The Realities of Making a Living with Music in 2011

John McCrea, lead singer of the band Cake, stirred up a reaction when he told NPR’s Melissa Block that he is skeptical about the future of music as a vocation.

I see music as a really great hobby for most people in five or 10 years,” he remarked.

Keep in mind this was part of a segment about Cake’s historic new album, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts in January. It was historic because the album earned the coveted ranking by selling just 44,000 copies — the lowest amount for a No. 1 in the 20-year history of calculating record sales.

I’ve been seeing a lot of articles and blog posts lately about the doom and gloom of the music biz — including depressing news about the state of independent music. There have been references to the failure of direct-to-fan as a business model, and the harsh realities that aspiring musicians, managers, and promoters face.

Really? Give me a break!

Sure, I agree that things have drastically changed. The “traditional music industry” has crumbled. All the new, accessible promotion tools have created a crowded and noisy world where millions of DIY artists are clamoring for attention. Things are in flux. Nothing is predictable. There’s no sure path to success.

So tell me …

How is this so radically different from the good old days?

When exactly was there a sure path to making a good living as an artist? What year or decade did a healthy percentage of musicians prosper in the Golden Age of Music? And in what era was the pursuit of the almighty record deal an accessible and fair arrangement for all concerned?

Wake up and smell the gigabytes! Please!

The truth is … This Golden Age never existed. There’s never been a time when musical self-sufficiency was guaranteed. It’s always been the case — and always will be — that a majority of people pursue music as a part-time hobby.

Only a small percentage of artists make a living. That isn’t a consequence of the Internet or piracy or consumer apathy or limitless entertainment choices. It’s just the nature of humanity, regardless what business model is in place.

If you find yourself complaining about the current state of music, it’s probably because you feel lost not knowing what direction to go or what “rules” to follow. I get that. At least — prior to the Napster and iTunes era — many people agreed on the steps you needed to take: get a record deal and/or get radio airplay, retail placement, media exposure, tour, build a business team, etc.

Now it seems nobody knows what the sure path is. As flawed as the old system was, at least you had some kind of map, right?

Here’s another cold dose of reality … That system sucked just as much as, if not more than, the current one!

Many musicians struggled then … and they struggle now. Artists fought for attention then … and they fight for it now. Self-promoters were confused about marketing and sales then … and they are just as confused now.

And, back in “the day,” there was never a set path to a record deal either. Nearly 20 years ago I organized a lot of music education events in St. Louis with local artists who had been signed to label deals. Each had to forge their own path to get noticed and get signed. No two stories were alike.

However, the one theme that many of them shared years later was the bitterness they felt after having gone through the corporate record company process. Hmm … I guess that wasn’t the Golden Age after all.

Honestly … Do you really prefer the old system of having to impress a gatekeeper before you are deemed worthy of a music career? Do you prefer the stability of needing commercial radio airplay, retail space, and MTV video exposure to “make it”?

I think not! So …

Please stop lamenting the good ole bygone days (that never existed to begin with). Please stop complaining about the hardships of social networking and all the work required to get noticed and engage with fans. Cry me a river!

Success in music has always required talent, desire, a quest for mastery, and consistent action. That was true years ago, and it’s just as true today.

The modern-day whiners all focus on what’s missing and what’s difficult. Meanwhile, empowered indie artists such as Jason Parker, David Nevue, Rob Michael, John Taglieri, and many more see opportunities, embrace this new era and … heaven forbid … are actually making a decent living doing it.

So … are you a victimized complainer … or an empowered doer?