Win and Will Butler of Arcade Fire and economist/New York Times columnist Paul Krugman headlined a panel discussion at SXSW today on the “celebrity economy in music” and how artists in the future will make a living. Moderated by Grantland’s Rembert Browne, who ironically claimed that he “failed economics,” the panel also included Nielsen’s Tatiana Simonian and Berger Management’s Nicky Berger. “Having a panel about the celebrity economy in music at SXSW is very fitting,” as Browne pointed out, “because this is one of the places that brands and commercialism in music maybe get to an overwhelming point.”
Although current topics like the unique opportunities provided by the the internet, the rise of streaming, and the utility of data were all addressed, much of the discussion returned to some very familiar themes — concerns and debates about “selling out” are hardly new. When Simonian spoke about corporate sponsorship as a crucial source of revenue for emerging bands, arguing that it shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as “selling out,” Win was quick to set her straight: “It is selling out, though, just for the record.” Although the importance of brands over labels may be on the rise, he wryly stated that “artists have been getting screwed over at pretty much the same rate, but now slightly different people are screwing us over.”
Similarly, Krugman — who kept humbly repeating that “I don’t know why I’m here, exactly” but consistently spoke intelligently and articulately, almost as if he were a Nobel prize-winning economist — asserted that “Things have changed a lot less for the musicians, for the artists, than you might think.” Even in the peak of CD sales in the ’80s, “artists earned about 7 times as much from live performance…It’s always been really about the live performances as far as the artist is concerned. There is really no reason to think that’s going to change.”
But it’s not all same as it ever was. Where things might be changing, according to Krugman, is in what he calls the “1% phenomenon.” In a microcosmic approximation of Western society as a whole, “the share of revenue going to a few bands at the top,” the bands and artists that regularly fill arenas, “has massively increased.” Although it feels like there’s a “renaissance of small bands and small venues…they’re getting a smaller share of the pie.” And as Will Butler pointed out, “A lot of artists will make money from their parents. That’s a giant way that a lot of bands are around, is their parents pay for things. And it’s great. As the rich get richer, their kids can do whatever the hell they want.”
But perhaps the most important revelation of the afternoon was the knowledge that Will Butler both owns and (presumably regularly) wears a shirt that says “Will.” If only we could all be so comfortable with our own identities.