This is the Dawning of the Age of Precarious

This article is a guest contribution from concert pianist and aspiring writer Jeremy Rosenstock

the future of music does it still pencil?

Weird Al Yankovic has navigated the choppy waters of the music industry well over his 30 years in the industry, but what about young aspiring musicians?

A couple weeks ago, pop mastermind and satirist “Weird” Al Yankovic released his first No. 1 album – a full 30 years into his career of parodying disposable pop artists. To provide perspective: When his first album came out, Michael Jackson had just blasted into the pop spectrum as a solo act, Devo was still critically maligned, and rap had not joined the pop spectrum.

Yet Weird Al miraculously survived the fall of the traditional record industry and successfully leveraged his brand and resources to win in the new digital music economy – sans label.

A triumph of the democratizing force of the Internet?


But of little consequence to the struggling unknowns.

The Negative Impact of Streaming Music on Artists

For all of the positive aspects of the new Internet-based recording industry, (i.e., the broadening of the musical long tail) the industry has suffered in the 2000s from lower overall sales revenue, partially a result of pop culture fragmenting into subcultures.

One challenge comes from the rise of music-streaming services that have brought music to even broader audiences while decreasing revenue, as the new wave of consumers have less inclination to actually buy the music.

This prompted former Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker frontman David Lowery to lament: “My Song Got Played on Pandora 1 Million Times and All I got Was $16.89, Less Than What I Make From a Single T-Shirt Sale!”  Despite the fact that Lowery’s song was played and exposed to a million new listeners, he still made less than the average minimum wage worker.

the future of music for artists

Musician David Lowery laments the fact his music can be played 1 million times on Pandora, yet not improve his personal bottom line

More importantly, while Lowery is a successful musician, thousands of other struggling artists on Pandora earn even less.

With the ability to hear music for free via YouTube or Spotify, the consumer has less inclination to purchase. While streaming services can offer an emerging artist exposure, the increased popularity is meaningless when it comes to actual income.

The Entire Recording Industry is Struggling

Not only have music-streaming services like Pandora and Spotify decreased profits for musicians, but the recording industry has suffered a sharp decline in profits as well over the last decade. According to the article “Music’s lost decade: Sales cut in half” by CNN journalist David Goldman, music sales dropped by more than half between 1999, when the industry was worth $14.6 billion, and 2009, when it was worth $6.3 billion.

It’s clear that changes in how people listen to music have outpaced the recording industry’s ability to change.

Crowdsourcing – The New Record Label

The tattered sidewalk guitar case stuffed with dollar bills has gotten a digital makeover. Today’s artists are financing entire albums through online crowdsourcing.

One artist who has proven particularly adept at this new form of self-marketing is Amanda Palmer, who raised nearly $1.2 million for an upcoming album. Through the crowd-funding website, Kickstarter, Palmer rewarded nearly 25,000 fans with gifts based on the amount of money donated.

Rewards ranged “from $1 to download the album to $10,000 for a private dinner” according to Ben Sisario of The NY Times. Palmer is among the growing group of artists whose projects have received $40 million during Kickstarter’s four-year history.”

Letting fans contribute to an album results in a sense of ownership in the artist’s success. These multiple donors form a network of social evangelists. The overwhelming success of the funding project was best explained by one Amanda Palmer fan: “somewhere out there, there was a fan community.” And this virtual “community” is the playground of digital natives.

find jobs in music

Revenue is Down but Operating Costs Aren’t

While the digital music age has enabled a much larger pool of musicians to share their work, musicians must still pay the same high costs for music engineering, marketing, and distribution to become successful. As pointed out by musicians and producers such as David Byrne (in How Music Works) and Steve Albini (in his classic essay “The Problem with Music”), it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to record an album, regardless of whether it is self-distributed or sold through a record label.

the future of music is mixed depending who you talk to

Legendary music producer Steve Albini believes now “The Problem With Music” has been solved by internet streaming

All told, more musicians may have an increased opportunity to be heard, but achieving financial freedom is still a relative rarity.

Music + Monetization = Hope

Fortunately, there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel.

According to Eric Pfanner of The NY Times, the music industry grew for the first time since 1999 by 0.3 percent. Though this increase seems small, it had decreased by 8% per year during the 2000s. Even more importantly, the number of subscribers to music streaming services grew by 44%, meaning that more people have been able to hear and fund bands.

Assuming the number of subscribers continues to increase, royalties could potentially become a legitimate source of income for more musicians than ever before – with lower royalties compensated by exponentially larger audiences, thanks to the Internet of things.

While profits from streaming could never equal those from touring and album sales, they could help to rebuild the recording industry into a modestly profitable shadow of its former self. Even though the trends suggested by Pfanner’s article illustrate only one year of change, they show one of the most significant shifts in the recording industry over the past several years.

The music industry at first may have underestimated the impact of the Internet and is still rebounding from failure to adapt more rapidly.  This new path is, however, untraveled, and the entertainment industry has still not fully harnessed the power of the Internet for content monetization.

It must ultimately adapt in order to create new paths for musicians to flourish. Developing new distribution and monetization models that not only accept, buy fully exploit the Internet, has the power to bring more emerging artists to broader, global audiences, which is a win-win for all.

So what does this mean for an aspiring young musician like me? There is platinum out there on Side B, but it seems we are still in production.

jeremy rosenstock headshotJeremy Rosenstock is an aspiring writer and concert pianist whose writing has previously appeared in the San Francisco Classical Voice. A senior at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, Rosenstock won the Classical Masters and Marin Music Teachers’ Association awards in 2013 and has attended highly selective piano programs at Interlochen and Tanglewood.



  1. Nice article – the “industry” is comprised of so many (competing) players that it can’t merely evolve in lockstep like more traditional industries (think about how cars and electronics compete). On the one hand, it has gotten truly commoditized and to a large extent been made free. But, since it is still art, there will still be differences in quality that will naturally allow the next generation of stars to emerge and flourish, while also expanding the “middle-class” of professional musicians. But with so many competing, it stands to reason that the evolution will occur one artist/band, and project at a time. Courageous people willing to try, despite the risk of failure are what the “industry” needs the most. Most of the years sales were in decline were hard years economically which is going to depress sales, people and artists alike – and makes them more averse to risk and spend less on superfluous things they get abundantly for free. I mean, talking about the internet and its effects is great, and valid, and I’m glad you did – but just thought more factors could be thrown in for consideration and/or optimism. 🙂