Sunday, May 3, 2015

Krugman, Benjamin, and the live performance of music

How much do performers earn from this, anyways? From Flikr.

Someone a little unexpected showed up at the South by Southwest music festival a few weeks ago: economist Paul Krugman. He took part in a panel about celebrity economy in music. You can read a recap here.

The part that stuck out to me was this quote by Krugman: “Things have changed a lot less for the musicians, for the artists, than you might think…[Even in the peak of CD sales in the ’90s] artists earned about 7 times as much from live performance…It’s always been really about the live performances as far as the artist is concerned. There is really no reason to think that’s going to change.”

This statistic, that even in peak CD-sales times, artists still earned many times more in live performance than from recordings, might be an eye-opener. For many people, the recording is the final product. Many people judge musicians and music from the recording. The music industry spends a lot of time tracking and advertising the top-selling recordings. For the much of the industry (be it streaming services or recording labels) selling records or access to the records is how they make money. But outside of a few exceptional artists, the recording only serves mostly as an advertisement for the musicians, at least
in regard to making money

Krugman’s statistic goes hand in hand with Walter Benjamin’s essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936). Basically, Benjamin’s argument is that as cheap reproductions of art flourish, what becomes valuable is the original or the authentic. In the case of music, where the original is often considered to be the cheaply-reproducible recording, live performance by the musicians becomes the sought-after authentic substitute. So while the music industry struggles to profit from the artists in this new age of even cheaper and more-widely available mechanical reproduction, the sad lot of the artist hasn’t really changed much. 

The moral of the story is…if you are going to form a band nowadays, make sure you can play live and you don’t mind performing and touring all of the time. Which really isn’t new.

1 comment:

  1. This was true in the 60s as well when it wasn't so easy or common to duplicate / bootleg recordings, before the advent of the cassette tape. Even the Rolling Stones made their money on tours in those days.