Music’s Middle-Class: In A Coma Or Dying?

By Shawn Ryan – 7-13-17

Back in the day, say between 1970 and 2000, having a Top 10 single on any of the charts — pop, country, R&B — generally meant your bank account would soon be filled with dollar figures that ended in five or six zeroes.

Have a million-selling album and you wouldn’t have to worry about paying bills for a long time. Have an album that sold multimillions, or several million-selling albums, and you probably had a couple of huge houses and a fleet of cars.

Add in money from touring and — if you didn’t blow it all on drugs, alcohol or ridiculous expenditures — you might not ever have to work again.

The same was true for the people who wrote big hits or had album cuts on big-selling CDs. In 1995, when Scottish band Del Amitri landed its only U.S. hit — the No. 10 “Roll to Me” — royalties from radio play alone netted them almost $1 million, according to lead singer Justin Currie.

But making that kind of coin these days? Dream on.

While there are artists who make tons of money, it’s darn near impossible for anyone but the biggest names to hit those heights today. In fact, it’s hard to make a living in music at all.

J. Willoughby, creator and musical leader of Black Jacket Symphony

“The result has been the collapse of the music middle-class — blue-collar songwriters, studio musicians, producers who eked out a living,” says J. Willoughby, creator and musical leader of Black Jacket Symphony, an outfit that’s well-known in Chattanooga after several years of performing shows at the Tivoli Theatre.

“I keep seeing the metaphor that rock ‘n’ roll is not dead but on ‘life support.’ I think it’s more in a coma,” he says.

Willoughby should know. He’s spent his entire adult life in music, either fronting his own bands, writing songs for other artists or recording his own songs.

The downward plummet of the music industry is blamed on many things — the advent of Napster and other peer-topeer file-sharing websites, loss of album sales and, especially these days, streaming services, which offer minuscule royalty rates for each time a song is streamed.

Consider this: Kevin Kadish co-wrote and produced “All About That Bass,” the Meghan Trainor song that hit No. 1 on the charts and sold 11 million copies. It also was streamed 178 million times.

Kadish made $5,679 in royalties from streaming.

“To be a musician — to make it in the ‘music biz’— it’s now playing in wedding/ party bands or teaching,” Willoughby says. But a lot of music, especially pop, is being made on computers, so sales of instruments such as guitars are in decline.

And, Willoughby asks, if no one is playing instruments, “Who is going to be left to teach?”

Contact Shawn Ryan at

Shawn Ryan

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