“The reason American art is so good and holds one’s attention is that it is built on the underlying psychosis that results from truly fending for oneself,” said a guy I was talking with at a bar in Amsterdam a few years back. We didn’t exchange names, but he identified himself as an abstract painter and I as a guitarist in a band in Athens, Georgia. After a lengthy condemnation of US politics, he said, “I have universal healthcare, access to child and rent benefits, artist grants, and the possibility of ample time off for illness and vacation. You never will.”
Indeed, the disparity in social benefits in the European social model versus US-style neoliberal capitalism in the United States is made very clear in these extraordinary times of world-wide pandemic. That conversation came back to me this year while watching the Trump administration’s leadership failure, witnessing protests against systemic racism, the struggles of homelessness and affordable housing, as well as those surrounding gender identity issues.
In the context of those social upheavals, the impact of the COVID-19 virus on independent musicians in the United States illustrates the growth of the gig economy, and how culture increasingly comes from within it. One of those affected artists, singer-songwriter Simon Joyner sums the struggles up nicely: “I feel like artists are just stubborn weeds popping out of cracks in the sidewalk,” he says, “always finding a way through, regardless of the circumstances.”
Guitar-Fender-Pink by rahu (Pixabay License /Pixabay)
How We All Got Together While Remaining Apart
I played guitar in bands in Athens, Georgia, for several years but haven’t performed in ages. After a few short tours, I realized it wasn’t the life for me. I came home broke after sometimes breaking even, always feeling hungry, seemingly endlessly sleeping on dirty floors–and that was in “the good old days” before COVID-19. But I’ve never stopped playing, and many of my friends are career musicians. I’m watching them struggle, so I wanted to talk with them about it.
Joyner and I met years ago through a mutual musician friend and became friends. I love Anderson’s guitar playing and interviewed her when she swung through Georgia in 2016. I sometimes host Joyner and Anderson in my home, so reaching out to them was natural. Joyner then invited the others–folks I hadn’t met–and the web of connectivity revealed itself. Thus, a conversation began with adventurous guitarists Marisa Anderson, Sarah Louise, Bill MacKay, Jackie Venson, and Ryley Walker; the talented singer-songwriters Jerry David DeCicca and Simon Joyner; the anti-folk songster and comic book artist Jeffrey Lewis; and experimental/free jazz/session cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm.
Except for Venson, whom I blindly invited based not only on her talent but her mastery of social media, the list of participants illustrates the network that independent musicians have to build to succeed. They’ve toured, performed, and recorded together, helped each other book shows, and provided each other with beds and meals.
“In music, there’s a lot of free or underpaid labor that goes into everything from booking to video-production that is simultaneously a beautiful expression of communal reciprocity and also something that can mask how strapped the industry can be,” says Louise.
“I’ve hosted more bands than I can count,” says Joyner. “When I think of how many strangers have taken me and my bandmates into their homes and fed us, I know that I have to do the same for other musicians. It’s the only way it can work here in the US. We literally could not afford to perform outside our hometowns if we had to pay for hotels, meals, and gas from the income we are making at this level.”
Simon Joyner (2020) (courtesy of Marc Tissenbaum)
Even before the pandemic disrupted the status quo in 2020, a Music Industry Research Association survey of 1,227 US-based musicians found that the median income for musicians in 2017 was only $21,300 from music-related sources. That was mainly from live performances, and 61% of the survey participants said that they relied on other jobs to help pay the bills.
Small clubs, which are the bread and butter of independent musicians, are also facing difficulties. In late September of this year,Jim DeRogatis, music critic and co-host of the nationally syndicated radio show Sound Opinion, suggested that small music venues in Chicago will largely disappear without government intervention. Ninety percent of independent clubs don’t think they can survive another six months of being shut down.
If many small clubs don’t reopen, independent musicians will lose access to their primary way of making money. Thus the disruption may outlive the virus that started it.
Bandcamp’s Pandemic-Era Evolution
Damon Krukowski has experienced the ups-and-downs of being a touring musician as the drummer in both Galaxy 500 and Damon & Naomi. In the past few years, he has also written several articles and two books, The New Analog (The New Press, 2017) and Ways of Hearing (MIT Press, 2019), about the transition from an analog to digital music culture.
In a recent Krukowski article about Bandcamp, CEO and co-founder Ethan Diamond stated that he was thinking about blogging services–allowing writers to connect with an audience quickly–when Bandcamp started. Thirteen years later, he sees Bandcamp as being most closely aligned to Etsy because both are digital marketplaces that directly connect buyers and sellers.
Bandcamp has already received praise from independent musicians and labels for having modest fees of 10% for merchandise and 15% for digital music links, with that 15% falling to 10% after $5k in sales in a given year. But that was before the pandemic. Diamond introduced Bandcamp Fridays, in which the platform waives its fees so that beleaguered artists and labels can attempt to recoup a bit of the income they’ve lost.
The first of those events happened on 20 March 2020, and in 24 hours, fans purchased 800,000 records bringing in $4.3m in revenues from music and merchandise — this was 15 times the average sales of a typical Friday. So, Bandcamp did it again, on the first Friday of May, June, and July, and brought the sales totals up to $20 million in direct sales to artists and small labels in just four days. Bandcamp Fridays are so successful they’ve been extended to the first Friday of each month through the end of 2020.
According to Diamond, the site has generated more than $75 million in sales since March and brought total sales since Bandcamp’s launch in 2008 up to half a billion dollars. Diamond attributes the company’s success to creating a sense of ownership among music fans; buying directly from artists they admire, they feel like they are a part of the music’s creation.
Bandcamp is more than just a commodity, he points out, because music is essential and therefore paying attention to the artists’ welfare is necessary.
Staying “Open” While Music Venues Are Closed
“My income has certainly taken a hit,” says Ryley Walker, one of the participants who survive entirely from their music. “My tax return says my gross income last year was around $35,000. Honestly, that’s a monumental year for me. This year is probably on track for about half of that.”
Since 2011, Walker has released four studio albums and two EPs, plus several collaborative albums, including three with Bill MacKay. His skillful fingerpicking has evolved from an avant-noise aesthetic to a graceful melding of folk and world elements, sometimes seamlessly blended with vocals. He lives in New York City after spending 11 years in Chicago.
“I’ve worked more at ‘under the hood’ stuff,” he says, outlining his year, “Selling merch, starting a small label of private press stuff….I’ve been doing short-run LP releases of cool live shows of mine. 250-350 copies. A very safe amount to press. I know I can sell them directly to folks without eating the cost in the end. Those have been very rewarding, and I hope to do more.”
Bill Mackay (2020) (Courtesy of the artist)
“My work-life tends to cycle larger than twelve months,” notes Marisa Anderson, who released her first solo album in 2011, well into her career. “Last year was relatively quiet on the release front, and this year is a busy one. Usually, touring follows releases, so in that sense, I’ve worked way less than normal. I’ve been able to stay afloat on a combination of small projects, income from sales and royalties, and unemployment.”
Anderson had a big year planned, with two collaborative records, the 7″ single ” You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” with Tara Jane O’Neil (Jealous Butcher, 10 April 2020), and the full-length The Quickening with Jim White (Thrill Jockey, 19 June 2020). The latter saw her delve into collective improv, a bookend of sorts to her solo improv album The Golden Hour (Mississippi, January 2009). Both were finished before the shutdown started and released after it was in effect. She expected to be touring as well as booking solo shows.
“My income is way down from what I anticipated,” says Anderson. “I’ve been lucky and had some good media presence this year, through the releases and appeared on the cover of The Wire recently (Issue 438, August 2020). The fee-less days on Bandcamp have been good too, in terms of sales and of feeling supported by a community of music-lovers.”
Both Joyner and Lewis released albums late in 2019. So Joyner’s Pocket Moon (Grapefruit, 25 October 2019) and Bad Wiring (Don Giovanni, 1 November 2019) by Jeffrey Lewis and the Voltage got to have the surge of shows and promotion associated with a release date. Joyner had completed an East Coast tour in the US and a European tour; Lewis did a cross-country US tour and hit Europe in February and March of this year.
Marisa Anderson (Courtesy of Patricia Vazquez)
“I know of other artists who had albums come out during the pandemic, and I can only imagine how disappointing that situation was for them,” says Joyner, who has released 15 studio albums since 1992, plus a slew of live albums, singles, collaborations, and compilation appearances. Yet, despite being ahead of that curve, he noted the cancellation of promotional tours that would have extended the record’s life into 2020.” Pocket Moon was able to break even before the pandemic hit. It just didn’t reach as many turntables as it might have if we had been able to keep performing those songs on the road. I have plenty of copies on my shelf to take along when and if we ever climb out of this thing.”
“I feel lucky that we were able to have a very successful and gratifying reception for the new album,” Lewis says about his release. “It could have been worse, but by the time the touring world returns, my ‘new’ album is going to be pretty old, and I imagine I’ll have to release something equally strong and start from scratch on the touring-cycle momentum.”
He’s certainly no stranger to the ups and downs of that touring cycle, having started as a member of New York City’s anti-folk movement in the ’90s, and releasing 31 albums and EPs, plus assorted singles and compilations since then, as well as being a prolific comic book artist.
Among the artists with releases scheduled during the pandemic are DeCicca and Louise. DeCicca’s The Unlikely Optimist and His Domestic Adventures (self-released, 16 October 2020) is available on Bandcamp. Louise is doing pre-sales for her album Earth Bow (Thrill Jockey, 20 March 2021), initially scheduled for release this autumn, but one of the many albums pushed back into next year. But while Louise’s pre-sales include vinyl, possibly owing to that 2021 release date, DeCicca’s release is digital-only.
DeCicca, who used to pretty much live on the road with his Columbus, Ohio-based band The Black Swans, is the only person in this conversation who referred to a full-time day job. Since moving to the Texas Hill Country outside of Austin, he’s started a vocational rehabilitation service and now books performances around that schedule. That doesn’t make him less serious about his craft. For this album, he brought in such luminaries as Augie Meyers (Sir Douglas Quintet, Texas Tornados) to play on it and Chris Shaw (Bob Dylan, Wilco, Public Enemy) to mix it.
Now, he releases his music and makes all of his own decisions about his music career. About the digital-only release of his album, he writes, “the record has no physical release–no vinyl–because I’m too freaked out about several layers of the mail service on which I’m dependent. We’ve barely left our property in six months, other than grocery pick up.”
Thus is the plight of the independent musician. By doing things himself, he has more control of the process and keeps more of the money. But, he’s also the guy who has to pack and ship records as they sell, so dealing with any unanticipated factor falls solely on him.
Brand Management in the Age of Absence
“It’s been a revelation that I can earn an income just from my online presence, in addition to ASCAP and streaming revenue,” says Lewis. He started doing music full-time in 2001, operating under the assumption that he needed to tour to make a living. “It’s amazing for me to see that I’ve been able to make it work. I’ve been concentrating on making new items available in my online store, and despite the economic downturn everywhere, I’m very heartened to see that fans are still buying stuff.”
Lewis’ comments fit into Tim Anderson’s findings that musicians have been rethinking their market identity and how they fit in a marketplace. Anderson’s paper, “Theorizing the Social Musician” (2015), focuses on changes to the music industry resulting from digitalization and the internet. Still, his thinking seems tailored for this moment. He writes, “The focus is no longer how to sell records but how to generate a substantial online reputation and social capital that can be converted to numerous exchanges of music and music-oriented products/events. Musicians in this mode are not only creating music but also learning how to act as independent brand managers.”
For Lewis, 2020 has also illustrated the symbiotic relationship between selling merchandise and touring, including how his music and comics overlap.
“I love my life as a weird musician and performer, and I’m very proud of my creative accomplishments in that realm,” Lewis writes. He notes that his comic book sales and paid illustration gigs mostly come from people aware of his music. So even though he’s hustling to make it work, Lewis has noticed a drop in merchandise sales without touring.
“On tour, I sold about 200 copies of my new comic ( Fuff #12),” he continues. “That’s an average of about ten a night. However, in the six months since that tour, I’ve sold about one copy every three days.
Jeffrey Lewis (2020) (Courtesy of the artist)
Simon Joyner says it more succinctly: “It’s more exciting for the audience to buy music at my shows directly from me, but that’s not an option right now, so it’s hard to make up for that in online sales.”
“I generally tour a few times a year, and the merch sales from those concerts are where a fair portion of my income comes from,” Joyner says. “Far more than what I get paid from the venues.”
Joyner, too, acknowledges the need to come up with additional ways to stay in touch with fans and generate income. He has focused on limited-edition handmade items, citing his love of tour-only CDRs and lathe-cut 7″ records–the type of one-off releases that help bands generate income on the road. It harkens back to an earlier time in his career.
“I remember putting together my Iffy tape of odds and ends recordings so I’d have something new to sell on tour while I was traveling around the country,” Joyner says. “Because of the pandemic, there’s been more reason to dig through the sound files and boxes of demo tapes and live shows and create some new interesting things.”
Austin, Texas-based guitarist Jackie Venson is a prolific merchandiser. Items offered on her Bandcamp page this year includejewelry made from her used guitar strings and a retro cassette-style USB loaded with 96 songs.
“I have tried out some new merchandise ideas, and it has generally worked out for the better,” Venson writes. “It turns out folks enjoy new merchandise and regular new releases. This has been my business plan this year: release as much stuff as possible in all avenues that are relevant to my music.”
In 2019, Venson became the first black woman to win ” Best Guitarist” at the Austin Music Awards. She released her first EP in 2013 and has two studio albums, three EPs, and 11 singles. She confidently released a new album Vintage Machine ( self-released, 30 October 2020), on vinyl, CD, and digital download.
This year, she’s also allowed herself to stray from the guitar format and take “a journey into the electronic portion of Jackie Venson’s brain” (quote from her Bandcamp page). “I developed a remix project called jackie the robot, and I have released two albums under it just this year alone,” she says. “It’s a creative side/ passion project where I remix my music. I’m about to branch out to remixing other folks’ music as well.”
Developing new merchandise has been a pleasure for Louise. “Yeah, it’s been fun to experiment on these Fridays,” she says. “I love Bandcamp for so many reasons. I believe that their profit-share platform points a way out of the mess of corporations profiting off our data and content.”
With Bandcamp’s model, Louise has felt free to try different ways of connecting with fans, old and new.
“It’s cool to feel like I can release a cassette or an unmixed digital recording and create awareness without having to go through an entire press cycle,” Louise says. “Making music is so integrated into my life that it has lately felt more organic to put things out randomly. This practice is invigorating alongside the more long-term project of finishing my next record.”
Sarah Louise (2020) (courtesy of Marc Tissenbaum)
Staying Afloat While the Gigs Have Gone Under
There’s no musician included here who is more distinguished than Fred Lonberg-Holm. That’s not a slight to anyone else involved, it’s just acknowledgment that the cellist studied music composition with Anthony Braxton and Morton Feldman and played with such luminaries as Ken Vandermark and Joe McPhee.
His range of experience is vast and encompasses various genres, as a composer, bandleader, band member, and session player, including–in a much more commercial vein than most of his output–on the much-acclaimed Yankee Foxtrot Hotel (Nonesuch, April 2002) by Wilco. However, experimental or free jazz is his mainstay, and performers linked to that genre have always had but a sliver of an audience compared to other independent musicians.
He acknowledges that he has relied on a series of side jobs, not related to music, to get by. And even his transition to full-time music is not a reflection of his growing renown, but because of his partner’s support. There are stories of symphony members being on unemployment outside of the performance season. However, it’s still hard to believe that people who have studied and absorbed an art form and become experts at their craft can’t make a living from aggressively pursuing it.
“The low fees make for low pay,” Lonberg-Holm says, “but I still usually netted more than if I worked a job at Walgreens or Burger King and I enjoy it a lot more and probably put in fewer hours–if you don’t count travel time!” This year, however, his “income collapsed,” Lonberg-Holm writes. “If not for savings and the support of my partner, I would be on the street.”
Fred Lonberg-Holm (2020) (Photo: Stephen Malagodi)
Other folks have had to pick up side work to help tide them over this year, too.
“I have done some guitar teaching and part-time work for an agency in Chicago as needed this year,” says guitarist Bill MacKay. His open-ended exploration across seven albums has been informed by studying with jazz luminaries Eric Susoeff and Joe Negri, yet stretches well beyond their influences. “I got some COVID grant assistance for musicians, too, which helped a lot. I also was hired to play on a few recording sessions.”
Simon Joyner, who also owns and runs the Grapefruit record label, has turned toward his label experience to keep income flowing, taking a part-time job packing and shipping for Saddle Creek Records.
“I’m friends with those guys, and they asked if I wanted to keep the mail-order going for them since I already do the packing and shipping for my label,” Joyner says. “That’s helped keep some money flowing in for bills. I have also been going through my record collection and parting with some collectible first pressings of records and buying the cheaper reissues in their place. You just hustle a little and make up the difference through a variety of sources, none of it as enjoyable as performing in front of audiences.”
Sarah Louise was a preschool teacher until the pandemic closed schools in her area. “It was perfect because I had summers off to tour,” writes Louise. “Without that regular income, I have to be more discerning about what content I am willing to give away to exploitative platforms like Spotify and Instagram and more experimental in how I approach earning a living from companies I trust, like Bandcamp.”
A Neoliberal vs. a Progressive Response to the Plight of Artists
The view that creating and rewarding an arts culture should fall wholly on the backs of artists and arts organizations is apparent in the Trump administration’s 2020 budget proposal, which proposed eliminating both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities for the fourth consecutive year. The report suggests that private fundraising platforms like Kickstarter are a more appropriate source of funding the arts since “the Administration believes audiences and aficionados are better than the Government at deciding what art is good or important.”
The model most closely related to this one is found in the United Kingdom, which has followed a neoliberal path in departing the European Union. The result is that even with the leverage of a musicians’ union (something that exists in the US but can be challenging to understand and navigate for rock-oriented musicians), one-third of 2,000 professional musicians polled in September stated they are considering abandoning the industry entirely. On 6 October, a 400-musician ensemble performed outside of Parliament to protest those freelance musicians, which make up 72% of the sector but are not eligible for grants under the government’s current self-employed income support scheme.
Compare that to France, where President Emmanuel Macron has called for a 12-month extension to special unemployment benefits for actors, performers, musicians, and technicians, to help protect them in the downtime between jobs. He also announced that the recently founded Centre National de Musique would receive a supplementary investment of €50million.
“Cultural venues must be brought back to life,” Macron said. “Artists must be able to create again and to work together to reach audiences, even if, during this intermediary period, we’re going to have to rethink a new sort of relationship with audiences.”
Although much of Europe has strayed from the European social model in recent years, the prevalent model of capitalism is still “progressive” enough, if you will, to inspire discussions that deal with the difficulty of maintaining a system of social protection in a changing global economy. Macron’s statement illustrates that and also gives a point of comparison to a neoliberal model.
In “Music and capitalism — an introduction,” Anna Morcom, the Mohindar Brar Sambhi Chair of Indian Music at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music, wrote “this rising interest in research on music and capitalism is linked to the broader focus on neoliberalism across disciplines. However, recorded music itself has also undergone profound changes and crises in its role as a medium of capital accumulation during the neoliberal era with the advent of digital technology and the Internet. This has led to the emergence of new logics of exchange, where even popular music—the paradigmatic “commercial” music—may be more of a gift than a commodity, or something produced for subsistence rather than surplus.”
That thinking informed The Swedish Model, a collective formed by seven independent Swedish record labels in 2008, the year Bandcamp and Spotify launched. The founders of the collective concluded that giving music away on the internet is the way to build a base and establish identity worldwide, leading to a much-expanded market for booking tours and a more interactive relationship between musicians and fans.
“The internet has brought about many new conditions for the music and other media industries,” wrote Nancy K. Baym, formerly a Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas and currently a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, when she was researching The Swedish Model in 2011. “They have lost their status as sole distributors of their core commodity and have not yet been able to regroup. In place of a power base built on content, control is a decentralized, participatory structure in which the content has been fiscally devalued but still widely circulated and socially valued. This can be understood, at least in part, as a clash between an economy built on market values and one built on participatory values.”
Baym’s statement is supported by research published in 2017 by David Hesmondhalgh and Leslie M. Meier in their paper “What the digitalisation of music tells us about capitalism, culture and the power of the information technology sector”. Throughout 15 pages, the two media and communication researchers outline that recent disruptions within the music industry by digitalization are simply a continuation of the music industry’s use as a “testing ground for technological change”.
The difference now is that we’ve experienced the shift from consumer electronics to information technology. This includes radical concepts such as listeners leasing their music rather than owning it and unbundling, allowing listeners to add individual songs to their collection instead of buying albums. That has had a drastic impact on how music is presented to the public and ceding control of the organization of one’s music collection to IT companies and their software.
Throughout the music industry’s history, some participants find these changes exciting while filling others with a sense of loss. The results have nothing to do with music and everything to do with creating new markets for capitalistic expansion to control and dictate change.
Thus, the power of music, if you will, has dissipated. For years, it was a “domestic” product, primarily consumed at home or in a vehicle–settings that resulted in much more sharing of the experience. Now, it has become a system of networked mobile personalization. Music is ever-present but often experienced as a remote distraction rather than a focal point. In other words, music may be more central to cultural life than ever, yet it has far less resonance. Proponents of technological change see that as an argument based on nostalgia.
Real-time Evolution in the Digital Age
Due to the pandemic, live performance has finally gotten caught in the digital web. The year’s newest income source is online performance, changing what has always been an immediate event into a remote one. And even though it is performance-based, it’s of no interest to most of the musicians represented here, with only Louise and Venson expressing enthusiasm for it.
At first glance, Louise seems like an odd choice to embrace a new digital age of performance. She lives in the mountains outside of Asheville, North Carolina. She often talks about her Earth practice–life and how she lives it as one organic part of an all-encompassing macroecological system.
In listening to her music, one not only hears strains of the Child ballad and its evolution into the old-time mountain music of her Appalachian region, but actual birdsong and instrumental interpretations of it and other natural sounds. She also loves the tones she can get out of modern instruments and how they can create a unified whole in tandem with traditional stringed instruments.
Her forthcoming album, Earth Bow, finds her playing guitars, percussion, a linear wave sampler, and synthesizers. In other words, she’s not married to the concept of a traditional ecological system so much as she is embracing technology and how it plays into and becomes part of that greater whole. Birdsong and wave samplers exist in the same plane and thus have a relationship that can be blended and explored. Geographical features might suggest a wave pattern, and she can use a Roland SP-404 to create that pattern in sound.
“I love digital shows a surprising amount,” Louise says. “It’s a new medium, and that excites me. As more advanced tech makes pro-grade equipment accessible to anyone, the high-quality content generated is becoming a bigger piece of the entertainment industry pie. I only see that accelerating.”
Jackie Venson has a conspicuous online presence too, which is increasing as she takes time to master her understanding of digital technology and formats.
“Right now, I am in the process of developing followings on Twitch, TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, my email newsletter, and Reddit,” Venson says. “I have been developing myself differently on each platform because each one has a different format. I believe this is the smartest use of my forced pandemic time off because when touring and live shows start again, I will have grown and maintained a following to tour for.”
She makes a post, usually involving a performance, every day, sometimes playing with filters and lighting, choosing interesting settings, and often promoting her latest merchandising endeavor.
Jackie Venson (2020) (Photo: Ismael Quintanilla III)
However, some musicians are reluctant to perform to a camera instead of an audience because they miss the interaction and how it informs the performance.
“It’s challenging to put a bunch of new music into the world and not have the connective tissue between myself and my audience that a show or a tour usually provides,” Anderson says. “A concert or a show is a place where people are together with each other experiencing and/or performing music. Everything else is television. The joy I get from performing is not replaceable by an online experience. For the most part, I’d rather just practice and play and record until actual shows come back.”
On 23 November, Bandcamp added a twist to the live streaming scenario by launching Bandcamp Live. When bands schedule performance on the live streaming service, Bandcamp automatically notifies fans and announces the show. Musicians can display merchandise and music alongside the stream. Purchases appear in a streamside chat, which can then drive sales upward. Bands get to set their own price for performing and keep 100% of the money until 31 March 2021, after which Bandcamp will take its customary 10%.
It remains to be seen if Bandcamp’s involvement will win over any naysayers, but it certainly introduces an artist-friendly format to test the waters.
Do Streaming Services Work?
Where does streaming play into a musician’s life during the pandemic? There’s no sense of the direct positive influence one can see when looking at Bandcamp. It’s challenging to figure out if Spotify has a positive impact because it’s an indirect connection. As a result, it and other streaming services are vilified even more than Bandcamp is praised.
In Krukowski’s article cited above, he delves into Spotify, noting how it requires reverse calculations to analyze royalties. He makes a rough estimate that an artist would have to get streamed 657,895 a month to achieve a monthly income of $15 an hour across a standard 40-hour workweek.
CEO and co-founder Daniel Ek infuriates musicians when he talks about “capturing the share of time listeners spend elsewhere,” which echoes Mark Zuckerberg’s goal with Facebook. Compounding that, Ek talks about audio as opposed to music since podcasts have become a significant part of his strategy.
Independent musicians are rarely chart-topping artists, so it’s not surprising that none of the musicians interviewed felt additional support or saw positive income changes in regards to the pandemic.
“I have had no increase in streaming royalties,” says Louise. “However, I have had a lot more support on Bandcamp. Go figure!”
Louise’s comment represents dissatisfaction with streaming models, which rolls over into venue-artist relations for most artists speaking here. There are varying degrees of complaints about streaming services. Still, Lewis defends the system in an argument that echoed Hesmondhalgh and Meier’s belief that the music industry is a testing ground for technology.
“Arguing that a streaming system stacks up as the best system for the long-term, is faulty simply because there is no long-term if history is any guide to how to predict the future,” Lewis says. “Nothing stays fixed in place, technologically or culturally, for any period longer than a few short years.”
He thinks it’s incorrect to expect a “profitable windfall” in the short-term by releasing an album. Artists should instead look five, ten, or 20 years into the future when albums that matter to people continue to be a part of their playlists. He also suggested streaming has value for statistical information that can be used in booking tours, showing where there are pockets of people listening to an artist’s music and which songs get played the most.
The concept of utilizing statistical analysis is interesting, but taking a long-term approach to income in an industry that changes rapidly may or may not lead to pay-off. Jerry David DeCicca makes a strong case for not trusting the outcome.
“Streaming services have nothing to do with music,” DeCicca counters. “These are tech companies and need to be viewed only as that. Just because a white dude stands up wearing a tee shirt with a guitar on it and has a website that discusses music doesn’t mean it’s a music website.”
He pointed out that musicians rarely own their masters, so they don’t have the power to control what happens to their work. “Sony owns half of the history of popular music. They aren’t thinking about breaking the next Aretha Franklin; they’re trying to sell headphones and data.”
“I would never pay for these services because I view spending the same as voting,” DeCicca concludes. “I value human rights and worker rights, and this makes my monthly purchases more expensive and requires more time to acquire. People that think they deserve every record in the world for $10 a month have a different value system than me.”
Jerry David DeCicca (2020) (Courtesy of the artist)
The Club Quandary
While streaming is an abstraction to many people, going to clubs to see shows is tangible. It’s what we love and how we most strongly feel and connect to the music. Even though it’s off the table for now, and clubs, too, are struggling, do we need to step back and rethink how that model works?
“Making music, making songs, playing a live gig, traveling to play a gig, making a recording, none of this means you should get paid,” says Lewis, once again proving to be an outlier in the debate.
“The artist’s job is to blow minds. Period,” he says. “The artist’s job is to be as essential as food and water and shelter, transportation, sex, and companionship–by any means necessary. Perhaps based on quantifiable investments of time and money (like skill and equipment) but with no more correlation to those things than how tall you are. If the artist does his or her job, then the artist is like water. People don’t need to be begged or cajoled into drinking water, or attending a gig of an artist who is essential to them.”
DeCicca once more provides the counter-argument, defending small venue owners while balancing that with the often unrecognized contributions bands make to a community’s economy.
“A venue pays rent, insurance, salaries, and a million other things,” DeCicca says. “I don’t know any small venue owners that are getting rich or like the model they’re locked in, to survive. But it is a problem when the door or sound person regularly earns more than a band of four or five players, and neither of those jobs deserves less pay.
“But this is where we begin discussing values,” he says. “Patrons need to get used to paying more for gigs in smaller venues and caring about that entertainment. But now we’re getting into toxic conversations of ‘exposure’ and inflation and art. Most venues can’t afford to curate music; they mostly host genre-specific popularity contests to keep the lights on. Because that’s what people, in general, want: to see their friends, have fun, and sing along. They aren’t going out to be stimulated in the same way that I might need, and that’s fine.
“It’s important to recognize that even bands that don’t make money to help drive the economy,” DeCicca continues. He points out that when people attend a show, they spend money in other ways such as buying drinks, going out to dinner, and paying for parking or transportation.
“Monetarily, this is the only distinction between musicians and other artisans, like weavers, potters, painters,” DeCicca says. “Working musicians create a lot of jobs which help communities thrive. That is not reflected in a door deal and three drink tickets, but I’m not sure whose responsibility it is to compensate them.”
In her study of The Swedish Model, Nancy K. Bahm concludes that “In contrast to major labels, the indie music business is better situated to respond to the participatory turn, in part because it has historically had a strong ethos of resistance to corporate control.”
This participatory turn, as Baym points out, continues a “cycle of gift exchange” for independent musicians, this often including housing and meals provided by whomever books a show, and the creation of an environment that seems small, personal, and immediate as opposed to a mainstream musical encounter which is “enormous, distant”. Such a setting is valuable to the artist in helping create a “focus on the ‘whole fan’ and concentrate on their lifetime value as committed advocates.”
Bahm calls this “participatory culture” and points out that it emphasizes the interaction between the audience and the artist, “according to a new set of rules that no one fully understands.”
The Swedish Model cares about the market economy and seeks to participate profitably within it. Still, there’s a more significant concern with building a larger community that will benefit everyone. This model emphasizes all participants–labels, bands, and fans–using the internet to unite and expand that culture in place of centralized control and profit. Johan Angergård, founder of Labrador Records and one of the founders of The Swedish Model, refers to it as “like-minded people that share a common love.”
If that sounds a little utopian, this is probably a good place to mention that Swedish artists and labels have the protection of one of the world’s most comprehensive networks of social programs.
To share their music, members of The Swedish Model embraced two Swedish companies, The Pirate Bay, the largest file-sharing company involved in music piracy, and the (at the time) corporate upstart Spotify, thus accepting the black market as well as the mainstream market. In 2018, three of The Swedish Model’s founders, John Gadnert, Mattias Lövkvist, and Kalle Magnusson, launched Aloaded, an independent record distributor, to offer more creative and financial control to independent artists and labels. To date, they are working with more than 900 artists, and by September 2019, independently distributed songs held nearly half of the positions in the Swedish Top 50 daily charts on Spotify.
Looking at the Bandcamp numbers that Diamond has shared, is it possible that different circumstances and a different culture might create a similar revolution in the United States’ music industry, but via an actual marketplace instead of a streaming service? His concept seems to join the market to participatory culture rather than resulting in the clash between the two that Baym identified in her exploration of The Swedish Model.
In his foreword to Umair Haque’s The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business“, Gary Hamel lists beliefs that need to be challenged under the current capitalistic dictum. He includes thinking of customers as end-users rather than full partners in the work of value-creation and value-sharing.
Haque states, “Social wellness is about connectedness: the quality, intensity, durability, and quantity of relationships. To affect this category of wellness, you need to ask: Are we helping people have better relationships? Do we amplify the number of relationships people have? Do we facilitate more trusted relationships, with prolonged contact and more affiliation between people?”
That sort of relationship-building is illustrated in audience response to products musicians have offered on Bandcamp Fridays and by artists and labels providing donations to relief funds and progressive political causes.
Krukowski thinks the link between Bandcamp and progressive politics is logical. The direct connection between fans, artists, and labels is about “being an agent, rather than a passive participant,” he says. “When you have not surrendered your agency, it makes perfectly natural sense to think, ‘What can I do with that agency to take some action?'”
Marisa Anderson provides an excellent example. When George Floyd was murdered by the police, she recorded a song called “The Fire This Time”. She put it up on Bandcamp for two weeks, with all proceeds benefiting the Minnesota Freedom Fund. This organization provides bail and immigration bonds for people who cannot afford to buy their way out of jail or ICE detention.
“The response was much more than I expected,” Anderson says. “The song ended up raising over $2,500. I received only supportive feedback. I’ve been involved in social justice, environmental and activist movements for the past thirty years. It would be unthinkable not to use my voice at this moment.”
“I don’t have very much money myself, but I can raise money with my music if my audience knows that their purchase is going to support a good cause,” says Joyner. He also has a history of political activism and fundraising and has given a percentage of sales to various causes this year. “I can make donations to these organizations that would have been impossible for me to come up with otherwise. It seems more funds can be raised for causes when everyone uses whatever tools are at their disposal to convince people to open their wallets.
“I often think of that great line from Bob Dylan’s “Wedding Song” where he says, ‘when I was deep in poverty, you taught me how to give,'” Joyner says. “The times require us to get out of our own heads and be as generous as possible. I’ve seen a lot of encouraging humanity throughout all this, maybe in direct proportion to how much destruction and selfishness is out there.”
On 13 October, Jackie Venson made a Facebook post offering a free download of her then-unreleased album Vintage Machines to early voters in Texas. “I am the record label; I can do these things lol,” she wrote.
She also supports local music charities by auctioning some of her guitars online. “I have also used my platform to raise awareness of Black Lives Matter and the call for change regarding racial injustice and police brutality in this country,” Venson says. “I also have called upon my local music scene to change and address its obvious inequity issues.”
Sarah Louise echoes that last sentiment. “One thing that seems realistic to change from within our industry is to give more BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) and women and non-binary people curatorial power,” she says. “It’s great if festivals work to book BIPOC performers, for example, but I think there needs to be more diversity on the programming level as well.”
Louise has also been giving 25% of her earnings towards reparations and intends to continue that.
“It feels so clear that the privilege white people have is not rightfully ours because it is due to systemic racism,” she says. “Paying reparations is an active way of practicing that truth regularly and in a small way, trying to right those wrongs.”
Plenty of Time for Self-Reflection
One positive outcome of this pandemic is the reflection it has prompted individuals to engage in, both looking at themselves and the operating systems that impact their lives.
“Even if COVID-19 had never happened, a lot of things were in the process of changing,” states Lonberg-Holm, reflecting on how current issues have been evident throughout his music career.
“I came up in a very different environment, and the parameters did not include the kind of examinations of race and gender that are now in the foreground,” he says. “I went to Brooklyn College, but while it was very integrated, the music department was very white. Then in grad school, at the suggestion of a woman composer ( Pauline Oliveros), I went to Mills (an all women’s school for the undergrads) to study with an African-American musician (Anthony Braxton). I was eager to work with and be a part of what I expected to be a racially and gender diverse student body.
“When I got there, I was surprised to find the graduate music department had maybe two black students and very few women,” Lonberg-Holm continues. “I think it’s a lot more diverse there now, but at the time, it was a little bit of a surprise for me, although typical in schools around the country. Anyway, there were no #MeToo or Black Lives Matter movements then, but now there are. Many in my generation are re-examining their histories and rightfully self-criticizing.”
MacKay says, “I hope that the introspection of these times is not lost in a rush to re-create performance and recording as it was.” He cites hope that there might be “enhanced creativity in the idea of venues and booking.”
“I can’t help but reflect, but also, I’m in pretty good shape,” says Anderson. “I’ve built a pretty resilient career by having low overhead, owning a bunch of my records, doing things for myself rather than hiring others to do them, building community, among many other things. I started slowly and built from the ground up, so I have less to lose than many people. Also, I don’t have a Plan B. This is what I know how to do what I want to do, and I’ll find a way to continue.”
MacKay jokes that his gardening and cooking have gotten much better, while Joyner claims that his most creative act has been building a firepit with his daughter. Their observations illustrate an increased focus on home life and becoming grounded in a way that rarely happens with a touring musician’s on-again-off-again lifestyle, sometimes with surprising results.
“I’ve discovered my life is more full without endless touring,” adds Walker. “I love my home life more than ever. I usually do 250 gigs a year. I can’t imagine doing that from now on.”
Ryley Walker (2020) (Courtesy of the artist)
Will the Music Industry Change Post-Pandemic?
I’m still surprised when I realize that career musicians with substantial bodies of work never get to stop thinking about money. They are artists who write songs that move me and add color to my life, so I forget that they are grounded in the same working-class struggles as workers in any other field.
Looking at what Bandcamp has built and how it has willingly transformed itself to help musicians during the pandemic is heartening. Hearing and participating in conversations about what needs to change has also raised awareness of the many areas in which our neoliberal/capitalist structure fails to meet people’s needs.
Will anything change enough to make a significant difference? It’s apparent through researching this article that the music industry is a testing ground for technology and marketing. It’s a business where the artists themselves are simply elements in the experiment; their work creates a focal point for directing and controlling consumer behavior.
If any area of our economy should make a creative shift, doesn’t it make sense it might be in the arts? Regardless of what the music industry’s business side has learned from the pandemic, the musicians are responding with the same sensitivity and insight that informs a great song.
“I am actively experimenting with how music can be embodied in a less capitalistic framework,” says Louise. “Yes, some of these things are to sell, but I hope that they can help deepen the ways listeners experience music’s sacredness and healing power.”
Louise’s goal is a noble one, but don’t we listeners already get that from the musicians that matter to us? There’s a long string of songs that have helped me get over breakups, deaths, and other calamities that one must endure. This year, meeting new unknowns caused by COVID-19, it’s happened more times than I can count. What else has the emotional resonance to do that?
Thinking back to my conversation with that Dutch artist in a bar in Amsterdam, his initial statement is flawed. Yes, art created in the US may have a certain resonance from circumstances related to economic survival, but there’s no underlying psychosis. That implies an inability to discern what’s real. US artists know what’s real; the problem is being able to access what they need.