In Perry Henzell’s 1972 cult classic The Harder They Come, aspiring singer Ivan Martin reluctantly accepts a degrading offer of $20 for his hit single from Kingston’s most powerful music label boss, Hilton, who infamously replies that he makes the hits, not the public. Ivan attempts to break the system of injustice and payola to no avail. Eventually, he’s forced into criminal activity to pay the bills, while his record tops the Jamaican charts.
The Harder They Come serves as a representation of an industry built on the foundations of exploitation. With the advent of Web 2.0, where musicians and independent labels could release music to a globally connected audience with very low marginal costs, some argued that the industry would be democratised. In turn, all artists could make a good living, while independent labels could compete on a more equal playing field with major record companies.
However, like most visions of digital utopia, this has turned out to be far from reality. The market share of Big Tech in the music industry has vastly increased over the last few years — streaming has replaced recorded music as the largest source of income within the industry — and digital platforms wield ever more predatory power.
During the pandemic, artists have largely relied on digital streaming platforms for their livelihood due to enforced bans on live performance and inadequate state support (in the UK, over a quarter of those in the music industry did not qualify for the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme, or SEISS). As musicians depend on live gigs, the structural issues of streaming were brought into sharp focus, with artists forced to accept race-to-the-bottom royalty payments as their only source of income.
The lockdown streaming boom has further consolidated the position of major streaming platforms, leading to increased inequality and inequitable pay. Major labels use their structural advantage to garner large profits at the expense of independent labels and musicians, while the gamification of success attempts to pit atomised musicians against each other. As cultural critic Liz Pelly writes in the Baffler, Spotify has an “Uber-like model for independent artists.”
Spotify’s most marketable asset is its algorithm, which seeks to commodify users’ tastes with suggestions and curated playlists. Using surveillance, the platform aims to rival Facebook and Google as an advertising space. Through secretive contracts unknown to the public, algorithms and branded playlists guide people toward listening to the same artists represented by the major labels, resembling the exclusionary payola seen in The Harder They Come. Labels pay, or accept lower royalty fees, in return for increased exposure from Spotify through curated playlists and their algorithm, such as in Spotify’s “pay for play” scheme.
Only artists who are subservient to the culture industry tend to succeed with streaming. The top 1% of artists account for 78-80% of streams, and Cherie Hu has concluded that only 0.4% of artists in the UK (1,723) make a living from streaming and the majority of that number are signed to majors.
Coupled with devastating cuts to music funding, more and more artists come from privileged backgrounds, and working-class musicians are increasingly financially excluded. As Dan Hancox notes in Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime, this is a trend that has been proliferating since New Labour’s New Deal in 1998, which excluded musicians from claiming the dole. Last year, the Musicians’ Union called for a universal basic income to increase public funding for the industry.
As Nick Srnicek suggests in Platform Capitalism, platforms have monopoly tendencies. Their “network effects,” where value increases with more users, mean it’s almost impossible for smaller platforms to enter the market and compete effectively. Once a streaming platform is able to establish itself and become significant, it can put more music in its catalog, leading to more subscriptions and, ultimately, more valuable user data.
Earlier this year, a parliamentary inquiry into the streaming market suggested a “complete reset” of the streaming market, and it was announced that the CMA (Competition and Markets Authority) will be launching a study on the back of those recommendations. However, attempts at regulation of natural monopolies are often ineffectual and tend to reinforce the neoliberal tenets of competition, atomisation, and exploitation.
Parliamentary action has been forced by calls from the Musicians’ Union and the Ivors Academy. In the US, the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers also launched the “Justice at Spotify” campaign in 2020, gaining over four thousand signatures from music industry workers, who made a number of demands to Spotify. Although the collective action of workers is vital to the struggle against the exploitative practices of Big Tech, this can only be a short-term solution. Justice will only be served once music is removed from the logic of the free market.
There has been a recent drift towards using more equitable platforms — such as Bandcamp and Resonate — as well as the membership service Patreon. These platforms are more artist-friendly and have been a lifeline for many during the pandemic. However, again, they are short-term solutions that rely on artists already having a substantial fan base to earn a decent wage. Musicians have still expressed their frustration at low rates of pay for the streaming of their work on Bandcamp.
To change the current paradigm, regulatory proposals must be put forward in conjunction with more fundamental, long-term changes in the ownership and control of digital platforms. A publicly-funded streaming platform in which music is seen as a public good to be universally accessed, collectively owned, and controlled by the people would democratize the music industry and create a more sustainable digital economy.
As Common Wealth write in their report A Common Platform, digital cooperatives often face two problems. First, it is difficult for a cooperative to attract ethical funding for their enterprises. Second, digital cooperatives are still motivated by profit and therefore do not separate art from commodification.
Akin to the advent of public cultural resources — such as libraries, art galleries, and public archives — a streaming commons would be a public platform, where state funding replaces the investment of venture capital. It is important that with no algorithm and playlist gatekeeping, a streaming commons would reduce the inequality between independent and major labels, as well as prevent surveillance and data commodification. Through democratisation and collective ownership, algorithms could be made transparent and accountable, thereby ensuring privacy and data protection in line with the wants and needs of the public.
The current streaming model was not built with artists in mind. The interests of large corporate labels, streaming platforms, and venture capital aim to ensure that the system remains unchanged and serves their interests, while the exploitation of artists and the devaluation of their music continues. Contrary to the opinion of Rishi Sunak and the Conservative government, all musicians, commercially viable or not, can be adequately resourced. Music should not be simply content used to sell advertising to corporate brands: Designed to serve artists, workers, and the public, a commonly owned, cooperative streaming model would rescue the radical potential of streaming platforms from predatory pricing, surveillance capitalism, and financialisation.