- When the pandemic struck, the floor was pulled out from working musicians who make their livings on the road.
- Streaming has come to dominate the music industry, and further impoverishing the artists who create the value these companies sell.
- But musicians have started organizing not only for a raise from Spotify and other streaming companies, but for a more equitable industry.
- Will Meyer is a freelance writer and co-editor of The Shoestring in western Massachusetts.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
When the pandemic struck, the floor was promptly ripped out from under working musicians. With the closure of venues and touring off the table, the bleak reality of declining recording revenue – which has nose-dived in the streaming era – began to sink in as artists faced an uncertain future.
Although the recording industry has always been a predatory and exploitative force (especially to non white people and women), the inequalities within music have become more acute since the onset of COVID-19. According to The American Prospect, “Spotify has outperformed Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google between January 2020 and January 2021,” boosting CEO Daniel Ek’s net worth to $5.3 billion, and leaving musicians – who earn a paltry $0.00348 per stream – without a foothold.
As musician Damon Krukowski told the Prospect’s David Dayen, “Last year, the COVID year, [my band] Galaxie 500 had 8.5 million streams on Spotify. We also released a 2,000-copy, limited-edition LP. They raised the same amount of money. Neither is enough to live on.” Krukowski told Dayen that he added up the amount of monthly streams that would amount to each band member earning $15 an hour from Spotify. The number was 650,000. According to MIT, the living wage in Boston, where Krukowski’s band is based, is $19.17 an hour.
Streaming companies’ rapid devaluation of recorded music has been a long-term project. As music piracy took off in the late 90s and early 2000s, the music industry created a narrative that such platforms were stealing from artists, despite the fact that many indie musicians owed their careers to piracy. One North Carolina State University study even suggested the piracy boosted album sales. Krukowski told Dayen that his band was able to reach people through piracy and sell out shows in countries that they could never reach through traditional channels.
The Recording Industry Association of America worked tooth and nail to sue pirate sites like Napster and Kazaa out of business and mounted a counterrevolution to piracy that would eventually evolve into streaming. Of course the modus operandi of the tech industry is to “innovate” via consolidation, new technology and legal justifications that works to funnel wealth upwards to investors while devaluing labor. According to Rolling Stone, “65% of Spotify was owned by just six parties,” including the company’s founders and Wall St. firms like Morgan Stanley. Other owners include the major record companies, who, according to music writer Liz Pelly, use their leverage to promote their artists on the site at the expense of those with fewer resources.
As Joey La Neve DeFrancesco, a musician and organizer from Providence, Rhode Island, told me in a phone interview, “Streaming has simply seen an exaggeration of the trend of more and more resources being directed to an ever smaller number of people in the music industry.” Pelly noted in The Baffler magazine that “a study released by Citigroup showed that in 2017, only approximately 12% of the music industry’s revenue went to artists, which speaks to the financial precariousness faced by many musicians.”
DeFrancesco spoke to the similarities between Spotify and other tech companies. “What’s happening at Spotify is very similar to what we’ve seen happen in other industries, like with rideshare companies. …The companies themselves say, ‘Oh, we can’t pay people more, we’re actually operating at a loss,’ but it’s this confusing array of venture capitalist firms who are investing in these companies and artificially propping them up to create monopolies to drive down prices and to drive up competition, making it increasingly difficult for workers to mount in opposition.”
But with COVID, everything changed.
Organizing against Spotify
“Things were growing more and more unequal in our industry, and the pandemic pushed everything over the edge and allowed music workers the time to start talking to one another,” DeFrancesco said. Once off the road and grounded at home, DeFrancesco and other musicians began sharing their stories over Zoom about industry practices, streaming rates, and other issues facing artists.
From there, the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) was born. Today, the group has 25 steering committee members and 80 subcommittee members that work on a myriad of issues facing artists such as labels, venues, immigration and police abolition. The group’s mission statement states: “UMAW has mobilized thousands of music workers to take part in our first actions around the COVID crisis, and we will continue to organize around issues such as demanding fairer deals from streaming services, ensuring musicians receive the royalties they are owed, establishing more just relationships with labels, and creating safer guidelines for venues.”
On March 15, masked-up musicians and their allies took to Spotify offices all over the world to hand deliver their demands to the streaming giant as part of the group’s Justice at Spotify campaign. They called for a raise to a penny-per-stream (approximately three times the current rate), the adaptation of a user-centric payment model that pays musicians proportionally to the amount of streams they receive, transparency about contracts and the removal of payola, proper attribution credits for work on recordings, and an end to “legal battles intended to further impoverish artists.” Nearly 28,000 signed onto the demands that were delivered in 15 cities around the world including in New York, Berlin, São Paulo, London, and Nashville, highlighting the Swedish company’s role in global music distribution and labor exploitation.
As soon as the campaign took off, Spotify quickly launched a website called Loud & Clear, which was designed to offer transparency about the company, or act as a PR smokescreen, depending on who you ask. As UMAW retorted, “This website answers none of our demands and even further obfuscates transparency. The company simply deflects blame onto others for systems it has itself built and provided no further information on their per-stream rate.”
DeFrancesco told me that although the company didn’t mention UMAW’s campaign directly, “the fact that they felt the need to [create the website] and move to the steps that we see a lot of companies do when confronted is telling. They moved from just ignoring protest to beginning to lash out back at the activists and workers. That means we are making inroads.”
UMAW plans to keep building their union. “The only way to counter the power of these major companies and venture capitalists is to build an opposing worker power,” DeFrancesco said.
“With new tech solutions, we’re just going to replicate the same power inequities, unless we actually organize power. So you know, we need to get musicians together and organized so we can, like the rest of the labor movement, demand power and resources from the people who own the means of production, which is these monopoly tech companies. This way we can build a political force so that we can lobby for regulation and get public resources to arts workers like they have in other industrialized countries.”
Will Meyer is a freelance writer and co-editor of The Shoestring in western Massachusetts. His writing has appeared in The Baffler, The New Republic, CJR, and many other publications. Find him on Twitter @willinabucket.