For the past year or so, there has been a number floating around from the Recording Industry Association of America. It says that from 1999 to 2011, the number of people self-identifying as professional musicians dropped by over 40 percent. There is some controversy surrounding this figure – which the RIAA divined by comparing certain monthly data from Bureau of Labor Statistics employment surveys – mostly around the method that the RIAA used for its calculation. But no matter whether it’s really above 40 percent, a variety of sources suggests that the drop in people paying the bills with musical performance is quite significant.
There are many reasons why this is happening, and the foremost is the economic stagnation that has been occurring since the turn of the millennium, and which was exacerbated during the economic collapse of 2008. When it comes to economic trends the arts serve as a proverbial canary in the mine, often becoming one of the earliest sectors to lose out on disposable and public spending when money is tight. Clubs shutter and institutions trim their budgets.
Technology is also a culprit. DJs easily replace dance bands; while a drummer could once have made a living playing recording sessions, those opportunities have been outsourced to the microprocessor. (At this writing, eight of the songs on Billboard’s top 10 use drum machines instead of live drummers.) Blame is aimed in other directions too: globalization, intellectual property infringement and a host of other societal shifts.
The outlook can seem bleak for the working musician if viewed through a purely economic lens, but the individuals who follow this path are still deserving of our respect and admiration for other reasons. This being the final Swing District column of 2013, and with the holiday season being as good a time as any to reflect, let’s look beyond the dire and try to find the bright side of things. What is it we’re fighting for when we argue for increased access to creative music? And what can we do to acknowledge the contributions of bold artists? Continue reading