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Why Freedom Tastes Bitter for Today's Unsigned Artists

04/15/2013 05:42 EDT | Updated 06/15/2013 05:12 EDT
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In perhaps the most famous phrase of his illustrious career, Jean-Paul Sartre once proclaimed, "Man is condemned to be free."

Alone in a world without inherent meaning, and unsupervised by any greater power, man's actions are, as far as existentialism is concerned, entirely his own. Freedom, as Sartre conceived it, is not a light-footed stroll through a bazaar of immediate gratification. It's a kind of terminal cosmic sentence, forcing us to confront the full burden of our actions.

This concept of freedom increasingly describes the predicament of today's music artists. One of the most repeated stories in the record business over the last fifty years has been that of the "exploited artist."

Labels make you sign bad contracts, set up uselessly complex accounting to hide the money, drop you on a dime if the returns are not immediate, fight you for every penny if you dare succeed. Through all this, labels have -- sometimes deservedly so -- been called everything from ruthless predators to glorified loan sharks, cheaters, liars, and exploiters of the wickedest ilk.

But today, in light of fifteen years of file-sharing and market fragmentation, the reality is that for most artists, the boogeyman looms no more. The financial risk involved in artist development has simply become too big, the potential returns too uncertain for the old label model to survive. Market share is increasingly eaten up by a smaller number of big-hit, and yet bigger-profit stars at the very top. The rest of the market is most often left without even the option of a traditional label deal.

There is, of course, a distinct advantage to having a boogeyman: it gives you something to blame -- other, of course, than yourself -- when things go south. Blame is easy to place. The reason you're not a star has a name, an address, a phone number, and a vaguely evil-looking, shiny logo. It has had other artist enemies in its history, giving you all the proof you need to convince yourself that "it's not just you". It conveniently absolves you, the victim of circumstance and corporate greed, from any broader sense of responsibility in your own destiny.

For some established bands, like Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead, freedom from the grasp of the labels is a choice. But for most unsigned artists, it's not. The IFPI recently estimated that over 70 per cent of unsigned artists still want a record deal, but simply can't find one.

Most unsigned bands today didn't choose to be free. Freedom was thrust onto them by the ruthless market forces of a rapidly changing industry.

In practice, this means that most artists -- including the overwhelming majority of new artists -- are now free to explore the diverse and manifold burdens of that freedom. That means hiring their own booking agents; figuring out the finer points of collective licensing and synch deals; managing their often otherwise-better-occupied managers. And navigating tax filings, yearly budgets, costs of impression and the implementation of audit rights.

In the labyrinth of the concrete, the bright lights of creativity can indeed get dimmer. This reality also fits within the broader trend of artists going from larger than life, almost mythical figures, to now pedestrian middle class survivors like the rest of us.

In the midst of the digital revolution, music has, sadly, become a cheaper, more disposable commodity. An experience whose commercial and cultural value somehow suddenly pales in comparison to that of the shiny, branded objects we use to listen to it.

Artists everywhere are discovering that there is no such thing as a free pass in the land of true freedom. Social media offers easy but also, ultimately, cheap attention. Building an audience in today's saturated and increasingly lower-staffed media sphere is a tougher task than ever. Streaming services will enthusiastically take on any indie band, but the royalty schemes are complex and unfavorable for artists, and they can easily become buried deep in the catalogue.

The unsigned artist faces an uphill battle all the way. A site called Music Think Tank estimates the chances of an unsigned band earning even $30,000 per member without a record deal is "about 0.00025 per cent".

Critique the methodology all you want. Double, triple that number -- heck, multiply it by a thousand. The fact remains: for most independent artists, music is a questionable career alternative, if it can even be called that. In other words, their calling must, more and more, be something other than short or even medium-term money.

Perhaps today's market forces are, unintentionally and impersonally, morphing into a kind of filtering system, ensuring that those who stay on the path of creation are connected to a deeper imperative than the mere desire to consume and pay bills.

We've been taught that freedom simply means doing what we want, light as air. But in practice, real freedom involves an ever-growing set of unrelenting responsibilities. It means uncertainty and facing a path for which there is no chart. To a fault and every step of the way, freedom keeps demanding things of us. Courage. Integrity. Honesty, of the brutal kind most of the time. Whining and blaming are useless to us in the land of freedom, as there is often nobody there to even listen to it.

Most artists are no longer free to give up that freedom, even when they want to, and the numbers say that most of them do, in fact, still want to. And, in the throes of this bittersweet reality, in between the rocks and hard places and the looming shadows of indifference, they must ask themselves: why am I doing this? And, in this dark and lonely place, the true artist will persevere, subsist, and, eventually, find his or her creative victories.

In this market void, with nothing but dreams and visions and odds stacked against them, true artists will embrace freedom as a golden kind of condemnation -- one that opens up the unique, unbeaten path of uncompromising creativity -- and forge on.

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