How should independent musicians survive in the streaming age? There seems to be mostly a lot of hopelessness, along with a few dead-end ideas. I have another idea: demand streaming justice. Fight back against the vulture capitalists of Stockholm. How did we get to this point? Here are my two cents.
Extinction Rebellion is challenging the workings of modern capitalism and the ecocidal society it has tortured into existence. They say we must find a different way to live before our species — and so many others — is extinct. Meanwhile, this same system of unregulated global capitalist insanity has, in the name of modernity, technology, freedom and smart phones, duped so many of us into believing that there is something positive and futuristic about viciously predatory, completely destructive vulture corporations such as Uber and Spotify. Just as cab drivers around the world are organizing on behalf of what’s left of their profession, and Uber and Lyft drivers are also organizing, waking up to the realization that they are a super-exploited work force who are increasingly unable to make a living, since they were never an important part of the business model in the first place, me and my fellow musicians need to organize for streaming justice.
Spotify has behaved in exactly the same ways as Uber on the global corporate and political stage, pouring unbelievable amounts of money into a platform in order to make it totally dominant, at which point they go in for the kill. It is a debt-based form of vulture capitalism that is leaving the entire indy music industry in a shambles, benefiting only a handful of pop stars, so-called legacy acts, or their record labels, and viral sensations, while everybody else moves into their cars and signs up for Food Stamps.
The final straw that led to my realization that the only way forward is a global campaign targeting Spotify and other streaming corporations until they transparently meet our demands for a minimum rate per stream, was learning from veteran music journalist Anil Prasad that the payout rate per stream from Spotify was actually decreasing, rather than increasing. More evidence that Spotify is committed to the same predatory business model as that practiced by Uber.
With the extreme speed at which everything constantly changes these days, it’s impossible to keep up, and there’s a huge lag time between when everything breaks and when most people realize it broke. To use some good old Marxist analysis of the trends, different situations involve different sets of contradictions, and depending on what those contradictions are, different sorts of tactics are called for. The tactic that is called for now, most especially, is not forming alternate platforms, or embracing a life of poverty. What is called for now is direct confrontation — independent artists organizing for our class interests, against the interests of our class enemies, represented in their most devastating form (for us) by Spotify and other “budget” streaming platforms.
I’ll explain my thoughts. I think the best way to go about that is first to back up and take a little look at where my fellow musicians have been in, say, my lifetime. Being a musician, especially an independent one, has never been an easy profession, regardless of the mythology and the small handful of superstars. But certainly in my lifetime there has never been a more difficult time to be a singer/songwriter than now — despite what you will hear all over the corporate press about how things are starting to look up for musicians. This statement is only true if you think, or want us to think, that the interests of the Big Three record labels have anything to do with the interests of the vast majority of working musicians in the world alive today. But they don’t.
Once upon a time, the interests of musicians, record labels and music-lovers were a bit more aligned. Few people in society or in the music business in the US were fully cognizant back then that if the music business ever had a golden age, it was largely due to government regulation. For most of the radio age there were laws in the US that severely limited how many radio stations a person or corporation could own, and what they could do with them. This allowed for a local music scene to exist in every region of the country. Similar laws in other countries fostered local music, and at the same time helped prevent local radio in, say, Canada, from being dominated by artists from the much bigger US music scene.
In the US, the Reagan administration changed all that as soon as it came to power in 1981. What changed for independent artists? Well, before 1981, life wasn’t fair and neither was the music industry, but there were local music scenes, there was relative musical diversity between them, different genres and different local styles within those genres. The genres were too strictly defined by the corporate industry, artists were always being put into boxes they didn’t want to be in, pushed to create art they didn’t want to create and not make the art they wanted to make. Things were very imperfect. But despite that, there were legitimate avenues for independent artists to sign deals with independent record labels, get local radio play, tour, and have a career of some kind, maybe even a really good one. Lots of great artists fell through the cracks, but enough didn’t that for most musicians wanting to pursue a career as touring performers, the path of least resistance was to line up some kind of record deal.
Enter the 1980’s. Independent commercial radio and, with it, independent record labels, began their rapid decline. With these avenues now cut off, more and more artists gave up on the idea of finding a record deal, gave up on the dream of being “discovered,” and started doing it themselves. There was a flourishing of a new DIY culture, with new tape-pressing outlets opening up all over the place, with artists forming lots of one-person record labels, releasing their own recordings, spreading the word about gigs, tours, and recordings through word of mouth, zines, underground press, community radio, mixed tapes, and by other means.
The flourishing of DIY culture in the 1980’s has often been explained by technology — specifically the popularity of the cassette tape and the photocopying machine, which made self-recording and self-publishing especially accessible. I think this aspect has been wildly exaggerated, however, and the main reason for the growth of DIY culture in the 80’s was a consequence of the closing-off of all other reasonable avenues. DIY became the path of least resistance because it was basically the only path available. If we weren’t using cassette tapes, it would have been something else.
Soon it was — it was CDs. Enter the 90’s. Now we’re talking about my own lived experience, because that’s when I started making a living as a singer/songwriter and touring all over the US, Europe and elsewhere. It was a lot like the 80’s, but far more so in many ways. The corporate record industry overall was more insular, elitist and bland than ever in the history of the music business. But the independent music scene thriving on self-made and self-distributed recordings was doing even better than it had been a decade earlier, with the advent of the internet, email lists, bulletin boards and other forms of online publicity. The idea of seeking a major label record contract was as distant an idea as it could possibly have been for me, but it also didn’t interest me at all, knowing that no major record label would ever want to sign someone like me in the first place. But it was also a distant idea because I was doing just fine, selling several thousand of my self-produced CDs on tour every year, making tens of thousands of dollars on CD sales alone — after the expenses involved with recording, mixing, mastering, artwork, duplication, etc., were covered.
This was the period when the corporate music industry was at its most monopolistic peak. It has since been in a state of free-fall, up until the past couple years. And what has happened to independent artists during this period of industrial collapse?
Let’s examine this carefully — which is hard to do, because statistics are often unavailable or misleading, often intentionally. Universally, record industry executives will lament the Naughties, the period during which they were basically suffering colony collapse, lost at sea, with the future completely uncertain. The reason? Well, their whole business model had fallen apart.
Namely, you spend lots of money to sign an artist, spend lots to record them, spend far more to promote them, and then once you’ve spent all this money and done all this work so that everybody has now heard of this pop star you’re pushing, you then reap your rewards in the form of millions of CD sales. But by now we had MP3’s. So what most people were now doing, come the early 2000’s, was hearing from the TV or radio about this band’s new album, but then instead of going to buy it at Wal-Mart, they were downloading it for free on Napster or somewhere else on the internet.
This is the phenomenon that caused the corporate music industry to collapse, and this is why they are so happy about streaming platforms that pay them something — billions, in fact — unlike the illegal ones of the Naughties. Their executives will talk about the Naughties as the Dark Ages of their industry, and they almost always make the unspoken assumption that this was also true for independent musicians.
That assumption, however, is wrong, from my own copious experience of making a good living touring all over the world throughout the Naughties, selling thousands of CDs every year as I had in the Nineties, but also developing a new and bigger following globally as a direct result of the increasing popularity of the internet and the free MP3. I gave away all my music online in MP3 form throughout the Naughties, yet I sold as many CDs as ever.
Why did I and many other people voluntarily give away all our music during this period? There are many different reasons for doing this, and they differ depending on who you ask. For me, it was about many things — getting the music out there to the widest possible potential audience, discovering new places to tour as a result, and other practical considerations, but most especially, giving away your music was now a new way to challenge the hegemonic dominance of the Big Three record labels and other hegemonic corporate entities such as the evil Clearchannel. We could do an end run. For us, the act of giving away the music was the promotion. For them, they already spent millions promoting the album, which is why people heard about it, so then they got it for free, rendering all that promotion useless.
For us, people were hearing our music who never would have heard it otherwise. For them, everyone knew their music through “conventional” means. For us, giving away our music was generally something we did ourselves, by uploading tracks to platforms that we had control over. By the early Naughties people had downloaded more than a million of my songs, just on one now-extinct platform alone. If I came out with a new CD that I didn’t upload myself to the internet, however, generally no one else would bother ripping it and uploading it themselves. People did this with pop stars on a daily basis, but with artists like me they didn’t bother — it was just a little bit too much trouble to go doing something that took some time, and that most fans of my music wouldn’t want to do in the first place. Paths of least resistance, once again.
Enter the 2010’s. This is the decade when everything changed for me and other independent artists in the most profoundly negative way. This is also the decade when things started looking up for the very shrunken but still surviving corporate music industry. What changed? In a nutshell, the record companies, at about one fifth the size they had been in the Nineties, made peace with streaming. Now it’s not just the indy artists, but the big record labels that are giving everything away. Well, not giving it away, but selling it for a fraction of a cent per song streamed. Which, of course, only works on a practical basis if you are getting hundreds of thousands or millions of streams per month on the full-spectrum dominant platform of Spotify — not tens of thousands or fewer, like me and the vast majority of working singer/songwriters on the planet. And with the new deals the industry is making with Spotify, the percentages for indy artists are set to get worse, as the percentages for the big record companies get better — as those with the most influence make the best deals with their new, vulture capitalist puppet-masters from Stockholm.
Now the central contradictions have changed, and we must change with them. Now, the path of least resistance for people — by far — is to listen to free music on their phones. Spotify Premium comes bundled with many cell phone accounts. People are led to believe they are helping artists by listening to their music on the platform, and helping us even more by getting a Premium account. It is actually much easier to find an album on Spotify than it is to stick a CD in a CD player which you no longer own. No need to look around on the Dark Web for bittorrents that may be infected with malware. And we cannot possibly compete with free.
This is exactly why crowdfunding took off in the 2010’s, and not in the Naughties. The concept has existed for a very long time, and has been successfully implemented by NPR and Pacifica Radio for many decades, along with the Girl Scouts and loads of other organizations. It’s not new, and although the technology of the internet is very helpful in setting up a crowdfunding operation, it’s far from necessary. Crowdfunding became popular in the 2010’s for the simple reason that independent musicians could not afford to record albums or otherwise survive by any other means, unless they quit doing music or got a second, or a third, job.
Most crowdfunding campaigns fail, however, and so many others never happen because musicians don’t feel comfortable with the idea. They never used to have to beg. Most of them have never even been buskers. Suddenly it seems to have become the only way to survive for so many of us in the so-called gig economy. I’m sure that in the very near future, Uber drivers will be doing crowdfunders to buy their next car, since their wages as drivers won’t possibly allow them to save up for one — just as our income from streaming doesn’t even come close to covering the cost of making the next album, unless you’re making it with your cell phone. And forget about paying the rent.
And just as the idea of forming an alternative company to compete with Uber’s race to the bottom is a dead-end idea, just as the idea of forming an alternate social media platform to the completely dominant Facebook hasn’t worked, the idea of forming a different platform to compete with Spotify’s race to the bottom is a pointless undertaking. Spotify is the infrastructure for streaming. Me, you, no one has the means to create a new one. We can keep crowdfunding, sure. We can roll over and play dead, or look for other ways to get by.
Or we can fight. We can organize, and we can win. History shows that memes can spread and have a huge impact, when they are spread in the form of art, music and lots of civil disobedience. The contradictions have changed. This is not the time for entrepreneurial innovations. This is not the time for more venture capital. This is not the time for making peace with a new form of serfdom. The new system, the infrastructure for music distribution on the planet, is now here. It is streaming, it is “free,” and it is led by the vulture capitalists of Spotify, devouring the corpse of an industry they have destroyed — but in such a hip and fashionable way, with an aperitif in between courses.
Fighting back against Spotify means demanding streaming justice. My suggestion is that our initial demand from these corporate vermin be that there be a minimum payout per song streamed of one US cent, without exceptions. A simple demand. Consistency, predictability, something we can understand, not a mysterious algorithm with a payout that radically changes month to month, despite our listenership increasing. If a streaming platform’s business model does not start with paying artists at least a penny per song streamed, then screw their business model and their business. They can go out of business, and return the internet to the pirates, if a tiny fraction of a cent is what they think is acceptable.
A relatively small number of very committed people can, history indicates, change everything. Fellow artists and those who care about the survival of artists, and by extension other people victimized by the same sort of predatory practices of corporations like Uber and Spotify, and anyone else with a conscience, I ask you: who will join me in a campaign of music, art, and civil disobedience against Spotify? The beta version of the Penny Campaign is up at davidrovics.com/penny. Check it out and tell me what you think.
Musicians of the world, unite! We have nothing to lose but our chains. I’ll meet you in Stockholm.