Let’s Stop Blaming File Sharing And Start Building B(r)and Loyalty

A good friend of mine (producer, mixer, engineer and man about town Will Kennedy) was kind enough to hip me to an Atlantic Wire post that concerned Chan Marshall from Cat Power declaring bankruptcy and not being able to mobilize funds to tour.  The article went on to state:

“Everyone knows that artists go out on a financial limb by committing to creativity as a career. But it’s beginning to look like even the most successful musicians—the ones that grace magazine covers and inspire bloggers to gush out 2,000-word think-pieces—soon won’t be able to eke out a living from their craft.”

As a possibly relevant aside, the article also speculates that recent trips to Mt. Sanai (including one in 2006 for alcohol addiction), and possible complications from angioedema might also play into monetary woes faced by Ms. Marshall.

Will posted this piece on Facebook and talked about how people should consider this story when they think that file sharing doesn’t affect artists.

And he’s right.  Filesharing is a problem.

But in my opinion, Will’s comment is what really got down to the core issue.  File sharing is only part of the problem.  The much bigger issue at play concerns people’s perception of file sharing and what they’re willing to pay for.

“NRA quotes?  Really?”

The NRA has an awful slogan/ bumper sticker of, “Guns don’t kill people.  People kill people.”  To which I would say that people can kill other people but they can do it more easily (and be more cavalier in the initial act) with a gun – so both people and guns kill people.  I’ve seen several heated arguments escalate to the point where if someone had a gun, they would have used it. It would have been regretted a second or two later, but where a fist fight generally goes a couple of punches before someone’s body says, “Ugh this hurts.  I don’t want to do this anymore.”, a gun in the hand of an inexperienced user provides a distanced violent immediacy that removes that moment of analysis/realization.  People pull the trigger first and then deal with the consequences later.

Building on this metaphor, if filesharing is the gun that everyone worries about then apathetic consumers are the ones who pull the trigger in a cavalier way not knowing or caring how it affects the people who made the thing they’re using.

And make no mistake about it, the consequences for musicians trying to support themselves through music are economically violent.  Consider this for a moment, despite the fact that more musicians than ever are playing and recording music and releasing it on their own labels, the number of musicians I know who support themselves through music in any capacity decreases every year.

Money for Nothing and chicks for free”

The most interesting thing about the post for me were the comments after the story.  I was surprised by the number of informed musicians (and people close to musicians) who brought up a number of interesting points like this:

“Speaking from personal experience, you do not go into the indie music business without an entrepreneurial attitude. Being in a band these days is no different than running a start-up technology company… you have to be agile, you have to produce, you have to capitalize on every opportunity and revenue stream. If you think otherwise, your endeavor will fail. I get a lot of flack for saying “entrepreneurs thrive, artists starve”… but it is true and I will continue to repeat it as a mantra to every young band that I council.”

However, as artists we need to recognize that many people still view the arts like this:

“”I have a job where I get paid by the hour. Guarantee that I have made less in the last 10 years than she did last year alone. Boo Hoo. You are more than likely correct in your statement that she just can’t manage her money. Or entrusted her finances to someone who was a leach. either way, no sympathies.”


I remember the first time I came home from college and people would say things to me like, “Oh music.  It must be nice to sit around and just strum your guitar all day.  I actually had to work in my classes.”  If you’ve ever been to a college level aural skills/ ear training class you know how much work goes into getting through that material.

But the public perception is that musician’s don’t work.  They party hard, sleep late and play some music in between.  The public perception is that musicians lead a charmed life where the cash just rolls in for doing nothing.

Changing public perception and opinion…

As artists we need to stop blaming file sharing for all of our economic woes because people don’t care about how it affects artists.

We need to build brand loyalty (or in many of our cases BAND loyalty).  If consumers have no emotional connection to artists or services, they’re not going to pay for them.  Or they’re going to use services like Spotify and think that they’re supporting artists in some way even though the actual payments to artists are more symbolic than anything.

As artists, we’re going to have to start subversively educating the public about how much work goes into what we do.  The whole, “I work really hard to not make any money.” blanket statement hasn’t gotten us anywhere, so we need to change tactics and connect with people to garner support.

When the general public hears that musician’s can’t support themselves they say, “Awww….little Jimmy guitar is going to have to work for a living now.”

But many of those same people would also say, “Oh my son Jesse!  He went to school for anthropology.  $60,000 in debt and he can’t get a job.  It’s awful to spend so much money studying something and work so hard and not be able to support yourself doing it….”

While personal contact provides the deepest connection, it may make sense to work large and then small.

…one episode at a time

Perhaps what we need is something like a reality show.

That is, IF the show were a gritty reality show with creative involvement by working musicians that followed a struggling band (with likable and preferably good looking musicians) trying to make it, and showed how much work goes into gigging and how little it pays.  There have been several “get in the van” -style documentaries like this – but I think a weekly show (more intervention and less American Idle) could be the type of thing that could do it.

You think it’s a bad idea?  Sharon Osbourne was quietly managing dozens of bands before the Ozzy reality show.  Now she’s an actual celebrity and their children Jack and Kelly have also parlayed the jumpstart of public awareness of them into actual careers.  Reality shows give a temporary boost in public profile to individuals, but I think the format could be subverted that in a way that it showcased and act AND acted as a platform for larger issues.

In terms of demographics it should probably be a country band in a large city like New York or a big theatrical band like GWAR,  Watching people (an audience likes) sleep in vans and postering for shows all day to play a gig and make little or no money is a struggle that an audience could identify with.

I’m being a little glib about this – but the point is that as musicians we need to start a process of getting the public to identify with what we do and we need to do it it a subtle, if not entirely subversive, way.

Why do people buy girl scout cookies?

Because they like cookies.

But they also buy Girl Scout Cookies as opposed to any store bought cookies because they’re supporting the people behind the cookies.

It’s not just you

And to clarify, the problem of supporting yourself through your work isn’t just for indie artists.   Classical music can’t figure it out either.  Large symphonies can’t put on a show without massive corporate underwriting and they still need to charge $60-$120 per ticket.  Museums need funding and underwriting.  Clubs make their money on the two-drink minimum or the meals served.

Two types of musicians

There’s a huge generation gap in the music industry.  Older musicians are, by and large, horse and buggy users.  Wet eyed and maudlin about the good old days, they all own cars but can’t understand why no one wants to pay to ride on their buggy when it’s such a good buggy and people always used to want to ride it.

Many of the current crop of musicians are used to not making money.  They expect that they’re going to have to make money from other things.

The entrepreneurs on both sides of those fences work on things that make money.  They keep expenses down and watch money.  They diversify streams of revenue.  They don’t count on one thing and the successful ones work harder than most 9-5ers.

Again with the Kindle book Plug?

I’ve talked a lot about this in both of my Kindle books (An Indie Musician Wake Up Call and Selling It Versus Selling Out), but the issue is that, as musicians, we haven’t built brand loyalty.  And, economically we offer a silly product.

I’m not overly fond of the comparison between paying for coffee and paying for music (even though I’ve used it myself) but the difference between the two is telling.

When you buy a coffee you make a decision about the place selling the coffee.  If you like the coffee and you perceive it to be a good value, when you want a coffee you might be more inclined to go with the known quantity and buy one at the place you got it before (if it’s convenient for you to do so).

Musicians sell mp3 of their music but when you buy the mp3 you never have to buy that mp3 again.  It’s like a bottomless cup of coffee you can enjoy at home. Additionally, instead of people coming back to get coffee from us when they want one, musicians only get another sale if we offer a different coffee that apeals to someone.  People buy your cd and they’ll only buy another one from you when you have another one out.

Find the fan and turn (him or her) on

This is where fans come in.  Fans get things (mp3s, videos, etc) from wherever they can because they want them now, but they buy things from you, because they want to turn other people onto it.  For about 3 years, every time I’d find the Mimi cd (Mimi Goese solo record on Luaka Bop) in a record store (remember those?), I’d buy it and give it to a friend of mine.

Fans spread the word and even when they can get them for free, they’ll buy things from you because they feel connected to you.

So, as artists we have two choices

a.) we can find new ways to reach people, educate people to garner sympathy and support, build connections and develop a fan base to support what we do


b.) we can blame file sharing for why no one has any money and talk about how great it was back in the day.

We can either start defining the future or be defined by it.  Which do you want to do?

As always, thanks for reading!


ps – As I mentioned before, much of this is addressed (in much more depth) between my two Kindle books, (An Indie Musician Wake Up Call and Selling It Versus Selling Out).  If you don’t own a Kindle, the kindle app to read it on your phone, tablet or computer is free from Amazon.

And if you already have a copy of either book and could take a moment to write short review on Amazon, I’d be truly grateful.