For Musicians, Some Things Change, Some Don’t

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

A musician performing at a street fair in New York. Photo courtesy of Ed Yourdon.

Berklee College of Music’s Career Development Center recently compiled a study of music industry salaries. Over the phone from the college’s office in Boston, Massachusetts, the career center’s Director, Peter Spellman, says he wanted to show the realities of working musicians and music industry professionals – “behind the promises and propaganda.”

Income would seem to be a touchy subject for the quickly-changing music industry, though Spellman says he’s had very few negative reactions so far. “It’s pretty accurate. We were very careful. We spent a lot of time talking to a lot of people.”

Spellman mentions an A&R rep who said salaries in his field generally start at “$85,000 plus.” He’s also had some music journalists point out that it’s hard to make a full year’s salary working freelance. “The music journalist occupation isn’t what it used to be,” he says. [Editor’s note: Ouch.]

But largely, Spellman says, what the study shows is how varied the music industry is. Before he joined Berklee 18 years ago, he says he learned that fact firsthand as an independent musician, putting on various hats like manager, booking agent, and label director.

“People tend to think about music from where it’s sold – off the stage or out of a store, or on iTunes – but once you start thinking about where music is used, it opens up so many more possibilities for career opportunities.” Spellman says that while the study looks at jobs and salaries, he realizes that most people in the music industry don’t have jobs and salaries. “They have gigs and fees,” he says.

But with any survey over an industry, especially one with continued shrinking returns, there’s inevitably a wistful look back at the way things were.

“The recording part of the industry has probably gone through the largest transformation as any segment of the business,” Spellman says, but also mentions the adaptations other sectors – like publishing, live music, and musical products – have been making. “The changes kill some jobs but create new ones.”

Spellman says that people with label jobs have found work with other digital companies and the million dollar studio has been replaced with the desktop studio. “It’s enabled my niece to whip up dance tracks in her bedroom using Garageband. That’s democratizing music-making. There’s a good side to that; there’s a bad side to that.”

The new generation of “digital natives,” Spellman says, have so many opportunities to leverage technology and become entrepreneurs. They’ve learned how to build micro-businesses and become brands, such as the many bedroom-run indie labels that have sprung up in recent years. “They aren’t handcuffed to the legacies of the ‘old model’,” he says.

Spellman also points out that the industry is still in a transformation period. “It’s like between radio stations – lots of static and low visibility – the dust hasn’t settled, especially in the music rights area,” he says. “Once we figure that out, I think there’s going to be an upswing in the whole business.”

No matter what changes occur in the music industry, Spellman says a lot of the skills will remain the same. Basic things like communication skills and punctuality and a positive attitude haven’t changed, and writing good songs and delivering strong performances are still a musician’s most important skills.

“How you get the word out – the dependence on record labels – has changed a lot,” says Spellman. He says more artists have to be independent today, and now their teams include new roles like a search engine optimization specialist, a social networking person, and someone who understands micro-sponsorships. “The way the content is distributed has changed,” says Spellman, not so much the medium.

“It helps us to remember that no matter how much technology changes. The song makes the industry go round, the performing of the song in a live setting is the most ancient and still most highly regarded experience a human can have with music. That is a wonderful affirmation of a golden thread that runs through the industry no matter what changes.”

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