The sharps and flats of the music business

September 1, 2013
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the day I quit my software job. There was nothing wrong with my job; it was rewarding and I liked it, but “information architect” was not my calling. I didn’t want to sit at a computer all day. I wanted to make music.
I’d played the cello since I was 8, but my fears — of rejection, of performing in front of an audience, of poverty — had stymied my attempts at making a living from music. Then I turned 31, and I was suddenly more afraid of the regrets I’d have if I didn’t try.
The first couple of years I did the usual pay-your-dues hustle. I paid the bills by playing with the cello-rock band Rasputina, and I performed my own music for free, touring in a VW camper and selling a home-recorded CD at shows and on my website.
In previous decades, this unsigned, DIY approach was considered a temporary steppingstone on the way to a record contract. If an artist wanted to grow beyond her hometown, she needed the resources, relationships and reputation of a label. That’s how an artist got on the radio, got press coverage and got albums into stores. Record labels were the gatekeepers, and without a contract, an artist couldn’t get very far.
By the time I came along, the Internet was already changing the power dynamics of the music industry, but the most fundamental shift for me came in 2003, when iTunes opened its doors to unsigned artists. Any artist could sell music and get the same percentage deal from Apple as the record labels. CD distribution was still difficult and the old problem of how to get anyone to pay attention wasn’t solved, but an unsigned artist could now sell music alongside bestselling artists in the largest digital music store in the world.
As soon as my first album was ready, I submitted it to iTunes. It took five months to appear (in part because an upload script had rejected my submission because of the umlaut over the “e” in my name), but during that frustrating waiting period, I got some nice national media attention and, when the album finally went live, sales were immediately good. It went to No. 1 in iTunes Classical and stayed in the Top 20 for so long I stopped paying attention.
Monthly payments from iTunes have been steady ever since, and they’ve made a lot of things possible. They allowed me to buy a house, a reliable car and health insurance, and to take time off when my son was born. It sounds pathetic, but knowing that 60,000 people liked my albums enough to buy them gave me confidence I’d lacked and encouraged me to take my art seriously and make more of it.
I still don’t have a manager. I still record on a laptop in a spare bedroom of my house, and my husband designs the packaging. If you order a CD from me, my sister will be the one to mail it to you. When I go on tour, it’s in a rental car with my cello, gear, merchandise, sound person, 3-year-old son and the aforementioned spouse.
Miraculously, it all works, and half the time I feel like I’m crowd-surfing. But there are other times when I feel insane from juggling motherhood, music and all the business. I seem to spend way too much time in front of the computer answering email.
Having iTunes as the bulk of my income has been fantastic, but it worries me to rely on it. If I have learned one thing about technology, it’s that disruptive innovations are so compelling, they can’t be stopped.
Even before I launched my career, one such disruption had appeared on the horizon. It was already clear that peer-to-peer file sharing would eventually eat the established music industry’s lunch. I wasn’t worried, but I was cautious. My homegrown, organic, listener-supported cello music came from outside the music industry, and I made it a part of my job to let everyone know that.
Go ahead, I said. Stream/share/pirate/torrent my music as much as you want! But keep in mind that I am 100% DIY. I trust that if you love my music, your moral code will compel you to come to a concert or buy an album or a T-shirt directly from me.
It was a stereotypical Generation X thing for me to do: believe in the idea that people live by moral codes and that music sharing was embraced, in part, as a takedown of The Man. All I had to do was position myself as the opposite of The Man and everything would be fine.
And it has been. I was extremely lucky to be a part of the DIY movement of the last decade. But I also know that just as the Internet has made my entire career possible, it can just as easily take it away.
Now subscription streaming and YouTube are finishing what Napster began, and the revolution is fully corporatized. With music services spending millions of dollars to promote tag lines like “Never pay for music again,” the story is no longer about a collective Robin Hood taking down a resented industry. Now it’s about plain old personal economics. Only a fool or a true fan would pay to own music that is available for free listening at any time on a subscription music service.
But it would be unwise for an individual niche artist to count on streaming revenue to pay the bills. In the last six months, I’ve netted $808.01 from 201,412 streams on Spotify and $1,610 from 1,242,030 spins on Pandora. Because I own the copyrights of both my songs and my recordings, these amounts are almost double what an artist on a record label would receive for the same amount of streaming.
All I can do is continue to make music and to tout my quaint music-as-community-supported-agriculture message. I’ll always be immensely grateful to my listeners. But I’ll continue to urge them to consider buying something directly or to come to a concert, both things I wish streaming services would facilitate.
Meanwhile, I’ve also made myself more resilient, improving my live show, getting a booking agent, collaborating with filmmakers and choreographers, and dipping my toe into commercial licensing. Almost half my income is still from music sales, but those other revenue sources are growing. If I stopped selling music tomorrow, I’d be OK, I think.
Without a doubt today’s climate favors artists who are actively touring and releasing music. In other words, there is no retirement anymore, which makes the music industry like most other industries. Is that so bleak? Not really. Yes, I have to keep making more music, keep touring and keep competing for my listeners attention. But that’s what I want to do anyway. The business of music continues to evolve, but the essence of being a musician remains the same: We make music, and we want people to hear it.
Zoë Keating is a composer and performer currently working on a new album of layered cello music.    LA Times September 1 2013