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The Devaluation Of Musicians And How It Needs To Change


Chris Erhardt is the CEO at Tunedly, empowering Singers and Songwriters to break through while allowing music lovers to become scouts.

In every industry, creative destruction leaves behind casualties in its wake. In the music industry, ironically, it’s the people who themselves make music that now face the most harm in the industry’s transformation from records to streams. While more music is available to more people than ever before, and with music industry profits on the rise, artists are puzzlingly receiving a smaller portion of this revenue than ever. Industry leadership has the responsibility to restructure the current arrangement because artists deserve fair compensation for their work — compensation they used to receive but now don’t.

In the 1970s, when you walked into a music store wanting to buy the latest Aerosmith or Johnny Cash album, you had to spend around $35 in today’s money (between $6 and $7 back then). Assuming the average album had 15 songs, a song was worth around $2.33.

Fast forward to the ’90s when CDs and oversized “Discman” were a thing. For example, an album in 1995 from Rod Stewart or Celine Dion would set you back around $30 in today’s money (around $17 back then). Once again, assuming an average of 15 songs per album, a song was worth around $2.

Let’s jump to 2005, the era of iPods and other mp3 players. At that time, you could download a song by the Backstreet Boys or Shakira from iTunes for $1.40 in today’s money (around $1 back then).

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By now, you probably see where this is going. Between 1975 and 2005, the value of a single song decreased by over 60%, and this wasn’t even close to the end of that free fall. Today, in 2022, anyone can sign up for one of the many streaming services, paying $10 per month, getting access to millions of songs for unlimited consumption. That makes music nearly worthless, at a perceived value of maybe $0.000001 per song.

The impact of this development has been beaten to death by now, but one impact doesn’t get enough attention. Because most people don’t value the art of music, session musicians across the U.S. receive, on average, only 63¢ for every $100 paid in streaming revenues, while the entities hiring these artists make millions of dollars from their services or music releases.

Recently, a known music creation service publicly stated their compensation package on TV in front of millions of people. According to that particular business, they pay session musicians between 35% and 55% of the revenue generated, with their largest price tag being $230 for, according to the company, a radio-ready (meaning recorded professionally in a studio-like environment, fully mixed and mastered), fully instrumentalized version (at least five instruments, e.g., two guitars, bass, drums, piano) of a custom written and composed song (no pre-recorded or re-used material). Let’s break down the actual hourly rate for the musicians.

First of all, as a music producer and songwriter for over 10 years now running a music production company that has delivered nearly 30,000 tracks for over 2,000 songwriters over the past four years, I know that not many (if any) session musicians can handle an entire production, from writing the lyrics and melody, recording all instruments and vocals, to mixing and mastering the final product to industry standards. But, let’s ignore that for this calculation, how long would it take one musician to come up with an entire song?

Writing the lyrics: 1-2 hours

Composing the melody: 1-2 hours

Arranging and recording five instruments: 5-8 hours

Arranging and recording the vocals: 1-3 hours

Vocal editing and tuning: 1-2 hours

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Mixing and mastering the song: 3-5 hours

In total, it would take a musician between 12 and 22 hours to record a song, at a professional level, without using any pre-recorded, reused parts from other songs. This would also require the musician to have access to professional recording equipment and sound-treated recording space for most of the hours spent on the song. This can add $50 per hour of indirect cost to the musician, or the musician spent thousands of dollars building their own space in the past. The company charges $230 for its top package and pays the musician between 35% and 55% of the revenue (let’s take the median of 45%), a musician earns $103.50 on a song or an hourly wage between $4.70 and $8.63. This is clearly unacceptable and must change.

Many companies, including my own business, are actively working on solutions. For example, blockchain technology enables the use of smart contracts. Smart contracts allow artists and song creatives to get paid the moment a listener plays a song, as opposed to the current royalty system, which takes months for artists to see payouts. Additionally, the blockchain allows for much greater transparency, so listeners can easily find a song’s owner, as well as all supporting creatives involved on the track.

The industry should also be leading by example. If record labels and music-sharing platforms don’t value musicians, how can we expect society to? We need industry leaders to speak out on behalf of all musicians in every part of the music-making process. While I applaud Sir Paul McCartney, Kate Bush and other musicians demanding reform in the way musicians are paid for song streams, that is only the beginning. Their actions represent musicians standing up for other musicians. For genuine change, record label executives must put the well-being of their workforce ahead of profits. My company, Tunedly, pays musicians between $15 and $30 per hour, depending on skill level. I know a few other companies with similar rates, also striving for change, such as The Online Recording Studio, SoundBetter and Muso. Hopefully, black sheep in the industry on a mission for a quick money grab will either be pushed out of the market or follow suit and contribute to making music valuable again.


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