Friday, April 18, 2014

Hard Times For Musicians

It's rough out there for musicians... but I can't say it's just a sign of the times. Those who contribute creatively have long been subjected to hardship and under-appreciation. Remember Mozart?

Recently, drummer Daniel Liljekvist from the incredible and transcendent doom metal band Katatonia became another example of how unbelievably talented musicians are being left out in the cold thanks to not only the music industry, but also due to how musicians and music are being generally perceived. He released this statement regarding his departure:

"Dear friends and fans,

I’ve been thinking about this for the last couple of months and I’ve come to the sad conclusion that i have to leave the band. It’s got nothing to do with ’difference in views´or any other bullshit. I just cannot combine job, family and commit 100% to Katatonia. Times for musicians are rough and i’ve decided to concentrate on my family and get a normal job that gets the bills payed.

I’ve had some of the best moments in my life the past 14 odd years together with my favorite people in the world. I’ve been all over the planet with this lot…my second family. Thank you! I’m gonna miss playing with you and I’m gonna miss hanging out with you on the road so much. And I’m gonna miss meeting all the great Katatonia fans all over the world. You know who you are. You are truly amazing! I’m not gonna miss all the freaks and idiots we’ve come across during all the years. You probably don’t know who you are. And I will not miss bad catering, shit beer and banana juice…

Here's what the remaining members had to say:

"We are sad and hollow to see Daniel leave our ranks, but yet his decision has our sincere understanding. Nothing lasts forever and all good things must come to an end sooner or later. Yet it makes it so much more frustrating when it happens for the wrong reasons or before reaching our terminus. Particularly, we can’t pretend the current climate has nothing to do with it, in fact this is undeniably yet another outcome of musicians struggling at the crossroads of today’s “scene/industry”. Tragically, this situation forces a member, brother – and our fans favourite long-time drummer – to resign from a band he sacrificed a decade and a half to build. While encouraging this topic to inevitable debate and re-evaluation, we will always be grateful for the years we shared together and we wish Daniel the best of luck in the future. It goes without saying, we part as band members, but certainly remain as friends."

I cannot articulate with mere words just how sad this is. You struggle and work with your band for many, many years in most cases before you even get to the level of recognition that bands like Katatonia have achieved. You pay for all your own equipment (which can culminate costs into the thousands) to be able to play shows essentially for free. (Just getting to that initial stage is exceedingly difficult, especially if you aren't fortunate enough to have a high-paying day job that's understanding of your lifestyle or your appearance if you have tattoos, dreads, piercings or anything. If you have a job like this, be fucking thankful.) You stay on the hamster wheel of low/no-paying gigs potentially for years before you're able to get signed with a label or have built a big enough fan base to book larger shows.

Then, after a seemingly endless dance of gear-lugging, begging for gas money, and going without, you finally "make it". Your shows are selling out, your merch is flying out the door, and people are buying either tangible or digital copies of your music. YOU'RE RICH! ...right? Wrong. The venue that filled up with people wanting to see you takes the large majority of profits from tickets, booze sales, whatever - leaving you with next to nothing. The merch that people are buying? You're barely breaking even thanks to you having to cover the cost of actually designing and making the stuff, not to mention shipping expenses and the cut that's taken out from the website running your online store. And all that music people are buying? The bulk of the profits, again, don't go to the people that created the music. Instead, it goes primarily to the label and/or the platform from which you sell your digital copies (iTunes, Amazon, etc.), leaving the musicians with the tiniest cut of everything.

The people buying all this stuff are buying it because they love the music and it's had some sort of impact on their lives. You'll never hear someone say they can't wait to go The Fillmore no matter who's playing. They go because they want to see the bands. Therefore, if the bands weren't performing that night, they would have no business, no patrons. Yet bands are being paid as if the venue would make money either way - as if the venue was what all those people came there to see.

The people buying your music off iTunes don't just give their money to Apple because they fuckin' love the iTunes app. They're buying music that's been lovingly and painstakingly created by musicians. Without the band giving them material to sell, no one would be on their site at all. Yet the cut given to the bands would make it seem like the situation is reversed.

It all echoes the sickeningly disproportionate way that wealth is amassed and spread. We work hard, sometimes demeaning, physically straining and mind-numbing jobs for a relatively small paycheck that's barely enough to cover the costs of living within reasonable means. Without even a way to contest it or prevent it, a substantial portion of those wages go to pay the wages of people, "lawmakers", that spend their days eating hundred-dollar lunches on company dime, drive cars that are paid for with government funds, sit in rooms not paying attention to the things they are there to pay attention to, and have other people with less than them cater to their every whim. Don't let anyone convince you differently - I've worked on The Hill, and quite frankly the level of luxury and excess (not just in the public sector, but almost everywhere you look in DC) that these people are allowed to indulge in is fucking disgusting.

And so, just as the CEO of the small business drives a Mercedes while his entire staff struggles to pay their bills, so too is the musician watching helplessly as the well-earned fruits of their labor pass over their heads and into the hands of people who have not will never contribute anything half as meaningful as a beautifully written song.

I'm not, by any stretch of the imagination, saying that anyone who makes over a certain amount a year is undeserving of their fortunate income. I'm just saying that about 80% of them either are earning far more than they should be, or they simply don't deserve it at all. Like I said, if you are someone blessed enough to hold a decent-paying job, thank your lucky fucking stars and hope that it's never taken away from you.

It doesn't help that there seems to still be this stigma around musicians, painting them as lazy, drug-addicted losers who turned to music because they are devoid of any other skills or intelligence when in fact the opposite is true in most cases. Music is not easy to write, nor to perform. It takes a very intelligent and capable individual to write a good song or album, no matter what your genre. (Pop isn't included, mind you, because it's not a real music industry in my opinion. If you become a pop star, all that means is that you or someone else had enough money to whore yourself and your material out to every major network and music outlet - which in turn convinces every dumb fucker unable to think for themselves that everyone else loves them and therefore so should they. There are exceptions to the rule, a very few, but overall this is the formula behind pop music today.)

Creativity should be nurtured and encouraged, not treated as "just a hobby" or a meaningless vocation. Sadly, the majority of society chooses to believe that the only success comes from having money or making money. Success has never had anything to do with money. Remember that.

That's one reason why I love metal and have so much respect for underground/local bands and artists. Most of these bands have taken profit out of the equation entirely leaving you with pure, unadulterated creativity and talent. The cruel truth that we will never make a million dollars being full-time musicians drives us to create from our hearts without having anything tainted with commercialism or politics or what anyone else expects of us. However, there is sadness that comes with this, knowing that talented guys like Daniel will inevitably be forced to leave their passion behind so that they can preserve what is most important - their family, their health, their sanity, and their quality of life.

There has to be a better way to do this. There has to be a way that artists and venues and labels can all support each other fairly, where no one has to sacrifice more than the other to reach their goals. It might just take a revolution to fix things, or they may never get fixed at all. Regardless.. I'll always have hope.

We'll miss you, Daniel. Thanks for putting up with the broken system for all these years to bring us some of the most beautiful and profound music I've ever heard. Even if it's just a jam now and then, keep playing and don't let this destroy your passions. No matter what anyone says, music and creativity is and will always be important. I will keep hoping for the day musicians start getting the rewards they've long deserved.

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