Some Thoughts on Digital Music Distribution

Note: I have a feeling I’ve written this blog post before, but fuck it: I’m not doing anything else.

Digital distribution of music has pretty much destroyed the value of music as music – much as it has the value of facts, opinions and stories. In world where mass reproduction is an effortless button click away, the value of any given artifact that can be reproduced in that way falls to zero.

Just for those of you sitting at the back, that’s just basic economics. A physical recording (CD, vinyl, cassette etc) has intrinsic cost – and therefore value – bound up with its production. To make one requires raw, physical materials, plus the time, tooling and machinery necessary to make multiple copies. Then, once it has been produced it has to be stored and distributed, then held as inventory and finally sold for you to put in your glove box and forget about.

And every one of those stages incurs costs which you – the record buyer – have to pay for.

By contrast (and just to tediously labour the point) once you’ve digitised the same song/album, you can literally make unlimited copies at effectively zero cost and distribute them around the world at light speed more or less cost-free. You want a copy of my album? Well ask me nicely and I can email you the tracks for nothing. (Of course, I’d rather you buy them, but that’s not the point here!)

Of course the music industry was not at all keen on this new techno-economic situation for obvious reasons and fought a long war against it, stretching from “home taping is killing music” to The Great Siege of Napster, to their eventual capitulation to first iTunes etc, and ultimately to Spotify, Apple Music and so on; where even the “99p per download” model seems quaintly expensive and backwards.

In short, the effective price of all the world’s recorded popular music can be as little as a tenner a month on Spotify, which broken down by the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of available songs places the value of a stream at effectively zero.

This is reflected, of course, in the piddling amounts the musician can now expect from their recordings. Were you to be kind enough to listen to one of my tracks on Spotify, my “royalties” would be measured in the fractions of a pence. Buy a song from iTunes or Google Play, and I received maybe 40p.

So, technology has freed up my ability to reach a global audience, but at the same time that technology also reduces the value of the product to effectively zero.

Now – I’m not complaining by any means. Making music is a personal endeavour for me. I’m 42, fat, bald and from Yorkshire. I have no illusions that – even if my music was fashionable, super-original and well-recorded – anyone would be clamouring to plaster my mug on their front covers. So, frankly, the fact that anyone has ever listened to any of my music comes as a pleasant surprise.

Anyway, I’d just like to put this into the context of what it takes to make even an amateur self-produced and recorded, album such as this: my previous album with my then band Superset: Space and Town People (2008. I think?) Listen to the whole thing and I’ll see you in 43 minutes.

I hope you enjoyed it!

Anyway, to record this involved a lot of stuff – and I just thought it would be interesting to try to put a figure on the enterprise.

  • Gear: guitar amp, acoustic guitar, 2 electric guitars, bass, bass pre-amp, bass speaker cabinet, drum kit, percussion etc. Estimated: £6000
  • Recording gear: microphones, leads, baffles, recording/mixing desk, software: Estimated: £2500
  • Time: the big one. Every song needed to be written (tune, lyrics) and then arranged (guitar parts, bass parts, drum patterns) and then rehearsed (multiple live efforts to get everything right) then performed (done live as the basis of the recordings) then overdubbed with additional keyboards, guitar parts, vocals etc. And then mixing, production, mastering etc etc. Difficult to put even a vague estimate on this, but it’s at least a couple of hundred hours – and even at minimum wage (£7.50 per hour) for 4 people that comes out at… £6000!

So even if this is a bit finger-in-the-air and some of the assumptions are askew (we didn’t just buy our instruments to record with, but were also gigging etc) it shows that even this basic album, recorded on our own dime you could fairly value at £15,000. And this is recorded literally in bedrooms, without studio costs, engineers, professional producers, and people to remove the blue Smarties to pay.

Side note: if you’re cynical about the music industry or have ever cried “why does a CD cost £15?!” remember that figure and imagine what it must cost to, say, make even a fairly straightforward record like an Oasis album with proper recording, studio facilities etc. And then, you’ve got to add on the costs of artwork, distribution etc.

So, having spent our £15,000 we promptly waved goodbye to it. We sold a couple of dozen CDs… had a few downloads off iTunes… and a few hundred plays from Spotify over the course of around 4 years. Bearing in mind that I was at that time paying (I think) £35 a year just to keep the songs on digital distribution then probably the actual money we made on the recordings was somewhere short of zero.

Who’d be a musician, right?

In fact, the process of recording made us sharpen up our playing and we actually ended returning to the live circuit – first as an originals band playing support slots to nobody on Wednesday for £7 – before finally discovering that the only money to be made was to turn up at a certain kind of pub, plug in, and bash out a motley collection of covers. For that relatively simple job (done well) you can expect to do a few hundred pounds a night. Do it exceptionally well – and probably with a focus on either a particular band or genre – and that can turn into a few thousand pounds a night. If, by some magical happenstance you have a singer who looks and sounds like someone else you can turn yourself into an Adamski tribute act and get tens of thousands of pounds per night.

So I guess what I’m saying is that making original music is a mug’s game. If you want to do it, accept that it is vanishingly unlikely you will ever see a financial return on your sweat and talent. And the primary reason is digital distribution. The costs are low, but so are the returns.

If money is your object, put together a covers band.