I actually think the possibilities of making a living in art today are as good, or perhaps better, than ever before primarily because of the communication tools that we have online and the ability to develop relationships with the audience. I think the juice is in the do-it-yourself area of a sole-proprietor musician or a band or a writer on their own or with a publishing company, trying to figure out how they can penetrate the market, make a living, and break through the noise without all the traditional trappings, because all of that is pretty much gone for most people. The opportunity is really in the redefinition of how you go to market with music on a much smaller scale and develop a user base. That’s really where the action is.
From the recorded music side, the reality of the past 50 or 70 years is that a few percent of the people involved in recording ever made any real money off the records. Just a few percent! And if you made any money at all, it was through your songwriting or your touring or your merchandise, or something else that you came up with to provide you with a living. So on one hand, things are not all that different than they’ve ever been, in that you’re not going to make a ton of money making recordings and you never were. The reality is nobody is going to take care of you—you have to do it yourself or you have to form a small team around you to help.
We’ve just begun to scratch the surface of live, interactive experiences enabled by communications technologies—the smart phone, the internet, the broadband connections that we have—where you can create musical experiences between you and a relatively small group of people. Everyone is saying that the concert can’t be digitized, so at the moment that remains a reasonable way for people to make a living where the majority of your income comes from touring. And if you think about interactive experiences that can be created—virtual living room tours, behind the scenes events, having people participate in writing parties or creating music on the fly to suit the audience that you happen to be connected to—I think there are a number of wildcards in there where people have begun to experiment with mapping the live experience onto a communications network. There’s a long way to go there and there’s a lot of opportunity, especially as you see the iPhone and the Google phone and some of the devices from Nokia and others that are giving you video-enabled computers connected to the internet in the palm of your hand. That allows for the distribution of content at a very high level and interaction with your audience that you really never had before, on that one-to-one level or one-to-a-few level. And by making it mobile, you’re getting away from your fan having to be sitting at a desk in front of a computer. As people begin to write for that platform and that potential, I think we’ll see a lot of innovation.
And you can monetize that. I think people will pay for access to artists that they enjoy, and they will help support artists that they respect if they know that most, if not all, of the money is going directly to the artist rather than to the combine. If you have 5,000 fans willing to pay $20 a year for access to your music and the ability to participate and interact with you, there’s a nice pool of money for you to make a living off of. If that blows up to 100,000 people, you’ve got tremendous potential there.
What is your definition of success? That definition tends to be all over the place, but what do you need to sustain yourself in order to focus on your art fulltime? Can you live on $60,000 or $80,000 or $100,000? Probably. Can you make that kind of income writing music, performing regionally, licensing your music into various outlets? Yes, you can. If you focus on creating a career at that level, it’s entirely possible and many people are doing it using the tools that we have today. Instead of chasing the brass ring, you’re just basically trying to be a middle class artist making a middle class income. If you’re realistic about your expectations, you can make a living and spend most of your time focused on your art, whether it’s writing or performing or recording or drawing or painting of photography. It’s certainly possible—way more possible than being famous was ever going to be. You need to think through that because it’s really probably the only opportunity that most people are going to have in this environment—keep reasonable expectations and build up a little business around yourself that’s not grand scale but human scale.
One of the things that I think is holding a lot of this back is it’s very difficult to license music for global consumption. You’ve got to figure out who the rights holders are at every country, there’s often a publishing side and a recorded master side, there may be multiple writers, and the control that has dominated the industry for so long is holding us back. I think it’s something that people need to pay attention to: How can copyright law better serve artists in the digital age and what the digital age will bring?
The record companies have felt the pain of the changes in the marketplace ahead of the publishers. And you can see that the record companies are beginning to change their approach and they’re more willing to experiment because their revenue is down 50% and they’re absolutely scared to death. The publishers are following behind that curve and in my opinion are the larger road block in making deals than the record companies are. So having publishers look at their record company friends and what they’ve gone through and avoiding that is really key to remaining relevant.
With all of these interaction opportunities and non-traditional distribution opportunities, if we had better licensing, easier licensing, more transparent licensing, a more global approach, potentially everyone could make more money. If we stick to the laws the way they are and the sort of country-by-country rights, people who are in that camp will have a disadvantage against new artists who decide to open up their rights with a Creative Commons approach or perhaps another blanket licensing approach. If it becomes easier to license new music from new composers than it is the old composers, guess who’s going to win?
Condensed from a phone interview on April 1, 2009.
David Kusek is a musician who has been inventing the future of music for the past twenty-five years. Today, Kusek innovates at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mass., the premier school for aspiring professional musicians for over half a century. He is vice president of Berklee Media, the continuing education division of the college where oversees some of the college’s most visionary projects. These include: the college’s online extension school Berkleemusic, a major initiative to expand music education worldwide; Berklee Shares, a venture that taps the potential of digital networks and music content licensing by making a broad selection of Berklee’s curriculum free and universally available online; and, Berklee Press the publishing arm of the college. An associate professor of music business at Berklee, Kusek also provides strategic consulting and advisory services to companies and individuals involved in the music and entertainment industries.