Respect the Artist. Buy Yourself Some Coffee!

After seeing this particular graphic on several different people’s Facebook feeds today, I decided I’d like to chime in here with what I think some of you might find to be an interesting and unexpected perspective on this mentality.

In case, for whatever reason, you are unable to see the graphic I’m referring to, it transcribes as follows:

Respect the artist • Buy the Music
Problem: People are willing to pay $5 for a cup of coffee that

  • Costs pennies to make
  • Takes minutes to prepare
  • Is gone forever after one use

Yet millions of people won’t pay $1 for a song they like, that

  • Cost thousands to record
  • Can be used over & over again
  • Took years of practice to create

…… And lasts a lifetime!

I see things like this all the time, and as a long-time professional musician, who until recently, by choice, made his entire living in the industry, I’d like to bring up some counterpoints to this thought process.

First off, you cannot put a value on something based on the cost of producing it, how long that process takes, or how long it lasts after production. Monetary value, as we are referring to here, can only be determined by how much someone is actually willing to pay for something.

Believe me when I tell you that if someone could download an illegal cup of delicious Starbucks coffee and get everything out of it they’d get from a cup purchased at full price from an actual store but without having to leave the comforts of their own home, Starbucks would be out of business.

Furthermore, if downloading songs online without paying for them was not illegal, anyone paying $1 for them now would just download them for free. So the only value that a $1 song has currently is entirely dependent upon people’s fear of breaking the law, rather than any legitimate desire or “willingness” to pay for it.

What’s actually happening when someone charges for their music is that they are asking people to spend money on something that has absolutely no value to them, but is invaluable to the person selling it. Once you’ve come to this realization, you understand that the selling of music to consumers is a TERRIBLE business model. If you’re in the music business to make money, the fact that people expect music to be free and if they didn’t write it themselves it has no value to them, should be irrelevant to your business plan.

Let’s compare this situation to another form of art, film. People are constantly downloading films illegaly rather than paying for legal copies of them either on DVD or digital download. Far fewer people are doing this than are downloading music, yes, but that has everything to do with how long the technology to download music illegally has existed by comparison, as well as how long it takes to do so, and how much additional memory is required. However, during the time since it has become possible to illegally download movies, movie theaters have shown no decrease whatsoever in the number of tickets sold, but have nearly doubled in revenue in the past 20 years.

You have to provide a good or service that an average consumer cannot replicate on their own, within the comforts of their own home, for free. What does this mean for musicians? People have to go see live music.

People going to see live music is how a musician is inteded to make money in the music business. You allow people to receive your music free of charge because that is more likely to get them to spend money to come see you perform live.

Revenue streams in the music and film industries, as with most forms of the arts these days, are generated by way of the marketing of other goods and services. What I’m saying is that a Cold Play song, for example, has no value to anyone outside of Cold Play. But a Cold Play song played in the background of an iPod commercial might help Apple sell a million more iPods this year than if they had used any other song. Or that same Cold Play song played in the background of an episode of “Pretty Little Liars” may make a million more people tune into “Pretty Little Liars” next week, and therefore, ABC (or whatever the @#%^ channel that awful show would come on) can sell commerical air time during that show for millions of dollars more, and yet also have an increase in the number of businesses interested in buying said air time. And Cold Play will be graciously rewarded for this feat.

What most musicians fail to realize is that this idea of using music to market other goods and services also carries into your live performances. As much as you’d like to think all these people are here to see you, and that you’re the product they’re buying into, you’re wrong.

The performance in question is more than likely taking place inside one of the following: a concert venue, a bar, a restaurant, a coffee house, or a church. In the case of the first 3, alcohol is actually the product being sold. In the case of the 4th option, obviously coffee. And finally, for those of you who choose to perform for a church, God is the product being sold, right?

So wherever your gig is being held, you are not what the people are coming to do/see, and if you’re making any money for it, it’s only because those people are buying enough of what they came for to make it worth the owner’s expense to pay you. Or perhaps you’re more familiar with ticket sales or cover charges being your source of revenue at a live performance rather than a guarantee (your first mistake). In that case, have you ever tried charging a cover to get into to a gig at a restaurant without a liquor license, or sold tickets to a festival without a beer vendor that doesn’t allow B.Y.O.B.?

If no one has ever heard your music before because they’d rather spend $5 on a cup of coffee than on your record, I can’t imagine a scenario where you’d successfully sell enough beer, or coffee, or God to deserve to be paid by the owner of a venue in which you were performing.

Every once in a while, this will happen anyway, but this only means that the owner of the venue is losing money, whether out of the kindness of his heart or sheer ignorance, take your pick. And as I can attest to, first hand, on countless occasions, this kindness of heart/ignorance ultimately results in a venue going under, or at best, being bought out by someone with a better business plan who would never let you collect a dime until he had received his fair share first.

I’m not saying I’m happy that things have turned out this way, I’m just relaying the facts. Of course I’d rather people want to spend money on my music than on coffee, and of course I’d like for them to actually be coming to see me rather than to understand that where I am happens to sell beer, but as someone who had made a comfortable living doing this for quite some time, I just have to get over the differences between the things I desire to get from music and what the reality of being in the music “business” really is.

Consider your music to be the advertisement for your real revenue stream: live performances and media licensing. Every company needs an advertising budget, and a musician’s advertising budget just happens to be exactly the cost of producing and manufacturing a record.

So stop trying to sell your worthless record to individuals who care so little about it that they would rather spend the money on a cup of overpriced coffee, and start trying to open up a realistic revenue stream for your music. You’re targeting the wrong audience. The average consumer doesn’t have enough money to support your meager livelihood. Giant, faceless corporations, on the other hand, have enough to support a million of your wildest dreams.

Figure out how to sell more beer, more coffee, or more God at your performances than any other artist who ever plays there.

Find a product that speaks to you, write a song about it, and continually bombard their marketing department with unsolicited recordings of it.

Put up a video on YouTube of everyone in your audience wearing one, or you pulling someone up on stage and giving them one, and them showing it off to the audience as you play the song you wrote about it and everyone sings along. Tag that company in the video description. Post a link to the video on all major social media sites, and be sure to tag the company’s official handle each time.

There are still ways for musicians to make money selling music, it’s just that selling a $5 cd to a guy in line at Starbucks is no longer one of them. So as the graphic which finally inspired this post indicates: “Respect the Artist.” And the best way to respect the artist is by challenging his or her idea that selling you a CD or asking you to pay $1 to download a poor quality .mp3 from iTunes will somehow make them successful and able to pay their bills. The sooner they stop making that mistake, the sooner they can start taking steps to make real money in an ever crippling industry.

Best of luck out there, you crazy, flakey, lazy, cheap-@$$ musicians you! And to the rest of you, enjoy your overpriced coffee. You work hard. You know it’s overpriced. You wanted it anyway. It’s your money. Go ahead. You’ve earned it.