Music industry, in sum

In three four short panels, the Oatmeal does a fine job of capturing the problem and promise of the music industry in the 21st century.

The state of the music industry - The Oatmeal (via Reddit)


    1. These four (count ’em) four panels capture the paradigm of the music industry as it existed about 8 years or maybe even 10 years ago. The problem as I see it is there are way too many self-deluded musicians out there. The” sensitive singer-songwriter” genre truly is packed to the gills, not to mention the over-abundance of “classic rock” wannabe bands and bad Hip Hop artists out there.  Not every musician is talented or worthy of money for his or her music. Not everyone can get paid.

      1. There have always been a ton of self-deluded musicians. It’s practically a requirement. It doesn’t seem to stop most of them when they don’t get paid (much) though, which I have a certain amount of respect for.

        The other important thing I think this cartoon misses is the fact that it says “for a very long time” in the first panel, when it actually means “for a few decades, certainly, maybe a hundred years tops”. Music and musicians have much more history than that! Conceding that point before you even start just helps the record industry’s argument.

    2.  Maybe he thinks one of the panels didn’t do a fine job of capturing the problem and promise of the music industry in the 21st century. That would make it three.

  1. It is pretty obvious. The only thing missing is an easy international small payments system that doesn’t suck.

    1. what, like Bandcamp? really, the only thing missing is the scarcity of physical objects that made recorded music worth more than the guilt of music consumers.

    2. I think you have hit the nail on the head thar ser! 
      HumbleBundle is a good example of what will happen – kill off the biggies and have more homegrown maker stuff.

  2. The “Let the artist make their money touring” model is a horrible construct. Touring is horrible on the environment and most artists would really rather NOT tour, as evidenced by what they charge BEFORE the scalpers get into the mix. If the model was like panel 3, artists would have to tour less, would enjoy it more and charge much less.

    1. Louis CK seemed to make a go of it…  mind you he isn’t a band, but he made a tidy little sum selling his tour himself.
      Of course he cut the scalpers out, didn’t have 200 hidden fees on each ticket, and have the best seats magically sell out before the page selling the tickets loaded, only to show up on a ticket resell site owned by the same company selling the tickets with 400 hidden fees. (they gotta get paid!)
      And I am sure he wasn’t paying off a bunch of loans from the labels, trying to make sure no matter how successful he is he would never make enough to escape the indentured servitude of a big label contract.

      1. Was gonna mention Mr CK.

        Dude smashed it out of the fucking park. Sure, he’s already famous, but it’s the 21st century – if folks like your stuff enough, you don’t need to sell your soul to a multinational conglomerate to become famous.

        You don’t even need to try that hard if you can come up with a catchy gimmick; just look at Tron Guy.

        1. I think CK’s model would work great for other stand-up comedians, and other smaller acts with a strong fan base.  Part of his success (I believe) was that he is JUST famous enough to have a really strong fan base, but not so famous that the big wigs are going to start *really* worrying. 

          The world of stand-up comedy just isn’t like the world of mainstream music.

          Pearl Jam tried to do it in the 90’s, remember, and there was a HUGE backlash against ticketmaster, etc.

          I think a big band would have better luck now, what with the internet, but it’d still be a HELL of a lot harder than it is for a stand-up comedian.

          All that said, stand-up (and other smaller acts with solid fans, but while still being rather cultish instead of fully mainstream) is the PERFECT place to start this revolution, imo.  So good job, Loius CK. Others will hopefully follow and also succeed. And then more people will follow…etc.

          I think an act like Bassnectar (electronic music guy) would also do well — he seems to straddle the mainstream/cult thing very well, like Louis.

          IN FACT, a lot of the electronic music people *already* sell directly to fans and do quite well for themselves.

          Anyway, I’m really glad it was Louis CK. He’s clearly determined, motivated, patient, and passionate (not to mention fucking hilarious), but also realistic — he knows hard work and failure is gonna be part of it.

          1. He might be bigger than you think as he was given total control of his TV series by the bigwigs.

            While his model might not work for every band, singer, etc… to not even try means you have already failed.
            This is why the labels are terrified –
            Dan Bull made it onto the charts, with no payola, no major label, no real backing.  What if someone else manages to do it, this is why they try to kick Amanda Palmer over with she would be nothing without everything we did for her first.

            You don’t need to sign your soul over to a label to win, there is a worldwide marketplace infront of you.  You need to find ways to connect to those people who would like you, be human, be available.  Don’t expect your first million overnight, but know if you love what your doing it shows and your fans will love you for it.

          2. @That_Anonymous_Coward:disqus  … Dude, it’s FX — not NBC or Fox. So….  He’s not that big. :P  Trust me, I have loved Louis CK a long time.  He is NOT Seinfeld or Tim Allen and he never will be. And that’s *good*.

            He’s definitely doing very well and is very popular, but he’s still a stand-up comedian.  It just isn’t the same as pop music.

            One of the reasons he was able to do his latest tour 100% on his own was that he is using smaller venues — he was unable to use the bigger venues he used on his last tours.  This is excellent because smaller venues are better for stand-up imo, but he’s not going to reach nearly as many people as he would have through Ticketmaster.  That’s just fact.

            Who is Dan Bull?  Heh.  Charted or not, I have no fucking idea who that is and I’m sure most people don’t.  One hit wonder? :P There have been others who have charted without the help of record labels; it’s not uncommon. But usually it’s just one song … not an entire album … and I can’t think of one band or artist who has done this more than once.

            (Rhetorical Q? as I will google him!)

            Also, while I like your spirit, your suggestions only work IF YOU ALREADY HAVE A FAN BASE, and a solid one at that. That’s really the only reason CK was able to do this — if hew as brand new, on the scene, there’d just be no way he would have been nearly as successful.

            That’s part of the problem right now with this model. But eventually, once more and more people utilize it or similar models, things will probably change. One can hope!

            But for now, you can really only take advantage of it if you’ve already been dealing with labels and whatnot for years and are now popular enough…

        2. @boingboing-fbcce68c3853e923f0983996eee5573e:disqus
          Dan Bull, is a name I hope you will become familiar with.
          He’s made it onto BoingBoing a couple of times.
          He is a young artist who is making a living in the digital age.
          Oh and while he managed to chart from sales of his last release, that was happening while he had offered those same songs via TPB for free.
          He’s made a couple of videos about little topics, like ACTA and SOPA that got lots of coverage and lots of play.

          He has built a fanbase, and stays connected with them.
          Do I think he will sell out Madison Square Garden?  Nah.
          Do I think he could fill other venues? Oh hell yes.

          Being a ROCK AND ROLL STAR is a delusion.
          You do not need to fill giant stadiums to make money.
          You can book smaller venues, give more intimate shows, have a much better connection with your fanbase, and sell tons of merch.

          If the artist you like would be happy to make enough to live on and keep making music… they are a good artist.
          If the artist you like thinks they haven’t arrived until they have their own 747 rented to fly them to the next concert, do pounds of blow off a hookers ass, and generally be the bad stereotype… they aren’t a good artist.  They just want to make dollars, and will just churn out the same crap that got them paid last time over and over.  Like the record labels who are still focused on how they made money in the 1950’s instead of looking at all of the advances we’ve made, despite them buying laws to try and stop them.

          If you need a record label to get you a fanbase you’ve already lost.  There is this little tiny website, maybe you’ve heard of it, called YouTube.  If you’ve noticed things end up there and get popular as people discover and share them with others.  I might have never ever heard Die Antwoord if not for them catching someones eye at BoingBoing.  Not my most favorite band in the world, but their story is interesting to me just the same.

          What worked once upon a time has been failing, the fairytale is coming apart.  When someone with a laptop has a more powerful recording studio that was used to make a majority of the music out there, more people can create.  I’d rather discover them myself than find them shoved into my face by a label paying for heavy rotation.  An iPhone has a better film studio in it than was used by Wells to shoot Citizen Kane (Thank Patton Oswald for that line), will everyone make awesome movies… nah. 
          It is better to have more creation happening, than to let the cartels play gatekeeper and decide what we should like.

          There are artists making a living all on their own out there, you might not know all of their names… but their fans do.  Their fans share with friends, and new great music is discovered.

      1. On a small scale, maybe.  Some artists already do live shows (large and small) and then *also* air them online (usually after but sometimes live).  Ben Folds did that Myspace gig, for example, and then Ben Folds Five did the same thing (lol Myspace).  It’s just not necessarily something people are going to want to PAY for, or at least enough to make it worth it.

        Of course, pay-per-view concerts do exist, but … I’d rather buy the DVD (or a digital copy) rather than pay for a live digital show. It might be worth it if you were to pay for the live showing and it would be about the cost of a DVD, then you could maybe get a coupon for the DVD or a digital copy (tie it in with Amazon Prime?) afterward, as well.

        Part of going to a concert is BEING THERE. A live concert on your computer screen is just not the same.

        1. Streaming do not have to be confined to the computer screen tho. Consider a club or similar setting up a projection rig so that the artist(s) can perform in multiple locations, globally, at once. I have recently read about cinemas that offer live streamed theater and opera from big name stages.

          1. Well, I saw Kings of Comedy in the theater … it wasn’t streamed … IDK.  What is the point of going to a live show if you’re not AT the show?  Why would it be any different from just watching it after its been recorded?

    2. Why is touring horrible on the environment? I mean sure if you’re the Rolling Stones and you insist on three 747’s worth of gear and a stadium for each show then you’re going to leaving a pretty big environmental footprint, but if you’re just a regular band that wants their own guitars and drums and is happy to hire the back end in each country then I don’t see how its particularly different to anyone else that flies around for work.

      And sure, some artists must get sick of touring, its tiring, etc; but most musicians hate touring? As an amateur musician that spends a lot of time with both professional and amateur musicians I can’t think of any that dislike playing shows, nor touring. Shows are the best way to interact directly with your fans, and its a very rewarding experience. I’d say the main reason tickets are expensive are because: they sell the tickets anyway and musicians need to be able to live, just like everyone else.

      Finally, I’d much rather pay $5, $20, $100 or even $150 to see a band I really love than  to pay $$ to listen to music on my ipod or whatever. Gigs are great for fans.

  3. The How It Is Now panel omits the sad truth that streaming radio services like Spotify pay virtually nothing to artists (somewhere around $0.003-$0.006 per song played). Also all of Spotify’s income is pooled and doled out in tiers to rights holders based on confidential licensing agreements …so if you want to support indie music and stream indie bands with your premium membership, you’re giving most of that money to major labels anyway.

    And the Where It Needs To Go panel is answered by Bandcamp, which is already a thing that exists. I hope to see more artists embracing that instead of making deals with devils.

      1.  honestly cds never had the magic and artifact value for me that record lps have, and lps seem to be making a comeback.  it’s neat when you can order an lp directly from an artist or small label and get a digital download for the album.  best of both worlds.

    1. Well, I suppose the other question is how much each artist earns per listener from bog-standard FM radio – since Spotify and similar services can keep an exact tally of how often a stream was requested, payment can be more exact as well. The problem for studios is that since the audience actually requests the music, they can’t bribe the DJ with payola as easily.

  4. Wait… an Oatmeal story about a comic? Something is right on the internet again.

  5. If we don’t make sure the big record companies make a lot of money, then how can we make sure deserving artistes get big managed debuts, big marketing budgets, lots of auto tune, get their songs played at least once every hour on big radio stations, get regular rotation on MTV and so on? 

    There would be no N’Sync, or Ke$ha, or Britney Spears. Even Jessica Simpson would be known forever as just ex-Mouseketeer instead of singer/weight-loser. They wouldn’t be able to have the recording industry war chest muscle to culturally imperialize the rest of the world. 8-year-old girls from Teheran to Tokyo wouldn’t be able to crush over Justin Bieber and think America is the greatest (they think he’s American), or a while ago Ricky Martin (they think he’s American), or.. I can’t think of any more pop stars. 

    But point is, all these gifted musicians and vocalists would not have been foistered upon the world and America would only be able to depend on movies, Coca Cola and McDonald’s to carry out the agenda. If you backpacked to Mongolia, you’ll be greeted with “Amelika? Where the hell is that?” instead of “Oh!! America!! Like Babeh! Babeh! Ohhh! I wanna let you know, you’d always be mine!”

    1. Ricky Martin IS American, for what it’s worth.  Not that it negates your point.  And on the Justin beeber front, I really wish there was a way to prevent Canada from exporting pop music.

      Plus there’s that whole thing where you think MTV plays music. :p

      1. Here’s the deal. Sure we’ll take back Bieber, Celine Dion and Nickelback. But we get to keep all the great ones too. I’ll take Bieber if it means unlimited Leonard Cohen.

        1. How would Leonard Cohen feel about you calling his work Pop Music?

          Also I forgot to mention Carly Ray CallMeMaybe.

  6. The Oatmeal has exposed my business plan! Check out to see our site. Poolside just self released their album for 5$ digitally.

      1. You left off Dan Bull, that chick who earned a pile of cash via kickstarter, and thousands of other indies going it “alone”.
        Will it work for everyone… nope.
        Will every kid who dreams of being an astronaut become one…nope.

        Will the ones who are real and genuine, connect with their fans and not treat them like parasites just out to eat them alive do well?  Yep.

        It is better to go it alone and fail, then end up owing your soul to a record label waiting to recoup before you see a dime from your sale or is it a license or is it a sale… who cares we’ll just expense the cost of defending the lawsuit you brought against your account.

        Oooh or you can wait until they get around to paying you royalties from compilation albums they put your track son without permission and kept all the money and put you on a list of people they needed to send an IOU to.

        What we have here, is a failure to have a business model.  Before you declare the new one bad, maybe look at how screwed up the old one is.

        1. The old business model isn’t screwed up, it works great!  There are good labels and there are bad labels.  The good ones still end up eating too much of the pie, and *that* is where the problem lies.

          What you’re suggesting is that only business majors can succeed in music, and that is not realistic.

          1. You’re aware that most musicians that sign to labels leave the labels with debts right? How is that “working great” for anyone but the labels?

            As T.A.C said, I’d much rather rack up $4-5k in credit card debts getting an album out and promoted to smaller number of people than let a label try to advertise the album to a bigger audience, leaving me $20,000 in debt to them whilst controlling most the rights to the music I wrote.

            Some labels are good, and clearly some artists succeed even on the big labels that screw over the majority of their artists.

          2. Picture a global market filled with imaginary gatekeepers collecting a cut that ends up back in the hands of the labels eventually.  Every cent an artist could earn is divided and subdivided over and over.
            Imagine the insult that some of those gatekeepers collect money in your name, but your not important enough so we gave your share to Bono & U2.

            You don’t have to be a business major, pretty sure Dan Bull isn’t.  Hes very bright, but no advanced degrees (I think, if I am wrong I apologize Dan.).

            The old business model is built on the idea that you can’t get an album from here to there without a ship and waiting.  So they do rolling releases based on what they think each market is worth.
            I can send a picture to someone in Oz, that odd little upside down place, in SECONDS.  Yet labels pretend it takes months and months to offer content there.

            They made so many collection societies, the societies and rules are actually getting in the way of them releasing content in some countries.

            The fact they Geo-Block music videos should show how broken the model is, how the F can a major label not have worldwide rights to their own freaking content?

            I’m pretty sure I said be real and human and connect with your fans to win.  When things get better you can hire someone to manage the money, but not have to give them the rights to what you make for your lifetime and 375 years.

  7. Wish Matt had put in a panel for the model.   Even more, I wish the labels had adopted that model and pricing. I was on a pace to spend upwards of $50 a week there.

      1. The music owners *could have* made the same service with the same pricing, sending a substantial fraction of the money to the musicians, but they didn’t. That’s the point.

  8. The one that works the best for me is Spotify.  MTV gave me ADD so I rarely want to listen to the same album more than 3 times.  I literally can not tell you what the last album I bought was.  I think maybe it was Alice in Chains “Jar of Flies”.

    Seriously though, there has to be some sort of infrastructure.  We can’t just have every band out there busking and trying to sell us their albums on the subway platform. (we don’t even have a subway in Seattle…)  It just can’t eat 95% of the money.  I like Radiohead, but would I even know about them without their publicist getting articles written about them and getting their songs on the radio? Would they have the income that allows them to not have day jobs and dedicate themselves to making [increasingly lazy and boring, but at one point] insanely good music?

    1. Radiohead has their songs on the radio? Maybe in the 1990s, but apart from some college stations, not really anymore.  Since their early days, they mainly toured and put out albums that got little if any airplay. But they’re so good that they managed to build a fan base that’s loyal enough so that every time they went off in a different musical direction, most of us said “yes, keep going with those experiments”. Some of them have worked better than others, but they have the freedom to do this because they opted out of the major label system. For them, or David Byrne, or Louis CK, direct connection with the fans works pretty well. But they all had to build the fan base first, through many years of hard work and showcasing their talent.

  9. I would have liked to see a panel preceding the first one as well, but I guess that was outside the overall point.

    1. Just use this line to form a mental image…

      “People will always listen to music, just as they have since some caveman banged stones together in a way that pleased the tribe. It’s the second caveman that we have to watch out for, the one who walked up and told the tribe that only the stones he licensed would be permitted”

      The author of the comment is lost to the sands of time… but its so very true.

  10. How to get to the desired state in the final panel:

    Next time you say “hey this album is cool, I’ve been listening to this here copy I got off the torrents for a while, let’s see what else they’ve done”, google up the artist and see where they would most like you to buy it. Then buy it there. Also maybe actually buy the album you’ve been grooving to, and maybe even post about how sweet this album is in your blog/twitter/facebook/whatever. Ideally with a playable copy of some of the stuff.

    If you can’t buy it direct from the artist, then hit up itunes or whatever service you use by default.

    That’s it. Done.

  11. If you want a label that’s somewhere between the old and new model in the best way, then you should check out Young God Records. Michael Gira is a man who got badly burnt by his experience with major labels and offers their services at artist-friendly rates. All the work I’ve ordered through Young God has been signed to me, and the actual material goods are excellent quality.

  12. how did it work before record labels?  How did it work before records?

    First of all, music wasn’t such a huge industry back then as it is now.  The people making music were just like the people making art.  They were composers, teachers, scholars, and they were sponsored.

    The artist recording/management industry grew up around trading musicians’ talent for exposure, which would then generate more revenue.  The whole model of advance/recoup was born out of necessity. 

    When that industry dies completely, because we all have adequate means of exposure to music, and musicians have adequate means of creating it, the whole idea of what it means to be a professional musician will be reborn.

    There will be no such thing as Justin Beiber anymore.  No Brittney, no Lady Gaga, no manufactured pop stars anymore.  There will simply be no industry, no model for which “career pop artists” to flourish.  And I’m totally fine with that.  The life will not be glamorous.  It’s not supposed to be.  The idea of a “Rock Star” was born entirely from the record industry’s promotion of acts like Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, etc.

    We will be left with the lovers.  The people who create music because it’s in their heart to do it, it’s their purpose in life.  And those people will find patrons online for their music to be sponsored and disseminated. Those patrons will buy products, be it music downloads, merch, tickets for shows, etc.  If their art is good, and they are productive, they will enjoy a decent living.  If they market themselves well, perform well live, have great production value, a great website, good payment model etc… they’ll catch on. 

    But the idea of being a musician and getting your music out to millions and millions of people, that’s in the past now.  Everyone can learn an instrument and play songs for each other, just like folk musicians did before they outsourced it to the “artists”.

    1. “The people making music were just like the people making art.”

      Well, first, music IS art.  But, secondly, even art, is heavily commercialized these days.  It’s hard to make a buck if you don’t have a really great agent and manager and other contacts, for instance, and I’m sure you often need to work with gallerias, etc.  There’s probably a lot more wiggle room than mainstream music and movies, I’m sure, but it’s still highly commercialized and reliant on the same capitalistic rules that pop music and movies are.  Most art that results in an real income isn’t all that “indie” unless they are super lucky.

      I think you’re being really, really, kind of pathetically, optimistic. Money is king and that is NEVER going to change; we’re a very capitalistic society, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

      The type of music that’s pop will always change, but there will always be a market for it. As long as people will BUY it (and they will, no matter how much the record companies complain about pirates; I mean, people still buy PORN) — then the record companies will exist.

      Things may change, but not nearly as drastically as you expect.

      1.  My brother makes a pretty decent living ($80-100K, I do his taxes) as an artist.  However, he paints the kinds of nature subjects that upper-middle class buyers like to hang over their sofas, and which big-name art critics would spit at.  I see no reason why a musician could not do the same.

        1.  Many do. Nobody who listens to Andre Rieu or Josh Groban wants something that makes the critics and academics go crazy. They want something mildly forgettable and pleasant to match their dull paintings, indifferent wines and neutral coloured furniture.

    2. I agree. The claim that musicians would cease to make music if the Internet robs them of their income is patently false. The musicians that I know make music because they can’t stop making music. They have day jobs.

      1. Not necessarily false (depends on the musician you’re talking about, though), but at the same time it doesn’t follow that the record companies are going to disappear and it’s going to be an Indie Music Utopia.

  13. I guess there is hope – isn’t that how sites like Bandcamp (kinda.. they still take 15%) work?

  14. A couple of years ago a friend was playing BradSucks in his car as we drove to lunch.
    I asked him who it was, he pointed me to their website where I downloaded a few tracks I liked (and still listen to) and just paypal’d Brad five bucks. He sent me an email that said thanks and he hoped I enjoyed the music. It was nice.

    And the only way I’ve ever bought music from Eric Shiveley is by paypal’ing him the purchase price after which he puts a physical CD in the post to my house. He’s having trouble with his voice nowadays though, which makes me sad.

  15. 1) The music obsessive. Youtube, Discogs,, soundcloud, audiomap followed by googling artist name+album/ep name+”rar”. Leads to 1Tb of music and lots of moaning about how iPods only hold 160Gb[1], “320 or gtfo” and trolling arguments about sub-genrification.

    2) The Music Naif. Gives money to Pandora, Spotify, Itunes or whatever. The only people who make money are the Telcos. Complains that nobody makes decent music any more (like the nostalgic remembering through rose tinted glasses of when they were 19).

    Neither scenario actually pays the artist anything.

    [1]Building a collection of music? What are you, some kind of dinosaur?

  16. Edit: whoops, this was supposed to be a reply to “jbond” above.

    Meh?  I buy music on iTunes.  Every source I’ve seen suggests artists get at least a 10% share of this (and often significantly more).  That’s not great, but it’s certainly something.  I like iTunes – I listen to it on my computer, around the house via iPod, and in my car (via “convert to MP3” and putting the music on a USB key).  It has most of the music I like, and at a reasonable price. 

    I’d much prefer it if iTunes gave more money to artists, but I also understand why many artists still sign with the labels (and they’re the ones taking the unfair share under the iTunes model).  Hopefully this will get better over time, but the basic model isn’t crazy.

    One thing that iTunes does poorly is discovery.  I thought Pandora was very good for this (whatever magic they did consistently worked for me); I found many of my current favorite artists through Pandora, but I’ve found much less new stuff since Pandora became unavailable here (in Canada). 

    Other than the loss of Pandora, there’s never been a time when music worked better for me than it does now (and I’m in my 30s).

  17. There is, of course, a panel missing. The sequence should begin with a situation almost identical to the last panel, but without the record company monster. For a VERY long time, people ‘purchased’ their music directly from the person who made it because they liked to hear them play it. They just didn’t ever ‘own’ it in any real sense.

    That’s where we need to go from here.

Comments are closed.