What is the future for music after COVID-19?

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Author : Jean-Hugues Kabuiku

Published on Aug 17, 2020

In this essay, I will try to highlight the contour of an alternative to the financialization of music. in a COVID world patience is running out, we have witnessed organizations and individuals who called themselves progressive dodging accountability when asked to take responsibility for their oppressive behavior. Meanwhile, some corporations are thriving and millionaires getting richer at such a scale that in 2020 we have the honor to have the first trillionaire.

As put by Zarinah Agnew in Xenofeminism: the tldr on technomaterialism

Technologies should be re-engineered for the actual benefit to society, not to propagate existing oppressions. It calls on feminist technologists to build tools to protect humans from oppression and also to build new freedoms (‘freedom-to rather than simply freedom-from’). For example, in the past we have been defined by our gender and reproductive roles, however we need not be limited by this. An ability to give birth or bear offspring does not determine gender. Any feminism based on ‘natural ideas of a woman’s role’ is a thing of the past. We should aim to distribute these roles across the entire population.

in the case of the new hegemony of the streaming platforms not only technology is use to propagate existing oppressions, but it’s used to solidify the predatory mechanism that were in the inception of the music industry.

indeed the music industry has a long track record of offering a rotten deal to artists.

This year artists with a widespread platform came forward on how they signed a deal who didn’t benefit themself.

the artist often asks people to stop streaming their music hosted on those service until the situation is cleared out as they don’t benefit from it, only the record label and the streaming platform does.

Azealia Banks, Megan Thee Stallion, Mykki Blanco were all vocal about how unfair and sketchy their contract was. With hashtag like #FreeMeg and #FreeTheStallion.

Those practices are not a flaw in the system, it’s how the music industry literary works since it’s inception.

You also notice how those toxic record deals are especially targeting young black women.

You have here a good example of how being oppressed because of your identity and class intersect and are weaponized by the capitalist class to exploit better the workers.

Prince’s acceptance speech at the 2000 Soul Train Awards, where he spoke about his battle against Warner Bros Records.

“As long as you’re signed to a contract, you will take a minority share of the winnings,” he warned his fellow musicians.

This the reality for big labels but for indie the reality ain’t far from this neither.

Another example is the campaign who was launched for Adonis, acid house pioneer, who didn’t received any royalties for his EP released in 1986 by Trax Record.

I understand that there is a more sense of agency in some part of the indie scene, my focus is on how widespread exploitative behavior is in record deals.

With the democratization of digital distribution platform we saw a rise of digital label, who basically only “pay” their artist on exposure, indeed a lack of transparency combined by a dying music industry in the early 2000s normalized not seeing any penny from your release with a label. 

After the cut from the distribution platform, anecdotal revenue via platforms like Spotify, and the cost of mastering, it’s a miracle if there is anything left for the artist.

Especially if the label has no intention to share the revenue and can hide behind the excuse of the cost of distribution/mastering when they are actually making a bit of profit.

The old technic of exploiting artists meet the new way and we will see further in the article how it’s translate

first I will mobilize Marx in the “Labour-Process and the Process of Producing Surplus- Value” say :

“ Our capitalist has two objects in view : in the first place, he wants to produce a use-value that has a value in exchange, that is to say an article destined to be sold, a commodity ;and secondly he desires to produce a commodity whose value shall be greater than the sum of the values of the commodities used in its production,that is,of the means of production and the labour-power, that he purschased with his good money in the open market.

His aim is to produce not only a use-value, but a commodity also; not only use-value, but value,not only value but at the same time surplus-value.”

Streaming platform would be nothing, without the artist using their service,

yet only a happy few backed by the major and their infrastructures composed

by a network of PR agency, Spotify playlist placing agency, fake streaming, can see a significant return.

 For the big majority, it’s a pays out between $0.00331 and $0.00437 per stream to rights holders.

so for example for an artist like myself who got a song with 8,822 streams, it’s a 35.29$ payout to share with the label and collaborators.

If you want to live from your music the global consensus is touring since the payout is anecdotical or plainly nonexistent.

Streaming services are barely challenged about their extremely exploitative method and concerns raised by independence are met with a deafening silence.

The Financialization of the music industry

Financialization is when the finance sector gain more influence somewhere, could be society as a whole or an industry.

Around 2017 Merlin the biggest digital rights agency representing independent music labels. We talking about 20,000 labels and distributors in 51 countries. 

Cut out a really secretive deal with Spotify as the head of the organization said that “it would not be commenting on the commercial terms” who involved a share of Spotify valued between 128.2$ million and 151.4$ million.They later spread the money with their artist when they sold it.

You have here a clear example of how when it’s scalable, because of the size of an organization, how the mindset of the financial sector became hegemonic within the music industry. Without this Merlin X Spotify deal, the latter wouldn’t have been as hegemonic as they are as they will have a way smaller catalog. But also you see how using the finance sector method the music industry is finding a new channel of revenue back in 2017, but by doing so it anchored it as almost the only way of generating significant revenue as the music got totally commodified.

We will also see in the following paragraphs how the music industry also got totally zombified by Venture Capital.

First, what is venture capital?

“Venture capital is a form of private equity and a type of financing that investors provide to startup companies and small businesses that are believed to have long-term growth potential. Venture capital generally comes from well-off investors, investment banks and any other financial institutions. However, it does not always take a monetary form; it can also be provided in the form of technical or managerial expertise. Venture capital is typically allocated to small companies with exceptional growth potential, or to companies that have grown quickly and appear poised to continue to expand.”

source definition of venture capital on https://www.investopedia.com/

What we need to understand is how the propagation of VC in the music industry added an extra layer of vicious behavior in the pot.

What is interesting to point out is how useless is to try to start a dialogue with this platform. Their business model is based on Venture Capital, investment funds pour capital in those streaming services hoping to get an exponential return in their investment.

You don’t get this kind of return by paying artist fairly, so the interest of those organization are not aligned with those of independent artist.

They collaborate with Major in order to put a new nail coat in exploitative behavior who were at the inception of the music industry. Notice how there is no storytelling of “disrupting the music industry” when for other industry this sentence of “disrupting the X industry” is almost always used?

It’s because streaming service are instruments build to compensate investment funds in order for them to get 10 times their investment and give their piece of cake to Majors.

so there is no antagonism with the old player like in other industry.

In the case of Spotify you have a publicly-traded company with a Total Funding of $2.6B via investment and their IPO, who pay artists between $0.00331 and $0.00437. They work alongside Majors and they are the only ones seeing return alongside the investors.

The trajectory is to build a platform through raising capital through private investor in order to do an exit and be publicly trade is what all the streaming services are aiming for and this what their investor are looking forward to as it only makes sense for them to pour capital into startups if they give them 10x what they invested.

As a ex-member of a startup in a leadership position. I noticed how they were focused on the UX/UI of the product to increase revenue.

But besides paying the minimum to a government-mandated collecting society and performance rights organization.

Nothing was done to compensate the artist we were using the music to build the platform on.

Dj weren’t paid using a network of “ friends” & family and if rights couldn’t be paid it was avoided.

That’s the global mentality shared by the players of the now financialized music industry.

How Art creation compensation should look like 

Artists have been resourceful during this Covid-19 crisis, some set up Patreon or asked for donations online since their principal source of income which is playing out, dried out, but we can all agree that this is not really sustainable.

  • How do we imagine artist support in a post-covid world ?
  • How do we give back value to music? which is everywhere these days but artists can’t live from it.

I will try to clarify a few leads regarding the support and compensation of the artist in the following paragraphs.

Music is fundamentally anti-capitalist :

Having a rat race where one win it all, within a musical genre, could be difficultly seen as a sane way to build a scene and to move music forward in general, but it’s literally how it works now pure Silicon Valley mindset within the scene and cultural actor are playing ball with this.

The pop star of the ’90s predate this behaviour in the way that it normalized

the building of writing team made of several artist/producer to write for them. As someone who knew a less commercial success would add to their channel of revenue, writing gigs, but with a strong balance of power at this core since there is a strong revenue inbalance if the song know commercial success.

But now in the late stage of capitalism with a hegemony of predatory streaming services.

The different way to get revenues as an artist as mostly all gone. As social inequality increases — making music as a hobby or making a living from it, is something that can mostly be accessed by the wealthy.

Hence the backlash by fan when they discover one of their favorite artists is a daughter of an investment banker?

the different stage of development made it more and more obvious that music is part of the capitalism realm and it should somehow generate revenue, first the artist was allowed a more prominent piece of cake but as the music industry get more integrate into platform capitalism and “failed” to address the different crisis that piracy brought into the compensation of the artist, this is less the truth.

Humanity been producing sound, and gathering through party, religious masses, and so on.

What if the nature itself of music as it’s a basic human need to produce it and consume it is inherently anti-capitalist and we shouldn’t count on shark from the late stage of capitalism into helping it’s producer thrive?

Universal Basic Income

From there how do we imagine a model who can make being a music creator sustainable?

The COVID-19 crisis exacerbated the unsustainability of neoliberal societies.

It mind sounds ridiculous but first member of the scene have to acknowledge that they are part of society.

I often witness a detachment maybe coming from a place of privilege and affluence.

Pushing the narrative that they are doing well as a music producer in the underground /experimental music scene while every sign points toward how unrewarding and unsustainable the profession is. Is a really dangerous PR model.

the actual crisis has put a stop on this cognitive dissonance and made the scene e-busked as their really fragile source of income which is touring fell apart.

and it raises questions about how to be less short-sighted and not be stuck in a bubble of wealth signaling while the reality is really far from that.

The question of how to make being a music producer/DJ more sustainable can’t be separated about the questions surrounding wealth inequality and the lack of real protection via an efficient wealthfare system in the west, at different level depending on the countries of course.

For example, they were questions about why Sweden is able to export so many Pop Music act there is no secret that Scandinavian have a good wealthfare system, but the combination of publicly subsidized after school music program, schools fully equipped with professional studio equipment, the concentration in Stockholm of supporting industries (music publishers, video producers, educational groups), most of which are concentrated in Sweden’s capital of Stockholm. Including Export Music Sweden, a nonprofit that promotes and fund Swedish artists abroad. the fact that Swedes thanks to their amazing educational system are mostly proficient in english , 89% of the population can speak it.

Also you can notice how Spotify started in Stockholm and still operate from there. So there are no coincidences.

But it’s pretty transparent how inefficient wealth fare and the disparity of what is needed and what the political class is willing to put in place as financial support.

A Call for a Universal Basic income are getting louder and the crisis showed how urgent it’s implementation is.

Benefiting from an overall amelioration of a wealth fare system combined with ownership of their music’s profit will make it more sustainable for the member of the deep music scenes to not only have time to nurture sound who don’t have to follow the dictatorship of the market, but also find new ways to preserve value while being able to survive.