We Are All Musicians Now—What If That’s Bad?
Firsthand perspective from a veteran audio engineer you've met before in this newsletter: Editor Nick.
Hi. Editor Nick here. Zack’s taking the week off, so he asked me to give you a different perspective on this whole We Are All Musicians Now thing. See, Zack and I have worked together for a long time (witness this Forbes magazine feature we penned). And, when it comes to WAAMN, we agree on the basic premise—that musicians are canaries in our economy’s coal mine.
But Zack is a fair bit rosier about the whole thing, or at least that’s how first few chapters of WAAMN read. In his view, the way out is through: just operate your business like a modern-day musician, and you’ll have a shot at survival. He’s right, but it doesn’t sit well with me. Today’s mainstream musicians spend far less time making music than they do marketing the music they no longer have time to make.
How do I know this? I used to be a musician, but the marketing was too much for me. So I became an audio engineer (I’m only Editor Nick for a select few). Engineering keeps me in daily contact with musicians all over the world. They confirm things have only gotten worse in the “music is marketing” department.
If they’re lucky, my musician compadres spend the majority of their time cultivating superfans (i.e., marketing). If they’re not, they get “pay-jobs”—they’re waiters, Instacart shoppers, Uber drivers.
And Uber drivers are all musicians now.
See the issue here?
Unfortunately, I don’t see a way out of this. I only have a perspective on how things got this way. Here’s the TL;DR: the subscription model did this to us. Left unchecked, it’ll come for you, too.
Every year, the subscription model overtakes conventional means of ownership just a little more. We don’t own media in the year 2022; we buy perpetual licenses, subject to revocation at any time.
If you don’t pay for Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, or Disney+, you don’t get to watch new movies in a world where Omicron is more than a middling Greek letter. If you don’t pay for Spotify or Apple Music, you don’t get to listen to albums all the way through without spending a pretty penny (or pirating them). But even these choices are based on a subscription plan.
Your cable, Internet, and cellular service are all subscriptions. Sure, you can forsake them. You can watch 11 blurry rabbit-eared TV channels, or find the occasional radio station amid the terrestrial static. But every other mode of entertainment relies on some sort of renewable fee.
Forget entertainment: your very access to the world is dictated by WiFi and cellular these days. Yet even these utilities are subscriptions.
But let's not go full black-pill. Let's switch gears and look at the other side of the model—the businesses that have subjected our working lives to the recurring fee.
By the year 2000, most forms of non-physical labor had migrated to the computer. We used Microsoft Word over typewriters, Photoshop over dark-rooms, email over fax machines. I know it was that way in the business of audio engineering. We transitioned to computers over consoles. The audio came in over FTP servers rather than rolls of tape.
By the 2010s, our software began to bill us for its time: Adobe started toying with a subscription model in 2012. Microsoft did the same with its Office suite in 2013. Options to buy the programs outright became either more expensive or were discontinued.
In my business, Pro Tools is the industry-standard software for recording and editing. Parent company Avid started playing the licensing game in 2015. Slate Digital and Plug-In Alliance—two companies intimately involved in the mixing of music—began to push their subscription service over outright purchases, which morphed into perpetual licenses.
The tools we use to make, produce, distribute, and market music now require constant financial upkeep.
Want to record a song in Pro Tools? That’ll cost you $38 a month. Want to mix it with all the plugs the top dogs use? $300 a year. Want to make artwork for it? That’ll run you about $10 per month, at the very least, in Adobe. Want to make a video? Adobe again—or Avid, both subscription-based.
Want to track your numbers on SoundCloud? That’s a yearly fee. Want to distribute to Spotify? A label used to pay you an advance—now, you pay annual fees to DistroKid, Tunecore, and similar companies. Stop paying, and your music vanishes.
No wonder artists charge for access instead of product. It’s the same model—and it has drastic consequences. It’s never been easier to record at home, so professional studios close the world over. Conversely, it’s never been so expensive to mix at home: the costs are no longer front-loaded (the recording gear). They are front-loaded (the recording gear) and recurring (everything else).
Of course, you don’t have to use these tools. Free alternatives abound, but then you’re limiting your avenues of approach; industry standards are still industry standards; if you want the ears of the mainstream anywhere near your tune, you’ll likely run into a gatekeeper that demands the mix in Pro Tools.
That’s just my industry and its satellites. But it’s no less true for others: accountants are all musicians now—their software charges by the month. In the wake of COVID, subscription-based healthcare is coming for doctors.
I see this as a tax—paid not to the government, but to a private sector run amok. It’s a tax with no protections in return: payouts have never been so slim for the average creator, and for this, we have subscriptions to thank again.
Subscription services have hit other artistic pursuits in much the same way. YouTube payouts for videos are notoriously small. Good old-fashioned prose? Please. Gone are the days of top writers getting $10 per word—the industry average now sits at $0.30.
If we accept that we are all musicians now, then believe me, the subscriptions are coming for you, too. Again, observe musicians: we have no power to bargain collectively against the streaming services. All we can do is beg for support on Patreon or charge a monthly premium for our fan clubs. And yes, this works for some. But more often it doesn’t, at least not enough to pay the bills.
How is this going to translate into other industries? I shudder to answer that question. Even optimistic Zack sees the storm clouds gathering, and he assures me we’ll dig into that a couple of WAAMN chapters from now. In the meantime, subscribe to his Substack—that’ll help make it financially sustainable for Zack to have an Editor Nick longterm. What’s another $5 per month, anyway?