June 19, 2012
Emily The Intern...
by Chris Randall
There's quite the kerfuffle on the 'Tubes this week due to a post to NPR's All Songs Considered blog by one Emily "The Intern" White. If you haven't read it, you don't really need to bother. The gist: "I love music a whole lot. I just don't like paying for it."
That post is typical of the mindset of people her age, but I'll tell you one thing three times: there's like a thousand performing, recording, touring musicians (in America, anyhow) at any given time that aren't flat broke. This hasn't changed since the 50s. Nobody makes shit from touring or album sales. Nobody ever has, nor will they ever. Soundscan says my own Sister Machine Gun records have sold around 400,000 copies total; this isn't including the various soundtracks and comps I'm on. Figure a CD costs about a buck to make, and the wholesale is around $6.00 per, someone walked away with about $2,000,000 courtesy of my creative output. But it wasn't me. You want to know how much I've made in artist royalties? $0.00. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Goose-egg.
My absolute best year as a professional touring musician was 1996. That year, we had a semi-hit that tied in with a multi-platinum selling soundtrack album. I got a large (for me at that time) amount of mechanical royalties from the sales of that soundtrack, plus we played about 300 shows that year, mostly in theaters and larger venues as a headliner. I was, by any measure you'd care to use, one of the more successful musicians of that year. You want to know what my before-tax income was? $75,000. That's the best I ever did, as a demonstrably successful artist in the top tier of my chosen genre. That seems like a lot now, but I paid self-employment tax on that money, and whatever was left over went to bills. So I spent 1996 more or less broke, like every other year in the 90s.
And that lifestyle isn't really available to musicians today. I was signed to the largest indie record label in the world, one that had plenty of money and let me indulge myself. That label doesn't exist any more. None of the distributors it sold records to exist any more. The record stores where my records were sold are almost universally out of business as well. The entire supply chain, from the guy who bet I would sell records by fronting the costs of recording them on to the store where the physical product was ultimately purchased, is gone.
But you know what? I got to ride around in a tour bus with someone else footing the bill, and play a show every night. To an audience. A SHOW! How awesome is that? I have songs in some cool movies. I've been to every state in the Union (except Alaska, because who the fuck plays in Alaska? EDIT: Apparently Berlin played Alaska twice) and to a bunch of other countries. I've been on MTV. I've been in Rolling Stone. I don't think I get to complain. I signed the contracts, with legal representation advising me. I knew what I was getting in to back then, and I knew what it would turn in to the day Napster went live.
So I don't blame Emily for the fact that I'm not in my 20s any more. She grew up in a different world than me and that dude from Camper Van Beethoven. In the world we grew up in, we created a commodity, with a supply chain, bankers, retail outlets, and a fairly strict machinery for ensuring all that moved smoothly. While Emily can certainly enjoy lots of material that was created with that machinery, I'll bet you her tastes largely revolve around the current DIY-flavored indie scene. (Yeah, while I was indie to the bone, I recorded my albums at Chicago Trax, Battery and Brittania Row, mastered them at Bernie Grundman and Sterling, and sold them in Tower, like everyone else. Different meaning to the word "indie" today.)
So David Lowery, get off your high horse. Emily doesn't need to donate any money to Old Musicians Who Don't Have Shit Any More. She is no more responsible for the state our industry is in than I am responsible for something stupid my parents did before I was born. She doesn't understand what the fuck you're talking about. She just likes music. It isn't a commodity any more, but value-added content. If people want to make new shit for her to diss on All Songs Considered, that's their own prerogative. It has nothing to do with us and our 80s/90s understanding of the music industry.
If you want to blame someone, blame Sean Parker.