Picture this. The year is 2065. The label sends out an artist to collect music from the songwriter. "I only have a verse and a chorus right now. I'll get you the rest of the song next week I promise." The artist reports back to the label with what she's got. She will do anything the label asks because she wants to get signed. The label has lots of artists running around collecting songs. They don't know it, but they are enabling the collapse of music in its natural form, all for the selfish label vision of having money and power. They promote streaming music like Spotify because they're in business with the labels, but the artists don't reap the benefits. They are robbing themselves. They join the masses in devaluing art and artists for a piece of a pie they will never taste. Some of the artists get signed, some don't. The ones who get signed become a slave to the labels, working overtime, getting no sleep and meeting deadlines all in exchange for streams, views and follows. The ones who don't get signed go on playing the game, chasing the jobs, and having a low quality life. The artists who get signed think they have more freedom to make decisions, but they're more of a puppet than ever. In the end, the signed artists get tossed aside once they are no longer needed. They dedicated their life to the labels because they believed they were part of something, but they were just being used as a stepping stone for bigger financial opportunities. The music industry is worse off because of them, the labels stay in business, and the artists have nothing.
Back to 2023. I just skipped the gym, sat down and opened up my computer. Usually if I skip the gym because of inspiration, it's because of a song. Today I feel inspired in a different kind of way. I want to share my thoughts I have about careers, creativity, social media and the business. Maybe my friends will read this. Maybe strangers will read this. I am hoping for both, but also for the young creatives looking to tackle the business with nothing but a million views on their back.
Right now I am severely unemployed, meaning that not only am I unemployed with any job, but it's January and that is the slowest month for freelance musicians and vocalists. I should be looking for jobs but instead I am writing this blog. Hey, what can I say? I'm a CREATIVE. It's in my blood. Job searching is incredibly exhausting and boring and disappointing. Boy did I think e-mailing music supervisors was bad! I am finally reading Amy Poehler's book Yes, Please! I came across a chapter called "Treat Your Career Like a Bad Boyfriend." She starts talking about the business and creativity vs. career. She says creativity is what drives you. It is your passion. It is "that joy that comes when you do something you love." Career is "something that fools you into thinking that you are in control" when you're not. In music business terms, once you blow up and become rich and famous, there's a price you pay that usually sucks the fun out of what you once had a passion for. I've watched enough documentaries and read enough books to know that it's the corporate guys that have the last say in every song you write, every track you pick, every photo you take, etc. The least creative people are telling the most creative people how to do creative things. There's no rules in art. Make what you want. Do it because you love it. Because it heals you. Because it brings you joy. But do it our way.
People used to ask me if I never got "famous" would I still do music. I never did music for the fame. I've been writing and performing for almost 10 years now and I don't see 6 figures in my bank account and my face on a billboard. It was never really about the fame (as appetizing as playing at MSG to thousands of people singing along to your songs sounds). When I was much younger I think that was my goal, because the answer to the question seemed like a no brainer. "Hell no! I'm gonna make it." I was so green and uninformed. I did not know who I was as an artist. I was listening to people telling me to show my bra, wear short shorts and sing about sex shit. I did not know who I was as a singer. I thought singing meant belting the highest notes, and belting even when belting was unnecessary and belting to impress a crowd because I think they like belting. I did not know who I was as a songwriter, because I wasn't really one. I dabbled here and there since I was a kid, pulling a Bernie Taupin because I couldn't play an instrument. I didn't start writing songs until the guy who told me to show my bra told me I needed to re-record my mixtape a third time, because the engineer who "went to a very prestigious engineering school in Manhattan" discovered something new. Oh the perks of being so naive. I disowned that motherfucker so fast, cried that I wasted two years of my life, and started writing music like a madwoman. The songs flowed out of me like hot cakes (I knew I was going to be a songwriter, but I didn't know how to spark it). I was so young and impressionable, but I was so far from the bra showing, cheek glowing artist that they wanted me to be. I was too young to know who I was, and I think most artists are that way.
Where I am now, I feel I have really grown up and into the kind of artist, singer and songwriter I am. I've also read enough books on the industry to know that to get to that point of headlining MSG you have to give up EVERYTHING. Family, relationships, rights, ownership, who you are. You have to be a blank slate that they paint for you. I could never allow that. No self respecting artist could.
***Just a quick note, I have a theory that industry people pray on the young artists (specifically women) because they are so inexperienced. They don't know who they are and they don't have anything to say because they haven't even really lived! Women think turning 30 is a death sentence because the industry says it is. The industry says it is because as you get older you get wiser, and you stop tolerating their shit. They don't want to deal with that because then they can't take advantage of you and steal your rights and your money. Anyways!
The big to-do right now is to get millions of views on Instagram reels or Tik Tok. This somehow validates that you are super talented and creative, and births extremely entitled people with no work ethic. If you are reading this and you are one of these people, don't take this personally. First of all, turning on your phone to sing for 20 seconds and posting it doesn't mean you have work ethic. I don't care what your bank accounts say, or what your manager says. I know people who go on hundreds of auditions a year for maybe 5 callbacks and one booking. I know people who carried a 30 pound piano down 3 flights of stairs, across 2 avenues to play for 30 minutes to an empty room, killing the performance and pissing off the bar owners because they didn't make any money off of me (that was me). I know people who spend hours on a drawing that people just walk past. I know people who play 5 hour gigs by themselves in extreme heat, the guitar strings like sharp knives slicing into their fingers (also me). Shit, I know people who spend hours planting flowers and landscaping, only for some mangey teenagers to walk all over it. Social media's "big-break" attraction has every single creative feeling like they need to post twice a day, 100 times a week to stay relevant and "grow their followers," even if they have nothing "relevant" to post (and this translates into a productive day). It's all about getting likes and followers. Numbers don't mean shit however, social media says they do, and so these 20-second Tik Tokers are getting record deals, acting deals, free stuff and paid-to-post opportunities. They are quitting their jobs, moving into nice apartments, and following their new dreams of becoming a famous singer. I said not to take it personally because it's not your fault. This is what the industry has become. I am just worried that in a few years there will be a lot of mental and emotional challenges facing you and your peers.
Like most lottery winners, when you receive a large sum of money or fame without having earned it, you don't understand or value it. People who win the lotto usually go broke, get robbed, or even worse, murdered. They didn't earn the money so they flaunt it with bigger houses, fancy cars, showy jewelry, lavish parties. They bring attention to themselves, good and bad. I am not saying these Tik Tok stars are gonna get murdered, but they won't understand the value of their craft or working to earn their position because they didn't have to. Fame and fortune was brought to them. Hard work doesn't always pay off in this industry yes, but I don't understand why the media hates "earners." There is nothing wrong with earning things in life. In fact, it creates some of the nicest, most humble people who get to pass it on to the next generation.
I mentioned earlier that numbers don't mean shit. Justin Timberlake has over 50 million followers on instagram, but he has only sold 32 million records over the course of 5 albums. 50 million people are not buying his music. Numbers don't mean shit. Ok let me make this easier. At the end of the year we see artists posting about their Spotify wrapped. Basically, LOOK HOW POPULAR I AM! Artists graciously thank their fans for the hundreds of thousands or millions of streams they got, which makes me shake my head in disbelief. Streams does not equal money, it equals popularity. My high school English teacher once said popularity doesn't mean shit in the long run. But I digress. Say you got 10 million streams on one song. Let's say realistically it was 500,000 people who streamed your song 20 times. Now imagine if they bought your song for $.99 cents on iTunes. If the artist gets $.90 cents, that's $450,000. According to my Spotify streams calculator, 10 million streams puts you at $23,400 if you own 100% of the Master and 100% of the Publishing. Ok more realistic? Let's say your song streamed 20,000 times by 2,000 people who listened 10 times each. If they bought your song that's $1,800. For me, that's a profit of $300 from what I paid just to record the song. In streams, you make $47.60. I think that's how much a hamburger costs now. The point I am making here is that this whole "the future of music is streaming" talk just means less money for artists and songwriters, and more money for labels. And yet we continue to promote our music on Spotify instead of encouraging our fans to buy our song for a measly $.99 cents. We are doing it to ourselves.
Here is the counter argument to that last statement. A lot of people will tell me if you're not on Spotify you're missing out on opportunities to reach more people and be heard. Okay so you got a fan in South Africa who would have never heard your music if it wasn't for Spotify. So did they buy your song? Did they buy your merch? Did they pay to see you perform? If the answer is no no no, then you fell right into Spotify's exposure lap. So many people in the music industry love to try to put a price on exposure. Exposure is bullshit. Exposure means "I don't value you as an artist at all and I don't value your time or services." You got exposed to someone in South Africa, and they listened to your song and went on about their day. You did not impact them. You were just heard. But that's super cool right?
As an artist today, it is a million times harder to make a buck, and they're not just making music anymore. They're making a brand to sell. People have told me that industry reps have said it's not even about the music anymore, just the brand. How stupid. But I guess it's hard to care when you are getting millions of streams and views, opportunities and contracts. We've all read about how likes, follows and views gives you endorphins, so of course we are high on 10 million streams. Our generation has become so incredibly foolish. By the way, you know what the CEO of Spotify Daniel Ek once said in response to musicians saying they don't earn enough on Spotify? (Please see my screenshot photo below and then refer to the pathetic stream to dollar conversion and then decide if Spotify is in the best interest of the artist & songwriter).
A brand is "the emotion that is left behind after the product is gone." My first thought is the song itself. How did it make the listener feel? That was good enough when people were buying music. Now that the industry lost control and everything is free, the artist becomes the brand, because the record company can't sustain itself on music alone. They need to explore more avenues which means their artist needs to be more valuable. The music business was always a business, but it was a second course of business. Now it's the main course with a side of music.
The labels still hold a lot of power, but the labels don't exist without the artist. The artist doesn't exist without the song, and the song doesn't exist without the songwriter. I think we should all stop writing songs and show the business who's the real boss! Who's with me?! I'm less powerful than I think I am. There is always someone out there who will do it for less money, especially for an opportunity. I left a wedding band that wildly treated its vocalists (mainly female) like shit, paid them pennies, and lied about everything. I got a little "raise" but it was so pathetic. At my last gig I performed my ass off. I gave 200% at that wedding. I walked away with one finger in the air, letting them know that they fucked up and that they just lost another one of their best female vocalists (cue epic explosion behind me).
Hollywood effects aside, the fact is they probably got another female vocalist to sing for way less money than I was making, which put their profits back up to 70% or more. It didn't matter how professional or talented I was. I won, but they won too. I once played a 3 hour gig at a local restaurant for $50 total, because musicians before me offered to play for free. They showed that restaurant owner that music is not a service you should have to pay for. That it's not valuable to their business. Right now, social media is teaching young artists that they don't need to strive to be the best they can be because they just need to post constantly and they will be the best. They're also teaching young kids that you don't need to go to work to make money, just become an influencer (but that's a more scary topic for another time).
I hope I'm not coming off as negative or bitter. I am just sharing some real insight with you to give you a better understanding of what's happening in the music world. It's happening with actors, artists and dancers too but I am a musician so I am trying to be most specific to that. Making it in music was more likely to happen up until the early 2000's when the industry started relying on TV competition winners, YouTube stars and now Tik Tok for talent. If you were the first to use the platform, you succeeded greatly (Kelly Clarkson, Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendez, GAYLE). Everyone else is just a sheep hoping for a piece of the pie. There are a lot of musicians and artists who are angry, and it's okay to be, because their hard work and years of dedication, touring, writing, working 7 jobs immediately becomes invalidated. Tik Tok shows kids that you don't need to carry a 30 pound piano across two avenues to get famous. And now that there's autotune you don't even need sing on key!
So what the hell is the point you are trying to make Cristina?! Are we supposed to lower our standards? Write shitty songs and throw concerts from our couch? No. Trying to break into the industry at this point in time with everything going on feels more like a need to be popular and wanted more than a need to share our stories and have our voices be heard. It feels like a home cooked meal is less appealing than frozen dinners.
A home cooked meal is a process and an experience. It involves everyone in some way. Maybe you and your spouse cook together to bond. Maybe your family is going to sit at the table and eat dinner, sharing what you did in school, at work, or something fun and exciting that happened. Then maybe you clean up together, each person with a task. You're working together and being together. It creates a beautiful moment. It excites your senses. The smell, the sight, the taste. You are creating things.
Frozen dinners are fast and distant. Throw it in the microwave and walk away until it's done. Save a plate and eat in the container it came in. Toss it in the trash when you're done and move on. You didn't create an experience. You didn't put time and effort into this meal. You didn't value creating something fun or healthy or tasty.
There's no value in music anymore. It's literally free. It's trendy. Anyone can be a singer or a musician. Autotune, apps that make songs for you. Not anyone can become a teacher or a lawyer, just a musician or filmmaker, actor or graphic artist. Technology has absolutely destroyed the value of art, and even worse, the value of an artist. And what for? A few million streams and a short moment of fame. Artists have helped destroy this business, running on ignorance and a desperate need to be famous. But I watch movies that show the downside of fame. The new Elvis movie. The documentary on Britney Spears. And I hear over and over again that money cannot buy you happiness, and how some of the richest people in the world are the most miserable. So why does this keep happening?
I love music. It has gotten me through break-ups, death, unemployment, but it has also made happy times happier, exciting moments more exciting, and long drives tolerable. I am so very protective of the craft of writing, singing and performing because I grew up watching talented people who valued their craft. I grew up watching *NSYNC dance their fucking ASSES OFF for 2 hours, flips spins sprints and jumps, while singing in tune with incredible breath support. They valued their work. I watched Whitney Houston sing from her heart, never over singing anything, smiling and moving an entire audience because she loved to sing. She valued her craft. Even Billy Joel's shittiest song was better than half the songs you hear today. He valued his work. This world is destroying the creation of art and as creators, we should be standing taller and growing tougher. We can't allow this to continue to happen, and knowledge is power. We as creators have a responsibility to educate ourselves. I hope that if you are reading this, it will spark your curiosity to do your own research and spread awareness and start a conversation.
I am a creator and I always will be. Being creative is a blessing and a curse. The curse makes it hard for me to have a full time job because if inspiration strikes at 8am but I have to leave for work, I will spiral. If I am too busy or tired to sing or play for even one song I become so stressed out I start to become negative at work. It has happened to me many times. I become extremely overwhelmed and awful to be around. It sucks the most because I have to work to make money and eat and pay bills. Luckily I found a way to work flexible jobs which gives me time for creative freedom while making good money (at least before COVID). The blessing is because I get to make something special and personal, real and natural. I am blessed because I have a talent that I can use to provide services and make a living (weddings, cover gigs, music classes, sync licensing).
I never really kept a journal (until recently). My songs are my entries. I write because it makes me happy and heals me. Sometimes I record the songs and share them with you, and if you enjoy it, that makes me happy. I also love singing and performing. Whether it's at a child's birthday party or someone's wedding day, it brings me joy to bring someone else joy. When I sing a song that people react to, even though I didn't write it, that makes me emotional. Art is a beautiful thing. Business and money really taint creativity. Don't get me wrong, I want to make money on my craft. Don't we all? We need money to survive! But creation in its most natural form is the most valuable thing anyone can have. If you want my opinion, this direction is short term. I don't think the industry can run successfully at the rate they are going for much longer. They have already stripped the artist of all their rights, stuck their hands in every money making aspect the artist is involved in, all while running them into the ground. At this point an artist might as well be an empty shell. If the business doesn't die, then the artist certainly is going to. Something has to give, and I hope it's the creaky floor the industry is standing on.
I'm not an expert. I don't have a PhD. I'm just a singer/songwriter who saw the language change from "how to write a song" to "how to write a hit song." I have seen how the quality of music has changed. The music industry is missing its heart. No one goes into business to lose money, but you don't have a business without money either. Instead of creating new opportunities of wealth (like bringing back BUYING MUSIC), they are creating opportunities to take from artists, cut budgets, and so on. There is no heartbeat, and that's what music is all about. After all, most songwriters write from the heart, not the wallet.