The so-called sustainability of popular entertainment (part II)

In my last installment about the sustainability of popular entertainment I took a look at some sports organizations and big name touring popular musicians to highlight the fact that they are just not making (and have not been making the money) that most of us seem to associated with popular entertainment.

Since the NEA data shows that stadium rock concert attendance is declining in no measure less than the other ‘benchmark’ events (e.g. Theater, Classical, Museum, Sports Stadium attendance) I thought it might be interesting to take a look at Music Festivals, which are usually lauded as the phenomenon that have taken the place of the old stadium rock concerts that we normally think of when we have an idea of what constitutes a money making musical event.

Since I’ve been looking at the idea of using a Music Festival as a possible anchor point for a tour with one of my groups I thought it would be prudent to see what the economic viability is of these kinds of events.  The diagnosis is pretty grim.  Unless you happen to be a top tier and big crowd drawing group, you are more than likely not going to cover your expenses unless you are very lucky and probably going to go into the hole.

Two recent pieces I’ve come across, “Who’s Getting Rich Off Summer Music Festivals” by Anne Stewart, and “Music festivals ‘are paying too much for artists‘” by Greg Cochrane discuss how even big events like Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo make next to no money for any by the headlining artists.

This isn’t particularly surprising.  We seem to have this idea that so much money moves through the pop music industry that anyone who is involved in it must be at least making a sustainable living.  There was a particularly heated discussion about just some of these issues at Greg Sandow’s blog (that can be seen here) where it seems that some folks tend to romanticize the riches and fame of pop music bands at the expense of the realization that most “pop musicians” are barely scraping by, if even making any money at all.

If our prototypes for an economic model happen to be the pop superstars, then it makes perfect sense that we will be so completely out of touch of the reality of the economic situation as to assume that anyone in pop music must be doing better than your average classical musician.  And that’s just not true.

Working musicians are working musicians, no matter what the genre.  And there are as many out of work musicians in the pop field, or pop musicians that are “underemployed” as there are classical musicians (if not more because of the draw towards doing pop).  So all the marketing, development, and networking efforts mean very little when your comparing the success of pop superstars to struggling classical music ensembles.  I doubt Yo-Yo Ma or Rene Fleming are having that much of a problem getting booked for gigs that will easily play a sustainable living for them.  And they do so without having to resort to the mundane (and, depending on whom you ask, banal) marketing tactics that Pop superstars regularly use to build their brand.

Fact is, the largets percentage of classical AND pop musicians just aren’t making money and it would be disingenuous to say that the pop music industry model works better than the classical music industry model when the proportion of out of work or underemployed musician in each field is probably relatively similar.


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