Please wait...

Why did you stop playing music?

The short answer is, I haven't stopped playing music.  I've just stopped doing it for a living. 

When I started touring professionally in the early 2000s, this is how it worked:  Go on tour for half of the year, sell a bunch of records then come home with a nice stack of money.  I mean, not millions or anything, but thousands.  Enough money to live on for several months and to finance the creation of the next record.  Make that next record, then do it all over again. 

That's a bit of an oversimplification to be sure, but that is the gist of how it went.  Each time you went out (all being well) you'd add more and more people to the list of those excited about your music.  During the "downtime" when you'd be working on the new record, you could focus completely on the task of making the record because you didn't need to be out hustling. 

Sure you'd do a few shows locally and regionally to keep your chops up, have a little fun and put a bit of extra coin in your pocket.  Maybe you'd send out the occasional email to the fan list, but largely you were not interacting with your fans because you didn't have anything much to tell them during this time.  You weren't doing tons of shows, you didn't have a new record yet, and there was no need to tell them that you were in the process of making a new record.

Now though, everything is different.  When you sell someone a record for $15 at a show, that's it.  They give you the money, you give them the record.  Maybe a bit of small talk, a thanks very much and what-have-you.  End of transaction.  When you allow someone to *sponsor* a record for $15 though, you now have to go out of your way to keep them informed and interested.  Why?  Because what you've really sold them is the opportunity to be involved in the process.  To feel connected and invested in an artist for whom they obviously have an affinity.  They're not paying you for a record that they may not be able to listen to for months.  They're paying for that connection, and they're getting the record for free.  The end result?  A lot more work for you, for less pay. 

Less pay you say?  How do you figure?

The pay comes at the beginning of the process now, not at the end.  This has the effect of making it seem like you're not making much of anything from selling the record, and in fact that feeling is well-founded, because this new model is the artistic and creative equivalent of living hand-to-mouth.  You're not earning as much as you did under the model of yesteryear.

Follow me here.  You've just finished making and shipping the record, and now you're flat broke.  Broke because the money you earned from "selling" these records months ago was already spent on producing the record.  You've paid for the studio time, the engineers, mixers, producer, musicians, artwork and manufacturing.  If you're really thinking ahead and/or you've done this before you may have even earmarked some of that money for promotion/publicity and for postage to ship all the pre-bought records out, but you probably didn't, so you may even be in the red at this point. 

Going on tour isn't going to help your financial situation that much either because most of the people who would've bought a copy of the record at a show will be getting their copy in the mail shortly.  This means there's now more of a financial barrier to touring, which in turn means that expanding your audience by performing in front of new faces becomes more difficult.

What is a working musician to do?  This is where so many turn to social media.  Who needs the expense and hassle of the road for expanding your audience when you can youtube, facebook and instagram yourself right into the pockets of millions?  This is just more extra work that you don't get paid for.  

Now in addition to the plethora of email that you send, receive and reply to daily, you're recording and uploading videos, updating statuses, posing for and uploading photos, writing witty captions, etc etc.  You're spending hours each day on your computer and receiving little or no compensation for this work.  And it is work.  This is the job now.  Remember when I said you weren't selling music anymore, that you were selling a feeling of investment and connection?  Well, you have to manufacture and maintain that connection.  That's how you earn your living now.  Now you're a panhandler on the digital street corner.  Each social media post is the rattle of change in your cup trying to out-share the thousands of other techno-tramps by over-embellishing every aspect of your daily existence in the hope of gaining a few new fans and holding on to the ones you already have. 

The more time you spend on social media and fan "outreach" and "engagement", the less time you have to concentrate on writing, performing and recording.  Who has time to rehearse?  You need to upload those selfies you took at the XYZ fest three years ago!   

This becomes a vicious feedback loop.  Now you're working twice as hard for a fraction of the pay out.  It's not sustainable.  Or at least it wasn't for me. 

If you know anything about me, you know that I don't care for social media.  In fact, it's an understatement to say that I loathe the new phenomenon in our culture that sees a never-ending parade of zombies seek the publicly bought-and-paid-for opinion of a group of "influencers" in order to know what to wish for, how to feel, how to think and who to be.  The idea that I would need to wade around in that same dirty water in order to make a living was enough to put me off the whole thing.

And so I quit.  It was easy for me to do.  I'm lucky enough to have other sought-after skills that I enjoy using, and that can help me earn a comfortable living.  I understand it's not so easy for others. 

I also know that many people enjoy the personal contact and the sense of community-building that they get from this level of engagement with their fans, and that's great!  I'm not here to say that anyone else should do what I did.  And I'm not saying that this is how it is for everyone playing music professionally.  I know my experience is just that -- my experience.  I'm just trying to answer a question that I have been often asked over the past couple of years.  Hopefully, I've accomplished that.

See you around,

- AJ