Dear Musicians: Become Your Own Middleman

Musicians as Middlemen

By Joshua S. Lundquist, musician and blogger at An Incredible Waste of Time

Finally over ten years after the music industry started freaking out about Napster and BitTorrent downloads of entire albums (a godsend for fans of old out-of-print music), there is starting to be a glimmer of hope for us artists.

In this post I am talking specifically to musicians, but for visual artists the same might also be true.

The long tail is getting longer and more populated, people are ostensibly branching off into ever more niche silos of music tastes, seeking more eclectic music and ignoring the mainstream, and the means of distribution and promotion are more streamlined than ever.

You can put up work today and sell it (as long as someone who would want it can find it).

Bloggers already know why it’s a good thing to be in a niche and value a core group, a tribe of followers, but musicians still haven’t totally come around to this idea enough to implement it.

In blogging the best thing you can do is make a community of fans, hopefully to get them to subscribe to your services at some point to create a sustainable source of income for yourself. We see this everywhere now online, the subscription model of business. Even iTunes ostensibly is looking into the subscription business model for its media distribution.

Pete Townshend likened iTunes to a “digital vampire” back in 2011, saying they should at least offer some of the services that record labels used to offer to “smaller” artists. However, I think “small” has it’s advantages.

And if we musicians had some smarts and a little know-how, we’d realise we can do the same thing for ourselves that iTunes does “for us”, but on our own. We don’t need iTunes to set up a little store or a subscription service for us. We have all the tools at our disposal! We don’t need middlemen to determine our worth anymore!

The relationship between iTunes and the artist is like someone offering a newspaper a service, saying “I will deliver your articles to people’s email inboxes and take a cut from your profits. Oh – and I get to choose how much you charge, too, ok?”

And though I think subscriptions are a great idea because they’re more sustainable, I think we artists should take this idea and run with it. What if we gave our fans something that can be monetized regularly, like access?

Why don’t the artists take the means to exist as an artist completely into their own hands?

We can circumvent iTunes, Spotify and all middlemen if we want, and charge our own fans to access our content on a subscription basis. WE just have to find THEM–our fans–instead of grabbing random people who may not be as interested. This might also require questioning what exactly the role of an artist is.

Which means we can’t be lazy about who our fans are, we need to get to know them. Or at least let them get to know us.

The key is in offering meaningful content, not just songs. So why aren’t artists thinking in broader terms on how to make a living off of their work?

I think the answer is that after years and years of mass-production mentality –driving prices down on songs to sell as many cd’s as possible–young artists, not wanting to appear entitled like the oldsters, have turned to “FREE” as their promotion approach. As if hoping to go viral.

The only flaw with this approach is that it causes not only fans to devalue what we do to a cheap commodity (who doesn’t want something good for cheap, or better yet: free), but now artists themselves don’t even see the real value of what they’re doing.

Nobody sees the monetary value of what artists do, including artists.

The inspiration artists create from nothing and give to people, the lightning they bottle and could be getting paid for doesn’t have an agreed upon price tag. Spotify says 0.003 EUR per play or 0.29 EUR per album. iTunes says it’s $1.50 (I live in Japan, so it’s ¥200), 70% of which artists get (minus the cost to put albums up on iTunes) so are you selling enough for this to support you?

I’m not suggesting artists complain in order to get prices raised on songs or per-play rates, in fact I think that should stop, just for the sake of our integrity. As we know, complaining won’t change things, even if you’re Pete Townshend.

And of course, you should focus on making great music, as Bob Lefsetz says.

So for the rest of us not on labels, or on labels so tiny that our only payment is simply having our songs pressed up on vinyl or digitally released for free, the idea of making a living from music has been vanquished to fantasy-land.

Which is a shame.

But if bloggers are able to make a living offering different kinds of value to people, then we sure as hell should be able to. With a little effort and a change in mentality, we could toss aside the middlemen and gatekeepers who value artists at .003 dollars per play.

A new approach can change things.

The tools exist, we just need to learn how to use them. Artists need to get out of the dark ages, the mentality created by the big music industry that’s been lingering since the 70’s. We also need to open up to our fans, to connect with them in a way that is more vulnerable, that shows them we trust them.

Music is the most powerful introduction you could make to a person, all you have to do is take the next step and, as Amanda Palmer said, figure out an answer to “How can we let them pay us for our music?” How can we ask?

So, if you’re an artist putting your stuff up on Bandcamp, determining your own prices (and using the pay-what-you-want option for fans), that is a step in the right direction.

However, if you’re going to be giving your music away for free on there, at least get people’s email addresses in exchange. Because there are other ways to monetise, and you want to be able to tell the people who love your work how you can “let them pay.”

Look at their names and realise that these are people, these are your fans. You can offer them an experience that iTunes can not profit from.

Figure out how you can form relationships with these people, maybe you will convert those fans into a steady-paying clientele. More than that, these fans could become your friends (don’t tell them they used to be “clientele”), and friends are often for life. And it’s scary because there’s no proven way, since it’s up to you now.


Joshua S. Lundquist lives in Tokyo, Japan and is a content creator at his site An Incredible Waste of Time. He also writes and records music under a few different names and hopes to be a part of a true community of like-minded artists who wish to be self-sufficient on their work and want to support each other.