Transcript: Can Music Pay?

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Interview with Kristin Thomson, Future of Music Coalition

For podcast release Monday, April 30, 2012

KENNEALLY: It’s the age of the one-man band, but the picture looks different from days past. Along with the drum on a strap and a harmonica on a metal brace, the performer now carries a laptop. And with that and an Internet connection, she or he records and distributes music, designs Websites, and schedules tour dates.

Welcome, everyone to Beyond the Book, Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series on the changing media industry. My name is Christopher Kenneally. And since 2000, the Future of Music Coalition has strived to provide artists from all backgrounds and genres with valuable information about the issues that affect their ability to earn a living. The insights it has gathered from a number of extensive, recent surveys of American musicians offer valuable lessons for book publishing and journalism.

Joining me to share the highlights is Kristin Thomson, Co-Director of Artist Revenue Streams, a multi-method, cross-genre examination of how US-based musicians’ revenue streams are changing, and why. And that was something the coalition first undertook in 2010. Kristin, welcome to Beyond the Book.

THOMSON: Hi, Chris, and thanks for inviting me on.

KENNEALLY: Well, I’m glad to have you join us today because I do think that given that musicians have sort of faced the brunt of change from the Internet and the digital revolution first among all media and artists, it’s interesting to see what you have learned from these very extensive and very fascinating surveys you’ve done. But first, I want to tell people about your background, because it really serves to place you as squarely in the middle of all of this – someone who really knows what she’s talking about. Let’s tell people.

Kristin Thomson is a community organizer, social policy researcher, entrepreneur, and musician. She graduated from Colorado College and moved to Washington, DC, where she worked for two years as a national action organizer for the National Organization for Women. She left NOW in 1992 to make a full-time commitment to Simple Machines, an independent record label she co-ran with Jenny Toomey. Over eight years, Simple Machines released more than 70 records and CDs, and organized three high-profile music festivals in Washington, DC. All that time, Kristin and Jenny also wrote, recorded, and released four records, called Tsunami, on Simple Machines, and toured the US, Canada, and Europe.

Kristin then went on to graduate from the University of Delaware with a masters degree in urban affairs and public policy. She was recognized for her thesis, The Internet as an Agent of Change with several awards. She joined the Future of Music Coalition in late 2000, and has served a number of roles, including project management and research. So really an extensive background, and somebody who knows political activism, somebody who knows music, and somebody who knows the Web.

THOMSON: Yes, yeah. It’s been really interesting. And I think they all build on each other.

KENNEALLY: Absolutely. I mean, briefly, before we go into the surveys that you’ve done, what do you mean by that? What is the nexus between political activism, the Web, and the music business as we know it today in 2012?

THOMSON: Well, it’s funny that the reason the Future of Music Coalition exists and started in 2000 was Jenny Toomey recognizing as independent label-owners that there was this enormous change that was about to happen. Because the Internet – sure, e-mail was around in 1995, but the Web was fairly primitive. By about 1998, it was clear that this was going to be a significant factor in how independent record labels were going to manage, promote, distribute, and sell music. So even though Simple Machines, we were scaling back the record label ourselves, we had found a new interest in this really dynamic change in the landscape.

So we started to just do interviews with other peers and other indie label owners and other musicians, to see how they were navigating this change. And that’s how we actually stumbled into this other world – a bunch of attorneys, emerging technology people, major label and independent label folks, that were all equally engaged in what was going on. And that was sort of the genesis of Future of Music Coalition, bringing together voices to make sure that as we navigate this dynamic shift, that musicians are considered stakeholders in how things are built and created. And we wanted to make sure that musicians had a seat at the table.

KENNEALLY: That’s certainly one of the big changes that the Internet has brought. Musicians were always there, of course, without it there wouldn’t have been much of an industry. But for the first time, they really had a chance to take control of their own work.

THOMSON: Yes, there’s that. On the most basic level, the Internet has facilitated musicians overcoming barriers to entering the marketplace that were prior to, say, even 1998, very difficult. So getting your music into, say, Tower Records, or getting it played on commercial – the only way you could do that was to sign a major label record deal. And that had all its own problems and tradeoffs. So the Internet has made it so much easier. It’s this very simple process now for musicians who are creating their own music to choose a aggregator service and pay basically a minimal fee to have their music into the iTunes music store, available on Amazon, in Spotify, in Rhaposdy. You can be on the same platforms, at the same price, and have the same level of access that the Black Eyed Peas have.

KENNEALLY: Right. Now, but you say it’s simple. Certainly it is. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. And there certainly is a kind of romantic picture now of musicians, that one-man band image that I was conjuring up at the beginning. Musicians can do it all themselves. And what the Future of Music Coalition has tried to do is to look at the question in all its aspects and to really think about not just the performance piece but the earning capacity, because that’s what makes the difference between the rest of us who kind of plunk away and folks like yourself who make a living at it.

THOMSON: Yeah, absolutely. I mean we always try and make sure that musicians understand that even though there are these facilitating and democratizing technologies, it also cuts both ways. It’s sort of a double-edged sword. It creates a lot of new work for musicians, because now you have all these other tasks and responsibilities. And some of them, I’m not sure musicians really find themselves wanting to do. Managing a Twitter feed, or dealing with directive fan appeals for money. I mean there’s a lot of stuff that is now possible, but may not be what a musician would prefer to do. So there’s a lot of ways that technology has disrupted things to the point where musicians now have more work, they have more responsibility, along with more opportunity.

KENNEALLY: Right. Those conversations that you began more than 10 years ago have really blossomed. And these surveys that the Future of Music Coalition has conducted recently have gotten responses from I think, what, 5,000 individual musicians over time. Tell us about the kinds of people you’ve been hearing from and we’ll learn later what they’ve been telling you.

THOMSON: The reason that we started the artist revenue streams project was we knew that it was about ten years since Napster appeared in 1999. And there’s been such great change, we wanted to start a benchmarking effort to measure how all these technological changes have impacted musicians’ earning capacity. We used three methods to gather data simultaneously because we knew that one method standing alone wouldn’t really be sufficient. So we’ve been doing in-person interviews with a variety of musician types. We did financial case studies with a handful of other artists. And we ran a big online survey last fall. And we were really pleased that over 5,300 American musicians and composers completed the survey, which was a really fabulous, big, robust number.

KENNEALLY: Right. And we’re not just talking about rock musicians, we’re talking about all genres. And there are a variety of roles that these individuals play in the creation of music. Some of them may be performers, some of them may be songwriters and so forth. Just give us a brief outline of who we’re talking about.

THOMSON: We were going for diversity. We reached out through a number of member organizations and unions and affinity groups and mailing lists to make sure that as many musicians as possible knew about the survey and knew they were welcome to participate. So, yes, we have a lot of folks who are, say, salaried players in orchestras. We have people who are in rock bands. We have folks who are songwriters who don’t perform. We have people who compose for film and TV that don’t perform, and may never be kind of known as a public figure.

We have folks who are making some money on their merchandising and their branding. We have folks who are making money on teaching. And sometimes it’s a sort of isolated – or there’s a primary role, for example someone might be a performer that does a little composing on the side. Or it might be somebody who’s wearing six hats – they’re writing their own music, they’re recording it, going out on tour, selling the merchandise, and playing as a session player in another band.

So there’s a lot of different varieties of people that took the survey. And luckily, through various filters, we’re able to sort of dissect the data in a way that helps us better understand how various sub-populations are operating.

KENNEALLY: Well, there’s a lot to digest in all of these surveys. But can you give us a few of the highlights for you? What are some findings that surprised you? And what are some things that perhaps confirmed suspicions you had?

THOMSON: Well, it’s funny. So one of the findings I thought was the most interesting was just the sheer number of roles that people are playing. The survey data shows it, but also the financial case studies show it as well. There may be a primary role, and usually if people are performers, the live performance money is the dominant source of income. But oftentimes, people are juggling many things. And there’s very few people who, I think, besides salaried orchestra players who have a dependable, reliable source of income, for others who aren’t in the salaried position, their income, I think, fluctuates a lot.

So that stuff was particularly clear, not only in the survey – well, it wasn’t clear in the survey because we’re just benchmarking things, but it was really clear in the financial case studies.

KENNEALLY: Is there a particular instance that you can describe in detail?

THOMSON: Well, we did a financial case study about a jazz sideman. And I thought this one was very interesting. The person that we had the financial records from, who gave us about eight or 10 years’ worth of financial data, one of the most striking charts that we built was his relationship to jazz bandleaders. Because that’s the person who would be hiring him to perform. He had built up relationships with about 80 different jazz bandleaders over time, and there’s sort of a stacked area chart where it shows just how many shows he’s played over a given timeframe, and how many bandleaders he relies on, in order to cobble together his sideman work. And thinking through the process myself, I thought, gosh, how does he keep this all organized? This seems like a lot of work, just even the logistics of this.

So I always think that kind of stuff isn’t sort of a finding that is easy to put on paper, but I think the financial case study is probably the only way we could have even teased that out.

KENNEALLY: Right. It’s a great way to appreciate all the work that’s involved. And I was relating to that as you were speaking about it, because I was a freelance journalist for many years, and that whole juggling act that you describe, of bringing together all the various sources of possible income and managing the relationships with them is something that freelance journalists are accustomed to doing. But musicians particularly are accustomed to playing a number of roles. They can be performers as well as songwriters. They drive their own van to get to the tour date. Maybe they’re even scheduling their own dates. Do you think that musicians have been perhaps more welcoming of these new roles than say a journalist or a book author might be who’s accustomed to just sitting in a room and typing away?

THOMSON: I think that musicians have had a bit more history in doing it themselves. There’s a solid legacy of musicians choosing to do it themselves for the past 10, 20, 30 years. Because the major label system has been so difficult to get into, there’s an entire subculture of – as I’m sure in the book publishing world – there’s independent distributors, independent record stores, independent venue promoters, that have sustained an entire ecosystem for years. And I think musicians, even though it’s a smaller scale, they’ve gotten their feet wet in all of those things. They promoted their music to college radio, and to webcasting. So I think musicians have had the benefit of not only this sub-ecosystem but also because you’re always sort of balancing how much money you can spend and how many people you can hire to help you with things, usually you at least try stuff on your own first.

So musicians – they’ve just gotten a little bit more experience than maybe book authors have in trying to do it themselves.

KENNEALLY: Well, they certainly have had a head start. And we are talking right now with Kristin Thomson from the Future of Music Coalition about some surveys they’ve conducted of more than 5,000 musicians and performers in the music business around the country. And I’m trying to tease out what it might all mean for the rest of us in the media business. And Kristin I saw you present recently at Harvard University, the Berkman Center, with someone else who’s on the Future of Music Coalition board, Erin McKeown, and she was a presenter of our own for Copyright Clearance Center’s OnCopyright 2012, in New York just in March.

One of the things that you looked at closely and I think is a great place for a lesson for people in the book business is about the concept of the team, and the team that the musicians need to put together. Tell us about that.

THOMSON: Yes. On our survey and in the interviews we did, we wanted to make sure we understood who musicians were relying on, their support structures. So on the survey, we had a list of about 15 different possible teammates that would include people like a record label, or a publisher, or a webmaster, an accountant, an attorney. What the survey data showed us was that bandmates were always the most important other team member. And that does make sense. I mean, being in a band myself, and I think Erin McKeown said this as well, you tend to rely on your peers to get stuff done first.

But then below that, it just depended on the kind of strata we cut the data through to figure out who were the second- and third- and fourth-most important people. For some folks, it’s their booking agent, which makes sense. If you’re a performer, it really helps to have someone who helps you book the shows you play. They will negotiate the fees and the dates, and help you set up tours. And that can help you so much with your capacity, if someone else is doing that work.

For people who are composers, who are writing songs, a publisher seemed to be somebody who increased their capacity and their earning ability. And that makes sense as well, that a publisher is out there helping shop your songs and your compositions to people who might be licensing the works. And record labels also have always consistently served a role in helping musicians promote and distribute their music and sell things. Although that one seems to be the one that has the least effect on revenue, mostly because – as we mentioned earlier in this podcast – it’s been much easier for musicians to release their song recordings on their own now.

But for me I think it was fascinating to see how different it was for different strata. And in fact we have a data cut of people who earn more than $100,000 from music. And for those people, after bandmates, the most important folks were attorney, an accountant, and a webmaster. And there’s this sort of a chicken-and-egg question there. Does the person have an accountant because they’re making $100,000, or do they have $100,000 because they have an accountant? So we don’t know – the data can’t tell us that. But I thought it was at least interesting to look at.

KENNEALLY: Right. And certainly I think it says at some point, as you’re growing, you do have to kind of reach out to other partners. Doing it yourself might work at the very beginning, but you reach a point where it’s necessary to bring on a team. You also have in the Future of Music site something I thought was just fascinating. You looked at revenue streams, of course, because it’s all about earning a living. And you identified 42 separate revenue streams, everything from the publisher advance and mechanical royalties all the way down to possible income as a music teacher, or even merchandise sales and YouTube partner programs. So really there’s a lot of potential, a lot of little raindrops have to be collected to earn a living.

And this comes down to our favorite subject here at Copyright Clearance Center, and that’s copyright. What would you say is the level of awareness about the issues of copyright? And anything else you can share with us on that subject from the music industry.

THOMSON: I think awareness of copyright is growing. But it is so difficult. That list that you mentioned, the 42 streams – which folks can see at money.futureofmusic.org – was started actually as a list of 29 streams that I co-wrote with a friend who’s quite adept at understanding copyright law and everything. And as we passed it around we realized there were more that we had forgotten about, and some that were very obscure, some that were brand new, in fact, that current law had actually created in the past 10 years.

So the list grew to 42 streams, which is probably pretty accurate. I mean there haven’t been very many changes to this list of 42. But what it does reflect is that copyright is, especially for musicians, a difficult thing, because the person that composes the song, has a different copyright standing than the person who records the song, and then slightly different than the person who performs the song.

So even though a person may embody all three things simultaneously, you kind of have to split your brain to remember that there is money coming from your work as composing something separate from your work as the recording artist. And I think a lot of musicians have to stop themselves and think, oh my gosh, am I the composer in this situation, or am I the recording artist? And that stuff just takes practice. You have to learn it. So Future Music Coalition takes time, especially at our events, to try and untangle things for musicians, to try and translate for them, because it is definitely very difficult.

But musicians should try, as much as they can, to at least understand the basic parameters of copyright law, because it does not only impact their earnings but also it impacts their ability to understand who their best partners are in the future, because they need to know what roles people can play and how it affects them sort of net-positive or net-negative.

KENNEALLY: Right. And I think certainly that’s true not only for musicians – the importance of copyright law – but for everybody in the creative economy. And what struck me as I heard the presentation at the Berkman Center was that, oh my gosh, you have to get this right the first time. Because a song that might not be a hit today, could come back to life in a licensing situation for a commercial, or at some other site, you can imagine all kinds of possibilities. It could come back five years, 10 years from now, and if the performers and the creators don’t have clear title to that work, they might lose out on a great opportunity.

THOMSON: That’s very true. And one thing that the Internet has certainly facilitated is making sure that there’s a written record, a visible, searchable written record of those types of details. But your point should be well taken, is that musicians need to actually think about the documentation at the very beginning of the process. How do we split the writing credits? Who’s responsible for making sure this is properly registered with our performance rights organization? And all these things, because five years later, perhaps it is picked up for a commercial or something, you want to make sure that you don’t have to hesitate, because the interested party might just move onto something easier if it’s too difficult for them to find out who to contact.

KENNEALLY: Well, as I say, I think there’s a great deal for all of us to learn in these recent surveys and the way that they’ve been distilled for us by the Future of Music Coalition. You can find all of that and much more at futureofmusic.org. We’ve been chatting with Kristin Thomson, who is the Co-Director of the Coalition’s artist revenue streams project, which has looked at how US-based musicians’ revenue streams are changing and why.

Kristin Thomson, thank you so much for joining us today.

THOMSON: Thank you so much, Chris.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs, as well as now images, movies, and television shows. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, like Beyond the Book on Facebook, and subscribe to our free podcast series on iTunes or at our website, copyright.com/beyondthebook.

Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing, who’s been ka-knocking on the drums while we’re recording this. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.