Digital Audio Insider -- the economics of music and other digital content

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Digital Audio Insider is David Harrell's blog about the economics of music and other digital content. I write from the perspective of a musican who has self-released four albums with the indie rock band the Layaways.

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March 02, 2010

More On Buddy, Can You Spare A Hundred Dollars?
by David Harrell
My post last week about Camper Van Beethoven selling song sponsorships to fund its trip to SXSW generated a ton of traffic and a slew of comments -- 33 and counting, the most ever for a post on this blog. Three fifths of Camper Van Beethoven weighed in, as well as a couple dozen ticked off CVB fans.

In fairness to David Lowery, the first CVB member to respond, there were a couple of factors that I didn't know/mention at the time: The band originally thought the sponsorships would be purchased by companies, not individual fans. Even so, the band also vetted the idea with a Facebook note back in January and received an enthusiastic response from its fans. Finally, as a friend pointed out to me, there was a certain element of irony and humor to the whole sponsorship thing that I didn't pick up on.

In fairness to myself, however, I thought the post was a little more nuanced than most of the comment leavers perceived. I certainly understand the costs involved for travel and lodging for a SXSW appearance -- and that the artists receive a very nominal fee. The post wasn't an outright slam of the fundraising idea, more a musing on why I personally found it less appealing that the recent trend toward fan-funded recordings, and whether or not alternative fund raising activities by musicians will be a sustainable model. Believe me, I'm all for new ways for musicians to earn a living, given that they are the last ones paid under most music business models. (Also, I have to think there was at least a tiny element of calculation to Lowery's outrage, as he linked to the post from his personal Facebook page, the Camper Van Beethoven Facebook page, and the Cracker Facebook page.)

Anyway, I have no interest in feuding with Camper Van Beethoven. I'm actually something of a fan. Obviously, I didn't think the band members were living Sting-style, in Italian villas. But given its back catalog, coupled with the fact the early CBV albums were released on the band's own Pitch-A-Tent label, I had assumed the band might be earning a modest annual income (in the four-figure to low five-figure range) from CD and digital download sales. Yet CVB member Jonathan Segel, who left the most insightful comment to the post, paints a far bleaker picture of the band's finances, and the current state of the music industry:
...I don't think we've seen more than a couple hundred bucks in CD sales in the past decade. Digital sales are meaningless. Digital royalties are even more meaningless -- do you know anybody who's actually been paid by SoundExchange? Right's holders' royalties (BMI) make us a couple hundred dollars a year each, mostly due to Michael Moore having used Take the Skinheads Bowling in Bowling for Columbine in 2004 and its subsequent play on television. My own cds outside of CVB that I have released over the last 20 years are still hovering in the ~$10k region of debt.

The only money we make nowadays is touring, and the only way for a band to make money touring is

a) playing to large audiences in venues that will actually pay you and
b) scrimping.

It's not super fun much of the time, especially at our "advanced" ages (with respect to rock and roll!) and obviously we can't do it all the time due to market saturation, not to mention the fact that we have to go back to work. David is the only one who is full time professional musician, when he's not playing with Camper, he's playing with Cracker, and he bears a hellish touring schedule to make ends meet that way!

Anyway, the whole "fanbase as patrons" idea that was so touted at the onset of the digital music age has proven to be very much like the old patronage system -- if you have a patron (advertiser, record company, whatever will pay) they will pay and the rest of the peasants listen to what's been paid for. The masses don't pay for much of anything.
I exchanged several e-mails with Segel and sent him some questions for a follow-up e-mail interview. Look for something later this week or early next week!

UPDATE: My interview with Jonathan Segel.


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