Today is No Music Day. Yes, really. This is an event introduced by the South African-born Scottish musician and record producer, Bill Drummond. Though he originally created it as a five-year plan to “draw attention to the cheapening of music as an art form due to its mindless and ubiquitous use in contemporary society,” it has come to hold no particular meaning through the years. According to the event’s official website, the only thing that’s certain about it is that it’s observed before the feast of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music. So, today we will use the occasion to salute those who make a living through music by focusing on the cheapening of music in itself. But in a good way.
Making music is now easier than ever. Take, for instance, the case of Samuel Rivera, a Guatemalan college student and musician who produced his own album a few years ago. “The plan was to create a 12-track gospel and folk record to promote our church,” recalls Mr. Rivera. “So, I got the equipment to do it.” According to him, that’s the largest investment he had to make through the whole process.
Mr. Rivera acquired an 2-channel interface with preamps and a digital to analog converter, which costed around $700USD. “You also need microphones for that,” he continues. “I got three of them, plus the mic-stands, for about $251USD. Add to that the cables, a nice headset and a couple of high-quality speakers, and the total goes up to about $1600USD.”
After getting his equipment and recording the album, Mr. Rivera had it printed, packaged and distributed. He ordered close to one thousand copies, which costed him nearly $500USD. “I opted for hard paper envelopes rather than the average plastic boxes because that would’ve costed about three times as much,” he adds. “So, the whole thing was done under $3000USD.”
This, however, might make it difficult for artists to get their music on the radio. According to the local radio personality, Lucy Bonilla, there is a sound quality standard that a lot of self-produced records fail to meet. “Sometimes artists want to be promoted on the radio and they bring you a an album that was recorded who-knows-where and it doesn’t have that minimum percentage of quality that’s required for it to be played on air,” she explains.
And that’s exactly what happened to a now-disbanded Guatemalan alternative rock band called Woodser nearly a decade ago. The band members opted to record their first record, Sushi Delivery, in a home studio. But when they tried to get one of their songs in the airwaves, the radio station politely declined. “It was very clear that the audio was not, perhaps, on the same level at what usually goes on the radio,” says David Lemus, the former vocalist of the band. “So, we had to go to an actual studio and have it remastered. For us, it served as a sort of trampoline towards more opportunities.”
While it is true that radio has traditionally been the most sure-fire way for artists to expose their music to larger audiences, music streaming services have become increasingly popular. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), the non-profit that represents the interests of the recording industry worldwide, 45% of the music industry’s revenue last year came from digital services. On the other hand, only about 14% of the industry’s revenue came from the use of recorded music by broadcasters. The IFPI attributes this to the increasing availability of smartphones coupled with the seemingly endless musical offer online So, at least when it comes down to exposure, the field is pretty even.
Ishto Juevez, a Guatemalan singer-songwriter, embraces this idea. “There’s a demand for music of all genres in all kinds of environments out there, so long as there’s quality in the product,” he says. However, he warns that every musician must also know how to run his or her own business. “I am my own company because I play five or six different successful roles that allow me to live off of music,” Mr. Juevez explains. “I have free time and I organise it. I am my own boss and I’m recognised at a certain level, all whole considering that my music isn’t exactly Pop.”
Recording music and selling it on whatever platform is available isn’t really the musician’s bread and butter anymore, however. As Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger pointed out in an interview with the New York Times in 2010, musicians make their living through live performances. “There was a window in the 120 years of the record business where performers made loads and loads of money out of records,” Jagger said to the publication. “But it was a very small window — say, 15 years between 1975 and 1990.” Live performances, as the English rockstar points out, is now any band’s most lucrative business.