The Economics of Local Music (part 2) Audiences: a lesson from blogs

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One of my biggest criticisms of using the pop music field as a way to instruct the classical music field in ways of increasing audiences is that, for the most part, there seems to be an overinflated sense of how big an audience a pop musician is actually able to draw.  I’ve been doing some researching on blogging and came across this piece about blogging statistics.  This particular quote from the ‘audience’ section is pertinent:

When you say “blog” most people think of the most popular weblogs, which are often updated multiple times a day and which by definition have tens of thousands of daily readers. These make up the tip of a very deep iceberg: prominently visible, but not characteristic of the iceberg as a whole.

What is below the water line are the literally millions of blogs that are rarely pointed to by others, since they are only of interest to the family, friends, fellow students and co-workers of their teenage and 20-something bloggers.

The same thing applies to the pop music field.  For every superstar like Lady Gaga, The Beatles or Radiohead that did or still can draw in tens of thousands of folks to a show, there are hundreds of thousands of pop musicians that rarely get much of an audience since they are only of interest to the family, friends, fellow students and co-workers of their teenage and 20-something bands.

In other words, what is working for the pop superstars isn’t working for the other 99%.

This is not to say that musicians can’t make a living without being a superstar–in fact, I suspect a big percentage of that other 99% are full-time gigging musicians.  And I’m sure the percentages are skewed toward the cover-bands, tribute-bands, freelancers and special event musicians rather than the original band musicians.

The vast majority of musicians in any area will be local (not touring) musicians.  Many bands will never make it past their first year.  Solo singer/songwriters might have a bit longer shelf-life if only because you only have to manage yourself, but on the whole most of the local musicians will be intermittent performers.  If they do perform with any regularity, they might be referred to as “Weekend Warriors.”

A comment made from the president of Gawker, Nick Denton (preamble regarding the goal for the blog/newszine company)

Everyone has this illusion that Web logs have taken the world by storm, but Web logs have probably only reached 10 percent of the Internet population.

I’ve mentioned this in many contexts, but most of the extensive and longitudinal studies regarding the reach of [Euro-American] pop music’s audience worldwide presents a much more sober picture than the total domination of this music field.  Even researchers, worried about the ‘Globalization as Westernization’ exportation of Anglo and American pop music have found that most of the ‘foreign’ music consumed by local audiences or influencing local musicians will be from regions or countries adjacent to the regions under study.  The biggest exception are England and the US which have a significant proportion of their ‘foreign’ music sales and influence from each other.

Speaking about Lester Haines’s quoting Sarah Carter can give some idea of how this overestimation of influence and consumption can take place:

“Our research not only shows that there is no buzz about blogging and podcasting outside of our media industry bubble, but also that people have no understanding of what the words mean. It’s a real wake-up call.”

This is crucial.  If your only information about how popular pop music is happens through your interaction with news media–the companies of which overlap, dovetail, and intensely interact with the popular culture industry it’s easy to see how this inflated sense of the audience for this kind of music can happen.  What would happen if the news media actually followed the career of one of the many more numerous musicians that aren’t superstars in the field?  What would happen if this happened with the regularity with which local music is actually happening within a city rather than having the news media consistently reporting on the big name superstars that happen to be playing in town–or, since so much news content is increasingly syndicated and less local–reporting on a big superstar that happens to be playing a city two or three hundred miles away?

I think two things would happen.  With an honest and frequent portrayal of local music, this might actually help some local music get more exposure and maybe even enhancing their ‘careers’ a bit.  Also, I would think that fewer folks would be seduced by the ‘rock star’ archetype since many would-be musicians wouldn’t constantly be getting the reinforcing image of the superstars in the field that play to thousands of people at a stadium and constantly touring around the nation or world.

Obviously, there are superstars in the pop field.  Then again, they exist in any music industry.  And structurally speaking, they aren’t that much different.  They all draw large crowds and get the most media attention the latter of which just helps to amplify the already big fanbase they have.  To claim that one field’s superstars are doing it the right way without recognizing the fact that, structurally speaking, that field’s superstars aren’t doing a whole lot different than another field’s superstars is a bit disingenuous.

On the other side of the coin, the working musicians in both the pop music field and classical music field aren’t a whole lot different either.  The majority of them are filling functional roles in society and the music being performed usually reflects that (mostly non-local and non-self-written, to go back to my categorizations in the previous installment of this series).  Remember that most of the regularly working bands will be cover bands, tribute bands and other special event musicians who aren’t necessarily playing their own music and in many cases, these audiences are ‘built-in’ which is something I’ll get into more with my next post in this series.

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