Music News: Artists doing whatever it takes to sustain themselves as pandemic pressures grow


The Current Music News for July 8, 2020 (MPR Video)

The shock has faded, and the long, scary slog has set in. How can the music world sustain itself over the course of a pandemic that looks set to last well into next year? In the short term, some federal funding has come to the rescue.

The Small Business Administration has released a list of all the businesses that have borrowed money to protect their payrolls, and the list includes record labels like Sub Pop and Third Man, as well as some music venues and at least one vinyl pressing plant. Loans have also gone to groups that are big enough to basically be small, or not-so-small, businesses with all the crew members they employ. The Eagles, Pearl Jam, and Disturbed each borrowed over $350,000.

Then there are artists like the Bootstrap Boys, Whoa Dakota, and Paul Cherry: successful artists, but they don't have $350,000 payrolls, not even for themselves. Vice talked to artists who are heading back to their day jobs to pay the rent — even when that means potentially risky work in the service industry. Bootstrap Boys frontman Jake Stilson is working as a bartender at a brewery in Michigan, and he admits that he's scared about getting COVID-19. "You want to be able to chase your dreams instead of just serving beer when it's not safe. Is it worth my life to try to have a livelihood?"

Boyz II Men and Meghan Trainor aren't looking for bartending work yet, but with touring off the table, every artist is trying to find some way to make a buck. Rolling Stone rounds up some of the ways musicians are managing to make money. If you're an artist with a solid following, you can get a brand like MasterCard to sponsor your livestream; that's what Meghan Trainor did. You can go on a sponsored date for Bumble, like Common did with Tiffany Haddish...or you can do like Boyz II Men and write an ice cream jingle.

And, of course, you can promote your music on streaming services...but how much are you going to make for that? Tasmin Little, a popular classical violinist, just revealed that for the past six months, for her 3.5 million streams, she made a magificent $15.50. Music unions and advocacy groups are increasingly advocating for increased streaming payments, or at least a redistribution of the money that services do pay out.

Right now, if Jay and I each pay ten bucks a month for Spotify and I just stream my favorite album by some baby band once, then Jay listens to his favorite Bruce Springsteen album 30 times, Bruce Springsteen gets paid 30 times as much as my baby band. Shouldn't those artists get the same amount, since Jay and I paid the same amount? That kind of system could benefit some smaller artists.

On Bandcamp, the system works differently: you buy music, on a per-song or per-album basis. A lot of indie artists have found they can make much more money that way, and they've been encouraging their fans to support them on that platform. This week I had a chance to connect with Joe Holt, one of Bandcamp's co-founders and currently their director of engineering.

Jay Gabler: So even though music does stream on your service, you don't think of yourself as a streaming service.

Joe Holt: Yeah. I mean, streaming is a technical term, right, that's been kind of co-opted to mean subscription. What you're doing is you're renting music. When you pay ten dollars a month, you're paying a couple of cents to listen to this album today and another album tomorrow, and then those cents get bottled up and sent to not the person you listened to, but the byzantine set of agreements that the streaming services created with the rights holders. Maybe a little bit of that finally comes down to the artist. Just buy the music. If there's an artist you like, just go to their page and just buy their music, whether it's on Bandcamp or someplace else. Post-pandemic, you go to a show and they have a merch table...just buy it! Just give your money to the artist. It's as simple as that.

Despite the growth of Bandcamp and the large, recognizable artists who are on the site now...which I love. If you go, for example, to Sufjan Stevens's site on Bandcamp, the lyrics to all of his albums...I put them in myself! I asked the label if they wouldn't mind, and they said go for it. Being a huge Sufjan fan and knowing that there were a lot of bad versions of his lyrics out there, I was like, this is what I love. But yeah, it doesn't get old. Seeing a band able to do a little bit more because of their sales on Bandcamp, I just love it.

So you're on the engineering side of the business. What kind of challenges have you been facing on that side of the business, with the, I presume, rise in traffic?

Oh yeah. The first COVID fundraiser we did, on March 20 this year, we had about 15 times as much traffic to the site as a typical Friday. Previous to that, we'd seen like three or four times the traffic on our fundraisers. So we were engineered for that kind of level, but it was like all hands on deck. As soon as sales really started taking off on March 30, no matter what you were working on that day, you set it aside and you helped keep the site running. Fortunately the worst that people saw was just it being slow. We couldn't sell as much as people wanted to buy.

We'll leave you with our first look as Jennifer Hudson as the Queen of Soul in an upcoming biopic. Before Aretha Franklin's death, the legend herself picked Hudson to play her in a new movie called Respect, hitting theaters around New Year's.

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