The Future of Music Coalition Responds to the “Creative Apocalypse” Story

Last week, The New York Times Magazine posted a story about all of the ways the internet has helped people earn money for creative work, calling it “The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t.”

I followed up with “I’m Not Sure What a “Creative Apocalypse” Is, But Here’s How People in Creative Careers Make Money,” arguing that the internet has helped people get their work out but people are still making money in much the same ways: performing, teaching, selling creative work, writing music or copy for corporations, etc.

Then I got this tweet:

Normally, I’d leave this kind of tweet alone, not wanting to get involved in a Someone Is Wrong On The Internet argument. But this was different. As it turns out, the Future of Music Coalition provided data to The New York Times for the Creative Apocalypse piece, and they think the NYT got the interpretation wrong.

Earlier this month, the New York Times Magazine reached out to Future of Music Coalition with regard to a forthcoming feature. We like to help out with this sort of thing, because we know that music business structures and practices can be quite complicated, and think it’s important that journalists get the facts and context as correct as possible, whatever narrative they’re advancing. Last week, fact-checkers from the magazine followed up with FMC staff. There was a good deal of back and forth as we were provided short paragraphs, and later, individual sentences, from the article and asked to verify whether they were “true.” (Unfortunately, we weren’t provided with much context.)

Alas, what ended up running was rather disappointing. NYT Magazine chose to publish without substantive change most of the things that we told them were either: a) not accurate or b) not verifiable because there is no industry consensus and the “facts” could really go either way.

Well, then. What are the issues here?

Over the course of 15 years of research into the musician community, one of our core takeaways has been that there’s really no such thing as an “average musician,” even if it can be enlightening to highlight mean values from a group of respondents in a survey or study. Musicians are a highly specialized group, with a diverse range of business models. Performers and composers work at different scales in different contexts with different professional and creative goals. Technological changes and business developments that impact some kinds of musicians may have no direct impact on others. Qualitative and quantitative data around economics for artists thus resists simplified narratives.

I love that paragraph so much. I’m adding “Performers and composers work at different scales in different contexts with different professional and creative goals” to the list of sentences I am willing to have tattooed on my body.

It’s interesting that Future of Music came to essentially the opposite conclusion that I did: they’re saying that each musician makes money in a unique and individual way, and I’m saying musicians have made money in pretty much the same ways since at least the 1700s. (It’s no coincidence that Patreon is a riff on “patron.”) But it feels like we’re saying the same thing.

The Future of Music Coalition goes through the NYT Mag article point by point, addressing teaching, touring, and more. I’ll quote one example:

Johnson notes FMC’s research identifying new revenue streams, but fails to note that we point out that not all musicians have access to these new streams, and not all new revenue streams are going to produce meaningful income for those who participate in them.

For example, sync licensing — where revenue is generated when an underlying composition and/or sound recording is attached to a visual product, like a movie, TV show, advertisement or video game — is important for some music creators, but it isn’t a magic money machine. Nor is it new income, as Johnson weirdly suggests — syncs are as old as television and motion pictures with sound. Sure, there are new opportunities like online advertising, video games, web series and the like, but it’s also a very competitive market, and an artist’s mileage will vary. As will their take-home: musicians and composers who retain their copyrights are in a position to make the most money from syncs, as there are no labels or publishers to take a cut. However, that also means that they have to do all the pitching themselves, which can be time and labor intensive, and dependent on relationships with music supervisors. Success here depends on a number of factors, from a track’s “replaceability” to the rightsholder’s negotiating skills. And not every musician is making work that’s appropriate for sync placement. So, while syncs can represent an important revenue stream for musicians and composers, it’s hardly a panacea for challenges in monetizing music.

If you are interested in a huge data dump about musicians and money, read the whole thing.

If not, just know that every musician’s career is different, and that the truth about nearly any kind of career — how did they put it? — resists simplified narratives.

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