Musicians Fight for a Future Through Coronavirus
Hello! First off, welcome Penny Fractions readers. Got a number of new followers, so I hope you enjoy the newsletter and check out the back issues. Thank you to those who hopped on the second Penny Fractions reader call last week. The next one will be at 1pm EST, this Sunday. If you’d like to sign-up, click here. Otherwise, if you enjoy this newsletter please do recommend it to a friend or perhaps support via Patreon. Now, let’s check in on the coronavirus’ impact on the music industry.
Nearly three months into the coronavirus pandemic, the live music industry remains on pause. Outside of a charity drive-in concert here, an overhyped, socially-distanced concert in Arkansas there, and a lingering sense of anxiety, not a lot’s changed since I wrote in late April. Streaming’s decline appears to have leveled off, which again highlights my concerns about the value of streaming for artists when even a pandemic cannot disrupt it. Yet, there is quite a bit of movement, calls to action, and reactions I wanted to highlight this week, as many within the industry are actively fighting to remake the industry in this moment of crisis.
The Voice of the Musician
American musicians want their voices heard at the legislative table. That’s why two new groups, the United Musicians and Allied Workers and the Music Workers Alliance, were pulling folks to call elected officials to make sure the music workers were included in upcoming stimulus legislation. The former reported that they amassed over hundreds of calls and signatures towards this effort. Larger organizations including the SAG-AFTRA, RIAA, BMI, and dozens of others penned a letter making similar demands.
The American Federation of Musicians, the world’s largest music union, has provided extensive funds for its members during this crisis, along with congressional lobbying. Additionally, the Future of Music Coalition, Artist Right Alliance, and others supported the Pandemic Anti-Monopoly Act, which feels very necessary as many music businesses are struggling. AFM Local 47, which endorsed Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, saw its president, John Acosta, placed on the Los Angeles County’s new Economic Resiliency Task Force within the Film and Digital Media sector. All of these efforts speak to the fact a fairly wide range of industry groups understand that without live music and with the staggeringly high levels of unemployment, the music industry will need the government to act. These actions happening in parallel also speak to the specific crisis here where all hands are on deck to see relief and change.
If You Build It...Will They Come?
Ignoring what amounted to a PR stunt (the Arkansas socially distant concert), there still doesn’t appear to be a clear timeline for concerts returning in the United States. Now, this didn’t stop Pollstar from earlier this month writing the headline: ‘The Comeback: Phase One’ on its cover. The story mentions how smaller events in less impacted areas could return first, but got mired down fairly quickly in the logistics of larger events. The National Independent Venue Association told the New York Times that even if there might be a lone concert in Arkansas, none of its 1,600 members were planning to re-open and many still felt unsafe about such a pursuit.
The association’s firmness in not rushing people into concert spaces highlights what can be an overlooked fact: most polling shows few folks are interested in returning to concerts. Viral photos may show a bar or two that opened up to massive crowds (dozens of folks), but most early data shows a rather lukewarm reception to returning to consumption as normal. Thus, it's hard to imagine the sudden return of concerts even if certain parts of the media are almost wishing them into being. Earlier this month a headline read, “Spain is lifting its lockdown, with outdoor concerts allowed from Monday,” yet the piece stressed these spaces would limit the number of guests with several safety precautions. A number of British nightclubs offered that if they were to open with such limiting measures, it would be hard for them to remain open in the long run (festivals face even more dire questions of survival with each cancellation). Many headlines offer a rushed sense that the concert business could snap back, but there is little evidence from fans and venues that suggests doors will suddenly swing open, while the pandemic continues.
I’ve read very little about what it means for artists to meaningfully tour during a pandemic, and I’d guess it’s cause there can only be so many thoughts about what likely won't be on the table for many months. Instead, there is quite a bit of wishful thinking and hoping that favorable conditions will return by 2021. Though the return of the American concert industry is going to be a rather involved process, the burst of energy around livestreaming raises perhaps a slightly less considered question.
The Recovery Will Be Branded
Artists are mobilizing with an understanding that they need support now and live music remains out of the picture, so they’re evaluating the potential of live streaming. The big name Verzus events continue to spark some–to me, at least–unremarkable trips down nostalgia lane; artists are still experimenting on places like Twitch/Zoom; and there are sponsored events like Porter Robinson’s Virtual Secret Sky Festival. The nearly day-long festival on May 9th featured Robinson along with a number of known/emerging EDM producers, all with a nice Postmates sponsorship. While a number of early concerts were indeed charity towards coronavirus relief, it shouldn’t be too shocking that as these continue there will be regression towards music’s default position as a vector for advertising.
Lauren Goshinski, the curator/event producer, expressed concern over branding during a panel I was on a couple of weeks ago organized by the venue Nowadays. (A recording of the panel, hosted by Nina Posner, can be found on their Patreon.) That comment aligned with what were often persistent critiques about the role that brands like Red Bull play within various music communities. These companies have been criticized for not only profiting off these communities but weakening them, because once the scene or moment doesn’t provide some amount of cultural capital they tend to move on. In the context of live streaming, some are advocating that the potential migration to a new medium doesn’t have to include advertising. Goshinski suggests we should not simply allow the same bad structures to persist amidst and after this crisis.
I started the newsletter on musicians and groups organizing that these asks are looking towards a bigger horizon of what the music industry could be for them (higher streaming payouts, better government assistance). Beyond these efforts, the recent activity in the music industry looks more like Saudi Arabia’s $500 million investment in Live Nation (while the company is looking to put $800 million of bonds for sale) or like Warner Music Group's attempted IPO. The current circumstances present a solid opportunity for further consolidation within an already highly financialized industry.. The landscape, in particular the American, could look rather different after this crisis for music and it doesn’t appear any groups want to wait on the sideline as this change unfolds. Even if the future of live events remains a bit murky, there are plenty of folks organizing to make it a better one for artists.
This week’s section is gonna contain a little public service announcement. I wanted to again highlight the Music Workers Alliance, United Musicians and Allied Workers, and the National Independent Venue Association. There are plenty of advocacy groups within the music industry but the fact new ones have formed in this crisis, and at least two with an orientation towards organized labor is a bit exciting. One last new group to mention, even though they don’t have a high public profile yet, would be the Music Guild of America, who have a survey you can fill out here. I hope there can be solidarity amongst these groups. As I outlined earlier, when the music industry’s biggest players are just existing at the whims of tech and oil money, it’s not a healthy space.
I’d also like to recommend Rabble. The company that creates online platforms for libraries to distribute local music, and recently made a new version to more quickly set up online music libraries. Certainly, all of these groups are great, but getting the state, in this case, public libraries, more connected and investing in music/musicians could be potentially exciting. Imagine your favorite venue licensing music from the local library’s music collection that pays artists a fair wage! (I stole this Kelly Hiser from Rabble, but it’s an idea that’s intrigued me since we spoke last year.)
6 Links 2 Read
Why Is Daniel Ek Repeating YouTube’s Arguments From Four Years Ago? - Rolling Stone
Folks, would you believe that there are millions of people listening to radio every day and once they abandon radio for Spotify, the money will just roll in. That’s what YouTube argued in 2016 and Daniel Ek continues to repeat the same line. There’s no reason to expect such a one-to-one transfer of audience, but it’s nice to want things.
Why have we heard so little about Spotify's artist donation links? - Cherie Hu
Happy that Cherie answered a fairly open question about the effects of donation links on streaming platforms. Lotta nice press releases and not much else.
Revaluing music in the digital economy: an interview with Austin Hou from Currents - Ins.rt
It’s very rare that I include interviews but this one is a strong exception. Jake Colvin did a lot of research for this (yes, I’m cited), and though I don’t always agree with some of the solutions proposed by Colvin or Hou, it’s certainly the kind of post-streaming dialogue I’d love to engage in.
What Can We Learn from Covid-19’s Impact on China’s Music Industry? - Music Ally
Good news? Even though every country is reacting to the coronavirus in their own ways, it would appear that China’s music industry, at least on the digital side, was always more diversified than western music and that’s helping in this moment. While there is a confused scramble to figure out livestreaming and things like tipping, such features were already well incorporated in Chinese platforms.
DripReport’s ‘Skechers’ Is a TikTok Hit Confounding the Music Industry - Rolling Stone
These TikTok viral hit stories tell such a similar story it can get a bit boring. Yet, I do appreciate this one simply because it’s easy to see when something is truly viral and not put through a playlist machine to juice up the numbers and climb the charts.
Uber-Grubhub: How the Pandemic Is Launching the Era of Online Platform Regulation - Matt Stoller / Doordash and Pizza Arbitrage - Margins
Neither of these pieces is about music but both offer a couple of insights I find helpful for thinking about streaming platforms. The first, from Stoller, mentions some fairly blunt regulations that could be headed towards some of the platforms. In a music context, this could mean imposing radio-like restrictions on streaming platforms, which isn’t a new demand. The other piece points out the fact that delivery platforms (as they exist now) are just completely broken. In this regard, I do find an interesting parallel to streaming, where a solution could just be to find a way to reduce the number of layers involved.
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