What Musicians Can Teach Us About Employment In A Digital World

It was 1998, the Internet came creeping into our lives like the first tendrils of creamer in a cup of coffee.  The first round of CD burners had to be bought separately. They cost almost half as much as the computer itself with a strong possibility of installing an additional port to connect the giant serial cable.  It wouldn't be more than 3 or 4 years before every computer came with a CD-R as a standard drive. Around that time Napster snuck in with file sharing technology utilizing MP3 compression.  Piracy was no longer about the old tape dub paradigm of buying a cd and making copies for friends. Now you could just go find any new album posted up by someone on the other side of the country.

We had record/video stores back then and the harbinger of doom that would eventually put record stores out of business and loose havoc on the Record industry confronted you in tubes of 10, 50, and 150 CD-Rs on a shelf where top ten albums used to live. The big labels mustered all their collective strength and tried to put up a fight.  DART already gave them a portion of the sales of blank media, but they went further suing websites and even consumers using the file sharing and piracy websites.  It was way too late though, technology had drifted into Wild West territory.  $14.99 could never compete with free.  

In those days, Silicon Valley was quickly maneuvering the wild west of cyberspace into real world supremacy. The computer industry simply had more economic clout than the record industry.  Freedom of speech warred with intellectual property.  There was no game book on how to fight a data storm.  When bandwidth started growing and the video industry became threatened by the same fate as the music industry piracy really met a slightly more prepared foe. The danger of malware being downloaded with the desired new movie or album contributed to that portion of the internet becoming a shady red light district.  SOPA had its moment but collapsed under scrutiny of totalitarianism. Eventually legal disruption would siphon off the profits into software gatekeepers. One by one technology would beat out established institutions,  Netflix would destroy Blockbuster and Spotify and YouTube would become primary means of media distribution. Streaming and On Demand would replace owning and rentals.  Uber and Lyft came for the Taxi companies.  AirBnB came for the hotel industry. Amazon came for brick and mortar retail.  It won't be long before all incomes are effected by this blossoming Technological Revolution, that's the world we live in now.    

So how do we survive?

Musicians, even in the glory days were at the bottom of the food chain.   The creators of the content so deeply craved were consistently beholding record labels who took as little as 50% of all revenue, after recouped costs for advances on recording, touring and promoting.  As now, few rose to the top and made fortunes.  The industry funneled investment into "sure shots" leading gradually to more generic than the generic that came before. Quality of creation suffered for economics, taste factored less and less as businessmen discovered the population would consume whatever they doled out. Minimum investment maximum gain.  

The Internet at the turn of the millennium held a momentary promise of democratizing the industry, returning power to creators by tearing down the infrastructure between creators and consumers.  Little did we know what that meant, but we all made our MySpace pages and bought into the new paradigm.  We were the forefront of the "indie" revolution, directly accessing and selling to our fans like never before. 

The modern musician cannot consider creating music their sole occupation. The artist needs now be an entrepreneur, a marketing expert, a booking agent, a tour and business manager, a publisher, a lawyer, a graphic designer, a highly connected networker, etc. etc.  Oh, and you also need a day job. Fortunately most of this new "workload" can be done from a smart phone. Simultaneously, technology also simplified actual creation, enabling common to achieve standard quality with little or no effort. The market floods, the commodity of music suffers a sort of inflation despite being consumed more than ever before, and the value of the consumable drops dramatically...Yet fortunes are to be made by offering access. 

So a shift occured in the nature of the artist.  They continue creating, no longer expecting any real recompense in the here and now.  However, the greatest tragedy the artist can imagine is going through the struggle and loving effort of creating a masterpiece no one will ever see, and a new niche of visibility middlemen was born. Those offering access to consumers convinced the content creators that sharing everything for free rewards the commodity of exposure (potentially with a someday payout).  Every kid with GarageBand is giving away their tracks on ReverbNation while BFA Composers lurk in forums like beggars seeking an unpaid gigs to build a portfolio, and if you wiggle your ears right while touching your nose with your elbow you can get your stuff on internet radio or Spotify. Opportunistic Business Sharks circle picking at the edges.  Music libraries accept submissions and take 50% for royalty free placement.   Networking gatekeepers commodify connections.  Pay to post "seeking", pay to respond.  We fall under the spell of "Market through Facebook, build up a following..." Pay for some ads or risk invisibility.  Use the tools and platforms and networking sites.  Play friendly. Schmooze a little.  Email influencers, like their feeds.  Get a shout out from a blog. See a bump in new commodity of likes.  Pour more hours into the marketing struggle. 

Somehow the system, like a great alchemist, turned creativity into a form of consumerism. 

If the goal was to make a living doing what we love, how did we end up convinced that doing something else would open the doors to getting rich off of our dreams?  It was madness focusing on results instead of process.  Putting promotion over the craft, leaning ladders against wrong walls and wondering why results aren't forthcoming. We called the new pursuit branding and identity.  It's what the stars were doing. All the Success Blogs said it was imperative to breaking through the noise and being noticed.  They sold the desire to be perceived into an outer ideal, rather than leveraging our personal truth, we lost sight of the path.  To have all those hours back, to instead perfect something hidden but unmistakably genius. 

Time unlocks purpose when faced with giving up childhood idolizations and moving on or choosing to carry our efforts into an uncertain future.  Every year that passes you must make a decision to continue. The source of resiliency is passion. The journey is the destination. Everything needed to know could be found in practice.  Slowing down through a difficult passage.  Persistence to build strength and speed.  Coordination and altering approach. Internalizing and assimilating.  Learning the rules to break them.  Baby steps towards greatness.  The practice improves the whole person. The pursuit was a spiritual one, meditations in motion, one step cleaner, faster, stronger, longer. To find joy by disappearing in the effort.  

And that is when you get the reward...  


So how does all of this relate to a coal miner?  

I don't think of coal mining as an emotionally rewarding task.  Not particularly good for the environment either.  Coal miners are, however, losing their lucrative jobs like musicians did thanks to changing technology.   Like musicians they are in need of day jobs. Gainful employment.  


What followed originally was a diatribe against the failings of late capitalism and a romantic exploration of a utopian future. This derailed into a whole new post. To be read...

Instead I'll conclude with the original design intact.   What musicians have to teach us about 
employment in a digital age is:

On occasion you may have to do some menial shit you don't want to do in order to finance the life you accept living.  It may seem beneath you but if it keeps you fed, with a roof over your head you can survive enough to side hustle a true ambition.  Start planting the seeds today and water them every chance you get.

Constantly seek personal improvement with persistence and focus.  A siren song of media and marketing seeks to convert your efforts into their profits. Don't fall for it.  Pursue your goal diligently. Find interest in the cloud surrounding your path and grow from where you are.   Become the best at what you want to be, if you are not that then the propping up will blow down in the first wind.  Change is inevitable, the skills of today will become obsolete tomorrow. If you are not climbing you are sliding down hill.  A good investor will tell you to diversify... the same goes for skills and talents.  Never stop learning.


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