Rock Stars Will Soon Buy Malt-O-Meal Just Like The Rest Of Us

Sep 24th, 2008 // 5 Comments

With all the endless chatter surrounding the record industry’s slow-motion apocalypse–downloading, business models, livestock, etc.–it’s refreshing to read someone who makes a salient point. Tim Whitwell, writing in Word, puts aside tiresome ethics-of-illegal-downloading arguments and simply considers the concrete financial future of rock stars in this new era, and what they might soon have in common with the upper-middle class.

I grew up assuming that anyone on tv was mind-bogglingly rich. It’s a common enough mistake that I share with the cast of Big Brother. Sometimes, it’s true. Some pop stars are very, very rich. Jay-Z’s various businesses have earned him $1bn. Former Beatles are on £500 million each. The members of Coldplay are worth £30m each. Even Craig David is sitting on £10m.

I don’t think it’s going to last. Why should a musician who sells one million albums a year be paid so much more than the editor of a national newspaper that sells one billion copies a year? In ten years’ time, maybe five, being a pop star will be a profitable profession. Like being a barrister or a consultant. But not like being a juice carton magnate.

This isn’t a moral or cultural opinion. Gary Glitter can earn £50,000 a year on royalties accrued every time Rock & Roll (Part 2) is played at an NFL game. So what? All that tells us is that he was lucky enough to be part of the never-to-be-repeated phenomenon that was The Music Industry of the Latter Years of the 20th Century.

I immediately trust him because of his droll Big Brother quip. And, to answer his question: most people don’t usually want to be/have sex with newspaper editors, and will not pay money to consume their image.

Not surprisingly, times were good. Vinyl records were cheap to manufacture but hard to copy. Recording studios were vastly expensive to hire, so musicians were dependent on the industry to get records made. Most of all, as internet marketeer Seth Godin reminded executives at Columbia Records last year, people didn’t like pop stars, they loved them. It seemed natural that pop stars should be rich. And they were.

Now, all that is gone, washed away by the digital tide. The great, profit-hyping discovery that was the CD – we can get everyone to buy their record collection all over again, for twice the price! – proved in the long run to be the industry’s nemesis. Too late, the labels realised that in fact they had been flogging infinitely duplicable digital masters to the public. And nobody ever got rich selling something expensive that you can get for free.

I do take issue with the “people don’t love pop stars anymore” argument (exhibit A). If anything, people (especially young people) love musicians more than ever because they have so much access to them. Unfortunately (for the musicians, at least) this modern idol worship is as free as it is instantly accessible.

Internet clever person Kevin Kelly has written a great essay called 1,000 True Fans. He sets out how a musician (or writer, or artist) should be able to make a comfortable living (say $100,000 a year) if they can offer sufficiently enticing products to a sufficient number of true fans. His maths are fuzzy but his basic argument is sound. It’s no longer enough to have two million people like your song, buy the single and earn you a house. They’ll just download it, and you won’t see a penny. Instead, you need a deeper relationship with fewer people.

By “deeper relationship” he means “a really good merch table.”

What will it look like from the rock star’s end of the telescope? In fairness, most working musicians in rock and roll’s Premiership, if not its Big Four, have accepted that the days of driving Rolls-Royces into private pools are long gone. In the 1970s, Elton, Led Zep and the Stones set the standard of rock star ostentation that is now of use only to filmmakers and potboiler novelists. Today’s famous musicians work harder and are paid less, and in the future it’ll only get worse. A rock star used to be a demigod who bathed in money each morning. In the future, they’ll look with envy on Java programmers or hedge fund managers.

That may be a tad drastic, but not far off from the truth. (Although one hopes that they’ll see a better fate than the one possibly faced by hedge fund managers.) On the one hand, it’s kind of interesting in a nice way to see the “rock star” ideal deflated a bit–there’s no real reason why someone who can write a good pop song should have the right to extravagant conspicuous consumption. On the other hand, what is the rock illusion going to consist of if it can’t be at least partially defined by the shorthand term “cool”? The most successful rock stars around right now are Nickelback–they even sell records!–but they don’t come close to the idea of 1970s-era rock cool by any stretch of the imagination.

Musicians may finally be learning their place, but the world will definitely lose something as a result.

Why Should Rock Stars Expect to be Rich? [The Word]

  1. RaptorAvatar

    I’m interested to see where all this goes. The musician as brand idea (which is what you essentially need to have if you’re going to sell $100 of shit to 1000 True Fans every year)is going to be important. The problem is how to build that brand with some longevity and some ability to engage people to the depth where the money becomes irrelevant to the consumer. Tithing is the closest comparison I can come up with. The difference is that tithing is antithetical to some of the core appeals of pop music. The question (vis a vis financial solvency) for artists in the 2.0/3.0 world is going to have less to do with trends and more with cult appeal. I’m only a “true fan” of probably like 10 or 15 active artists and every single one of them is on that list because they’ve enriched my life immeasurably. I’m not sure how many artists can really reach or sustain that depth and consistency, which I think is going to be the fascinating thing to watch over the next 5 or so years. The other question is of whether or not consumers want to become true believers or if the next wave of connectivity is going to make everything even more disposable than it already is. Will being a one-hit wonder be something to be courted and leveraged or will it be something for serious artists to avoid with secretiveness and culty gestures?

  2. Mick Kraut

    I for one enjoy malt-o-meal cereals…specifically the puffed rice…

    Rock stars used to be “gods” because, much like the great and powerful Oz, most people had limited exposure beyond records and radio to the artists…This added to their mystique…now there are opportunities across a variety of mediums for artists to be seen and subsequently overexposed and de-mystified…

    Considering what a java developer or hedge fund mgr can pull down I dont see how this comparison is a bad one. Back in my “musician without a day job” era, I would gladly have taken a career in music making 100K. Trust me that where I am located anyone who can spell Java is pulling down nearly $100K and those with experience actually architecting application development 25% to 50% more than that.

    His argument seems to be sour grapes, like somehow artists should operate under a salary cap that fits his view of their perceived value…poppycock.

  3. Poubelle

    @Mick Kraut: Yeah, I got a sour grapes vibe, too.

    And to this question: Why should a musician who sells one million albums a year be paid so much more than the editor of a national newspaper that sells one billion copies a year?

    Don’t newspaper generally have much larger staffs than your average album? Especially if it’s one musician who writes their own stuff, not a band (and even then). Plus there’s whole bit where they only need to come up with one album’s worth of material, and not new material on a daily basis. The analogy doesn’t work at all (unless he wants to talk about how both newspaper and album sales both dropped thanks to the internets).

    I’ve bought plenty of Grace Jones records with money. I’d happily pay more money to see her play a concert. Did anyone from her label email me to say she was playing in London on a Thursday night when I was at home watching Bonekickers? No. They took my money and didn’t even get my name.. I know my ideas about privacy and not freely giving out personal information are so antiquated nowadays, but there’s way too many businesses trying to get info off of their customers already. Is it that hard to check on what shows might be going on where you live on your own?

  4. Kate Richardson

    @Mick Kraut: I like the frosted shredded wheat kind. It’s like $2 cheaper than the name brand!

  5. revmatty

    Malt-O-Meal FTW. I never encountered it growing up (I’m guessing it wasn’t easily available in the Bay Area at the time) and only discovered it when I moved to the midwest a decade ago. I generally like it better than the national premium brand equivalent.

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