The times they are a changing! But what else is new? Change seems to be the name of the game in the music business. In speaking with musician friends about the unusual times we are experiencing, there are several themes arising. First, because of the changing formats in music distribution, fewer stores are carrying CDs. In fact, many people today don’t even own a device that plays CDs. When Apple took the CD ROM player out of their computers, we knew the end was near. The second is Covid-19. We’ll get to that next, but first – here is a brief story about the saga of managing the changing formats in technology that musicians have had to deal with.
When Dean Evenson and I founded Soundings of the Planet in 1979, cassette tapes were a new and exciting distribution format. We originally sold our music tapes at swap meets and eventually ‘graduated’ to regional arts festivals. People loved meeting the artists in person. Then bookstores, new age stores, and mom and pop shops started selling the music and our wholesale business grew. Later, we traveled across the country sharing our music and teaching workshops at massage, yoga, spa, and new-thought author conferences. In 1987, we had shifted to making CDs and for the next decade sales were through the roof. Everyone was replacing their record collection and new age music was becoming recognized as an important genre, especially because it benefited healing arts professionals and lay people searching for a more relaxing and spiritual form of music.
In the 1990s, computers became ubiquitous and then the internet showed up! Eventually, mp3 audio tracks that could be played on digital devices were invented. In the late ‘90s, peer to peer ‘file-sharing’ became popular as people thought trading mp3s of other people’s music was ok. However, after numerous lawsuits by record companies, file sharing was deemed illegal since it was considered unauthorized distribution of copyrighted material. Then Steve Jobs and Apple came up with a system of paying $.99 cents for an mp3 song and the concept of paying for downloads caught on allowing musicians and labels to be compensated. This seemed like a fair solution, although it did cut into the relationship between musicians and the stores which had sold their physical product. For a time, downloads were popular and thankfully people continued to build up their compact disc collection for a few more years. Performing musicians and teachers could still make a living supplementing their gig or workshop fee by selling their CDs in person, on their websites, or through the wellness and consciousness marketplace. But by 2005, download sales surpassed physical compact disc sales and the handwriting was on the wall.
Around 2010, a totally new idea for distributing music showed up called streaming music. People could listen on Spotify for a monthly fee or for free (with ads of course) to any song or album ever recorded. How does one compete with that? There were others of course. Pandora caught our attention early on and we were delighted when we started hearing our music played. Apple music was well established and then along came Amazon with all the options for paid listening, downloading or purchasing. Soundscapes and Sirius Satellite Radio streamed music and YouTube combined music with videos. All this was happening against a backdrop of the slow decline of physical and digital album sales. Around then, Allegro, a large independent distributor of new age music, purchased Music Design, one of the top music distributors in the genre. Like many new age musicians, we found ourselves in a precarious situation with our two main distributors being consolidated. The sale of CDs had already been declining, but not too fast yet to cause worries.
Until – in 2016, Allegro along with Music Design declared Chapter 11 causing a lot of musicians to lose their CD stock and never get paid for what they had already sold. Fortunately, other distributors such as New Leaf which also distributes books, have remained in business. Labels talked about taking legal actions, but we knew right away it was a waste of time. We had been through several other bankruptcies in the past of distributors going under and owing us a lot of money and they always protect themselves. We knew the most important thing was to get our distribution back up through new channels which we did, and we advised other artists to also do that. The other important issue was to regain our direct relationship with The Orchard which manages our digital income from streaming services. Fortunately, we had a pre-existing relationship, so we were back up and running in short order.
For us, there was a silver lining. As digital streaming platforms increased, so did our income. Now instead of reaching hundreds or thousands of listeners, we are reaching millions of people all over the planet. It is almost laughable how little is paid per play – less than a quarter of a half of a penny or some ridiculous formula. But with a large catalog of many albums, it adds up. Since many people use music as background for yoga classes or healing treatments, they are likely to play the same music over and over which adds up. The streaming system is especially challenging though for musicians with fewer albums or different kinds of music. Also, performing musicians who used to rely on CD sales to add to their in-person performances or workshops can’t count on many sales these days.
This brings us to the current state of the world with Covid-19 causing a worldwide quarantine that encourages social distancing to stop the spread of the virus. We saw it coming in the early part of 2020 and it has only gotten worse for musicians who used to be able to earn a living performing or teaching in public. Peter Ali, a Native American flute player who Dean Evenson recorded with on the COVR Gold Winner, Prayers on the Wind, told us that last year was his busiest year ever with workshops and gigs. He used to perform regionally every weekend at festivals and gatherings. He is grateful to still have a day job, because the weekend gigs which had been helpful in supplementing his income are now non-existent. He also taught flute making classes at reservation schools and libraries, but that income has all dried up too. He did recently perform in a studio setting that was professionally streamed. He had avoided the streaming concerts that have become popular during the quarantine, mainly because he doesn’t have the technology to do it and also because it just hasn’t been inspiring to be playing in front of a computer instead of for a live audience.
Many other musicians have been pro-active doing steaming concerts and welcoming ‘tips’ or contributions. Some have taken advantage of online patron systems which ask for small monthly contributions from friends and fans to keep them going. Chant master Jai Uttal works with Patreon, a web platform based upon an ancient principle where fans can become an integral part of the lives of the artists they love. Through Patreon, Jai is creating a circle of devotion – an opportunity to be involved in the co-creation of the music. He says, “I’m inviting you to become part of my creative and devotional world and allowing me to keep on giving my art and my heart to you!”
Other established artists like Deva Premal, Miten and Manose, who for years have lived on the road touring worldwide to sell-out audiences, have also had to stop doing live concerts and workshops. They were fortunate to have a backup system that could easily transform their presentations into online platforms. They have taken the workshops they typically offer in-person to online gatherings. It is working for them. Deva Premal and Miten have stated “In these unprecedented times, we give thanks for our global online Sangha, keeping us calm and focused. Together we support and uplift each other. Now is the time to dive deeper into the practice. Don’t waste the crisis! We are with you all the way.”
Some musicians are actually grateful that their very busy touring schedules have been halted for the time being. We spoke with sound healer and jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan who is known for his unique fretboard mastery. His rigorous touring schedule had left him exhausted, and although he misses the income, he is grateful to take a break. The time off is allowing him to go deeper into his art and develop new areas of expression. He has recently set up an online school called Integral Arts Academy where he offers online classes in guitar mastery, health and healing, and music therapy.
When we connected with music therapist Christen Stevens, she said she is busier than ever during the quarantine, explaining that she is doing all sorts of online presentations and classes. Known for her work in drum therapy, she has now expanded into offering a flute workshop with The Shift Network. Christine is also included in The Shift Network Global Sound Healing Summit where Dean and I are also presenting. She offers both free and paid workshops online which seems to be the formula most musicians are finding works.
Sound healers Jonathan and Andi Goldman are enjoying taking a break. For decades they have traveled the country presenting their workshops. They are grateful that they took my advice years ago and were able to gain new distribution when Allegro closed down. They also have a decent income from selling their tuning forks, books, and from streaming their music. That has helped them stay afloat during these times. Of course, as authors, they are glad to not be traveling so they can focus on creating new works. They have also discovered ways to participate in online Book Clubs which certainly helps promote their many books.
Steven Halpern is another new age musician who has been very prolific over the years and like Dean Evenson, has a large back catalog and hundreds of tracks streaming online giving him a steady income from various platforms. For decades, he traveled the country offering workshops and keynotes at conferences. He is grateful to be able to take a break and focus on creating new music. He did mention an idea to share with readers. Years ago, he suggested to his local Unity Church to broadcast their services live online. At the time, they weren’t technically set up to do that, but now we are seeing many churches doing that very thing with excellent technical backup. This is certainly an option for new age, spiritual and healing musicians to offer their music from their own home or at their local church to be broadcast to their congregations – which can now include a worldwide audience.
Dean Evenson and I are among the few people who haven’t had our lifestyle change that much during the quarantine. We had stopped traveling a few years ago and love being home in our mountain river valley tending our gardens. Last year was a busy one for us as we celebrated Soundings of the Planet’s 40thanniversary with a gala in-person concert of our artists which could not have happened this year. We also got to travel to France where we videotaped in Monet’s gardens and we’re recording a new album based on that journey. Thankfully, we are still supported because of our large back catalog, and the fact that we have stayed up to date on technology changes. We now reach a much larger global audience as we share our #PeaceThroughMusic offerings to a world sadly in need of healing.
We do hope musicians can stay engaged with the stores who used to carry their music and especially with the few who still do sell music in these changing times. Even if they aren’t selling music, stores can play streaming music as a background to provide a pleasant shopping environment and the artists do get paid for that. Book clubs and stores can now invite the author to their Zoom calls. There are many new and exciting ways to offer workshops or music presentations through stores, churches, or groups. Stay safe and stay tuned as we learn to navigate new and interesting opportunities to enhance our connectivity.