You Can’t Say That: There Is a Class System in the Music Business

As I get older and crankier, I’ve gotten fussy about how music is covered in the media. There are few writers whose opinions I trust and fewer publications that I can turn to for “what’s good.” But more frustrating is that there appears to be unwritten rules about what you can and can’t say. The biggest is that there is a class system and that media coverage must preserve it. (Borrowing class levels from baseball) 

Hall of Fame. Artists that have had their peak, are still remembered, and still find new listeners thanks to the quality of their work and that their historic significance. Some have achieved financial independence but continue to put out new music because it is what they do and others live on through reissues. This is what every artist strives for: 1) to be remembered 2) to be financially independent because of it. The downside is that as more artists enter the “hall of fame” level the more space they occupy in the listening economy. For example, I’ve been listening to a new compilation of Christy Moore’s early work. It has lead me to listen to The Dubliners and The Clancy Brothers. All old stuff. Are there any new artists working in this tradition that I would like? I don’t know. Where would I even being to find them?  

Major League. Current artists that play 10,000 + seat venues and sell a lot of merch. To reach this level, you need musical talent and the organizational skills to run a mid-size corporation. You'll need to interface with firms who cover travel, publicity, etc... These artists probably average 50 shows over a 2-year period, and a lot of time is spent on administration. This is strictly business. There is a lot of money invested upfront and a lot of people have to buy tickets and merch to make this profitable – so make sure you play the hits! The majority of press coverage goes to artists in this class. In fact, it doesn't even seem possible for an act to play a 10,000 + venue in town and not get a lot of press coverage. I thought the press was independent of the publicity firms.  

AAA Pre-covid these artists played 200 shows per year. Minimal crew, lots of travel. Difficult for most people to sustain, but these artists have their eyes on the next level, which seems attainable and the sacrifice will be worth it when you reach the majors. This class can include artists on their way up and their way down. This is probably the most ancient of the classes. Kings would have a group of musicians that traveled with them for entertainment. I think the myth here is that this class is more transitory than it really is, especially since the media coverage sustains the Hall of Fame and Major League classes. Artists will bankrupt themselves financially and emotionally trying to make it to the next level, but the opportunities to make that jump are few and random. If a person feels the vocation to be a full-time musician, by all means, they should follow that vocation, but do so with the understanding that it is very difficult. The other restriction is that there are only so many places to play. The music economy can only support so many bands playing 200 shows per year. As this level gets crowded, there is less audience for AA. 

AA This is a mix between playing full-time music and subsidizing that with either other employment or some other stream of income – for example you partner/parent covering your expenses. You have artists working side jobs to support their music on one hand and others who have “good situations.” I find this class most interesting for bands who have moved up in the class system and those who remain in it. How did they do it? I think it reveals a lot about their character, and at least for me, changes the way I hear their music. These artists are also have to compete for stage time with the AAA bands and the single A bands who will play for free. 

A These artists are employed full-time outside of the music. Modern technology has made it more accessible than ever for artists in this class to record and make their music available. However, getting people outside of their immediate circle of family and friends to hear their music has probably never been more difficult. The contribution of these artists is easily overlooked. Since, it is sustainable, you could play at this level for 50 years and continue to learn and innovate. There is no “make or break” point. Also, these artists are accessible and sustain local communities. Many give lessons or play at community events. They demonstrate that making music is possible and feed all of the levels above.

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