Pop Music Attrition

One of the long term research projects I’ve been working on is the attrition rates of local bands. Over the years I’ve had many discussions with local musicians about how often bands fold, or how a singer-songwriter will drop off the face of the earth, or how a musician decides to go back to school to learn a different trade–the reasons are numerous.

Last year I started tracking and creating a database of bands or solo acts I’ve played shows with over the past couple of decades. I’ve had this sense that a majority of musicians eventually get out of music (or at least curtail their music performing activities significantly) after a few years. There’s a sense that after a few years most acts are pretty much done (I’ve estimated anywhere from 70% to 90% of them*), and probably about half end by the first year or two.

This isn’t to say that musicians in the bands don’t go on to form other bands (or are in more than one simultaneously). And solo acts have a longer shelf-life simply because of the logistics of not having to coordinate more than one schedule or ego.

Of that small percentage of acts that last beyond this you’ll find an even smaller percentage that break out of the local scene, sign with a label, or become regional powerhouses. An even smaller percentage make it to that Superstar level that’s so coveted and part of “Rock Star Dream” phenomenon.

The big reason I’ve wanted to do this research is because some of the narrative of the Classical Music Crisis depends on the idea that Classical Music isn’t relevant like Pop Music purportedly is. Setting aside the fragmentation issue I often write about here, there’s just the sheer number of local musicians which play for crowds so small that would be the envy of some of the most iconoclastic noise musicians.

bar-band-playing-alone
Image Source: http://www.smosh.com/smosh-pit/articles/6-jobs-deserve-their-own-reality-shows

In other words, the vast majority of musicians playing *popular music are playing to audiences that are smaller than many Classical Music groups. Pop Music being relevant is a convenient rationalization for the crisis narrative which is premised on a highly selective concert experience. As long as we continually use the 1% (or, as is more likely the case for Superstars–the 1% of the 1%) as the model for relevance we lose a lot of information about how the vast majority of musicians actually operate locally.

In other words, if 9,999 pop musicians are playing to small or negligible audiences while 1 pop musician gets the stadium crowd, we’d hardly say that pop music, as a whole, is particularly relevant (or particularly successful), right? But that’s the crucial part of the narrative of the Classical Music Crisis and an essential ingredient for a Monolithic Pop Culture Myth.

By actually knowing there’s a high attrition rate for local musicians, we can come to terms with how the vast majority of live music culture is far worse off than what’s happening with the large organizations which are also selectively cherry picked to represent a much larger Classical Music field which has constantly been evolving since its beginnings. The ignore-ance [sic] of what’s actually been happening in the field throughout its history is also crucial for the Crisis narrative.

For example, if Orchestras have been adapting since the beginning, then what exactly is the crisis about? If any attention is paid to these other Orchestras, it’s usually to ask “Is anyone making money with those?” while neglecting to point out that the European styled orchestras which have been their focus also started out as small collectives or music clubs which slowly grew in size and economic power for well over a century.

I’ll say more about this in a future post about the life-cycle of music organizations (and the parallels to the aging rock star syndrome), but for now, if you’re really interested in how the wider culture of music operates, take some time out to go see a local act at a bar, open mic, or club. Just because a local act isn’t relevant to millions doesn’t mean that it can’t be relevant to you.

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*Over the past couple of decades I’ve had the pleasure of sharing bills with hundreds of local musicians all around the US, everyone thing from stadium shows with tens of thousands in attendance to local dive bars with zero attendance. While looking up some of those acts from the past I’ve been enjoying reconnecting with a few of them. As I suspected, the attrition rate is about in the range I gave with solo acts being the most robust in persisting as live performers. I’ll post more about the data as I get more in depth with analysis of it.

**By “Popular Music” I don’t necessarily mean the Industry categorization of “Pop” as a marketing category as distinguished by other genres (i.e. Rock, Country, Hip Hop) but as phrase to designate musicians working in all genres which typify all those genres as a whole as opposed to Classical Music, other Art Musics (e.g. Classical Arabic Music, Indian Carnatic), folk musics, underground experimental music, or other world genres. This is part of the problematic binary of “Classical vs. Pop [vs. the Rest]” I’ve brought up in a previous blog post.

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6 thoughts on “Pop Music Attrition

  1. Excellent post!

    Yes, it sounds as though people speculate about “crises” without really have numbers to back themselves up.

    It seems there should be both an absolute and relative component to any crisis a type of music might be in. Thus, regardless of how pop music is doing, if Classical orchestras are collapsing right and left, then it would be fair to describe Classical as being “in crisis.” Yet, if pop were going great guns (which it is not) and Classical were in the black and limping along (i.e., doing much worse than some heyday), then perhaps it could still be fairly described as being “in crisis.” There are many different scenarios, making the whole thing quite complicated.

    Relevance is an interesting and complicated topic as well. For example, here’s that article I cited before, showing that the top show of 2014 would not have been in the top 50 in 1994:

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/09/02/network_tv_in_1994_how_the_big_four_s_last_golden_age_happened_20_years.html

    Yet the big shows today still seem “relevant.”

    In pop music as wel, getting in the Top 40 in 2015 is much less of a big deal than doing so in 1985, but because of the Long Tail and other phenomena, there is nothing to replace doing so as a “big deal” in the world of music. So someone who has a #1 hit now can still strut around as though it were 1985 and would probably feel it to be no less an accomplishment.

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    1. I think the biggest problem is that they have numbers–it just happens to be numbers from an unrepresentative sample. And then there’s a lot of spin put on those numbers to make them seem more dire than they are especially when taken out of context. And then when taken out of the historical trajectory of how similar organizations have developed or evolved we have the perfect storm for a crisis narrative.

      Yeah, I used that slate TV piece in a couple of blog posts. Music is pretty much the same, as I said in those. The overall pie is changing (and lately getting smaller) and the biggest name acts are getting an increasingly larger proportion of the smaller pie–and there are tons more acts that now have access to that overall pie (that long tail thing). It is an incredibly complex issue and most narratives want to simplify it (and dichotomize it). That’s when we have to wonder what are the motives for doing so, I think.

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      1. Right, putting the numbers in context can be quite complicated.

        The question about TV and pop music is whether they can avoid a *complete* collapse eventually. A situation in which the respective hype machines stop becoming self-sustaining and one is left simply with all indies. Since Classical doesn’t need (and/or can’t generate) a hype machine, then it may ironically be more viable in the long term (in some meaning of that word).

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      2. Good point–and when Pop Culture loses that hype machine (I think it’s a matter of when, not “if”) we’ll have to see if anything takes its place in the digital world. Likely it will (again) follow the lines of the group with the most economic power (whether that be just a corporation or even a country), but I think the loss of the Pop Culture hype machine is a symptom of the loss cultural “dominance” that the West, and especially the US, has had for some time.

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