More Heat-Seekers than Heat: Understanding Chris’s ‘Success’


In the United States, the top one percent of the population has over 15 times more wealth than the bottom 50 percent, as of late 2020:  “According to the latest Fed data, the top 1% of Americans have a combined net worth of $34.2 trillion (or 30.4% of all household wealth in the U.S.), while the bottom 50% of the population holds just $2.1 trillion combined (or 1.9% of all wealth).” [Forbes, October 8, 2020]  No doubt, the massive pandemic-induced unemployment among the bottom 50 percent contributed to this wealth gap, but, even in better times, our top 0.1 percent have an annual income almost 200 times higher than the average of the bottom 90 percent [source].  So what does this have to do with Chris’s “success”?

Income & Wealth Inequality in the Music Industry

Unfortunately for most musicians but all so fortunately for the select few, income and wealth in the music industry mirrors income and wealth in our population as a whole.  Way back in 2013, Derek Thompson at the Atlantic wrote about the unnerving parallel, tying most of the growing income disparity to ticket sales:

from The Atlantic (June 13, 2013) as presented by Krueger at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

And ticket sales are the key to the kingdom of music royalty.  As Thompson explains,

You can copy a song file. You can copy a video of a song file. These things aren’t unique. But a live concert is. So look what’s happened to prices. In the last 30 years, listening to music has become cheaper than ever, while watching live performances has grown more expensive. “The price of the average concert ticket increased by nearly 400% from 1981 to 2012,” Krueger said, more than twice the rate of inflation.

The “Krueger” in that quotation is Alan Krueger, Chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, who – believe it or not – delivered a keynote speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013 [see full remarks, charts, etc. here].  In that address, Krueger stated that

The music industry is a microcosm of what is happening in the U.S. economy at large. We are increasingly becoming a “winner-take-all economy,” a phenomenon that the music industry has long experienced. …. The lucky and the talented — and it is often hard to tell the difference — have been doing better and better, while the vast majority has struggled to keep up.

These same forces are affecting the music industry. Indeed, the music industry is an extreme example of a “superstar economy,” in which a small number of artists take home the lion’s share of income.  The music industry has undergone a profound shift over the last 30 years. The price of the average concert ticket increased by nearly 400 percent from 1981 to 2012, much faster than the 150 percent rise in overall consumer price inflation.  And prices for the best seats for the best performers have increased even faster.

At the same time, the share of concert revenue taken home by the top 1 percent of performers has more than doubled, rising from 26 percent in 1982 to 56 percent in 2003.  The top 5 percent take home almost 90 percent of all concert revenues.

This is an extreme version of what has happened to the U.S. income distribution as a whole. [emphasis added]

[Note:  A more succinct but equally telling look at the “superstar economy” as it relates to music can be found in this New York Times blog post by Pulitzer-Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman (paywall).]

Citigroup released an extensive report documenting that only 12 percent of the music industry’s $43 billion revenue in 2017 actually went to artists.  Consequence.net noted that “12% might sound meager, but it’s actually a marked increase from 2000, when artist revenue hovered at just 7%. The improvement can be attributed to artists throwing themselves deeper into the live music business. While this new approach may help them stay afloat, it’s not exactly the most feasible in terms of overall mental health” [emphasis added – the article also discusses the toll that perpetual touring takes on musicians].

Also contributing to this disparity is “generational wealth”:  Boomer artists with a large catalog are making millions selling rights to their music, while millennial musicians are mostly working day jobs to get by.  For example, consider this headline from BusinessInsider:

I don’t begrudge Dylan one penny of his fortune, his having produced epic music for the better part of 50 years.  But his wealth illustrates the same wealth gap between old farts and young climbers that we see throughout our economy.  Furthermore, the rights to Dylan’s music are so valuable largely because of the streaming revenue his catalog can generate.  As consumers listen to more music than ever but buy less music, those who win the Spotify lottery are doing very well, as this headline from Rolling Stone illustrates:

Earlier this year, David Dayen of The American Prospect did a deep dive into the music streaming business, especially Spotify and YouTube.  You can get a sense of his conclusion about these services’ contributions to inequality just from the article’s subheading – “Musicians are in peril, at the mercy of giant monopolies that profit off their work” – and an image illustrating his article:

An excerpt from that article:

Musicians, despite supplying virtually all the value for Spotify, share in none of that value. Ek [Spotify co-founder and CEO] could deposit some of those billions into accounts of the artists that keep Spotify successful, but that’s not on the table. “Daniel Ek says he’s the savior of the music business,” Castle [an entertainment attorney who used to work at A&M Records] said. “I think the music business is the savior of Daniel Ek.”
If Spotify released the data of who streamed music to the artists, then they could at least use it for direct marketing or planning tour schedules. They could share in the data’s value. But that’s all hidden. “Maybe you find out you have 25 people listening to your music in Seattle, but you don’t know who they are,” said Maria Schneider [Grammy-winning jazz and classical artist and the lead plaintiff in a YouTube lawsuit]. “Musicians are underwriting this streaming experiment and it’s not working.”

You get the idea. The remainder of this post and a second post will examine how Chris fared in an industry that provides huge rewards for a few musicians, a living wage for some, and breadcrumbs for most.

Chris:  Seeking “Heat” But Getting Burned?

Indian summer, I need some return
It’s so hard to get warm now
It’s so easy to get burned
Down on the pavement, the laws are learned
It’s so hard to get warm where
It’s so easy to get burned

My reference to “Heat-seekers” in this blog’s title is derived from Billboard’s nomenclature, defining heat-seekers as “artists whose albums haven’t peaked within the top 100 of the Billboard 200 or in the top 10 of certain genre charts” [source].  I also chose the term because it juxtaposes so well with many CW fans’ opinion that Chris got burned when Sony dropped his recording contract.  It also fits the view of some musicians – even very successful ones such as Prince – that the music industry burns musicians via unfair contracts, cooked books, whatever.

 

Photograph: Brian Rasic/Rex Features

Nonetheless, this article will not address Sony’s dropping Chris, nor will it discuss Dave Matthews short-lived “devotion” to Chris’s music, nor, for that matter, Brandon Kessler’s enduring support of Chris and his music.  I and many others have beaten that poor dead horse to a pulp.  Rather, I am attempting to view Chris’s music career in the context of the music industry as a whole.  How does Chris’s success as a musician fare in relation to the thousands of musicians who strive to break through the cacophony?

Of course, ‘success’ can be viewed many ways.  As I thought of how to define it, I (weird, I know) heard a lyric from Bridge Song, one of the songs Chris contributed to the soundtrack of Pigs Will Fly:

there's power and motion
forever is calling
to raise the day before your eyes
in numbers and letters
sisters and brothers will pick you up
and dust you off

“Numbers and letters.”  One can define ‘success’ quantitatively (objectively, i.e., in numbers) or qualitatively (subjectively, i.e., in letters and words that express opinions and emotions).  In the remainder of this post, I examine quantitative measures of Chris’s success; a second post will look at qualitative measures.

Chris’s ‘Success’ – Charts & Sales, Tours & Streaming

According to businessofapps.com, Spotify adds 60,000 tracks to its music database every day.  Given the surfeit of music, Chris was surely correct in describing music as a commodity.  In an interview, he discussed his relationship to the music industry and noted “For a while [during his years with Sony] I forgot why I play in the first place which has nothing to do with the music business. It’s about people. People need music. They need expression on a very basic, pure level. I think nowadays we forget that because it [music] has become such a commodity.”  How does a musician make a decent living when his product – music – is a commodity interchangeable with other goods of the same type?  To quote Chris, how do you “get warm” – let alone “hot”?

Compared to musicians as a whole, Chris did quite well, supporting himself on the income he derived from album sales and touring revenues.  The money was surely not plentiful, but he never took a day job to make ends meet.

Charts & Sales

A review of Billboard charts shows that Living with the Law (single, not album) debuted at #47 on the Album Rock Tracks and peaked at #28.  Big Sky Country debuted at #48 and peaked at #36.  The only album to “chart” was Dislocation Blues (with Jeff Lang), which debuted at #11 on Billboard’s Blues Album Chart but fell off the next week. Din of Ecstasy clocked in at #27 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Album Chart on April 15, 1995, but never accumulated enough “heat” to appear on any other chart:

In terms of record sales, Chris’s oeuvre also fell short of spectacular.  As of 2001 (the last year for which I could find Soundscan data), Living with the Law – his most popular album – had sold 160,000 copies, despite a major push by the label and Rolling Stone‘s rating it the 1991 debut album of the year.  Din and Dirt Floor sold about 30,000 each; Terra, less than 20,000, even including a +2,000-sales boost after the release of Dirt Floor.  Not being an industry insider and being very much unwilling to pay for a subscription to such data, I was unable to access sales data for any of his other albums.  But I think it’s fair to assume that, other than his advance when he signed with Columbia/Sony, Chris never saw a windfall from record sales.  Income? Yes.  Megabucks? No.

In fact, during an interview with KBAC (1999-04-26), Chris commented on the recording industry and noted that “I’ll never make any money from it [Living with the Law].”  And an article about Chris’s work with Brandon Kessler celebrates that

Veteran blues singer Chris Whitley recently received his first royalty check. It’s not that it took him so long to break into the recording industry – he put out three previous albums with Sony – he just needed to step away from the big time and sign with an itty-bitty independent label run by a twentysomething from his Manhattan studio apartment.

“It costs $1 million to $2 million to release an album” on a major label, explains Brandon Kessler ….  “If you’re not making money by the second album, chances are you’ll be dropped” by a big label. [emphases added]

You’re probably thinking “How can this be?”  Easy.  Consider that Living with the Law sold about 160,000 copies [Note that’s total sales over a 10-year span].  Assuming a wholesale price of $6 for each CD, cassette, whatever, Living would have generated less than $1 million in gross revenue for Columbia/Sony.  Okay, sure.  There may have been tour income, licensing income, etc.  But, even if you add 25 percent for those, we’re looking at just $1.25 million.  The label gave Chris a big “push” and no doubt spent a lot of cash doing so.  To get a sense of how expensive launching a new artist can be, consider this representative though hypothetical “balance sheet” re the expenses and income from one album by a four-member band (from an article published in the early 1990s so somewhat contemporaneous re Chris’s Columbia/Sony contract); you can also read the full article or just scan all the numbers.

This is how much each [music industry] player got paid at the end of the game.
Record company: $710,000
Producer: $90,000
Manager: $51,000
Studio: $52,500
Previous label: $50,000
Agent: $7,500
Lawyer: $12,000

Band member net income each: $4,031.25

The band is now 1/4 of the way through its contract, has made the music industry more than 3 million dollars richer, but is in the hole $14,000 on royalties. The band members have each earned about 1/3 as much as they would working at a 7-11, but they got to ride in a tour bus for a month.

I spent a couple hours trying to understand all the numbers, but threw my hands up.  The best I can figure is that, by the time the band’s managers, producers, lawyers, et al took their cuts, the band’s $250,000 advance on royalties had evaporated, thus leaving the band with just a little income from the tour and merchandise sales and $14,000 in the hole re royalties.  Heck of a way to not make a living ….

Back to Chris ….  With this information about recording contracts, expenses, and income, we can assume that the label lost a ton of money on Living with the Law.  Worse yet, a four-year lull between Chris’s first and second albums and the fans’ perception that the second was nothing like the first probably contributed to sales of Din of Ecstasy totaling less than 20 percent of Living‘s sales.  In other words, Chris was proving to be a bad investment, having lost 80 percent of his fan base between Living and Din.  When his third album, Terra Incognita, sold even fewer records, the label called it quits.

Tours & Streaming

Regarding tour income, I know of no source that could provide that data.  But, given that Chris typically played in small venues and that the ticket stubs I’ve seen suggest admission prices averaging about $10 – $12, we can assume that his live-music income covered tour costs and left just a bit for his living expenses.  We can also surmise that, although touring didn’t generate a lot of income, it surely took its toll.  Just scanning Metter Bozze’s tour guide, one gets the sense that Chris was on the road far more than at home.  Recall that the Dirt Floor tour was comprised of 300 gigs over a little more than one year – most of them one-night gigs and then on to the next venue.  Also recall that in the Dust Radio documentary, Chris lamented all his comings and goings – a tangible “dislocation blues.”

A last category of revenue – music streaming – did not really take off until after Chris’s passing. Given what we know about music-streaming revenue for the bottom 95 percent of recording artists, it seems unlikely that this income source would have significantly supplemented his record sales and tour income.  Nonetheless, his music is being streamed today, one assumes with the revenue being divided between the music-industry owners’ of Chris’s catalog – labels, publishers, whatever – and his estate.  Calculating how much income would have been/is currently being generated from streaming is difficult and outside the scope of this discussion (For more info about streaming payouts see these detailed analyses by Soundcharts or Reviews). The chart below [from Soundcharts] shows the average payout per stream for the largest-music streaming services.

These averages are largely meaningless in that dozens of factors affect how much an artist actually earns per stream – again, a discussion too complex to address here.  Further, these averages reflect the total payout, not what the recording artist/songwriter receives.

Suffice it to say, Chris’s music catalog would not have generated – and probably does not currently generate – much revenue, given the popularity of Chris’s music.  To provide some perspective, consider these recording artist payouts:

  • Drake – at the time the #1 artist on Spotify – earned $52.5 million from his 21.5 billion streams on that platform.
  • Ed Sheeran’s “The Shape of You” netted $6.6 million from 2.7 billion streams – just from that single track!
  • But, as the source of these data notes, “These numbers are impressive, but due to Spotify’s royalties structure, earnings of this magnitude are few and far between.  According to Rolling Stone, the average artist in the bottom 98.6% of earners took home just $12 per month.” [EDM]

Check out the Chris Whitley page on Spotify and you’ll learn that Chris garners just over 34,000 monthly listeners. Good to know, but compare that with these artists:

Artists with the most monthly listeners of all time on Spotify worldwide as of July 2019 (in millions) [source]

“Big-name” artists who have expressed their appreciation for Chris don’t make the chart: even Bruce Springsteen and John Mayor have less than one-fourth of Drake, the chart’s lowest-ranking artist – Springsteen at about 14 million listeners and Mayor at about 16 million.  Dave Matthews comes in under 3 million, and – more at Chris’s level, Myles Kennedy (and the Conspirators), just over 80,000. At over 328,000, Robert Johnson, whom many describe as the greatest bluesman of all time, has ten times Chris’s number of monthly listeners.

In the Spotify screen capture below, you can see Chris’s most popular tracks and the streams each has generated:

If I understand correctly, the number of streams listed reflects “lifetime” streams; that is, the total streams since the inception of Spotify back in 2006.  Perhaps because Spotify gets a lot of flak from artists, it has launched a new website, LoudandClear, to push back against wide-ranging criticism.  Using one of the calculators that site provides, I learned that Big Sky Country‘s 1.8 million streams ranks it among the top 348,000 tracks and that Chris’s +34,000 monthly listeners places him among the top 89,000 artists.

One source notes that “A total of 1 million streams, which is an achievement in itself, makes artists between $3,310 and $4,370 [probably an overstatement in that it likely reflects total revenue, not artist revenue].  As such, an artist would require 336,842 [streams per month] to meet the monthly minimum wage amount in the US.”  Sadly, it seems that Chris’s songs most likely have not achieved that level.  Consider it small consolation that most of the estimated 1.2 million artists on Spotify don’t [Update:  A recent NY Times article puts the number of artists at 6 million, but notes that 5.6 millions have posted ten tracks or less].  As the chart below illustrates, although more artists are making more money on the streaming service over time, they represent a tiny percentage (about 1.8 percent) of those artists.

from The Verge

But wait!  There’s Forgotify, a website that encourages users to listen to the over 4 million songs on Spotify that have zero streams.  Of course, that website’s name resonates with me, I Forget You Every Day being one of my top Chris tracks; it’s makes me think of the Chris Whitley songs forgotten every day.  I was hoping that I could search for Chris’s songs there.  No such luck – the site randomly presents one of its 4 million songs:

So …. Now What?

Most artists won’t reach superstardom, and I think the quicker you can accept that truth the quicker you’ll start to adapt your thinking into how to make a decent living off of music. –Hannibal Brumskine 

So …?  What can we conclude from this excavation of Chris’s numbers?  My conclusion is sad but true:  Chris’s music was simply never popular.  Or, to mangle the title of a movie that was popular ($179 million gross), music listeners just aren’t that into him.

I have to confess that, other than LWTL and a few tracks on Terra, I wasn’t ‘that into’ Chris.  I revered Chris’s debut, wore out one CD and then bought two more to replace it (in case it was out of print when my first replacement died).  Din?  Tried to listen, basically sampled each track, and tossed it into my ‘whatever’ drawer of discards that I hadn’t yet decided to trash.  When Justin Larson, a member of the ATCW group who is musically inclined himself, posted about ‘dissonance’ in New Machine, he captured why so many were turned off by Din.  I mean, really.  Listen to the opening salvo in this live performance [full video], and I think you’ll agree that many people’s ears heard a DIN indeed, and said ‘No thanks.’ As I noted earlier, Din garnered less than 20 percent of the sales of LWTL.

 

But, as my mom used to say, “ya gotta do what ya gotta do.”  And Chris ‘gotta’ follow his muse.  So, rather than lament that he ‘couldda been a contender’, Chris figured out how to survive financially while staying true to his music, as he told Billboard in 2001:

“What I came to terms with by making some small indie records and meeting other people who work in that way is that, hey, if a record doesn’t do blockbuster numbers, then that’s OK.  Even if ATO doesn’t want me anymore, I could move to Santa Fe, make little records, advertise them on a website. I could even get a job and give the records away. I feel more comfortable with my place in the culture now and the fact that I don’t have to fear the cool police or this cult of youth.”

In 2004, the Montreal Mirror described Chris’s career this way:  “After three amazing releases, Whitley was given the major-label heave-ho in ’96 and returned to his roots, stripping everything back down again, trading the tour bus for a car and the suits at Sony for a one-man operation run out of an extra bedroom.”  But interviewing Chris, the Mirror quoted him as saying “I really like it now. I’m able to make a living and I know exactly where my money is coming from, instead of just living off of advances from the record label.”

Chris sums up why he chose artistic integrity over ‘bags of money’ in a Daily Herald interview:

“A lot of what I do now is very pragmatic – it’s done with a minimal budget and working very quickly,” he says. “There’s not much room for messing around. You don’t have the chance to sit in the studio and experiment with sounds.”  Whitley realizes that the popularity of Ryan Adams, Wilco and others within the alt.country movement could make another “Living with the Law” a hit.  “I’ve thought about that, and I’ve thought, ‘Well, if it works, maybe I’d have bags of money,” he says, with a derisive chuckle. “But when you get down to doing it, and living that way, it would be like, ‘Why am I playing music? It’s just a business now.”

I ask again, “So…?”  So, Chris had made peace with his place in the music industry, and it’s way past time his ardent fans do the same.  The ATCW group has lamented Chris’s ‘failure to launch’ – to achieve the recognition and reward we all feel he deserved.  But ya know what?  After examining how difficult it is to make a living as a musician – especially as streaming takes over the industry, I conclude that we should all – myself included – STFU!  Learn from Chris’s example and ‘pay it forward.’  If you’re really into a musician/band and stream their music on Spotify, YouTube, wherever, consider actually PAYING THE MUSICIANS!, not the suits who exploit them.  Buy the damn album.

 

[Forthcoming:  Heatseekers Part Deux will examine Chris’s ‘success’ in qualitative terms, highlighting his artistic achievements and critical recognition and outlining some ways that we fans can support musical artists.  I’ll provide a link here when that post is published.]

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