Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Why Should Rock Stars Expect To Be Rich?

The Word UK

Why Should Rock Stars Expect To Be Rich?
Posted by The Word on 11 September 2008 - 3:33pm.

Tom Whitwell argues that the rock stars of the future will earn about as much as the average bank manager.

I grew up assuming that anyone on tv was mind-bogglingly rich. It's a common enough mistake that I share with the cast of Big Brother. Sometimes, it's true. Some pop stars are very, very rich. Jay-Z's various businesses have earned him $1bn. Former Beatles are on £500 million each. The members of Coldplay are worth £30m each. Even Craig David is sitting on £10m.

oasis_0.jpgI don't think it's going to last. Why should a musician who sells one million albums a year be paid so much more than the editor of a national newspaper that sells one billion copies a year? In ten years' time, maybe five, being a pop star will be a profitable profession. Like being a barrister or a consultant. But not like being a juice carton magnate.

This isn't a moral or cultural opinion. Gary Glitter can earn £50,000 a year on royalties accrued every time Rock & Roll (Part 2) is played at an NFL game. So what? All that tells us is that he was lucky enough to be part of the never-to-be-repeated phenomenon that was The Music Industry of the Latter Years of the 20th Century.

And it was an extraordinary edifice. Instead of paying for advertising, the music biz had an entire industry - radio - paying them to promote their products. Not good enough? Along came MTV, a channel devoted to airing glossy advertisments for their output. Why build expensive shops when HMV and Tower Records will do it for you? Why buy advertising when you've got the front pages of NME, Rolling Stone and all the rest of them?

Not surprisingly, times were good. Vinyl records were cheap to manufacture but hard to copy. Recording studios were vastly expensive to hire, so musicians were dependent on the industry to get records made. Most of all, as internet marketeer Seth Godin reminded executives at Columbia Records last year, people didn't like pop stars, they loved them. It seemed natural that pop stars should be rich. And they were.

Now, all that is gone, washed away by the digital tide. The great, profit-hyping discovery that was the CD - we can get everyone to buy their record collection all over again, for twice the price! - proved in the long run to be the industry's nemesis. Too late, the labels realised that in fact they had been flogging infinitely duplicable digital masters to the public. And nobody ever got rich selling something expensive that you can get for free.

The music business will change. People love music more than ever. Turning that love into money isn't simple but it's possible. Internet clever person Kevin Kelly has written a great essay called 1,000 True Fans. He sets out how a musician (or writer, or artist) should be able to make a comfortable living (say $100,000 a year) if they can offer sufficiently enticing products to a sufficient number of true fans. His maths are fuzzy but his basic argument is sound. It's no longer enough to have two million people like your song, buy the single and earn you a house. They'll just download it, and you won't see a penny. Instead, you need a deeper relationship with fewer people.

The customer service offered by record labels is remedial. I've bought plenty of Grace Jones records with money. I'd happily pay more money to see her play a concert. Did anyone from her label email me to say she was playing in London on a Thursday night when I was at home watching Bonekickers? No. They took my money and didn't even get my name. They expect Amazon or iTunes to manage my likes and dislikes, when they're the people who stand to profit.

Seth Godin sees a future where the record labels become "tribe management". They'll look after the fans, offering them special products, facilitating communities and spotting synergies. Instead of sending me spam about some new band, they'll send me a free track and invite me to an exclusive and very expensive gig.

What will it look like from the rock star's end of the telescope? In fairness, most working musicians in rock and roll's Premiership, if not its Big Four, have accepted that the days of driving Rolls-Royces into private pools are long gone. In the 1970s, Elton, Led Zep and the Stones set the standard of rock star ostentation that is now of use only to filmmakers and potboiler novelists. Today's famous musicians work harder and are paid less, and in the future it'll only get worse. A rock star used to be a demigod who bathed in money each morning. In the future, they'll look with envy on Java programmers or hedge fund managers.

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