I am a composer living in Kansas City, MO. My wife and I manage a house, multiple jobs and two cats. And twins, as of 6 March 2006. I used to play the clarinet and saxophone pretty regularly, and for a time played in the Colorblind James Experience, the Hotheads and the Whitman/McIntire Duo. Nowadays, I teach music-related subjects and operate Irritable Hedgehog Music, a label devoted to minimalist and electroacoustic music.
This cute fella has a better chance of survival than your local record store...
With all of the discussion about artists being deprived of income, the obvious question is, "OK, so HOW can I get music in a fashion that will maximally benefit the artists I care about?" Glad you asked. Here follow a few ideas:
Buy directly from the artist. They almost certainly have a website. Use The Google to navigate through the Web of Intertubes and check them out. If they have a means of purchase through their website, that will almost certainly benefit them the most directly. If not, they will probably tell you where to go. If they are on Bandcamp, buy through there. Anyone selling on Bandcamp will get a higher percentage of your purchase price than anywhere else. Bandcamp is the most positive development in the music world to come along in a long time. Explore it. You'll discover an ocean of great stuff.
Buy from an artist-friendly distributor. There are many, depending on what kind of stuff you're into. Tons of indie artists of all genres are at CD Baby. They are good people; order from them with confidence. Like European prog or obscure rock? Check out Artist Shop. Or Burning Shed. More into the avant garde? Try Forced Exposure. Share your own favorites in the comments section.
Support an independent record store. These are becoming extinct so, you might not even be able to find one locally. But hey, you care about pandas and hedgehogs and baby harp seals, right? Well, independent record stores are even more endangered. I personally owe an incalculable debt to The Bop Shop, which IS still in business. I live a long way from there now, but I try to call in a couple orders a year. Their owner, Tom Kohn, is a great guy who has done more for music in his town than nearly anyone else. If you're in Rochester NY, you should stop by. [Update] I just got back from a trip to Boston and lo and behold while walking down Massachusetts Ave in Cambridge, I strode by Weirdo Records. I was compelled to enter and upon doing so found the most wonderful trove of electronic and avant garde wonderment. A joyous discovery, and I know I shall return there one day... (In the meantime, they will have a steady stream of web orders coming from from my direction.)
Support their [your artists'] Kickstarter campaign. Lots of projects are being funded this way nowadays, and we may jump in on this bandwagon as well at some point. I contributed to a documentary for Pinball Films a while back, got some spiffy swag, a dvd of the doc and the deep satisfaction of helping make a worthy project happen. Think of yourself as a "co-executive producer."
Buy from iTunes. iTunes isn't perfect, but they're ubiquitous and a substantial percentage of your purchase WILL make its way to the artist. We make more from a download from iTunes than a physical sale on Amazon. Your favorite artists probably will too. [Update: this will depend a bit on whther or not they have their own label. If so, you iTunes dollars go a lot farther towards the artist.]
Things that should be great but aren't:
Spotify. Spotify is a fantastic streaming service that originated in Europe. Their library is vast and the interface works very well. Initially I thought they'd be an awesome force for good. But they pay independents a laughable pittance. Our Spotify revenue after almost two years? Eight cents. Even if you subscribe to Spotify (as opposed to using its free version), the artists you love are getting squat.
Amazon. I have a serious love-hate relationship with Amazon and use them for some purchases. My big complaint is they've become a Leviathan that has destroyed about as many independent businesses as Walmart. If I can get it somewhere else, I do...
This kind of consumer activity creates a healthier symbiotic situation, sort of like lichens... All of the above has focused on the "helping the artist" perspective, but you the listener benefit as well. How? Well, for starters, this will set you on a much more individual path in your musical consumption. You'll become a more discerning listener. You'll be more sensitive to the ups and downs of an artist's career. You'll feel a lot more connected to the artists you care about. And in a couple of years, your music library will be a whole lot more funky and personal than it is when you just vacuum up (or download) the same stuff as everyone else. Sure, you can download the complete catalog of anyone from Pirate Bay in minutes, but that doesn't help you or them. Like I said in my previous post, "If you truly respect their work, the highest compliment that you can pay them is to spend your own money on their efforts."
If you haven't already encountered the essay linked above, please take a moment and go read it. I haven't much to add to its argument, except to say that I think it states well the problem of trying to produce new music in today's climate. One of the troubling matters of our time is the ease with which recorded musical content can be "shared." So-called "free culture" has inculcated a sense among many that only the stupid pay for stuff like music or videos. Musicians have forever been cheated out of income, but the scale upon which it now happens is new and more vast than ever, and never before has the audience itself colluded with the usual cast of shady managers, sleazy record labels and other unscrupulous figures to bilk the artist of rightful income. This is a problem that cuts across all styles and genres.
I have a personal stake in this issue, as I am a composer and operate a small label dedicated to electronic and minimal music. Together with my friend R. Andrew Lee we've released four physical cds so far. We've recorded standard-setting discs of piano music by William Duckworth, Tom Johnson, and Ann Southam. We have yet to get a single negative review and our efforts have been lauded as being among the finest recordings available in this genre. We are really good at what we do. And we have wonderful ideas for future projects that would help shape the understanding of the genre we love and build a legacy from which new music could be created.
All of this is rewarding and artistically satisfying, but for one thing: we don't break even. Not even close. This summer, we will record three more albums of minimalist piano music (over seven hours of music), all of which has yet to be either recorded by anyone, or recorded professionally. Our recordings' technical standards match the best in the business, despite being recorded on a shoestring budget. We produce albums for what other labels would spend on pizza and Mountain Dew. But we don't break even. This doesn't come as a surprise to us, but that doesn't make it any easier to swallow. One producer and label owner (far more experienced than myself) told me flatly: "New music recordings do not recoup their production costs."
In the big scheme of things, this is not a catastrophe of any sort, merely the current norm of how the world works. My own attitude is primarily one of exasperation rather than anger. It comes with the territory. But I think our world could be so much richer if listeners understood and acknowledged that their role is not a passive one. They are part of the creative process, whether they realize it or not. Audiences shape their artists' path just as much as the artists themselves. If an artist or group feels supported and empowered by their audience, wonderful, magical things can happen. (Ask any jazz or rock musician.) If not, the artist may give up or be forced to stop without ever realizing their full potential.
So here is one more heart-felt plea from some artists who do not care to get rich, do not want anything more than to be able to continue: If you hear a stunning original recording, a performer that intrigues you, that moves you, perhaps even irritates you; take note. If you truly respect their work, the highest compliment that you can pay them is to spend your own money on their efforts. Go hear them perform, buy their stuff. Give it to others for birthday and Christmas gifts (the only kind of "sharing" that really counts). It will do more than help keep those artists going. You may find that their work will keep you going, too.