The Musical Middle Class, and the False Dichotomy of Musician/Everyone Else

I was having another one of my long, nerdy discussions with Dan Clark, and he expressed some consternation at the fact that much of what’s out on the internet and media regarding “the music industry” assumes exactly two demographics: non-musicians and those attempting to make a living as indie artists.

The thing is, he points out, there are a lot of us – a LOT – who are “semi-pro.” We’re probably beyond considering ourselves idle hobbyists or  “weekend warriors”, and we’re passionate about the music we make, and we make some income from it, but we’re not expecting to survive on it. We write music, we sell it, we play live, we tour, we labor continuously for the art we love.   We also have day jobs and careers we (generally) enjoy, and families, and other things not normally associated with the popular model of a “starving fulltime musician.” We constitute a Musical Middle Class, if you will.

It makes all the media pontification on the future of the music industry maddening. The advice tends to come down to “tour continuously” or some sort of “patronage” model (crowdsourcing is the hotbutton right now, but that could change), neither of which are particularly helpful for a guy like me. I have a day job, so touring continuously is out of the question, and I don’t need  25000 people supporting my kickstarter – because funding a project isn’t necessarily my primary goal.  I’m concerned about making new songs and staying engaged, not worrying about how many records I need to sell to keep gas in the van.

It’s entirely possible that the large, deeply under-served demographic of “part time professionals” is, in fact, the next big model for the music industry.

I understand that there will always be people whose sole goal it is to “make it”, and I applaud their tenacity. They should not be discounted, especially since many of them are also doing things like teaching and session gigs to make their living, filling very real and useful roles. They, however, are not the sum total of working musicians, and I would argue that the vast majority of indie bands and artists that everyone talks about as embracing the “new paradigm” fall more into the “dedicated enthusiastic semi-pro” category than “lifers.”

What this means, from the standpoint of the pundit and blogger, is that there’s a large market segment that finds all the tips about “making it” interesting, but not strictly applicable. Yes, the argument over Spotify streaming royalties is fascinating, but largely academic to someone who hasn’t gotten to the point where Spotify is actually playing their music. The difference between .4 cents per play and .6 cents a play won’t add up to much if you’re only getting a few dozen plays a month. Maybe that’s all we’re going to get.  Maybe we’re comfortable with that, or at least resigned to that.  But we’d love to know how to make better art and make better connections with fans, know what’ll be the best method to distribute our media, or how to book venues in an increasingly competitive market,  not necessarily fret over royalties that will add up to at most an extra coupla beers at a venue.

That’s not to denigrate the importance of artists rights and fair pay. That is definitely a weighty conversation. It’s simply difficult for a member of the burgeoning Musical Middle Class to become invested in these discussions at all, if they feel they have no advocate, no one speaking on behalf of their specific interests.

There’s an argument to be made that maybe the “new model” that everyone keeps talking about isn’t some social media/infotech utopia, but instead is the rise of the day-job/night-job semiprofessional. To wit; my own day job pays my bills and puts food on the table, Null Device and associated endeavors pay for a significant chunk of…Null Device and associated endeavors. Consumers still get content, I still get to do what I love, and I’m not in perpetual fear of losing my home. Maybe it’s not a perfect model for everyone, but there are already a lot of us working that way, and it may very well be the best way to sustain an unsteady music industry, so those that are trying to “make it” actually have something to make, and those that are strictly consumers still have something to consume, and all of us in the middle can continue doing what we enjoy.  Economically speaking, we’re a quiet majority; we each may not spend much, but combined we purchase a lot in gear, a lot in services, and we’re a very stable market – the day-career means we’ll keep making music and buying stuff essentially immune to the whims of style or fad.  But we’re not “just” pro musicians or “just” consumers, and it’s about time that the industry media recognize that there’s a lot of us.