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Why It’s Harder to Be a Successful Musician Than Ever Before

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Those who read this site regularly know that I’m no industry naysayer. I believe that technology helps music for the better, have supported streaming services from day 1 (literally), think the Internet has done wonders for creativity and music consumption, and think the state of the music industry (and metal industry) in general — from an artistic perspective — is the best it’s ever been in the history of recorded music.

But none of that changes the fact that, in spite of — or maybe because of — those advances, making music for a living is harder than it’s ever been. I’m not pining for the days of yore when rockstars could be rich, or saying kids these days are doing it all wrong, or that art suffers when there’s no investment in it — I’m just stating a fact.

Here’s why:

1. It’s cheaper and easier to record.

Anyone with a computer and a minimal amount of additional gear can record a pro-sounding album in their bedroom. Mastering those tools is, of course, a different story, but the past ten years have proven that plenty are willing to put in the time and effort to do so. Access to creating a high quality album is no longer locked behind expensive recording studio doors, meaning more people are easily able to get their work out into the world, which means…

2. There is more competition.

The market is flooded. How do you get noticed by the powers that be — or gain the critical mass of fans necessary to make the powers that be take notice — when there are so many equally deserving acts just as good as you are doing a very similar thing?

3. There is less revenue from music sales.

With people buying less music, there is simply less money for bands to make. Streaming services and other ancillary streams of revenue have yet to fill that void, which means that being a musician isn’t as lucrative as it used to be. This, in turn, means that more musicians need to hold day jobs to keep their lives together which translates to less time available to work on what matters most, the music. The product suffers.

4. The talent pool is drying up.

Less money to be made means that fewer individuals will feel that being a musician is a viable career choice or, at the very least, those who choose to pursue it anyway (it’s a driving force, after all) will be forced to hang it up earlier when life pressures mount. Notice how many metal bands shift through members these days like a baby goes through diapers? There’s a reason for that: fewer and fewer people are willing to sacrifice their entire lives for their art if there’s not some other reward besides doing what you love (i.e. money, fame, sex).

5. Less money is being invested in bands.

Less money to be made means there’s less of it available on the business side to invest in new talent, plain and simple. Sure, there are always going to be success stories of artists that rose to fame based on their own merits, but for most bands a little push is needed to reach the level of success where financial stability is possible.

6. Bands need to tour more often to make a living.

For those who choose the musician path in spite of the overwhelming odds against them, touring — and doing so as much as possible — is the name of the game. It’s the only way for all but the biggest artists in the world to earn any kind of significant income. Unfortunately, touring is difficult, and the lifestyle of being away from one’s home, friends and family for nine months out of the year can wear down even the most hardened road warrior. This is especially true when not much money is coming in, which is the case for most bands, even the ones we think of as popular (as we recently learned with Thy Art is Murder).

7. Too much touring leads to fan (and artist) burnout.

It’s the law of diminishing returns: if a band keeps playing the same cities time and time again, eventually people will have had their fill. There’s only so many shows you can play in a given city in a certain period of time and still expect fans to come out, and often those numbers don’t match up well with the income musicians need to cover life expenses.

8. Music has become a background activity.

If you’re reading this article, you probably don’t fall into the “music as a background activity” category, at least not exclusively: you spend money on your favorite bands (be it on albums, merch or shows), you actively seek out new music, your close friends share in that passion… music is your life, or at the very least a big part of it. But for most people, that simply isn’t the case anymore. Too many other options for entertainment exist — hundreds of channels of cable TV, DVDs, IMAX movies, video games, porn, the entire fucking Internet — and gone are the days when music could be the sole activity of a hang. Even if you try putting on a record you’re excited about when friends are over, watch as people whip out their phones and side conversations proliferate. The days of just listening — and passing a joint silently, maybe staring at the album cover — are gone. With fewer people citing music as a PASSION, less money is spent on it.

9. It’s all about the songs, even more than ever before.

So you’ve got access to good/cheap recording gear, you tour, you do OK for yourself — now what? In the end it still always comes back to writing great songs, and that’s even more difficult now because of the stiff competition and all the other factors mentioned above. We’re not just talking great riffs, good solos, a catchy breakdown or even a solid hook — everything, all together. Good luck with that!

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