Used to be bands came first.
Now they come last, if they come at all.
Used to be you had to learn how to play an instrument. Even punks had to know the chords.
Now you can buy the beats online.
Used to be you had to form a band to hear what your song sounded like, now you can pull up sounds from computer software or your electronic keyboard.
And one thing is for sure, it’s harder than ever to make money making music.
So the internet killed bands. Along with the economy. The dream of yore is passé. We’ve still got stars, but they’re rarely bands. And unless you’re a star, you’re struggling as a band. Better to do it yourself.
That’s what the internet has provided, you can do it all by yourself.
Used to be you had to be a wizard, a true star, to do it yourself. You had to know how to engineer, never mind getting your hands on the recording equipment, the multitrack tape machine and the board. People forget that the portastudio was such a breakthrough when it appeared, long after the Beatles had come and gone. You could record four different tracks! On a cassette. Despite “Nebraska” being recorded this way, in truth cassettes were a substandard medium, home demos were not of releasable quality. But now with GarageBand, which comes free with every Mac, you can record in .wav, and for just a few bucks you can get your production on all the streaming services. Play live? That’s for suckers, it’s far too slow. Ever since “Fireflies” that has been the goal. Make it in your bedroom, put it up online and hope to get lucky. And if you’re not, if your track doesn’t connect, you just go back to the drawing board and do it all over again. And in the hip-hop world it’s even easier, you can just rap atop the above-referenced purchased beats.
Used to be you formed a band. Which required you to find the players. And then figure out who was good, who was reliable and who was committed. Also, you needed transportation. So, if someone had a station wagon or a van, they’d be in the band, even if their playing was not up to snuff.
And then you needed to find a place to play. Which was always for free at the beginning, assuming you could even find that. Maybe you entered a battle of the bands. Maybe you set up in a park. Maybe you played at a school. You had to play a bunch of free shows before you’d generated enough fans to get a paying gig. At a bar, where deejays and records were anathema, at bar mitzvah parties and weddings.
You were on a slow train to nowhere. But if you hung in there, started writing original material, then you might be able to get a label interested. But it probably behooved you to move to Los Angeles to gain notice. Because otherwise there were too many weak links in the chain, you could be pretty good but no one would know.
And you continued to go through band members. If someone quit or was fired they oftentimes took their fans with them. So your career took a step back. And indie was death. At least prior to the nineties boom. If you weren’t on a major label you weren’t just second tier, you weren’t even in the game.
And if you got a label deal, sure you’d get an advance, and they’d deliver publicity and hopefully some radio play, but there was no guarantee you’d connect, most acts did not, and then you found yourself back home broke and disillusioned, and second chances were few and far between.
But at least you could survive on what you were making, while you were struggling. A dollar went much further than it does today. Today you can’t go on the road because you can’t afford it, the gasoline and the hotels.
And let’s say you do make it. That’s when the shenanigans truly begin.
You find out all those limo rides and meals were paid for by you, not the label. And when you split the royalties four or five ways, there really isn’t that much. And you learn about publishing, and how those who wrote the songs are in a different economic bracket. This alone tends to break up bands.
But if you can do it all by yourself…
Bands used to be gangs, them against the world. Which was not interconnected. Actually, the bands connected the country. Went from town to town with their fans following, they were the link. Today you’ve got that link right in the palm of your hand, with your smartphone. You don’t need to go to the gig to connect. As far as going to get a date? It’s possible, but you’re better off using Tinder, or some other dating site.
And if your band made it… Sometimes the perks alone were worth it, even if you didn’t make any real money. All that travel. But today people fly hours just to see a sporting event, travel is no longer exotic. As for all the sexual shenanigans, forget HIV, there’s the smartphone camera. And the mores have changed. Going on the road and raping and pillaging is a badge of dishonor today. So you’re left in your vehicle with the rest of your mates, holding your own.
But if you do it alone…
Hell, you can have no label and make a living on streaming payments. You’ll need an attractive song and a fan base, but it’s totally doable. Those who complain about streaming payments either don’t make palatable music, or have no fans, having not paid their dues, or are signed to a label, which takes the lion’s share of the money, if not all of it, at least until you recoup, which you probably won’t.
But if you do it alone, how big can you be?
Well, you can get lucky, like Lil Nas X ,and hit the jackpot, but odds are extremely low. But Lil Nas X did it alone. TikTok broke him, and then he was all over the web. A band? Who needs a band?
So if you own your own work, put your music up on streaming sites yourself, you might make a good living, considering the barrier to entry is so low. I hear from people making 25-60k all the time. But you don’t know who they are. And the last thing they do is complain, they’re too busy satiating the fans they do have, working hard to maintain a job in the music business.
It’s damn hard. And do you really want to rely on somebody else?
Anybody who’s been part of the label system will tell you about its vagaries. They love you but don’t hear a single. Your advocate loses his job. The label just needs something to hit, not necessarily your track.
And what is a hit?
Hit records are getting shorter. Maybe you only need twenty or thirty seconds to make a record. Maybe less, the length of a TikTok clip.
But this is not music you say, this is not the way it used to be. And that’s absolutely correct. We no longer live in a controlled market where radio is king. Even true hit records can take over a year to break.
So I ask you, where does a band fit in this equation?
Not to mention that bands are relics of rock and roll. Pop was never based on the band. And neither was hip-hop. Of course there are exceptions, but they are de minimis.
As for the rock bands, the Active Rock and jam ones that do exist, they have their sights set low. They’re playing to a cabal. It’s almost as if there’s an iron curtain between Active Rock and the rest of the world. Active Rock doesn’t count on streaming, and its fans oftentimes listen to nothing else, and non-fans don’t listen at all.
But you can make a living.
Just like in the jam band world. There’s an ecosystem, and you can do quite well, but you’ll never be a superstar. Dave Matthews broke through in the old game, with video and radio play. Phish never broke through at all. But they make enough money to live well. But they’re not rock stars by the old definition, driving Lamborghinis, flying to the Riviera on a whim. And chances are you have to play to eat and live. Stay home and there’s no mailbox money. You’re a working musician, and just like in Active Rock, most people have never heard your name and never will.
And even if a band breaks through, what do you do about endorsements and brand extensions? Usually companies want a face. Is that the lead singer? So who gets all the money? Usually not the players. Just like the players were squeezed out of that publishing money, even though they contributed to the creation of the songs. Talk about dissension.
The biggest bands in the world have broken up over money. And control. Do you really want to put your fate in the hands of others?
Turns out most people today do not. They can hire a band to go on the road if they have a hit, and be their boss and keep most of the dough. Why would you want to share decision-making power?
So the internet and the economy killed bands. And they’re not coming back because of the economics. And one thing is for sure, no one, certainly not the U.S. government, is gonna give bands subsidies. And too many professionals don’t want to be involved with bands, they’re too hard to wrangle.
You don’t need a band to be a member of a club. That’s readily available online.
You don’t need a band to flesh out your tunes, you can do that yourself.
And you can promote and market yourself FOR FREE online! This is what separates the winners from the losers. Unless you’re willing to work 24/7 on your career, you won’t have one. Social media participation is now part of the job. And it was bad enough when certain players wouldn’t go to the radio station, but who needs freeloaders who just play their instrument and do nothing else?