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Nathaniel Kunkel InSession: The Big Squeeze

February 1, 2010
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Nathaniel Kunkel

Here in early 2010, I am in some ways more optimistic about music than I have ever been, but at the same time I'm dubious at best about the economic prospects for the industry.

I am excited about where technology is taking us, not because we can now edit anything, but because we can now get our music out there without anyone else. We have a cyber playground where if you write a smash song and post it on YouTube, you can get heard by millions of people. If you are great, you can go viral. But I'm concerned that the mechanisms to pay artists, musicians and producers — even those making music heard by millions of people — are antiquated and becoming more dysfunctional by the day. As the artists get squeezed, they squeeze back. Hence the growing disconnect between what production services actually cost and what people want to pay. These chasms need to be bridged, but it is getting harder to do so. I have clients that range from those who spend lots of money to those who spend little; many of you have probably experienced this as well. The spread between the two extremes is getting larger, and as it does, so do the problems.

I can't pay my bills if I don't serve my best clients; the situation is identical for my lower-paying clients. I can't afford to say no to anybody. But is that fair to my clients who pay the full rate? Why should they pay three times as much for the same service?

Until recently, the answer was: It's not the same. Or we would get compensated in other ways. Perhaps some participation or publishing; there were options. The idea was that as engineer/producers, we understood that budgets were smaller and we were willing to gamble along with the artist that we could make a hit. Less pay now, bigger potential payoff later. It created an environment of mutual investment.

But now, people are expecting the same or lower rates than ever, with the same services and no sharing of future income. If they do agree to share profits, they often want to sunset it so that that the revenue sharing expires after a couple of years. So now we do exactly the same job for everyone, and we get paid different amounts by everyone.

Putting aside how fundamentally unfair that is, it creates another nasty issue. It's not going to take long for the full-rate clients to realize they're getting the short end of the stick and demand that we charge them less, too. And to be honest, can you blame them? How would you feel if you went to a deli and the dude in front of you paid $3 for the identical sandwich that you paid $9 for? That would tick me off.

And when artists ask for favored-nations billing, what happens next is obvious: We close up shop — we can't afford not to. If we don't get paid a living wage on the front end and are cut out of any participation on the back end, how do we pay our bills?

Maybe we should try the old-school approach of compensating the people that make art for us with what they are worth, not just what they will take. It is in the best interest of the artist anyway; if you take care of your team, they will take care of you. And besides, how smart is it to low-ball the person who backs up your work every night?


Nathaniel Kunkel (studiowithoutwalls.com) is a Grammy- and Emmy Award-winning producer, engineer and mixer who has worked with Sting, James Taylor, B.B. King, Insane Clown Posse, Lyle Lovett, I-Nine and comedian Robin Williams.

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