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Viability of the Middle Ground Between Hobbyist and Star

David Cubine

Talk of careers and whether or not a desired career is a viable option immediately brought to mind an article that Oh, Sleeper guitarist Shane Blay wrote in 2010 about the financial realities of playing in a middle-tier band. We’ll define middle-tier as an artist with a small dedicated following with financial backing (a record label) who have not achieved significant mainstream success. They are effectively professionals in their field without being at the absolute top.

http://www.theprp.com/2010/07/27/news/oh-sleeper-guitarist-explains-why-mid-level-bands-make-no-money/

Ideally, there would be a financially viable middle ground between the hobbyist and the superstar. However, this seems incredibly difficult to achieve. Blay is part of a band that has achieved greater success than many musicians realistically hope for and yet the band has not become financially viable. His breakdown of the day-to-day numbers for a musician on the road shows that they’re barely scraping by, and that’s when the band is pulling $600 a night gross income. $23 a day to survive on, even if you only consider four hours out of a day on tour “work,” is well below the federal minimum wage. And that’s only on the road. For a “medium-sized” band at home there is often no meaningful income available related to the music, as record sales at the lower end of the charting spectrum (for example, an album debut that moves five thousand units in its first week) typically only generate enough money to cover promotional costs that are necessary to continue putting out music at the same level. The artist has no guarantee of a living wage.

This raises a question: Should an artist’s “employer” (in this case, the record label) be responsible for providing living wages? Currently the artist’s income at the middle tier is entirely based on their performance in what seems to be an open market. The artist is looked at as a small business in itself, with the benefactor (label) viewed as a partner as opposed to an employer.  But what if artists were employees, with workers’ rights that come along with that? In terms of creating a level playing field, it seems the primary options are to legitimize art as a profession with labor rights, or to relegate art to the realm of hobby, with artists earning their income elsewhere and almost certainly diminishing the quality of their output.

3 Comments

  1. caitpetrie

    So are you saying that musicians should unionize themselves for workers rights? What about self produced work, or small music labels who can’t afford to provide a livable wage?

  2. ccceprosperity

    I am really curious about your argument. If artists were become “employed” by their record labels and provided living wages would this make the current open market for artists less open and not as competitive? I’m not a musician or artistic in any aspect but from outsiders perspective I view the musical market to thrive on competition, many bands are competing with each other to grow their fan base and make more money. Some bands make it huge and others are barely able to sustain themselves. Would creating a middle ground affect the style or the content of the music produced by the artists who belong to a label? Could this turn struggling musicians into mainstream artists?

    –Millie

    1. David Cubine

      That’s the problem. I didn’t go into it as much as I probably should have. How do you reconcile competition and fair wages in a field that is pretty much entirely based on subjective judgment? Personally I think once an artist has reached a level where they’re ready to make it a career they should have some way to guarantee their financial stability. But personally I can’t think of a good way to gauge this or define at what point musicians should be considered “employees” as opposed to just people doing it for fun.

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