The real losers in the music industry
Recently I received news that Mos Def is performing in Los Angeles. I’m a longtime Yasiin Bey (as he’s been known since 2011) fan. Black on Both Sides remains one of my top five desert island albums. He lost fans after that classic (post-Black Star) debut, with the release of The New Danger—“Ghetto Rock” and “Zimzallabim” were a bit too rocking for the hip-hop set.
But the Black Jack Johnson tour in support of that record was phenomenal. Personally, I like it when artists experiment and leave their comfort zone. I was fully on board when he decided to explore various strains of African-American music over the last century, playing with Robert Glasper and Bad Brains, crooning on jazz records, exploring interesting beats and rhyme schemes.
He’s always had moments. “Undeniable” on True Magic lived up to its name; “Auditorium,” on 2009’s The Ecstatic showed the man was still hungry. He kept chasing dreams, acting in movies and on television, but he was also having personal and political troubles. Then in 2015 he dropped one of my favorite singles of the year.
By 2016 he announced his retirement, in part disillusioned by entertainment in general. Thankfully he returned, joining his old friend Kanye this year.
You can’t blame the man for feeling taken by the music industry, by industries in general. It’s getting tiring, these stories, like this:
I hit the link to buy tickets for his LA show. $24.50. Entirely reasonable. $49 is a nice night out for my wife and me. Then, the fees. Total: $67.76. If I were to purchase three tickets, it would really be four. By percentage, slightly over four.
We know the secondary ticket market is a mess. A recent Billboard article details the perks resellers receive—line-cutters, the biggest of them—and, Billboard being Billboard, the publication frames it so that resellers appear to be getting a raw deal. “Too much competition” laments one extremely wealthy merchant. No mention of the music fans enabling his lifestyle.
We’re well aware of the revenue gap in streaming platforms. Lack of revenue is better phrasing. As a fan, I love Spotify. There are no more desert island records with practically everything available with a scroll.
As a producer, though, I feel the pain of pitiful royalties. While the younger generation will never know the insanity of clawing through CD booklets or a glove compartment overflowing with cassette tapes, we feel frustration in other ways. We’re being priced out of seeing the artists we listen to over and over and over again on our earbuds.
Live music is alive and well. The short dip in the industry has been filled in; towering skyscrapers have been erected on the graves of all those flimsy discs. Even the low end of the chart below reveals staggering numbers; the two giants at the top garnered over $5B in 2018 alone.
Concerts are ritual experiences. For most of history, the only way to consume music was in person. Either you performed music or you hung around those who did. It was a family affair, an opportunity for communal bonding, a chance to transcend the mundane through song and dance.
While music has been monetized for some time, being an elite endeavor in various courts, for the last nine decades, since vinyl first became accessible to broad audiences, music’s reach grew beyond anything previously known. It seemed that ritual and capitalism could work together in some capacity. Players were affordable, as were the discs spun on them. A ticket for a live show didn’t cost a paycheck.
Then, as in our politics, a million tiny cuts ensued. We never realized we were being bled out.
Because now, whenever I’m considering a concert, I have to think about three tickets instead of two. There is nothing convenient about these fees. It’s pure exploitation. Artists are losing out in streaming and on the secondary market, but fans are constantly being taken advantage of in the place where music matters most. What’s worst, this model is only sustaining a very few.
Just as in our politics, a tipping point is fast approaching. Those few won’t cede power easily. As with all power struggles, it’s up to the majority to be sick and tired of being sick and tired. New technologies were be emerging in the coming years to level the playing fields in the secondary market, streaming, and ticketing in general. It won’t be convenient to delete a few apps and install a couple of others, but if that’s the cost of entry to a fairer system for fans and artists, it’s going to be the deal of a lifetime.