Author: Kevin Erickson

Student Debt is a Music Policy Issue

Student Debt

Photo by Michael Fleshman, via Flickr

It’s no secret that there’s a student loan crisis in the United States. Americans now owe a full $1.2 trillion in student debt, and that number is only expected to increase.

It’s also no secret that this crisis impacts the music community. I know more than a few gifted musicians and composers who’ve had to ask themselves, “Do I keep working on music, or do I find another more lucrative kind of employment that will allow me to pay down my educational loans?”

At the same time, Future of Music Coalition’s research indicates that investment in education can have some clear benefits for careers in music. In 2012, as part of our Artist Revenue Streams research project measuring the ways that musicians and composers make a living, our research team crunched the numbers from a large-scale online survey completed by over 5,300 US-based musicians. Among our findings: conservatory and music school graduates were likely to be earning more and working more than non-music school graduates.

Music Education Survey Results

Thus, it’s important that students be given the tools to make informed choices and understand the full range of potential risks and rewards that investment in education may represent. The most responsible schools are increasingly giving students a candid assessment of what the job marketplace looks like before they get too far into their educational career, and some are working to better equip their students with entrepreneurial skills to navigate a challenging landscape.

Yet, as Ellen McSweeney points out in her excellent 2013 article about education debt for NewMusicBox, entrepreneurship itself depends on a degree of financial flexibility that many young graduates don’t have. Her article is a strong resource for thinking through the tough decisions young composers and musicians face in planning their educational and vocational paths. It’s got some hard-won advice from twenty-something musicians and composers in the process of paying off their educational debt.

It’s also likely that the current student loan crisis has other trickle-down effects for arts participation more generally, particularly on the audience spending side of the equation. Arts organizations are constantly experimenting with new initiatives to try and attract younger audiences, yet as recent graduates in all fields are more burdened with debt than ever before, they may opt for fewer, less adventurous, and less expensive entertainment options. Even sharply discounted symphony tickets can feel like an indulgence that’s hard to justify when you’ve got a $500 monthly student loan bill.

So regardless of whether they’re personally saddled with debt, this is an issue that could impact all musicians and composers. Thus, it’s worth keeping track of some things that have been happening in the broader policy conversation around student debt.

The Debt Collective, an activist group that began as an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, has been taking a unique approach to the issue. By buying up aggregated educational debt from lenders for pennies on the dollar, then abolishing the debt rather than collecting it, they’ve drawn attention to the incoherence of the present state of affairs. More recently, they’ve organized a group of more than 100 students who attended the for-profit Corinthian Colleges or their subsidiaries and who have refused to pay their federal loans in protest of predatory practices, asking the Department of Education to discharge their loans.

For-profit schools have been targeted because they account for a disproportionate amount of defaulting borrowers, and often have poor retention rates and high debt loads; the worst are accused of predatory lending practices and deliberately recruiting vulnerable low-income students. Indeed, earlier this month, the Department of Education fined Corinthian Colleges $30 million for misrepresenting job placement rates to current and prospective students, among other misdeeds, and today the company will shut down its remaining campuses.

For-profit schools are certainly part of the picture in music, too. Full Sail University, a for-profit school that’s certainly no stranger to controversy, is even sponsoring a stage at the popular Warped Tour summer music festival, targeting the next generation of aspiring rockers for their pricey music and recording classes. To be fair, for the right student in the right program at the right school, a for-profit school could end up being the right choice. But the problem of student debt extends far beyond that part of the sector.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen some modest but meaningful reforms and increased federal oversight. Borrowers can now choose repayment plans that take current levels of income into account when assessing monthly loan payment amounts. For those enrolled in these “income-driven repayment plans,” if their income is low enough, they could have a monthly payment of $0 and still be considered current on their loan payments. (For full-time employees of non-profit organizations, the entire federal loan can even be forgiven after ten years.) Yet while the Obama administration has expanded access to these plans, enrollment is still low, and these plans can’t do anything to address private student loans, which can have the worst interest rates. Senator Elizabeth Warren has again introduced legislation allowing borrowers to refinance older loans at current lower rates.

But why not think bigger—like encouraging state reinvestment in higher education with a goal of making college much more affordable and decreasing reliance on loans? With the 2016 elections on the horizon, it’s a good time to speak up about these issues and make sure that they’re on the table for consideration.

In It to Win It: Lessons from the Long Game

Snail run near the Finish line on road

Max Weber once described politics as “the slow boring of hard boards”; those with less patience for poetry might just call it slow, boring, and hard.

Nonetheless, I’ve found that the music community is actually uniquely equipped with the kind of long-game thinking that it takes to make substantive policy changes. That’s because there’s a basic structural similarity between the kind of slow and steady work it takes to hone your craft as a composer or performer over many years, keeping your eyes on what opportunities and challenges lie around the corner while working to address your present needs, and the slow and steady process of building movements for justice. Making an impact in either policy or music often requires the same kind of passion and perspective.

Yet for many policy areas that are important to musicians and composers, from arts funding to health care access, from media policy to affordable housing, the pace of progress can be frustratingly slow, and our institutions of power can seem remote and unresponsive. Even for issues where simple, straightforward consensus solutions exist and have been identified, it can take far too long to make those solutions real.

Here’s an example: For years, performing musicians have been frustrated by the unpredictability of airlines’ policies about flying with musical instruments. It may seem like a small thing, but for musicians whose livelihoods depend on their ability to arrive at their gig with the tools necessary to do their job, it’s been an enduring problem—one that has also impacted the composers, venues, and presenting organizations who depend on these musicians getting where they need to be. Musicians would show up to board their plane only to be surprised by arbitrary size and weight requirements, and their ability to board could be subject to the whims of gate agents. After years of advocacy, provisions to create consistent policies and allow instruments as carry-ons were attached to the Federal Aviation Administration reauthoriziation bill and signed into law on February 14, 2012. Hooray!

So, if the bill is passed, the problem is solved, right? Alas, no. Congress makes the laws and apportions funding, but then federal agencies have to implement the laws and spend that money. The FAA was given two years to prepare formal regulations, but when the deadline rolled around in February 2014, the regulations hadn’t yet been drafted, allegedly for budgetary reasons. And the horror stories kept rolling in: instruments that had to be checked and were then damaged or destroyed, musicians not allowed to board, travel plans botched.

Happily, after renewed efforts, the new regulations finally went into effect on March 6 of this year. Credit is due to the American Federation of Musicians, which has long led the charge on this issue, working with airlines, policymakers, and federal regulators to see it through to the end. (No one does tenacity like a labor union!)

But there’s a sobering element to this victory. If it can take years to really secure a win on an issue where the biggest barrier isn’t organized, emotionally charged opposition but bureaucratic process, what does it mean for issues that are more publicly contentious?

Let’s look at another issue where musicians and composers recently scored a big victory: the recent net neutrality rules, which were formally published earlier this month.

As you probably know by now, net neutrality is the basic principle that the internet should work the same for everyone, and that internet service providers (companies like Verizon and Comcast) should not be allowed to discriminate or pick favorites. This is enormously important for composers and musicians who rely on the level playing field of the open internet to reach audiences, collaborate, and communicate, especially if their work is limited in commercial appeal and unlikely to find the support of corporate backers.

This issue came to widespread public consciousness in 2014, with more than 4 million Americans filing official comments with the FCC—an unprecedented show of interest in wonky telecom policy. And ultimately the FCC voted in favor of the strong net neutrality protections that we had called for. But for a full decade before those comments flooded in, musicians, composers and other activists had been actively working on this issue. It’s been a long battle and it’s not over yet, but there are a few lessons we can learn:

You may lose a few times before you win

As part of the road to the new rules, we’ve weathered a series of serious disappointments, as when courts ruled against net neutrality rules in 2010, and then again in January 2014. When something like this happens, rather than be discouraged, you can leverage a loss as a focal point for organizing. Moments of crisis are often where values become clearest, because they remind us all what’s at stake.

Artists really can lead the way

Artists of any medium who’ve publicly demonstrated an interest in social justice issues can quickly get burdened by requests to support a deluge of causes, and it’s not always very strategic, as anyone who’s sat through a few unsuccessful benefit concerts knows. Nonetheless, the music community can lead the way on issues that impact them and everyone else. Before the issue was mainstream enough to be fodder for late night comedians, artists such as the Kronos Quartet and Vijay Iyer alongside big stars like R.E.M. laid the groundwork for net neutrality by being vocal about its implications for freedom of expression.

Coalitions get it done

An impressive array of arts and culture organizations weighed in on net neutrality, including Americans for the Arts, American Composers Forum, Association of American Arts Presenters, Chamber Music America, Fractured Atlas, League of American Orchestras, National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, National Alliance for Musical Theatre, National Performance Network, New Music USA, OPERA America, Performing Arts Alliance, and many more. Add to that list media reform organizations, civil rights groups, online activists, labor unions, and businesses large and small. Coalition work means learning to work alongside folks that you may disagree with on other issues—what other issue has brought together with the Christian Coalition?—but the outcome speaks for itself.

Relationships matter

It takes sustained engagement to really make an impact, because it requires building relationships with government officials, not just communicating in times of conflict. It’s harder to get stuff done if officials only ever hear from you when you’re disappointed with them. That’s why it’s important to work to build productive, positive relationships with both the folks making the laws and those who implement and enforce them, even as we work to hold them all accountable. (I love this video of FCC General Counsel Jonathan Sallett being interviewed by musician/activist Rebecca Gates; he talks about the value of hearing directly from musicians and how these direct perspectives shape his thinking.)

And while I’ve been writing primarily about politics as it plays out at the federal level, this is all equally true at the state and local levels. We have more power than we often imagine, even if it takes some time to see results.

Who Counts as an Expert?

When you read about music industry issues in the news, does it feel like it’s connected to your life? Do you see yourself reflected or hear your concerns included? These questions were on my mind most recently last week, as rapper Jay Z was joined by a crowded stage of pop superstars to roll out the music streaming service Tidal. It’s something I think about every time a big music news story bubbles up.


Among the general population, there seems to be a sustained level of interest in the business of making music that extends beyond our appetite to understand other industries. It’s regrettably difficult to find news coverage about the people who grow our tomatoes, sew our clothes, or assemble our smartphones, but people are still uniquely fascinated with the people who make the music they enjoy.

And yet much of the public conversation about important issues in the music business seems light in nutritional value, or narrowly focused on the concerns and actions of a handful of superstars. If you’re working in a genre or music subculture that isn’t based around mass-market assumptions, your concerns may be absent. We can all read dozens of hot-takes on the latest celebrity copyright kerfuffle, but how many of them examine whether a young composer whose work has been infringed has any meaningful recourse, if she can’t afford expensive legal representation?

One reason for this dynamic is that journalism has been going through many of the same upheavals as other creative industries. Few publications have dedicated reporters assigned to the music industry beat anymore, let alone with a labor emphasis—such topics get passed on to arts critics, or business and technology writers. I’ve only ever really worked in music, so no one would expect me to be able to explain subprime lending or email encryption. But business and technology journalists are often tasked with explaining complicated systems and revenue models, without any specialized training or background.

While some have taken on this challenge and done an admirable job, it’s not surprising that others end up making basic errors—confusing record labels with publishers, or compositions with sound recordings, for example.

FMC Chart: money flow-radio

Infographic from Future of Music Coalition’s “Music and How the Money Flows

There’s also a reliance on faulty conventional wisdom; Future of Music Coalition has published research that squarely debunks common myths, like “musicians make all their money from touring,” but I could spend my entire work week trying to correct these myths every time they appear in popular media and I wouldn’t make much of a dent. Plus click-driven revenue models often incentivize writers to prioritize celebrity controversies over an examination of how non-superstar musicians (the vast majority of us) are impacted.

A parallel factor may be the trend towards “explainer journalism” sites, which “have built their core identity around explaining complicated issues or situations to a well-informed general public” as Henry Farrell, um, explains. The inherent claim to expertise in this mode of writing doesn’t exactly encourage intellectual humility or the weighing of different theories, but encourages boldly assertive claims as an exercise in self-branding and generating traffic.

This is an era that rewards simple explanations: TED Talks that prescribe neat solutions, the ability to learn “everything you need to know about X in one chart.” It’s nice when such things exist, but it’s easy to lapse into a preference for falsely totalizing narratives, and “expertise” is awarded on the basis of whether you can offer such a narrative (bonus points awarded if you can work in an affirmation of entrepreneurial progress that’s basically compatible with our prevailing neoliberal power structures).

But artists know that things are more complicated. You might even argue that making a life as a musician or composer is partly about getting comfortable with constantly navigating that complexity. We know that an approach that works for one kind of musician is not necessarily going to work for peers working in different genres, or different roles with different assumptions about scale. Strategies or business models that might work perfectly well for a chamber music ensemble may not suit a composer who doesn’t perform. We know that rather than the conventional story of an old model of the music business being replaced by a new one, there’s always been a range of many different models, and we choose the models that align with our abilities, skills, interests, and available resources.

But while adopting “it’s more complicated than that” as a default epistemological position will help you understand what’s going on, it can be challenging to find ways to tell these more complex stories. Not long ago, I was speaking to a TV journalist who wanted to know whether or not our copyright laws were “antiquated.” Now, it should be clear that this is kind of an absurd question to pose as a binary either/or. US copyright laws amount to hundreds of pages, assembled over decades, revised over and over again. I explained that while some current provisions might be due for revision, many others continue to provide important protections for creators and for the public interest. Alas, the journalist really wanted a yes-or-no answer, and when I was unable to give her one, she ended up not quoting me on that issue. It was hard to blame her—she only was allotted two and a half minutes.

Another example: the popular sci-fi novelist and tech blogger Cory Doctorow in his mostly un-recommendable new book Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free suggests an axiom for aspiring artists: “Fame won’t make you rich, but you can’t get paid without it,” a variation on the “obscurity is the real problem” adage we heard endlessly during the file-sharing battles a decade ago. This is, of course, demonstrably false: most working musicians and composers have always been obscure by the standards of mass culture. In fact, there are thousands of professional musicians who will always remain ultimately anonymous to many of the consumers who enjoy their work: touring sidemen, session players, etc. Obscurity alone isn’t so much of an issue if obscure musicians and composers are able to obtain a fair price for their obscure labors, whether from the open market, from grants and commissions, or other revenue structures. But Doctorow’s willingness to speak in such sweeping generalities about an industry he’s never worked in hasn’t been a barrier to his self-positioning as an expert on the music business. It may have worked to his advantage, actually.

This leads me to another observation about perceived expertise: working at the intersection of music, technology, and policy means reckoning with the fact that each of these three arenas carries its own ongoing battles with sexism and racism. What this means for me as a white, college-educated man is my opinions are immediately given an assumed legitimacy in many forums. I can opine about technological issues in music and policy and no one will patronizingly ask me whether I know how to code, to borrow an example from Astra Taylor and Joanne McNeil. I may not be able to oversimplify complex dynamics, but at least I look like an “expert.”

If this all sounds rather disheartening, I do see opportunities to push back. Musicians and composers are always the best experts about their lives and livelihoods, and they seem to be more and more willing to tell their stories. As busy, frazzled, and overextended as journalists and editors often are, my experience has been that most genuinely want to get it right and like hearing the thoughtful, factually grounded perspectives of artists of diverse backgrounds, including the kinds of people who will never be invited to stand on stage next to Jay Z.

The need to hear those perspectives is also a reason why sites like NewMusicBox and others that allow creative workers to speak for themselves are so fundamentally important, and I’m delighted to be contributing this month.

Kevin Erickson is communications and outreach manager for Future of Music Coalition, a non-profit research, advocacy, and education group based in Washington, D.C. With roots in the Pacific Northwest indie-punk tradition, his experience spans many facets of the music ecosystem, including all-ages music advocacy, alternative interdisciplinary arts spaces, community radio, and brick and mortar independent music retail management. He remains active as a musician, producer, and engineer at Swim-Two-Birds recording studio.