Hello, welcome back folks for the holiday! The year is coming to a close and I put together another reader survey that I’d love if you could answer. I haven’t done one in a minute so I’d like to check your thoughts on the newsletter and its future direction. Thank you to those that do fill it out and let’s check back in on #TheShowMustBePaused.
How Did Pausing The Show Go?
In early September, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, founders of #TheShowMustBePaused campaign, announced a set of demands for music industry organizations. The original social media campaign came after the death of George Floyd and charged that the record industry needed reckoning with issues of racial inequality that’s long permeated the business. This early fall charge was given a thirty-day deadline for a sense of urgency but without a clear articulation of what might occur if no progress was made. The call asked for more equitable pay, less reliance on contract workers, increased diversity initiatives, increased corporate transparency, budget allocation towards programs targeted at black employees, and improving talent pipelines. My June critiques back of the initial campaign were that it prioritized already-successful black professionals rather than all workers within the industry. Still, if a company were to follow through on all these demands, it’d make for an improved, and accountable, corporate culture. Apparently, the record industry missed the memo.
Nearly ninety days since the demand and no companies within the record industry appears to have publicly addressed the demands set for by the women. What’s not too clear is by what means such actions were meant to take place or how exactly these corporate reforms would be enforced. Were these initiatives for a company’s employees, management, or respective human resources departments? The demand never made that explicitly clear. Perhaps at best these conversations are still happening in the background and in private, but considering the thirty-day ultimatum, the lack of official response must’ve been a little disappointing. But that didn’t mean companies weren’t doing any self-reflection.
In October, Billboard reported that IMPALA (Independent Music Companies Association), a trade association of European independent labels, released its own twelve-point charter to address diversity and inclusion. Nearly all of the initiatives proposed can be boiled down to sending an email about diversity and making sure to keep diversity in the subject matter of said emails. I’m sure there are a few people excited that IMPALA will be setting up awards specifically around the topic of diversity and inclusion but it's hard to fathom what exactly that’ll do to address more foundational issues, which the initiative is reportedly designed to address. However, what raised the biggest question for me was the eleventh commitment: “Speak out where we support specific issues and use our voice in Brussels to encourage the EU to take the lead.” This is likely a recommitment to its Covid relief recommendations, still the vagueness of the phrasing made me wonder how exactly this related to issues of diversity. So, IMPALA wasn’t alone in giving some more concrete steps.
After the George Floyd protests, Universal Music Group announced a renewal of its research initiative with the University of Southern California to research diversity within the record industry. This appeared to be one of many collaborations between UMG and USC, slotting UMG executives on the USC board seats. The proposals were full of pablum about better hiring practices and diversifying leadership ranks, so again, very little to directly help the employees of these firms.
These efforts fall mostly within the framework of sending some nicer emails and saying one is committed to anti-racism without changing anything core to their business. IMPALA even mentioned that these twelve initiatives were suggestions and that it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect all of their various members to execute full commitment to such efforts. If that’s the case, then the creation of a well-designed website almost feels almost more important than the project. I shouldn’t forget about the newly-formed Black Music Action Coalition with a list of partners longer than a movie closing credit sequence but its activism appeared wrapped up in ‘get out the vote’ efforts rather than continue tackling industry-specific issues. So, if this is what top-down projects achieve, what about more grassroots efforts.
Spotify’s Union Busting Campaign
While executives squirm in diversity training Zoom calls, another part of the industry is trying to organize. Spotify received plenty of press about moving into podcasts and attempting to reform itself into an audio company, and it's through those strategic efforts we’ve seen worker struggles. The staff of the Ringer, Gimlet, and Parcast have unionized with the Writers Guild of America East (I used to be a member when I worked at Gizmodo Media Group). Unionization in the United States is already an uphill battle but certain so within an industry (picking either podcasting or technology) without much precedent for unionization.
The New York Times reported on accusations of discrimination at the Ringer based on expressing pro-union sentiment. Still, what’s potentially exciting is that all three of these organizations are increasingly challenging their management teams and Spotify to bargain for a contract. This feels of grave interest to this newsletter since Spotify is at the core of music’s financialized web. Unionization within this sphere should indicate to those workers across firms intertwined here that it is possible. (I shouldn’t also forget the Pitchfork staff’s ongoing unionization push.)
In June, when I initially wrote about #TheShowMustBePaused, I shared a few recommendations for what the record industry could do to address a number of these issues: wage transparency, intern payment, and stronger diversity commitments. Though I’d support those efforts if companies showed a real commitment towards them, another suggestion spoke more to me. Austin Robey, a co-founder of the music co-op Ampled (of which I’m a supporter), wrote an opinion piece for Music Ally suggesting that artists be put on the boards of companies like Spotify. That suggestion could, and should, be extended to any company that sees a majority of its projects coming from the labor of musicians. Ampled does exactly that, with artists receiving a controlling share of the revenue and splitting by allowing artists, workers, and community owners into the decision-making process. Similar to Resonate, Ampled suggests that there can be other ways of organizing companies so that there is a real dialogue between artists and the platform that serves them.
Still, none of that is likely to occur without some amount of organizing for such demands. As I wrote earlier in the summer: “Someone in advertising sales may manage an artist on the side; a white-collar major label worker may DJ on the weekends; or, a touring musician may do sound engineering work. This can produce a sense that everyone is always a moment away from success (the industry feeds on this), even if for many this is simply a requirement to sustain a living.” This contradiction appears central to so many of these efforts. Music industry workers, ever the go-getters, are prime for the exploitation that’s led to a wave of unionization at museums, coffee shops, and other creative fields. Yet, that hyper-competitive grind appears, so far at least, to keep organizing at one’s forefront.
That’s why IMPALA’s diversity drive is voluntary or why UMG’s public-private partnership with USC feels more aimed at interweaving a multinational company with a public university than aggressively addressing these issues. If any of these groups or initiatives spoke out for those workers trying to unionize under Spotify, then perhaps the lovely digital graphics might feel a bit more significant. Still, until there are organizations within music truly fighting battles that center the concerns of day-to-day workers, all of these efforts will be fodder for trade publication press releases and self-congratulatory Instagram posts.
The British Parliament’s Digital, Culture, and Sport Committee held a number of hearings featuring artists (including Ed O’ Brien from Radiohead) and record industry voices about the current digital music economy. Music Ally noted that a repeated request of those who testified was for “equitable remuneration”. Specifically, they were looking at “passive” plays on streaming platforms (think: “radio” stations and playlists) being a place where royalties would be split 50/50 with artists and labels handled collection societies. (User-centric streaming also received a mention.) The hearings are online if you’d like to watch them and I’ll certainly be writing more about this investigation and potential fallout in the coming months.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the American Federation of Musicians Local 802 launched the #SaveNYCMusicians campaign, which is looking for donations to support artists who’ve lost jobs and are still waiting for a safe return to work. Certainly, I support the sentiment behind this campaign but when there is quite a bit of local momentum for taxing the rich to fund public goods, it feels like the union could broaden its horizon beyond asking for donations.
A Note of Financialization
A lotta news to catch-up on this week! Primary Wave reportedly bought the “music publishing catalog and master royalty stream” for the hard rock band Disturbed for millions of dollars; the Killers sold their publishing catalog to Eldridge Industries, a relatively new player to the music finance space; and Round Hill Music appears to have already spent the near 300 million it just raised. Music financialization cannot take a single day off.
Last week, Jay-Z was named the “Chief Visionary Officer” of TPCO Holding Corp., a merger of two cannabis companies, one of which Jay-Z already struck a partnership with last year. However, what caught my eye in this announcement was that Jay-Z would be heading TPCO Social Equity Ventures, a venture fund explicitly looking to invest in black-run weed businesses. This will potentially allow Jay-Z to invest early in firms that are looking to profit off the further American legalization of weed. This effort is comically titled “Social Equity Ventures”, which shows the emptiness of the phrase “equity” within a corporate context if the person who’ll profit in the end is just another billionaire like Jay-Z. At least prioritize worker-owned businesses, if one must be a self-righteous venture capitalist.
6 Links 2 Read
Billboard produced a trove of articles chronicling all of the various players pushing for music publishing financialization, except with any of my typical anti-capitalist arm-waving. Shout out to them! I’ll certainly be referencing every single one of these pieces for the foreseeable future since this topic is still deeply fascinating to me.
Reinert points out the many of the contradictions within the recording business of who actually profits from music and the gloomy path we’re headed towards in regards to who’ll profit in the long term the more music is amassed by outside financial actors.
Bas Grasmayer dives a bit deeper into the user-centric model and suggests that it’ll reorient the understanding of fandom less through the number of streams but rather what percentage of a fan’s time was spent listening to one’s music. Suddenly, new paths for understanding artist-to-fan relationships are opened up. It does also make me curious about what other knock-on effects might be off the table if the sheer quantity of plays isn’t prioritized for artists. Even though I’ve written on this topic for years, this did kick off some newer ideas.
Apple Cuts App Store Fee for Small Businesses; Spotify Calls It 'Window Dressing - Billboard (Subscription)
Next year I should circle back to Apple’s dominance of the App store and how much that hurts the record industry right now. Still, Spotify is correct to point out that Apple’s slight change here fails to address the bigger monopolistic control they exert over its store.
Still cannot get enough of Cat writing about TikTok microtrends and her latest piece on “glitchcore” is no different. Also, Cat, please write about Caroline Ricke.
Evgeny Morozov dives into the geopolitical battles being created by our shifts into 5G. Then on the podcast This Machine Kills, the hosts dive a bit more into Huawei’s early history to better contextualize its relationship to the Chinese government. Fascinating takes that helped me understand a company that truthfully I wasn’t aware of until the last few years.