The Troubadour and the Patron by Guest Blogger Franz Nicolay

[It’s pretty unbelievable to consider the seismic changes throughout the music industry in the past decade. CD sales now account for less than half of all industry-based revenue, Google Music and others are trying to identify and implement the next generation of digital music services and the work of an 8th-grader with no record label or publicist has been viewed over 135 million times on YouTube. These changes have produced unease in many whose livelihood is music, but not Franz Nicolay.

Franz Nicolay (ex-keyboardist of The Hold Steady; World/Inferno Friendship Society; Founder/Member of Anti-Social Music) has been a songwriter, touring musician and music activist for over a decade. His recent article in InDigest, “The Troubadour and the Patron,” provides an insightful — and typically overlooked — vantage into the life and lineage of musicians. He steps back centuries to reconsider the historic role of musicians, their current place in the industry, and what’s in store for the digital age.

Take it away, Franz.]

The Troubadour and the Patron
by Franz Nicolay

For four thousand years, there were two ways to make a living as a musician.

You could be a troubadour. That is, strap your harp or lute or hurdy-gurdy on your back and travel town to town. Set up on a street corner, in a market square, or in the corner of a pub, and start playing. Sing the epic or play the requests and hope you make enough money or charity to get a hot meal and a place to sleep before you move on to the next town. You are Homer, you are any one of a number of anonymous medieval bards, you are a vaudevillian or music-hall performer, you are Woody Guthrie.

Or, you could find a patron. Become a court musician, write and play for banquets, weddings, religious holidays, coronations. You work for the Catholic Church, writing masses and choral music, playing organ and directing the choir. You are Haydn, whipping off a symphony a week for the court concerts. You live your life in the service industry, with art as a by-product. You are Handel, you are Lully, you are Palestrina.

Then, a hundred or so years ago, a window opened for a third model: the recording artist. Now, under the right circumstances, you could stay home and mass-produce a widget that could, in a way, do your touring for you. Like the old dream, you could clone yourself, and send all your widget clones to homes and bars and radio stations all around the world to, for a small fee, play private shows for as many people will have you. You are the later Beatles, Harry Nilsson, Brian Wilson, Glenn Gould.

That window appears to have closed. The CD, the cassette, the vinyl LP, are all more or less devalued below the level of the T-shirts and other dry goods that orbit the burnt-out sun of the music industry. Their relative status as fetish objects may wax and wane, but as an economic generator, the money is in the player (phone, laptop, satellite radio), not that which it plays. It’s the opposite of the printer cartridge/razor blade scam (sell them the printer or razor cheap, then inflate the prices of the ink cartridge or replacement blades). In this case, the downward pressure on the value of recordings⎯easy enough in a business with a constant influx of young musicians willing, eager, to work for free for exposure and attention⎯enables an ocean of cheap content to refill $300 iPods. And it moves that giant chunk of money from the world of music to the world of tech and manufacturing.  Lars Ulrich was right⎯he was the wrong messenger, surely (defending the right of property from the position of extreme privilege is poor optics, as they say in politics), but the right message, certainly.

Here’s what I think… [continue reading at InDigest]

[Read the rest of Franz’s article by clicking the link above.]

Submitted by Scott on May 11, 2011 - 1:00pm

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