Earlier this month, an article on various Houston Press screens titled “Rock Is Dead and Even Axl and Slash Can’t Save It” touched off a ferocious debate. Regardless of readers' own opinions about rock's vital signs (or lack thereof; even the publication's own staff was divided), it sparked a long-overdue conversation about the music business: Musicians deserve far better treatment than the industry is currently giving them.
Our proclamation prompted the question, “How do we save rock and roll?” While the answer is overwhelmingly complex, the question deserves serious consideration. To imagine that the industry will self-correct is magical thinking. If there was ever a time for revolution, it’s now.
First, musicians deserve to be paid. Period. Work is work. Stop romanticizing artistic endeavors as frivolous pastimes less important than other contributions to society. The idea that our society devalues artistic creativity and contributions is completely hypocritical. Other entertainers such as national sports figures and actors — and now even Vine creators and YouTube stars — make more money than many musicians while no one utters a complaint. Perhaps even more negligent is this striking paradox: Make a free video, share it on YouTube and enough views could net you thousands or even millions of dollars, yet do so as a musician and earn nearly nothing. Running a video through Vevo or an ad clip on YouTube is not enough for an average band to garner a sufficient wage, nor will it stop the rampant piracy.
Understand this: YouTube’s net worth of more than $40 billion has been made off the backs of the musicians it rips off every day. Don’t tell me it can’t make payment where payment is due. When Google bought YouTube in 2006, it was only worth $1.65 billion. Who’s still broke here? Not YouTube.
In a viable capitalistic democracy, I cannot believe that Apple, Pandora and Spotify, the other most prominent offenders, charge more for their services by the year while still refusing to pay musicians what they’re worth. Why can’t YouTube create a premium subscription service similar to Spotify? While Apple is content to charge above $600 for an iPhone or iPad, the payouts to musicians outside the top tiers of the sales/views/streams pyramid are discouragingly low.
Furthermore, until we start respecting intellectual property as we should, YouTube will continue to be a leech on the ass of rock and roll. Don’t tell me people need this to discover new music. We didn’t need it pre-Internet, we don’t need it now. And the idea that we’re all enjoying a massive catalog of previously undiscovered music is ridiculous. It's more like a mudslide of random titles, too chaotic and obscure to reveal a coherent bigger picture.
Another flawed notion that persists among musicians and fans is that somehow social-media likes, follows, check-ins and the like can create the kind of exposure for musicians that results in a paycheck. Not true. This sort of social-media currency indicates little more than passing interest. Checking into a venue, an act that may be "liked" by any number of social-media friends, establishes little else besides a possible false alibi and handy timeline fodder. Looking closely at the way a platform like Facebook promotes paid "boosts" while filtering users' news feeds according to the profiles with which they interact most, the idea that more likes creates a larger audience for artists' self-expression is sadly erroneous.
However, some responses to our original article insisted that musicians are paid, pointing to former front man for Thy Art is Murder CJ McMahon as an example. According to them, McMahon’s stated annual salary of $16,000 is adequate pay. Those defending that amount as a livable wage all parrot the same absurdity: If you can’t afford to live off of a table-scrap income, then you don’t deserve to be a musician or complain about the hostile working conditions.
Worse, others defended the behavior of stealing from musicians while arguing their entitlement to free music amounts to something like a basic human right. If such discrepancies in pay had been exposed in any other profession — say, fast-food workers — the Internet would rush to express its outrage and disapproval. But the casually destructive treatment musicians receive at the hands of both the music business and, indirectly, their own fans is too often swept under the rug.
We can surf the Internet and rightfully lose our minds over the head of Apple Music's clueless and sexist remarks, but chalk up the pay inequity too many musicians face as merely “the crazy music business.” But no one should be entitled to any free service, because a musician’s salary benefits everyone in the business. From the caterer to the guitar tech and the venues that host them to the roadies and tech crews, and even the receptionists at the record label, everyone eats from the same pie. Whether the amount is luxurious or not is beside the point; money is money. Without it, musicians have to rely on other sources of income, usually and unfortunately not music-related.
Living hand-to-mouth is a reality faced by many touring bands. Worse, there’s no governing authority or disciplinary arm watching out for those who do go unpaid. Recently Mixi Demner of Stitched Up Heart told us about the rampant thievery in the payment-on-demand system the L.A. rockers encountered when they got stood up for $500 at a Las Vegas gig.
“We’ve been ripped off a lot,” Demner admitted.
Imagine if we asked sports figures to survive off the merchandise they created. Or Hollywood's actors and directors were expected to create blockbusters just for the "exposure"? That sort of thinking is not only insulting and ignorant, but dangerous.
You can’t deny the materialistic satisfaction many fans get from owning music paraphernalia. It speaks to the collector of vinyl, the hoarder of rare posters, the guy with a shoebox menagerie of concert-ticket stubs. We long for the tangibles. How else do we account for the fact that in 2016, vinyl manufacturers are backed up with orders? People will buy physical copies of music.
Ultimately, though, the situation falls on the shoulders of musicians, who must demand payment where it is due and insist that venues act toward performances the same way theaters instruct patrons in the appropriate use of cell phones. If venue security can enforce the common rule that media photographers put their cameras away after the third song, they can certainly monitor excessive cell-phone recording in the crowd.
Even at the local level, bands experience theft of service. Last fall, Shelby Schwem of Houston's Green As Emerald told us about confronting a promoter who hadn't paid up.
"I showed up at his house [and said], 'You’re not going to rip my band off," he said. "'We don’t work for free, just like nobody else around here works for free.'”
Surely, many bands have similar stories, and something is truly fractured within the industry when such stories are the norm and not the exception. What touring band has the time or resources to hire a lawyer to chase after small claims settlements? It’s ridiculous to tell every band to hire a lawyer.
It’s not just the little bands, either. Former Megadeth drummer Shawn Drover, now of Act of Defiance, spoke recently about how YouTube has treated musicians, mincing no words about what is for him the diminished experience of playing live.
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“Unfortunately, it seems to be waning," he said. "[The scene] is not what it used to be in America, and it’s unfortunate. Everybody is filming the show [with phones] and it’s on YouTube in ten minutes. Why the hell should I spend $20 going to the show when I can just watch it on YouTube? Technology has been a good thing and ultimately a very bad thing for music.”
Asked about the pay structure for musicians in the digital age, his frustration was again apparent.
“Don’t get me started on that shit," Drover said. "That’s a whole other topic. I mean, that’s a depressing conversation about Internet piracy — it’s destroying the industry. I don’t want to get into that; it's just so negative.”
Who can blame him? While the spirit of rock and roll carries on despite the ever-present death knell that has continually been ringing of late, there remain no easy answers to repairing the logjam of our once-flooded stream of rock stars. One thing rings true: If musicians are truly fed up, they must act in a way that leads to a paradigm shift in music. Start the revolution today.