Artists struggle to make a living wage in internet era

Gone are the days when the path to success was fairly direct. Graham Henderson, president of Music Canada recalls the way it used to be:

“In 1999, if you’ve got a record deal, and were lots of record deals large and small, you had a legitimate shot at a career. You’d sell 50,000 records, get a gold record. And then you’ve got a lot of touring. And then there’s radio play. It all added up to an opportunity (Globe and Mail, September 22, 2019).”

Country musician Mike Plume recalls his 15-year deal at a Nashville record label and the regular touring opportunities. Back then he was able to earn a decent living. Royalties from the use of his music on TV shows such as Dawson’s Creek further supplemented his income. “It was a nifty little chunk of change that came in. It made life a little easier for a couple of months,” Plume said.

After his deal expired in 2015, Plume returned to his hometown of Edmonton. He earned a bit from voice-over and narration work. The contrast between before and after the internet became obvious.

The new reality is one of rags or riches. “It almost feels like there’s no such thing as a middle-class musician,” says Plume. “You’re either making $25,000 a year or you’re making north of a hundred grand.”

Breaking into recognition is difficult and once you get a break, wages are still in the poverty range.

Internet streaming and creative theft is making entry into the creative middle class harder than ever. A 2018 survey of music industry professionals in British Columbia showed that 24 per cent of respondents are considering leaving the industry primarily due to concerns about wages.

Music Canada, a non-profit trade organization advocating for the rights of creative professionals, found that the biggest offenders were from free streaming services such as YouTube.

It’s difficult but can be done. Talented Kamloops singer Madison Olds is navigating the complex path to success. This year she made top 10 in CBC Searchlight and launched her debut album. She has a more than a million cumulative streams on Spotify.

Madison Olds , mage: Indie Week

Artists need to be both talented and media savvy, Madison’s mom Ronda told me:

“Artists are assessed so many ways today because of the accessibility to artists and music today.  Artists need to be creating and stockpiling new music for which they have to pay for production, distribution, promotion, radio push.  One song, if going to radio, by the time all is said and done, can cost upwards of 18k. The greater the number of followers/fans, the greater the perceived ability to market music and merchandise and for the potential to make money. It is a difficult industry to navigate and to gain traction when there is so much accessible music now. The days of slipping a CD under a radio programmer’s door are gone as that poor programmer may be filtering through 400+ submissions a week.

Ronda has advice for music fans:

“The best things that supporters can do is any of the following: engage with their favourite artists on social media, stream their music actively or passively, buy music/merchandise, share their content, tell them you are hearing their music and that it resonates for you.”

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