Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Facing the music

Posted by metaphorical on 26 March 2007

Last Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal took a careful look at last year’s steep decline in music sales.

In a dramatic acceleration of the seven-year sales decline that has battered the music industry, compact-disc sales for the first three months of this year plunged 20% from a year earlier, the latest sign of the seismic shift in the way consumers acquire music.

The sharp slide in sales of CDs, which still account for more than 85% of music sold, has far eclipsed the growth in sales of digital downloads, which were supposed to have been the industry’s salvation.

We may be approaching the day when musical acts are no longer able to make a living selling their music.

Jeff Rabhan, who manages artists and music producers including Jermaine Dupri, Kelis and Elliott Yamin, says CDs have become little more than advertisements for more-lucrative goods like concert tickets and T-shirts. “Sales are so down and so off that, as a manager, I look at a CD as part of the marketing of an artist, more than as an income stream,” says Mr. Rabhan. “It’s the vehicle that drives the tour, the merchandise, building the brand, and that’s it. There’s no money.”

Mr Rabhan, welcome to my world.

Consider, if you will, the economics of book-writing.

As in music, there are a handful of superstars—Stephen King, Tim LaHaye, JK Rowling, Nora Roberts, Scott Turow, and so on. As in music, there are those who write books for reasons completely divorced from remuneration, for example, academics who write for professional advancement and receive only a nominal advance or no advance at all for their manuscripts.

Most book authors, though do something else for a living. Let’s look at a couple of don’t.

Consider Susan Cheever (disclosure: my MFA thesis advisor). She just published a new book, a brilliant little tome called “American Bloomsbury,” about the cluster of literary and philosophical geniuses in and around Concord, Mass., around the time of the Civil War. Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Alcott, and others – who all knew each other, loved one another, helped one another, and in some cases slept with one another.

She had a pretty good book tour, and the book is doing well for its kind. It’ll sell some copies each and every year for the rest of her life, but even when you add the good years a book is new, and the back-list sales, she’s only scraping by as a writer, and talent-wise she’s probably the equivalent of Mary Wells or Joni Mitchell. So she also teaches part-time, but not so much that it cuts too much into her writing time. She also write critical reviews, and had an eight-year run as a biweekly columnist for Newsday.

What’s allowed Cheever to live more comfortably is the royalties from her late father’s writings. In other words, for a major American contemporary author, with a well-known name made famous by the connection to her father, it takes one-and-a-half lifetimes of royalties to partially, not entirely, support a family of three (Cheever, her widowed mother, and her son).

Consider the author Percival Everett. (“Who?” “Exactly.”) Everett has written 20 books in 23 years, mostly novels but some short story collections, a children’s book, and a book of poetry as well. His stort stories have been selected for Best American Short Stories andPushcart Prize anthologies.

The books are, for the most part, not very well known. The one that made him the most money was probably his second novel, Walk Me to the Distance, which, Wikipedia says, “was later re-interpreted with an altered plot as an ABC TV movie entitled Follow Your Heart.”

I’d be surprised if any of his books sell more than a couple of thousand copies a year, and many sell fewer by far. Some of them probably still haven’t advanced past the point of meeting his advance. The sum total of his total royalties for 20 books is probably under $20,000. I don’t know what his advances are, but even if they are $40,000 each, which I doubt, he’s making less than $60,000 a year on average. That’s a major novelist at the top of his game with 20 years of backlist.

The average newspaper journalist, younger than Everett and having never published a book, probably makes at least that much.

So most book authors do something else for a living.

Marilynne Robinson wrote “Housekeeping,” which is on most lists of the 50 best novels of the 20th century (it’s certainly on mine). On the strength of that one book she got a full-time job at the University of Iowa writing program. It took her 25 years to write a second book. Partly that was writer’s block, but partly she was teaching full-time and yet wanted to make it good. It won a Pulitzer.

Fiction book authors frequently teach and non-fiction authors writing for a popular audience frequently work full-time for a newspaper or, as I do, a magazine.

Consider the economics of my getting a book published. On my own dime and time, I would have to write the entire book (if fiction or memoir). In the best case, I would only several chapters and a detailed book proposal (for a work of regular non-fiction). After a lengthy and frustrating process of shopping it around, if successful, I would then get an advance of (remember, best case) $40,000 (or 85% of that, after an agent’s commission). At this point I would need to do some concentrated reporting and writing. Again, in the best case, my employer would let me take a 6- or at least 4-month unpaid leave of absence—thereby letting me live off the advance. My book would get written, but I would have made, essentially no additional money from it that I couldn’t have made by just doing my (non-bookwriting) job.

Writing the book wouldn’t be a waste of time or effort. My book might be considered in the New York Review of Books (where it might be horribly misunderstood by someone who didn’t take enough time to read it, or had an axe to grind, as happened to my colleague of mine).

The book would make me an expert on the topic. I would get interviewed by television and radio reporters. I might get on the Leonard Lopate show or, dream of dreams, Fresh Air. I could be invited to write op-ed pieces in the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal.

Let’s recap then: We can look at a CD book as part of the marketing of an artist a writer, more than as an income stream. It’s the vehicle that drives the tour, the merchandiseopens other doors, building the brand, and that’s it. There’s no money.


9 Responses to “Facing the music”

  1. digglahhh said

    Well, the CD as a marketing tool is spot on, at least for the mainstream hip-hop game.” The album and videos are primarily used for shameless cross-promotion (diamond encrusted crucifixes make that a nice, unintentional pun).

    Drop your album, shout out your clothing line, feature the other artists signed to your label and so on. But this is not so different from television and movies using productions to feature music marketed by the same source and what not. This is, as Carlin says, the trick that appears earliest in the book (see they’re all equally old if the first appeared in the same book).

    Here’s the other thing the technology industry has changed the whole scene. It’s not just accessibility to literature and music, it is the ease with which one can write or create music. The blogosphere revolutionized writing, as did myspace, filesharing programs that allowed people to download music production software to the music industry. It took these people off of the pedestals, at least for a lot of my friends.

    The bottom line is, talented writers and musicians are a dime a dozen. I think that is a dirty little secret that some of us knew for a long time. Record companies made heroes out of marginal talent for a long time while true artists wallowed in obscurity and poverty. Well, they’re still poor, but not obscure.

    Outkast, Gnarls Barkley, MF Doom- these guys are fantastic. Thank you very much internet- welcome to 1994, buddy.

  2. ClaireDePlume said

    Anyone can be an unsung hero – no matter their talent. Universal contributions to life – on the micro or the macro scale, in any endeavour – are the greatest ‘payback’.

    If a song’s lyrics touch one person’s heart or propel just one to some unforseen act of greatness, and if one word, one sentence, or one book sparks creative genius in another? Well these net results are our highest possible payment. Each and every one of us stands on the shoulders of greatness, of those who have passed before us.

    The view alone is breathtaking.

  3. I’d be surprised if any of his books sell more than a couple of thousand copies a year, and many sell fewer by far. Some of them probably still haven’t advanced past the point of meeting his advance. The sum total of his total royalties for 20 books is probably under $20,000.

    Assuming a 15% author’s royalty and average annual sales of 1,000 copies per title, at a paperback price of $15, he should be making a lot more than that.

    If he’s getting 15% and grossing only 20K in royalties off of 20 books at a $15 cover price, he’s selling barely 400 copies of each worldwide. I would think any book that’s in print could sell that many copies by accident.

    Assume 2 of his books move 2,000 copies per year, 10 more average 500 copies, and the rest haven’t earned out their advances. That’s only 9,000 copies total, and total royalties are still over 20K. You can adjust for different levels of royalty and sale price, but, still, he’s got to be making some coin.

    All of which is not to say it’s not a cruel and harsh world in the writing biz.

  4. I didn’t show a calculation, and maybe I should have, but I assumed only a couple had any “popularity” at all and most were out of print already. (And I think you’re wrong about 400 books selling on their own each year.) I may well be wrong about his royalties. But even doubling the $20,000 figure, he would make less than if he had a 23-year journalism career, or a 23-year college professor career, or even a 23-year high school English teacher career. For two of those three careers you could probably triple the figure and that sentence would still be correct.

  5. digglahhh said

    With all due respect, Claire, forgive me while I barf.

    In spirit, I agree with what you are saying, but let’s be a little mathematical without being cold, shall we. People are inspired by all types of things. Somewhere out there are (thousands of?) people who used Britney Spears’s music for their wedding song – law of averages (and taste), it just has to be… Is that beautiful or inspiring? Slightly euphemistic to say the least, IMO.

    Few people get out of their mainstream media bubbles. Joe Blow’s fringe is the enlightened man’s yawn. So, Noam Chomsky gets thrown around as some contraversial radical who speaks to our inner desire to assert ourselves and speak truth to power, right?

    Nah. Chomsky speaks sanitized simplicities through the hallowed halls of white academia. Chomsky fans THINK they’ve been inspired or touched. They’d feel embarrassed for having that same feeling if they are lucky enough to stumble across Ward Churchill’s “Pacifism as Pathology.” Mainstream hip-hop heads think they’ve learned something about lyricism from Jay-Z until somebody opens their ears to the Percee P’s of the world and so on and so on.

    My point is that a thoroughly mediocre book, song or movie can cause somebody to change his/her life. But, I’m not going to celebrate that. Maybe somebody stopped drinking because he/she read “Dry” or saw “When a Man Loves a Woman.” This doesn’t mean these works or great or beautiful, so much as it means those were the books/movies that a random alcoholic stumbled across. If not that, it would have been something else. Most people just fill their voids arbitrarily, and their inspiration is interchangable.

    It is a huge world out there, Claire- somebody is eagerly waiting to drop a 3 bedroom tudor on a half eaten Oreo cookie that resembles the Vatican…

    This has been your cheerful post of the day.

  6. Swanny said

    It’s an awfully big hand there, Meta, to hold off the top of my head Stephen Hunter, Thomas Harris, Vince Flynn, Elmore Leonard, Tom Robbins, James Patterson, Carl Hiaasen, Michael Crichton, Dan Brown, Anne Rice, Pat Conroy, David Sedaris, Joyce Carol Oates, Danielle Steele, J.D. Robb, Robert Parker, John Irving, Michael Connelly, David Baldacci, Mary Higgins Clark, John Sandford, Chuck Palahniuk, Dean Koontz, Nelson DeMille, Sue Grafton, Tom Clancy, Nick Pileggi, Peter Maas, Larry Bond, Dale Brown, Terry McMillan, Walter Mosley, W.E.B. Griffin and Tami Hoag. Not all superstars all, but all doing quite well. That’s just ones I can think of off-hand. And only novelists. Only fiction novelists. I’d say there’s a few more than a handful out there who are doing quite well with their writing thank you very much.

  7. I hate to point this out, digglahhh, but there’s no actual contradiction between anything you wrote and what Claire wrote (barfing aside).

    That’s a great list, Swanny, and there’s a bunch of mid-list nonfiction writers too. And I think even after the death of the CD there will be music superstars and mid-list musical artists who make their money off their music.

    And in music there are also songwriters who don’t perform at all, who do and will make a living writing music. I guess a screenwriter is the comparable person in this comparison I’m drawing.

    My point was that if there will be a lot of musical acts who won’t make money selling their music, though some of them will make money on all the stuff that surrounds the music – from tickets to t-shirts – then that’s nothing new in the creative world. I could have also mentioned how few people make money off of quilting or any number of other creative arts.

  8. ClaireDePlume said

    “It is a huge world out there, Claire- somebody is eagerly waiting to drop a 3 bedroom tudor on a half eaten Oreo cookie that resembles the Vatican…” – I suppose the Pope blesses his rap music before he plays it too.

    We can’t control the public’s influences on popular tastes, but we can control popular tastes on our influences . If everyone finds momentary satisfaction on a steady diet of fluff (since this is readily available in abundance), just imagine what providing substance will do.

    Diggahhh, I must ask though; an oreo cookie? Might this be a half-baked effort to resurrect the girl guide cookie debacle?

  9. digglahhh said

    Yes, Claire. Thank you for not taking my barf comment harshly. “Touching,” “moving” and “inspiring” are terms that are thrown out so haphazardly, you know. People are always being “moved,” “inspired” and “touched” yet we remain largely lethargic, insensitive and self-absorbed. So, obviously we need substance to actually catalyze such changes- paying lip service to it and indulging in sensationalism isn’t doing much…

    The thin mint rant needs not be rehashed. I chalked that one up to Meta “shooting from the hip.”

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