The Good Life

What's the difference between a musician and a plumber? Metallica and Tom Magic Feet reach different conclusions...

By Tom Magic Feet

Leaving aside Popstars for a minute (can we, please?), the music industry has just one thing on its mind. Napster – ‘the controversial music-sharing website’ – has dominated the news for the last eighteen months, with scarcely a week out of the headlines. Every week my download-mad friend Dave relays the latest twist in the saga to me – as if the hundreds of column and screen inches and Newsnight specials weren't enough to do the job.

Everyone knows the story by now. To the music biz, Napster is the greatest threat since forever. And it’s not just the industry machine that hates Napster. Big name acts like Metallica and, oh, what’s his name. Dr Dre (sorry, forgot about you for a sec there, Doc) have famously come out against Shawn Fanning’s dorm-room project.

To those of us who inhabit the other end of the spectrum, the so-called ‘credible’ independent sector, where records sell in the couple of thousand, this seems to make the issue reassuringly clear-cut: when already minted rock stars bitch about forgoing royalties they clearly don’t actually need, it’s all too easy to dismiss the anti-Napster lobby as a bunch of greedy bastards. (Things are always so much simpler when it’s ‘them’ against ‘us’, after all.) But how many artists at our level ever stop to think about their role in all this?

Underlying this premise, and, indeed, the entire debate surrounding Napster and other file-sharing systems, is one simple, unspoken assumption; namely, that musicians automatically deserve to get paid for their work. And at first sight, it seems an obvious enough principle. Do you call in a plumber to fix your leaky tap, demanded Metallica, and then expect not to have to pay him? It’s the same thing, they said – you’re stealing food from an artist’s table with every download.

But Metallica are wrong. Making music is not like being a plumber. Plumbers have to get up every day and go out to do a boring, repetitive and dirty job, and I doubt you’ll find many who do it out of choice. Same for bus drivers, teachers, people who work in call centres, the list goes on: these are real jobs, exactly the kind of thing musicians are trying to avoid, and people deserve to be paid a decent rate for doing them. Making music, on the other hand, is a lifestyle choice. Musicians only have to get up and do something they profess to love. Hardly a ‘job’, is it?

And music, like poetry or art or acting, is one of those occupations in which you are, frankly, supposed to struggle. 95% of musicians out there don’t make a living off it anyway, so what makes the other 5% think they have a god-given right to? You’re supposed to spend ten years living in a grotty little hole eating cold baked beans before you have any success, dammit. It goes with the territory; in fact, it’s an essential part of the process. As a certain famously militant Detroit techno character once told me, there is no soul without struggle. It might sound trite, but it’s true.

Of course music enriches our culture. At least, some of it does, anyway. Unfortunately most music is little more than a poor photocopy of someone else’s brilliant idea and most record labels put out records to pay the bills, not to enhance our cultural experience. If 98% of recorded music in the world was wiped out tomorrow, would we really be any worse off? This applies equally to small-time dance and electronic artists just as it does to stadium rock acts.

A couple of years ago I interviewed Richie Hawtin and asked him why he didn’t put out very many records. His answer was that he didn’t need to. He realises he is in a privileged position of being able to live very well from his DJing alone and so, because he doesn’t need to pump out the tunes to make a living, he won’t. Instead he prefers to only put music out when he really thinks he has something worth releasing. Indeed, Hawtin doesn’t just see this as an option, he sees it as an artistic duty.

What a contrast with most of the other producers I’ve talked to over the years. I’ve lost count of the number of times interviewees have complained about how much dross there is out there without for a second considering that they themselves might be part of the problem. It’s so hard, they whine, without ever considering that maybe they’ve actually been taking the soft option all along. Working in Burger King for eight hours straight is hard. Sitting in a warm studio smoking spliffs and twiddling knobs, by comparison, is easy.

Look at the situation we’re in now: dance music producers commonly pump out ten records or more a year to keep the wages coming in, with remixes and the rest on top of that. The end result is an overstuffed market where everyone sells less and less, and the 1% of truly exciting records are buried under a mountain of mediocrity. And for the individual artist, more is less, too: every average record you put out detracts from your reputation, cheapens your best work by association. People moan about how Derrick May hasn’t made a record in years – I say he deserves more of our admiration because of it.

See, money and music just don’t mix. The history of popular music is littered with bands who made one amazing album at the start of their careers when they were skint, then lost their fire when the money came rolling in. It’s the same in dance and electronic music. Producers make one great record, then spend the rest of their careers failing to match it because they couldn’t stay hungry. Can you name a single artist whose music was really improved by the addition of more filthy lucre to the equation?

And, lest we forget, music isn’t supposed to be a commodity, it’s supposed to be art. You producers out there, why are you doing it anyway? Is it to express yourself or to improve your standard of living? Are you putting out that record because someone asked you to and you could do with a couple of extra hundred quid, or because you think the human cultural canon will benefit from it? Isn’t it just enough that more people will hear it? Maybe if a few more started asking themselves the same questions, we wouldn’t be drowning in rubbish like we are now.

At this point you might be thinking this is all just a trifle hypocritical coming from a music writer. After all, what did critics ever add to the world? True enough, but then I don’t expect to make a living from writing alone, which is why I have a part-time job and do other things as well as writing to make money. And no, I won’t get paid for this article either. Like a musician, being a music writer allows me to avoid doing a 9-5 and live a certain sort of lifestyle doing something that I enjoy. The sacrifice I make is a steady income. That’s just how it is.

Not for a minute am I suggesting that artists should go without revenue from records sold whilst record labels grow fat from the profits. What I am suggesting, however, is that artists shouldn’t make music in order to make a living. Because when they do, they perpetuate the very system they all claim to detest. The internet offers an unrivalled opportunity for more artists to make their music available to more people without lining the pockets of the industry parasites ie, free. If, along the way, an artist manages to reach a point where music can become a full-time job, so much the better – so long as the music itself is not compromised. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case.
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