Want Millennials to Start Paying for Music? Start Paying Them.
The DIY revolution has begun to devour its children.
If you immediately understood the above as nod to an oft-quoted Pat Buchanan line in the nineties culture wars, then you’ll probably also remember the rise of the DIY movement. Anyone could start a band (hell, you didn’t even need to know how to play an instrument). Your neighbor’s garage band was just as good as whatever major label sellout was headlining the club that night — maybe even better, because they still had integrity, man. Rock stars weren’t Gods but mere mortals to happened to have slightly better hair and the same neurosis. Eddie Vedder spent more time polishing his “aw, shucks, I’m a regular dude” persona than your average politician.
After some fits and starts, the movement seems to have taken hold and stuck. Part of that is due to the fact that it’s easier than ever to record and share music — you can download a few cheap programs like AudioTool and Magix Music Maker, record some tracks, and post them on SoundCloud from wherever you are in the world. You don’t have to be part of a scene, and/or have any support — a kid in a slum has the same chance of going viral as a kid in L.A. On almost every level, this is great. Allowing more talented artists to share their music is always a good thing, even if it means having to wade through a lot of trash. Fans have more control in terms of helping artists rise to the top. Geography is no longer a limiting factor when it comes to sharing art.
But on the other hand — if anyone can do it, is making music really that special? If any kid in a basement anywhere in the world can share a track for free, why pay for it? Kids are creating content all day long and not getting paid a dime — that’s the new normal.
Think of the biggest companies of the internet age and how little they create. Facebook is a platform — if we didn’t spend hours uploading photos and sharing Buzzfeed quizzes and arguing with out uncles about gun control, it would just be a bunch of code. We are the ones who keep Facebook going — and yet I’ve never been paid for my “work.” Ditto for Twitter. And Instagram. And Snapchat. And Vine.
Millennials spend hours and money on this stuff, and most of them never see a dime. Even if they do, chances are they’re not being paid by Twitter or Snapchat — they’re being paid by brands in order to access their followers. And the vast majority never get that far — they’re just creating stuff to share with friends or to broadcast their thoughts. By breaking down most of the barriers to entry when it comes to sharing creativity, we’ve also broken down the mystique that you need to somehow be “special” to be a creator.
All this propping up of Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey’s empires aside, millennials are also the first generation that is expected to work for free. It’s not enough to have a bunch of internships on your resume during college — now many millennials intern for free post-college, too. And they’re also expected to build a social following and network outside of their eventual paid work, which they’re almost never compensated for.
The move towards social has also prompted radical changes in consumption patterns. The argument I almost always get about millennials and their willingness to pay for music is that they are willing to pay for concert tickets, which in the case of big festivals can run into the hundreds of dollars. This is totally true, and here’s why — you can Instagram a concert. Before the rise of social, the only people you could show off to were people in your immediate vicinity — so having a flashy car or huge record collection made sense. Now you can spread your images around the world — but taking a picture of a bunch of digital files is boring. A selfie backstage at Coachella has far more social currency.
Now we’re at the stage where anybody can be anything, and almost everyone is doing a few things. Rappers are making hundreds of dollars driving Lyft between unpaid SXSW shows. Millennials are working at social media agencies during the day and then building their own Vine followings at night. No one is making that much money, anyway, and if they are it’s probably being spent on experiences (and student loans).
One of the solutions to all this would be to pay people for their social labor, but that’ll never happen. We all work the social second shift now, creating #personalbrands, and we’re just expected to do that without seeing any return. There doesn’t seem to be much interest in a worker-owned social platform.
The other problem is that now the veil has been lifted, it can’t really come back down. Rock stars were never magic people — they were just good looking and talented, but not impossible to replicate. If it’s just as good an experience to listen to your buddy’s SoundCloud mixes, then some of the mystique is gone. If we’re all in the same boat, we’re all on the Titanic.
The new normal is likely lots of unpaid creation, with the best (or most popular) creations being bought by the highest bidder. That high bidder will probably be a brand, and that brand will continue to share the content for free while attaching their own messaging (and might even just recreate your content without paying you a dime). No one pays with money and we all pay with our eyeballs. Kids will never stop creating — they’ll just find new ways to live, and make a living, while doing it.
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