The Death of the (Musical) Middle Class

Money_bagsGuest Post by Courtney Harding on This Week In Music Tech Tumblr

With the publication of Ethan Kaplan’s totally brilliant “Generic Article About Spotify” a few weeks ago, I thought we’d truly hit the limit on how many ways we could skin the streaming cat. But alas, here’s comes noted old white man and Pink Floyd member Nick Mason to complain about Spotify (and Apple. How cute, he thinks it’s 2006!) They don’t pay artists. They “devalue” music. Only one more cliche and I get a bingo!

Here’s what this is really about, and here’s why the people who complain about streaming tend to fit a certain profile — they used to make tons of money off music, now they don’t, and that’s not OK. They love to trot out the idea of the “middle-class artist” as something that needs to be preserved at all costs. Here’s the problem — soon there won’t be any middle class artists, because soon there won’t be any middle class, period.

Now, that sucks. I was raised by boomer parents who got jobs right after they finished college and proceeded to do those jobs for thirty-odd years, until they retired with pensions and benefits. I just went home to visit and they are loving life right now. Meanwhile, everyone I know under thirty (and a fair amount of people I know under forty) are working two or three gigs and paying for Obamacare, just to get by. They’ve had two or three careers already, and a couple of jobs within each. They jump around and pick stuff up where they can. At one time, only a certain subset of people had hyphenated jobs (“actress-waitress,” “model-bartender,” etc); now almost everyone does.

The worst part about it is that we’re still teaching kids to focus on picking lifetime career paths. I spoke to an eighteen year old college freshman yesterday, and she was worried about what she wanted to be when she grew up. I’m almost twice her age, and I’m still not sure about that — or if that’s even a concept that matters anymore. Rather than focusing on building out a set of core competencies that can be broadly applied to different industries, people are still laser focused on being “something” (a journalist, a programmer, a musician, etc).

I also gave a guest lecture for a college class and a student asked me if I thought music sales would ever come back. They won’t. We’re never getting the music industry of the nineties back, just like we’re never getting the manufacturing industry of the fifties back.

IStock_000010267528Small.jpgBut there’s an upside — there are more ways than ever to make money as a musician these days. An indie band will never sell a ton of albums, but they can license a track for a commercial. Being in a cool band in your twenties can get you in the door at a hip agency in your thirties. Many brands and startups want to have music experts on their teams, and while teaching kids to play the same four chords over and over isn’t most people’s dream job, it’s an income source.

We have to get over the notion of the old musical middle class, where you could put out an album every two years, do a bunch of tour dates, sell some t-shirts, and make $75k a year. The new reality looks like driving for Lyft when you’re home, maybe taking a few freelance composing gigs for an ad agency, releasing and touring around your own music, and bartending at your buddy’s place on weekends. Is this less fun, perhaps, or more stressful, than the old way? Absolutely. But it’s also the new normal.

As I stated above, there’s a reason most of the artists who speak out against Spotify fit a certain demo — it’s because they were the ones who had access to the “good old days,” and then lost it. They are mostly white, generally older, and came up making music in a system that paid them well. They had something that they felt they had a right to, they lost it, and now they’re pissed.

But it’s worthwhile to question why so few rappers, or international artists, or younger artists, are making the same arguments. Maybe they feel beholden to Spotify or don’t want to piss anyone off. But it’s just as likely that they never would have had access to the middle class artist life anyway, and that the new order actually helps them get their music out. Do you honestly think Psy could have been Psy ten years ago?

When people talk about the gig economy as a new concept, it’s because it’s a new concept for a very select group of people. Women, immigrants, and people of color have always been part of the gig economy, not because it was cool and freeing and driving for Lyft is a super fun way to make money while finishing their novels — it was because they had no other options. Being able to “follow your passion” and make art for a living is a very class-based concept — most people are just working to pay the bills, and the idea that you have a right to write and perform music and make a living doing so is a foreign concept.

I absolutely believe in paying people for their work, but figuring out what they should be paid (or have a right to be paid) is tricky. But opposing Spotify, in the absence of a realistic solution, is just silly and privileged. I’d love to be a (middle class, educated) boomer riding life out on a cushy retirement package…but that’s not an option anymore. Rather than bemoaning the lost past, we need to focus on making the gig economy more sustainable for everyone.


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  1. Great article. I like that you took into consideration just where the rest of the world is in these economic times compared to where we once were. People complain because they saw how good it once was, but most people are in the same, poor boat now.

  2. I agree what you have to say about opposing Spotify, however, did you know that at the beginning of the 1920s the record business shrunk to 5% of it’s previous size? This was because of the advent of radio, which is very similar in nature to the current streaming model in terms of its particular effect on the record buying public. Obviously, the record industry came back from what ended up being a 20 year recession, and as you mentioned became fruitful once again all the way until the 1990’s. So, by no means do I believe it could be said that the record industry will never recover again.

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