seen the most amazing live music productions of my life, often from artists who in my teens would impress me if they’d just plugged their amps in. As a punter this is brilliant, but if the logical conclusion of this is that we can only enjoy live music if the artists teleport onto the stage and play instruments made of light, it’s probably not going to end well.

Still, like many things people complain about in the modern music industry, this is not an entirely new phenomenon. In an interview this week, Gary Numan recalled blowing all of the money he made in the first few years of his career putting on amazing live shows. Then, as audiences dwindled, he felt he needed to keep up appearances, so continued to throw money at his performances, despite seeing ever decreasing returns.

By the early 90s, he was massively in debt with the glitzy lifestyle very much behind him. However, he says, unable to afford a recording studio, he made an album in his living room and found that he still had enough of an audience who wanted to hear it to start turning things around. He found new ways to interact with those fans too – starting by setting up a premium rate phone line to provide them with information on what he was doing. Now, like many artists, he supplements his live income by doing meet-and-greets at shows.

That’s not for everyone, of course. But it does show something about the modern music industry. There is no one-size-fits-all business plan for an artist. So each artist needs to experiment and work out what works for them and their fans. Which, I realise, is really fucking easy for me to say, sitting here on my golden journalist’s throne, not out there touring the world to thousands of people and seeing no return on it.

There is no easy answer to any of this though for those artists who have come to rely on touring, but who are finding gigs less and less lucrative because of increasing production costs. Except perhaps, give up and do something else instead. But I don’t think that’s a solution most musicians would be happy with. Still, any other business in this situation would probably look for alternative ways to make money. Rather than just saying, “things would be alright if a car advert would only feature our soup in it”. Or whatever.

Anyway, what should be made clear at this point is that audiences are not to blame. Even though I basically just said that, at least in part, they are. But that’s not what Droste thinks.

He later followed up his comments in another series of Instagram posts, saying: “This is not a reflection on any concert-goer or fan. The ticket prices are already absurd, if you ask me. This is, [in my opinion], about the middle men, of which there are more than ever that cut into the pie. I am so grateful to be able to perform for people for the amount of years I have, even at a loss (which we’ve done many times before)”.

“I just wanted to explain why it’s not always possible to tour the places in the far reaches of the world we would love to. Especially when an entirely democratic band where there is no leader or chief and we have a strong desire to put on the best show we can. Also, as some people have children I believe it becomes harder to justify disappearing from them when breaking even or at a loss, not to mention the physical and mental toll of touring, which people rarely talk about but is a common subject among peers”.

Droste concludes that he didn’t want the reaction to his comments to become a “pity party”, saying that he “just wanted to shed some light on the logistics of touring places that once we could justify [because] there were alternative sources of income like record sales or commercials”.

Ah, so we’re back to how much better things would be if only there could be another car commercial. Anyway, Droste, then adds that the signs of his predicted “live music drought” are already apparent. “You can see it reflected in festival line-ups already, in terms of genres”, he says. “It’s just the way things seem to be rolling along and I’m not sure what changes will come or how the cards will fall”.

I think the one certainty is that there’s not going to stop being a music industry. Although perhaps that is actually what we need. It’s a business that has evolved and changed many times over the last century, nut many of its institutions and middle men have ultimately survived each shift. Do we really need all of those institutions any more? Maybe we should just agree to shut the whole thing down and see if it’s then any easier for Droste to go on tour. And perhaps something more suitable for the current era would emerge in its place.

Oh, except then Google would probably just end up running the whole thing, wouldn’t they? So maybe that’s not ideal. How about we just agree to shut down one music industry institution per month and see whether it turns out we actually needed it? If not, keep it closed. If so, open it back up again.

Alhough with so many institutions to test out, that process would probably take us until the end of time. So we’ll have the perfect music business just before the sun explodes and swallows everything we know and understand. But maybe there’ll be just enough time for one more Grizzly Bear tour before that happens.

Anyway, here ends today’s motivational speech.