In Defense of the Amateur

In Defense of the Amateur — Image courtesy of Flickr user "familymwr"

In Defense of the Amateur — Image courtesy of Flickr user “familymwr” under Creative Commons

It’s hard to say exactly how many professional musicians there are in the United States, but the best guess from the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics is that we have anywhere from around 70,000 to 250,000 of them

The lower number comes from a comprehensive survey of employers which includes no data on the self-employed. That second number comes from a smaller and less comprehensive survey of households—but it does include projections about freelancers, part-timers, and independent contractors.

If we go with the higher figure, then it’s about equal to the number of professional writers and editors in the country, and about double the number of broadcast engineers and sound technicians put together. (And there are a lot more of the former than the latter.)

In either case, those numbers have been shrinking. Even the most optimistic count suggests that the number of full- and part-time musicians is now about 25-30% of the number of professional lawyers in the country. (And as essential as attorneys are to a modern economy, one wonders what that figure says about our priorities, and the true nature of waste.)

In either dataset, you’ll see a steep decline in the number of “musicians and singers” over the past 10 years, and a marked increase in the number of “musical directors and composers,” as the sizes of professional ensembles continue to shrink around the world. Just like in so many other fields, incomes in today’s music business are increasingly concentrating around a few industry leaders, as sub-living-wage labor, unpaid internships, and other forms of uncompensated work become increasingly common for everybody else.

Technology companies promised us that the “democratization” of media markets and the fall of unions would lead to more numerous opportunities and more equitable outcomes, but if you look at the numbers, the opposite seems to have been the case so far.

Of course, music isn’t something that’s created or enjoyed by a slim class of professionals. According to the National Association of Music Merchants, there were more than 60 million amateur musicians in the US as recently as 1996—a figure that works out to well more than 1 in 5 Americans at the time. In some ways, it’s never been a better time to be an amateur musician than today. Just as long as you’re content to remain one.

The word “amateur,” unfortunately, has taken on something of an undesirable connotation in recent decades. And if you poll aspiring musicians about whether they consider themselves in that category, you’re likely to see few hands raised. But in reality, what separates the amateur from the professional is not taste or talent or skill or artistic merit. All that makes a pro a pro—in any field—is an ability to sustainably engage with the commercial marketplace. That’s it. If you ever want to make an argument about merit, just remember that Yngwie Malmsteem was a professional and Vincent Van Gogh was not.

In any case, there’s plenty of room for both amateurs and professionals, since the potential market for music is as large as the population of the earth itself. After all, our compulsion to make and enjoy the stuff is baked right into our DNA.

Still, in their most frustrated or embittered moments, some professionals occasionally take to denigrating amateurs and casting blame. But these 60 million or more casual musicians in the US alone aren’t enemies of the professional class. If anything, they should be their greatest allies.

Amateurs are the Professional’s Best Friend; Professionals are the Amateur’s Greatest Inspiration

In a properly functioning economy, the relationship between amateurs and professionals is symbiotic.

At their best, “professionals”—those who are able to devote much or all of their working energy to the art and practice of music—serve to introduce amateur musicians to new heights of craft or emotional impact to which they might aspire.

At their worst, they simply give people what they want without offering much in the way of challenge or advancement. But even that’s not so bad. (Not as bad as the fact that we have 3x-4x as many lawyers as musicians in this country, at least.)

The value of amateurs to professionals can be just as great. They are the true popularizers of music, and at a deep level they drive the economy of organized sound. It’s their enthusiasm that keeps the art fresh. And it’s their spending—historically at least—that truly supports a professional class.

The truth is that people who understand music deeply make for the best audiences and the best fans. They’re the ones who listen to the most recordings, who buy the most sheet music, who pay for the most lessons and classes, who go to the most concerts, and who are the greatest appreciators of musicianship.

In recent times, the ambition of amateurs has even buoyed the growing ranks of small, affordable studios and engineers. I personally owe the start of my professional career in music and sound to the zeal of inspired—and aspiring—amateurs.

I’ve gone on to work on dozens of major and indie label projects since, as well as countless commercial video projects, but I still have some “amateur” clients today.

Some of them would never call themselves that of course, and I think that’s a shame. To be an amateur is to be one of the purest, most beautiful things a musician can be. It’s a word that deserves to have its negative connotations wiped clean for good. To be an amateur is to be a lover and a giver, pure and simple—Not a crass, value-driven commercialist like me.

Two of my favorite amateur clients make no bones about what they are. One is a well-paid paralegal who’s always looking for an excuse to get into the studio, and the other is a successful video director who’s consistently amazed by how little compensation people in the music world seem to demand for their labor.

They work on a few songs a year, and although their music is as good as a lot of stuff out there on the market, they don’t bother too much with iTunes and digital distribution and all that, as they don’t expect to sell many copies. For them, the process is its own reward. “Hey, it’s cheaper than therapy,” the paralegal tells me every time he books time—always at the studio’s full rate and without haggle, I might add.

Affordable studios aren’t alone in benefiting from the passion of amateur musicians. Whole entire social networks: Flickr, Facebook, Etsy, Spoonflower, even Forbes and The Huffington Post all owe their incredible growth and profitability to amateurs of one stripe or another.

So do a new class of populist music distributors: Tunecore and CD Baby, as well equipment designers and manufacturers both entry-level and refined: Behringer, M-Audio, Samson, Propellerheads, Ableton, even Focusrite and Universal Audio.

The lines between professionals and amateurs of course, have always been fluid. Setting aside the few professionals who come from families of working musicians and find themselves raised for performance from a young age, music professionals in America rise largely from the ranks of the most obsessive and entrepreneurial of amateurs. These musical mercenaries often teach, play alongside, or conduct for the amateurs, just as they have for hundreds if not thousands of years.

But today, the lines have become much more than merely fluid. They have become almost fully blurred. And sometimes, musicians and creative professionals feel such a strain from all this blurring of the lines that they lash out.

Is it possible that a complete lack of boundaries between these two worlds can hurt the interests of both groups? I think so.

When The Professionals Lash Out

Earlier this week, I noticed an out-of-character Facebook post from one of the nicer guys I’ve met from the old music business. He’s a pretty successful guitar player, now in his thirties, who grew up in my old hometown.

“I have to share this one,” he wrote. “I continue to be amazed at the gall of people entering into the new music biz. I just got a call to put together a show where the compensation was a hotel gift card for the band members—it did not include airfare or meals! Hilarious. This after another offer earlier this year to put out my new release without budget.”

“People,” he went on, “this playing for tips, jumpstarting your CD (essentially getting your friends and family to foot your habit) so you can put it on iTunes…does NOT put you in the music business. It just gives you an expensive hobby! This also wreaks havoc on the supply and demand of music…further devaluing the medium of recorded music overall!

“If we keep lowering the bar there will be nothing left, and the only people who will be able to enter into the music world will be people with other affluent careers – doctors, lawyers, etc – who can fund what they call “their craft.” I’m sure we all want to hear that!…It’s no wonder that [music] is becoming less valued in America than a latte!”

Once you take into account that longtime musicians have lost 20-40% of their job market over the past 10 years, and have seen the investment dollars that once financed new careers flood out of the marketplace , it’s not too surprising to find this sentiment crop up now and again.

But even though it seems like it could be a pretty controversial thing to say, this guitar player’s fervent little 250-word post received nearly 300 “likes” and almost 150 comments. (About 30 times more than his average.) What was most surprising to me though, was just how many of those “likes” and supportive comments came from amateurs and fans themselves.

The reaction to his statement was barely a clearing of the throat compared to the public outcry that came when Amanda Palmer announced that she would be be declining to pay some of the musicians on her tour, shortly after she earning over a million dollars in financing through Kickstarter.

The response to her plan was so overwhelming—from professionals, amateurs and fans alike—that Palmer quickly recanted, saving face and accepting the fact that she had plenty of funds to cover the costs of basic performance fees. (And perhaps realizing that after becoming a small-time media mogul in her own right, she might have a few new responsibilities as well.)

In each instance where these tensions crop up, what seems to bother people most is that blurring of the lines. In each case, well-paid professionals were putting on concerts, demanding a professional level of performance from others in order to help attract audiences, and then declining to share a portion of the revenues with those performers.

You don’t need a degree in economics to understand that this type of thing would lead to a scenario where we wouldn’t have any professionals when we do want them! And there would no longer be a role left in society for the most dedicated aspiring amateurs to aspire to.

Removing the economic incentives from music also removes equality of opportunity, making it a feasible pursuit only for the wealthiest among us. Which is something that anyone who works in studios can tell you they’re seeing a lot more of today.

Back when a commercial label system was the norm (and actual dollars were still being invested in working- and middle-class musicians) wealthy businessmen and inheritors sometimes financed their own records, too. These were commonly called “vanity releases”—an especially denigrating substitute for the word “amateur” if I’ve ever heard one.

But even I, a somewhat class-conscious working boy, always thought that term was a little unfair. There’s nothing “vain” about people making music, or about paying others fairly for their work, if you ask me. Some people are born with more financial resources than others, sure. But you get used to that pretty fast working in the music industry. Today however, there’s a new name for these types of recording dates at too many studios: They’re called “just about the only work they can get.” And that’s a worse title by far, if you ask me.

Although we’re all aware that not everyone is born with equal talent, most of us would be nicelike to see a greater equality of opportunity for those who aspire to join that market. And the promise of the new technology sector has been that it would increase that equality of opportunity.

But so far, the opposite has been the case: Today, you need more independent wealth and less talent to have even the slimmest chance of earning an unsustainable career. The lower- and middle- classes are being systemically cut out of entry into the music business, because no one with financial resources has an incentive to invest in them.

The Ethics of Advertising on Amateur Art Can “Free” Culture Hurt People Who Don’t Care About Getting Paid?

The reality is that an overwhelming majority of musical amateurs want to see the continued existence of a healthy and sustainable professional market. Some of them enjoy the output of that market, and others see its existence as an incentive – a level to rise to, a goal to aspire to reach.

The vast majority of music that they listen to is created by the professional market. The vast majority of their concert dollars go to the professional market. The tools that they buy for themselves are inspired by what’s used on the professional market. The works they remix are disproportionately created by the pro market. By and large, they learn their craft with help from professionals – whether through lessons or courses or instructional materials. And so many of them even aspire to become professionals themselves.

Regardless, there are some activists and pundits out there who suggest that amateurs are better off with the lines completely blurred – perhaps even erased altogether.

For one, controversial law professor Lawrence Lessig recommends that we adopt a “hybrid economy” for culture: A system in which creativity is essentially de-monetized, and all the meaningful financial rewards instead go to the technology companies that facilitate the sharing of that creativity, artistic energy and cultural innovation.

If you think I’m overstating his position to make it sound shocking and misguided, believe me, I’m not. Just listen to Lessig explain it here in his own words on the Colbert Report:


Lessig considers himself progressive, so it’s hard to understand why he’d support the concentration of wealth around a single, specialized, code-slinging sector of the economy that provides the infrastructure and the delivery mechanisms… rather than around what the people really care about most: The creativity and the art itself.

But despite this inconsistency of ideals, Lessig has made some positive contributions to the field of IP, helping to invent Creative Commons (a welcome alternative to traditional commercial copyright) and by advocating for fairly reasonable reductions to the length of copyright terms for commercial works.

I, like many professionals, would even second his notion that amateurs should feel free to remix commercial culture all they like. There’s no harm in twisting sounds or images around without paying an additional licensing fee—as long as the remix isn’t made for commercial purposes, of course.

But that’s exactly where the myopia of Lessig and his “copyleft” followers kicks in: Amateur artists currently lack ethical, non-commercial outlets for their creations and their individual expression. Instead, they have big, for-profit technology corporations like Facebook and Google.

In the past, ethical, non-commercial outlets for expression were provided by schools, by places of worship, by municipalities, and by non-profit community groups. As many of those institutions erode from to lack of funding, amateurs are pushed into sharing the wide commercial market with professionals and those who aspire to become professionals.

It’s an easy problem to gloss over at first, so it’s unsurprising that Lessig and his largely well-intentioned followers seem to miss its enormous implications. But they are crucial to recognize, because they hurt amateurs and creative professionals alike.

The truth is that outlets that rely on user-generated content, such as YouTube and Flickr and Facebook as well as companies Megaupload and most of the dominant pirate sites, commercial, for-profit businesses. This cannot be stated clearly enough. A user who uploads material to these sites might not have commercial intent of their own, but as soon as the material they upload is made available on these sites, it becomes monetized. Instantly.

The uploaded work generates traffic, and advertisements are sold on that traffic, whether directly or indirectly. Value is generated, money changes hands, and the only entity cut out of this equation is the artist, whether amateur or professional. All of a sudden, we’re looking at a work of art that has been monetized against the creator’s will; A work of art that will go on to endorse a commercial product that the creator never intended to endorse.

This might not be an issue for an amateur musician interested in attracting whatever attention he can get, and who doesn’t mind advertising dollars being sold on the traffic his work generates. But what about the original creator, in the case of a “remixed” work?

If a record label were to “remix” a work, make thousands of dollars from it, cut you or your favorite artist out of the deal, and kept all of the money for itself, we’d all be outraged! And rightly so. But when a technology company does the same, somehow it’s okay? Why do we give them a pass that we would never give to the labels and publishers of yesteryear?

Amateurs Work For Joy, Community, and Social Capital

Setting aside professionals for a moment, why should pure amateurs participate in driving traffic to a commercial site where advertising is sold on every visit you make, and no sense of meaningful community is created in turn?

(If you think that YouTube resembles a meaningful “community” in any way, you probably need to get out more.)

Many of us have come to accept some degree of free culture as the new normal, even within commercial markets. But we have also come to deify commerce so much over the years that we have forgotten a crucial fact: That what makes an amateur an amateur is not his or her level of skill or knowledge or passion or even talent. What makes that person an amateur is merely his or her lack of engagement with the pressures of commerce, with the pressures of making something that strangers want to pay for. Yet for some reason, we continue to push amateurs into the theater of commerce, often under the guise of empowering them.

In 2010, 75,000 new albums came out for sale on the mainstream commercial market. 60,000 of them sold 13 copies or less. Why, under the guise of empowerment, do we force pure amateurs into the commercial market? Is it because there’s a quick buck to be made in CD pressing or digital distribution services?

In the long term, this bad habit of commercially releasing everything all the time has the potential to cut careers short before they’ve developed. It sucks energy from communities, removes investment dollars from the commercial market, and leaves us over-saturated with new releases, as well as a generation of jaded, cynical amateur musicians.

But the answer isn’t to just release everything for free on the broad commercial market. It’s to create new community markets instead: Diffuse, non-profit markets that lead to real engagement and joy, and help support local professionals who can become anchors of those communities.

The root to the word “amateur” is the root of the word “love.” To be an amateur, in the most literal and etymological sense of the word, it to be one who loves. It may seem impossible to put a price on unconditional love. But when commerce and amateurism collide, that’s exactly what happens.

What To Do Next

There are so few ethical, sustainable non-profit communities for sharing music online that I can only think of a single meaningful example offhand: The Free Music Archive, created by the influential non-profit radio station, WFMU.

(Full disclosure: WFMU’s mission is so awesome that I volunteer for them sometimes as a broadcast engineer. Whenever I’m there, I’m an amateur. They’re also currently in the middle of a their once-annual fund drive.)

Whether it’s intentional or not, the FMA’s very existence stands as one of the best counters ever devised to painfully dumb anti-IP arguments. Our communities’ universities and libraries often do the same.

Do you think that there should be such a thing as free access to the all the world’s culture and knowledge, including all the best books, movies and music ever made, and all the academic articles held within JSTOR? Guess what: There already is! That’s the job of non-profit institutions, whether public or private.

Creating convenience and cutting-edge new commercial works on the other hand, is the job of business.

If we are committed to the idea of maintaining free culture worth having, then it is essential for us to support responsible, ethical and sustainable access to free art and information. And we should also support anyone’s desire to create art for the sake of art to give it away, truly for free – and support them if they demand that it not be monetized by a big technology company.

To ensure this, IP and copyright law act as your creative Bill of Rights:

1) No one has the right to take your work and use it for his or her own financial gain without your say.

2) No one has the right to pressure you into working for free if you do not want to.

3) And no one has the right to take your art and use it to support his or her own political agenda without your agreement.

Today, you are safe from all those exploitative abuses of power (on the books, at least). That is thanks to copyright and IP law. These rights serve not only to enable us to become effective little capitalists if we’d like to, but they also serve to protect us and our communities from being bought out by for-profit corporate interests.

However, for better or worse, we’ve largely turned a blind eye to transgressions like these for about a decade now. That decision gave the web a chance to grow and mature into a real industry. You might consider it a “tax break” for the tech industry. Paid for with the labor of thousands of creative professionals who would go on to lose their jobs.

But now that web commerce has become one of the most significant industries on earth, it is time for the companies that have profited from the generosity and the energy of professional and amateur artists to give back.

Companies like Google, Facebook, Apple and Dell have seen incredible increases in valuation and earnings as consumers have rushed to use their products in order to access unprecedented amounts of art, music, film, video, television, written words and entertainment. Meanwhile, revenues for commercial and non-profit organizations that produce these types of content have fallen, even as both consumption and demand have both increased.

It’s time for us to ask these companies to do their part in supporting both ethical business models and non-commercial avenues for pure amateur art and expression. It’s time to ask them to give back to the communities from which they’ve taken so much, by donating some of their immense profits to these public causes.

It’s also time for us to clamp down on the unethical businesses that exploit artists for financial gain – whether it be at a conventional record label, a pirate site like Megaupload, or a largely white hat company like Google or Facebook.

Critics will say that enforcement is too difficult, but that’s a disingenuous argument.

For instance: Have you ever seen a single pornographic video on YouTube? Neither have I. Case closed. We know that enforcement is possible and effective. And YouTube, thanks to its growing Content ID system, is getting better at it everyday.

This current debate over copyright and intellectual property is one of the most important ones of our generation.

Will we decide that we have a right to keep amateur art pure, free from commercial interests and exploitation? Or will we decide that big companies can do anything they want with our creations?

Will we decide that creative professionals deserve the same basic protections from exploitation that we afford to professional computer programmers or financial workers? Or will we decide that mobs can strip individuals of their legal rights?

Will we decide that amateur performers deserve access to the ethical, non-commercial outlets that they’ve always had in the past? Or will we decide that commerce rules everything, and can do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, regardless of the costs and consequences?

This is an issue that should unite Americans of all stripes: conservatives, liberals, progressives, and libertarians alike.

We are talking now about fundamental rights of freedom and of opportunity. We are talking, not just about those things that give us life, but those emotionally satisfying moments that give us reason to live.

I hope we choose wisely.

Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn-based audio engineer, college professor, and journalist. He records and mixes all over NYC, masters at JLM, teaches at CUNY, is a regular contributor to SonicScoop, and edits the music magazine Trust Me, I’m A Scientist.

This entry was posted in All Stories, Featured Stories, Industry Trends, March 2013, Most Popular, Rants and Raves. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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