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Strength in Numbers: A More Secure Future for the Music Industry

Solidarity, better labor practices and "interdependence" could help artists stay afloat.

Words by Gabe Meier
Published on June 11, 2020 16:43 Berlin Time

Over the past several months, questions surrounding the future of the music industry have been violently brought to the fore. These conversations, which have usually simmered below the surface among a subsection of online commenters, have become critical in the wake of  COVID-19 and the subsequent economic collapse. With venues closed for an indeterminate period, income streams for a majority of artists have been severed, and a Wild West of online gigging has opened up. 

To consider the future of music, however, we need to consider the underlying structures that have brought us to this point. That the rug has seemingly been pulled from under the music scene overnight is one of the long-term economic effects of decades of neoliberalization—a political project intended to transform individuals into optimal entrepreneurs, which has led, in turn, to the destruction of cooperative social bonds and consolidation of power and capital in the hands of the wealthy. Individuals have the capacity to make endless connections in the world as long as they’re in the service of capitalist innovation, but those connections flow in inverse proportion to the free development of their intellectual and social energies. These aspects have taken on a new level of brutality as people are unable to see, touch, or commune with one another.

The global pandemic has given these issues a renewed urgency, but they largely existed prior to its onset. The institutional integrity of many artistic communities is at a low point, following decades of degradation, marginalization and co-optation by a tech industry-slash-major label cartel that has consolidated almost all of the productive and distributive organs available. It’s easier than ever for cultural works, no matter how radical or niche, to be converted into tools for capital growth. This is not a matter of “selling out”, or succumbing to top-down demands, but rather the reality of a market logic that has seeped into the deepest recesses of culture and the collective psyche.

The growth of the major streaming platforms is a prime example of the neoliberal project’s success. As Liz Pelly has extensively shown in her excellent “Downstream” column for The Baffler, Apple Music and Spotify have colonized both the way music is listened to and the manner in which it is produced. Artists (not to mention labels) are deprioritized in lieu of “mood playlists” while a mode of passive listening that strips away context and potential artist-listener bonds is emphasized. Artists are paid literal fractions of a penny for their work, but to add insult to injury, their music is now bundled into marketing decks—Spotify’s former VP of Advertising and Partnerships claims that the company knows its users’ “true colors with zero filter”—to be sold over and over again to other companies looking to capitalize on youth subculture.

This approach, commodifying and data-izing the very contours of subcultures that are assumed to be transgressive—or, at the very least, in contradiction to hegemonic interests—appears to be the next frontier in the neoliberalization process. As pitches from the recent Techstars Music 2020 conference show, the market for capturing and capitalizing user’s data is already at an advanced stage. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the language used by the startup CEOs at this conference is divorced from any conception of artistic or cultural value, but the level of greed and inanity is still startling. Here are Fansifter head Aivar Laan’s claims about his “fan-data management platform”: “Imagine a car company who wants to hyper-target its video ad to dads who love 90s indie-rock, went to three-plus live shows last year, and also listen to Cardi B with their kids.” Indeed, imagine.

The neoliberal project has left artists estranged from the products of their cultural labor and divorced their creations from any spatial coordinates or context. The current system is built on imperatives to be an optimal consumer and entrepreneur, while simultaneously imparting a feeling of impotence in collective pursuits. Sacred spaces—like small-capacity clubs or blogs with a tangible grasp on their local scenes—that were once taken for granted, with their sense of community and knowledge propagation, have been infringed on, chipped away at and made to seem inadequate in the face of totalizing technological, political and economic change.

These developments have, understandably, left artists scrambling for alternatives. Recently, the discourse has been centered around labor struggle, political economy and the potential of cooperative, artist-owned models. New streaming companies and subscription platforms that promise cutting-edge technology and equity for artists have emerged, but while these developments look promising, the conversation around collective ideals still feels nascent. Material equity for artists is a key first step, but what are the conceptual and philosophical outlines of this movement?

Much of the discussion has occurred around the concept of “interdependence” as articulated by artists/critics like Jon Davies and Mat Dryhurst. Coined by Dryhurst in reaction to the idea that  “independence” has lost its counter-hegemonic luster, interdependence highlights collectivity, ownership and the “virtue of being considerate and supporting others.” Davies situates interdependence in relation to Mark Fisher’s theory of “Capitalist Realism,” demonstrating the mental health toll that operating as a “model entrepreneur” takes and the resulting “atomisation of creativity.”

Interdependence is posited as a way out of the hyper-atomization of competing in a viciously competitive, deliberately precarious cultural market. In a practical sense, interdependence looks like a formalized version of the way many artists, collectives and record labels already interact with each other. Institutional constraints and market nudges push toward individualization, but many hold an implicit understanding that survival is contingent on sharing resources, time and knowledge. Communities already marginalized by the music industry, like New York’s ballroom scene, have even formalized many of these behaviors, creating alternative structures to pass down knowledge and resources from generation to generation. Keeping their guard up has been helpful: As ballroom has proliferated into a global phenomenon—and while corporations have made attempts to co-opt its energy, key scene members like Dashaun Wesley and MikeQ have continued to set the tenor for how the culture is perceived.

The conversation gets murkier when  interdependence, as a concept, enters the realm of practical models. Resonate, an “ethical music streaming co-op” that features Dryhurst on its board, promises ownership, fairness and control for artists and the re-insertion of “real value” back into music for listeners. Another initiative, Currents, is a subscription platform where listeners subscribe to artists individually. Their model is intended to counteract algorithmic discovery in favor of “deliberate storytelling” through artist-curated playlists while restoring music to the way it was “meant to be listened to.” Dryhurst himself proposed a blockchain-based solution to Soundcloud’s insolvency issues in 2017 that would amount to a collective buy-out and investment in the balky German platform.

These platforms make both implicit and explicit claims to cooperative and interdependent values, but it’s still unclear how they break free from the neoliberal logic of competition. As Marxist economist and geographer David Harvey notes in A Brief History of Neoliberalism, one of the ways that neoliberalism ensures constant capital growth is through the creation of new markets where they didn’t previously exist. In the cultural sphere, this occurs when previously un-commodified behaviors like sharing music among friends, passing down knowledge from generation to generation and the informal resource sharing of DIY communities are captured by market forces. Relying on capital-driven tech solutions, no matter how many egalitarian values are built into their code, risks further commodification of healthy interpersonal cultural behaviors.

Philosophy professor and critic Robin James lays out a more pointed critique in an essay for Real Life, disputing the assumption that interdependent relations are “intrinsically ethical and just.” James argues that “interdependence more often than not takes the form of exploitation,” mirroring racist and hierarchical systems in the rest of society. This has certainly been true throughout the history of the music industry, but it conflates cultural and social movements with the oppressive hierarchies that constrict them. It is not the solidaristic bonds between artists that replicate racial and social inequity, but the exploitative corporations and politics that undergird the whole industry.

In parallel to the conversation around more equitable streaming and subs,  the specter of a renewed cultural trade union movement has been invoked. Unions and music have a rocky history, from the American Federation of Musicians’ inability to adapt to the advent and proliferation of high-fidelity recorded music to organizations like Britain’s Musicians Union and America’s Future of Music Coalition, which operate  more along a “servicing” model, where discounted insurance and legal help are offered in lieu of labor solidarity and militancy. 

Several weeks ago, the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) launched, aiming to “fight for a more just music industry, and to join with other workers in the struggle for a better society.” The Union has already drafted an impressive letter calling for congressional relief for artists who have lost work, and it claims to have mobilized thousands of music workers in its initial actions. Another recent upstart, New York’s Music Workers Alliance (MWA), aims to fight “unfair treatment, lack of benefits, contracts and representation.”

The trade union model, however, has been a bad fit for contemporary music, not only for many avoidable strategic reasons but also for many practical reasons, not least because the traditional roles of owner-boss-worker have been indelibly blurred over the past half-century. An individual may play all three roles when they release an album. Further, there isn’t an essential supply line that can be broken by strike action. Music is, unfortunately, not an “essential” commodity, like food, fuel or building supplies; in many cases, withholding labor just doesn’t have the same impact.

The combination of labor action and solidarity make up a far more dynamic structure for change than anything else currently available. This structure can be both a tool for connecting artists with collective material interests and a long-term epistemological project that ensures the proper recording and re-telling of history alongside the creation of new systems of knowledge. It works both in tandem with the platforms noted above, pushing for artists to utilize more equitable tools, and in antithesis to them, ensuring that power resides in the hands of the artists themselves. If the current status quo, in which every shred of creative energy is instrumentalized for capital growth, is to be defeated, then collective action is crucial.

Writing in 2009’s The Soul at Work, Italian autonomist thinker Franco “Bifo” Berardi remarks that emotional, linguistic, cognitive and imaginative energies are too often captured and capitalized on by tech and surveillance capital. From Berardi’s perspective, these energies make up the soul, which has been colonized by work and alienated from the products of its labor. A renewed labor movement is necessary for its utility, but also as a means of regaining control over these vital energies. A key tenet of Italian autonomist thought is the perception of the working class not as a passive object of alienation, but as, in Berardi’s words, an “active subject of a refusal capable of building a community.” Strength is held through the collective refusal to engage in systems of capital extraction.

On a practical level, the Italian autonomist movement can also be looked to for models of decentralized governance that emphasize day-to-day democratic measures, guaranteed social wages and local price controls. UMAW and MWA have already called for expanded unemployment benefits for gig workers—a category that most cultural workers fit under—which will be essential for establishing fair pay frameworks for performance and commercial work in the aftermath of COVID-19. The potential to withhold labor will also be important, especially in the face of a live performance and DJ market that will likely look markedly different in the coming years. 

Tech platforms, no matter how egalitarian their makeup, will not enact these changes on their own. As The Shock Doctrine author Naomi Klein has shown, Silicon Valley is already exploiting the current crisis by making further overtures into the education and health care spheres. There is no doubt that the major labels and streaming platforms are also devising ways to capitalize on the present home-bound reality. Without getting into the murky waters of prediction, it will be crucial to have an organized, mobilized collective body to fight coming efforts at privatization and consolidation. In 1975, “Bifo” Berardi’s autonomist journal A/traverso laid down a call-to-arms: “the practice of happiness is subversive when it’s collective.” Without enacting this in practice, no technological or legal change will turn the tide.

Additional graphic design by Niklas Hail