Hey, it's time for some bogus stat debunking, thanks to Matthew Lasar at Ars Technica, showing that, once again, "RIAA math" is something more closely aligned with stuff we made up that people might actually believe
There have been a variety of similar stats being thrown around these days in debates around what's happening in the music industry from defenders of the old way of doing things, arguing that there's been a massive decline in the number of musicians out there. The stat pops up in different forms, but keeps coming back up. We first saw a version of it back in 2010 when the RIAA put up a blog post claiming that "illegal downloading = fewer musicians."
While we appreciate them finally realizing that unauthorized downloading isn't "theft," the chart claims to have posted data from the Bureau of Labor statistics, showing a correlation between the number of "musicians and artists" and the decline in recorded music:
Even leaving aside the "correlation =/= causation" argument that could be made, the chart itself plays with numbers a bit. Note that the scales are different, meaning that the data was "fitted" to make it look like a direct correlation when that's not actually the case. RIAA math, as per usual, tends to be all about lies.
But, that chart seems to have taken on a life of its own in bizarre and ridiculous ways. Back in April, class warrior Timberg, claimed that BLS data showed a 45% decline
of people employed in "musical groups and artists" from 2002 to 2011. That number has become a key touchstone for the rabid defenders of the old way. Not a week goes by without someone claiming
something like it in our comments -- usually even messing up what was said. For example, that comment says that the 45% represented a decline in wages -- which is not actually what any of the numbers have shown.
In June, the RIAA's Cary Sherman gave a talk at PDF
, in which he cited BLS data claiming a decline in artists of 41%
from 1999 to 2011. That number was then picked up by Paul Resnikoff who posted the RIAA's updated version of the graphic
and, again, insisted that BLS data says there are 41% "fewer paid musicians" since 1999.
Once again, that's not actually what the chart says. It's not about "paid musicians." It's about how many people claim to be "musicians or artists on a full time basis." There are plenty of "paid musicians" who aren't full time.
Either way... Matthew Lasar, over at Ars Technica digs into the numbers to find that the RIAA's and others' claims... are completely bogus
. First off, it appears that they failed the "how to calculate percentage change" test. Lasar also finds that the actual
change based on the source data appears to be maybe a decline of a little over 8%. As he notes "8.4 percent, I'm sure most readers will agree, is a long way from 41 percent."
When confronted about this, first the RIAA admitted to playing some games with the numbers, not by using more stable yearly data, like Lasar did, but rather by using monthly data... and by selectively choosing which months to use.
"As far as the 41%, from that data set," came Friedlander's reply, "if you look at any of a variety of months between late 1999 and 2011 and 2012 (such as July '99 vs Aug '11) you can see declines around the 41% level (different months yield different figures, but some are even higher than 41%)."
In other words, it fluctuates pretty drastically. Anyone who wanted to reasonably show a change, would at the very least choose the same month in different years -- since there is likely to be significant seasonal fluctuation in musician employment (for example, July is a big month for weddings, which might mean more musicians who play weddings are "full time" musicians for July). As Lasar notes, this calls into serious question why the RIAA and others are making categorical statements that just don't appear to be supported by the data. Furthermore, even if the RIAA's bogus claim of 41% is based on monthly data... that chart that it's been spreading around shows yearly data, but implies, incorrectly, that it shows a 41% decline:
The problem with this response was that Sherman's categorical statement that we've seen a 41 percent drop in the number of musicians and artists since 1999 wasn't based on a monthly chart. It was based on the yearly table that he showed the Personal Democracy conference.
Finally, Lasar notes that the Bureau of Labor Statistics is actually pretty optimistic for employment among musicians to grow at about 10% over the next decade:
The number of people attending musical performances, such as orchestra, opera, and rock concerts, is expected to increase from 2010 to 2020. As a result, more musicians and singers will be needed to play at these performances.
There will be additional demand for musicians to serve as session musicians and backup artists for recordings and to go on tour. Singers will be needed to sing backup and to make recordings for commercials, films, and television.
That said, I don't think a slight and temporary decline in full time musicians should be all that surprising. It's true that labels funded a bunch of musicians for many years -- but often for short periods of time and with very questionable accounting practices. The problem, of course, is that many musicians came to believe, incorrectly, that the major labels were the only way to make money in music, and so they did little to cultivate new business models. These days, however, that's happening more and more, but we don't have enough experience for people to know what really works and what doesn't. So it's an era of experimentation -- and that means that an awful lot more musicians are making some
money, whereas before they made none. That's good for all of those musicians -- and might (in fact) mean that more money overall is going to musicians -- it's just more spread out. But we haven't yet reached the point where things have developed enough to match the number of full time musicians, though as people become more comfortable with these new models, that seems almost certain to happen.
Either way, it looks like RIAA math has once again been shown to be a complete fabrication, relied on by people who want to continue to support the ridiculous story that artists need labels to make money. It's sad that so many people cling to an obviously false tale, but it's good to see the numbers debunked. Hopefully we can now move on from that silly narrative and focus on new business models that do help artists get paid -- rather than ones that just help the RIAA divert money from artists.