There's a rather lively (and lengthy) discussion going on over at the PPMB about how easy it is or isn't these days for bands to make a living from their music.
The first few pages consist of the usual bitching and arguing over the morality of illegally downloading music, and unless that subject particularly interests you, you can safely skip past them and start here. But it's when the topic shifts to "illegal downloading is killing the music industry" (how many of you are old enough to remember when it was "home taping"?) that things get interesting.
We regularly hear from bands (and labels as well) that it's next to impossible to make a living from music these days, unlike the putative golden era of the mid to late 90s, when, apparently, a band needed only to move to Berkeley, play Gilman a couple times, get signed to Lookout, and start raking in the loot.
Oddly enough, during my early years at Lookout I had to listen to much the same kind of naysaying: "Nobody ever makes money from punk rock;" "We'll always be playing basements and garages;" "Five years from now nobody will even remember our dumb little band;" "Real musicians have day jobs." (Okay, that last was a particularly annoying bumper sticker, but the sentiment, specious and dishonest as it might be, always lurked just beneath the surface of musicians' self-deprecation.
What made these discussions truly odd, given the hindsight of history, is that many of the musicians I was having them with have since become millionaires (multimillionaires, even) from playing that silly punk rock music that nobody would ever want to hear, and their dumb little bands are not only forgotten, but are the stuff of legend and have gone on - in the case of Operation Ivy, for example - continue to sell far more records now, almost 20 years after breaking up, than in their heyday.
Young people who came of age in (or were born in) the 90s seem to labor under the impression that a massive, accepting audience for pop punk or punk rock was part of the natural order of things in those days, and have the hardest time grasping that in the mid to late 80s, when the whole Gilman/Lookout/East Bay nexus was taking shape, things looked far grimmer for DIY musicians than they possibly could today. That vast network of touring venues and independent distros that seemed to make everything easy in the 90s didn't magically appear out of nowhere; it grew up organically from the painstaking (and often painful) efforts people made in the 80s, at a time when it genuinely did appear as though punk rock remained relevant to only a dwindling handful of diehards. The idea that a newly formed band who might have a single 7" out could hop in a van and make a coast to coast tour seemed wildly ludicrous when Operation Ivy rolled out of Berkeley in 1988; today hundreds if not thousands of bands follow in their well-worn footsteps.
Of course there's the other side of the equation: where are the young bands of today who compare in quality to Op Ivy, Green Day or Screeching Weasel, to name a few? Do they even exist? Tough question, because with so many more bands around today, it's harder for any one band to stand out. Also, with today's bands trying so hard to ape the stylings of their forbears, it's less likely that they're going to come up with something new and distinctive than in the days when there were hardly any bands around worth copying.
What's my take on this? The same as it was in 1987: despite all obstacles, despite constantly changing conditions, a band with something to say, the skill to say it, and the tenacity and perseverance to keep saying it will find its audience sooner or later, and bands that would rather feel sorry for themselves will always find excuses for giving up on their dreams. I suspect it's always been that way, and I have no reason to think it's likely to change now.