The Starving Musician


     A career in music, or art in general is often not considered to be very monetarily stable, and has coined the stereotype of the “the starving artist” to play upon the presumed lack of success that the average artist will achieve. However, many truly talented people may still pursue an artistic career for either the pure joy of their craft, or for the prospect of seldom achieved fame and riches. In the music industry, the system in place since the 1950’s is supposed to reward and support musicians who produced content which there was public demand for. However, with the turn of the 21st century, the financial loop which supported the music industry drastically changed, and it has continued to do so ever since. The evolution of the industry is currently at a critical point so this work will investigate how technological advancements including iTunes, Napster, Youtube, and streaming services have affected the entirety of the music industry, and why they can be both beneficial and inhibitive for musicians and audiences.

       The financial and business side to music is a meaningful gatekeeper to production of content in the music industry, so it is important to take care of it. Musicians need to be paid sufficiently in order to have enough to live on in order to continue producing content. The old system before the turn of the century and digital technology boom was centralized around demand. Usually, gigging bands and artists performing in local venues would develop a following, and at some point if they were popular enough, could get a record deal. However, since the dawn of the internet, small club performances have become less prominent, and online scouting and recruiting has become the norm. While drastically changing the culture of the industry, it was mostly a positive change as it lowered the barriers of entry and increased both the size of the audience and amount of content. However, along with these positive changes in accessibility, came negative shifts of large amounts of money from the artists to record companies and large industries.


Digital Reality

       (Image from

     At the turn of the 21st century, a revolutionary change occurred in the music industry with the rise of mp3’s and the popularization of digital music. Apple’s iTunes became the main purchasing medium for mp3’s but many pirated these files on the internet, and still do today. However, in 1999 the company Napster popularized the concept of “peer-to-peer” file sharing networks. This had existed before, but Napster was the platform which made the practice mainstream. The company itself was short-lived, having operation shut down in 2001, but file sharing and other forms of illegal downloads had been announced to the public, and had great impact on how people would choose to consume their music in the future. This new way people would begin to get music would ultimately take money away from the artists.

     Sometime after 2010 when Spotify emerged as the dominant music streaming service, more and more listeners have shifted from both buying and pirating music to streaming for free or a small monthly fee. In the short term, this has been perhaps the best possible thing for music consumers, as listeners have virtually all the music they could want completely legally, even with a social media aspect implemented into the system helping them find more music they may enjoy. However, there is underlying financial inequality which has major potential for long-term problems. These problems centralize around the great possibility that a majority of artists will not be sufficiently paid by the main music mediums, and consequently become unable to maintain a professional music career. This means that this there would potentially be less content produced over time. Vice news has reported statistics from Sound Scan that there was 42% increase in streaming services between 2013 and 2014, along with a 14.9% decrease in album sales over the same period. They furthermore cited Wired, saying that the most streamed song on Pandora in 2014, Avicii’s “Wake Me Up,” was played over 168 million times, but that only translated to $12,359 of royalties paid to Avicii. The fact that the single most popular musical hit in that year only made that much highlights a clear issue that these streaming services aren’t being paid equitably for their work. This is a trend across many of the major streaming services, and because this is how more and more people are listening, artists are collecting less and less profit.


Record Company Oppression

   (Image from

   Starting with the popularization of digital music, after people stopped buying records and CD’s and instead used iTunes to get music, the financial situation for content producers changed. There has been a mini-monopoly due to the “big four” group of record companies which according to the Nielsen Company’s 2011 Music Industry Report, consist of Universal Music, Sony, Warner Bros, and EMI. These companies reportedly control 88% of total published albums. The record companies started to widen their profit margins, as they no longer had to invest into the physical manufacturing and distribution of the music. However, despite this, they continued to charge the artists for these fees, even though they are no longer needed. Artists often still today continue to be charged percentages off of their net album sales for packaging, shipping breakage, transport, and others even though physically represented music is virtually a thing of the past. In short, record companies still have all of their outdated and no longer applicable fees despite modern digitalization. This eventually sends artists into cycles of debt which they often never escape.

    Along with record companies becoming further oppressive of artists, the strategy of recruiting has become less friendly to incoming artists. Yes, the music business is just that, a business, but with new platforms and mediums for content to exist on, there is much less artist loyalty and development. Record deals pre-21st century were often to make three to five albums, and there was the assumption that people and organizations would foster the work of an artist so that over time they would eventually achieve success. Today, the idea of development is non-existent, as corporations demand instant success from most artists they recruit, and will often provide them with no support. This is how publication mediums such as Youtube can be negative for the industry, because in current record business culture, it is almost expected for an aspiring musician to already have a major following online of hundreds of thousands, before they are signed. For these reasons, record companies have served as major inhibitors to both the financial and artistic success of musicians.


In the Real World

     (Image from Artifact)

    The artist’s reality of being utterly screwed by the industry is brought to life in Jared Leto’s 2012 documentary Artifact. Leto is an Oscar-winning actor, a producer, and the frontman for the rock band 30 Seconds To Mars, which has had significant commercial success since their 2005 album “A Beautiful Lie.” The band was in an intense lawsuit with their record label EMI, after the label sued them for $30 million for a breach of contract after royalty inequalities found the band already millions in debt. In the movie, Leto depicts the label bullying the band when he stated, “They basically just said shut up and make another record,” (Leto). Previously mentioned shady methods of the record companies confirm how it is possible for the industry to destroy a successful group, like in this situation. The band fought hard for nearly a year while being forced to self-produce their next album before they were able to come away with a reasonable deal with EMI. In the film, industry experts comment on the situation, but perhaps their words are best summed up by music industry writer Bob Lefsetz, who claimed, “I had never heard of a label that doesn’t screw an artist.” When industry experts themselves are making statements such as this, the problem comes to the forefront and proves itself absolutely undeniable. Leto’s film serves as a great publication of the issue, and is a relevant and modern turmoil-filled example which is unfortunately not completely uncommon.

     Music is a societal staple which will be present in human cultures until the end, but we as a collective audience are responsible for taking care of the industry during this strange transitional period. With new digital streaming services and lower barriers of entry, it will become very important to find a way to pay deserving artists appropriately, as well as prevent record labels from continuously taking advantage of artists. This will be achieved through education of the issue, and increased attention and scrutiny to the system in place, until it is one which is fair to all parties. Some experts believe that today, signing a record is purely for artist validation, and that it is not necessary to succeed. It is becoming more and more common for artists to self-produce and make music without the solidification of a record deal. With time, hopefully the perplexing problem of how to make sufficient money as a musician in the digital age will be solved, but until then focus should be on controlling the power of record labels. The modern integration of technology and musical art has great potential to be a beautiful partnership, but are still working out the bugs to determine an appropriate and advantageous relationship between the two.



Leto, Jared, director. Artifact. 2012.

Mooney, Patrick, Mooney, Subarna Samanta, and Ali H.M Zadeh. “Napster and Its Effects 

    on the Music Industry: An Empirical Analysis.” Journal of Social Sciences, 6.3 (2010):


Suttle, Jill. “Why Does Altruism Exist?” Greater Good, 15 Apr. 2015, Accessed 20 Mar. 2017.

The Nielsen Company & Billboard’s 2011 Music Industry Report.” Business Wire, 5 Jan.


      Billboard%E2%80%9s-2011-Music-Industry-Report. Accessed 18 Mar. 2017.

Vicenews. “Why Artists Don’t Make Money – The Business of Life (Episode 3).”

    YouTube, 20 May 2015, Accessed 18 Mar.2017.



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