As was obvious long before COVID-19 hit, the music industry is dangerously dependent on live events. Shows are the most common source of income for professional musicians, despite record-high streaming revenues, and ticket sales trickle down to everyone else: bookers, venues, event staff, journalists.
The roots of this malaise are well known: as streaming replaced music ownership in the last decade, the collapse in record sales left artists reliant on performance fees.
Pay For Play
The steady success of Bandcamp has proved that fans are still willing to spend money on music, particularly on ‘fee-waiver’ days when artists earn an additional 15% on sales. As long as fans keep spending millions of dollars a month on music and merch, there’s proof that underground music can be a thriving industry. Bandcamp has changed the game, but in the future it could be just one node in a network of clubs, communities and collectives where money flows between people instead of faceless corporations.
Currents’ artist-curated playlists are unusual in that they can be sourced from multiple platforms: Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud and Bandcamp. Currents allows artists to monetise their own music, demos and mixes, and even annotate their playlists with text and voice clips, as Berlin electronic artist Minor Science did with a “director’s commentary” version of his recent album.
A button on the site points out that $9 a month is worth more than 65,000 annual streams on Spotify, or 385,000 on YouTube.
Nine Nights, a streaming series that began in June, led by an all-Black creative team based in London aims to become “a full ecosystem for Black culture”. Viewers are asked to donate as they watch, with money split between the artists, production teams and charities like Justice 4 Grenfell.
Patreon Of The Arts
Ampled works similarly to Patreon, with artists posting content to a community of subscribers who pay a flat fee of $3 a month (or more, if they can). The aim is to provide artists with a regular, predictable income while letting them retain control of their work.
A More Radical Landscape
Collective ownership might be a legitimate solution to the lack of affordable, permanent spaces for underground music, a problem that has frustrated artists and audiences for decades. But collectives can do more than share money and resources between themselves — they can also make demands on behalf of a group and call for changes to laws and working practices.
The culture and demographics of underground music make artists more likely than most to support these actions. Yet musicians are often hesitant to identify themselves as workers, whose labour is exploited by a system. We frame them as solitary, independent creators, emphasising their talent, hustle and self-sacrifice — after all, if music is your passion, wouldn’t you do it even if there was no money involved?
So musicians — and anyone who makes part of their income from music — have a lot to learn from other labour struggles led by precarious workers, like couriers, cleaners and drivers. What would happen if those in music came to see themselves as a class — one that needs to look after itself as such, and one that can create bonds of solidarity with the rest of the “precariat”?
Nothing is more urgent than “unionising at every level,” according to Carin Abdula, the founder of Outer Agency, whose roster includes Huerco S and Machine Woman. “When push comes to shove, the only way we’re getting things done is by collaborating with each other to put pressure on governments and at the local level. I’ve seen it happen between festivals, promoters and venues — people are communicating with each other more than ever, so to me that only spells unionising.”
When Covid hit, Abdula teamed up with a cohort of industry workers to launch the Independent Electronic Forum, surveying over 100 people for a report that puts forward some ideas and principles to help navigate the crisis. Most of those surveyed believed that the music industry “will be one of the last to return to normality” — but whether we ever want to go back to “normality” is another question.
Amid the devastation, the pandemic has opened up a space for reflection. Fundamentally, the problem is money — we need to give artists control over their work and the value they create. Ownership is also a pathway towards equity for the marginalised communities whose labour is foundational to the scene; if the profits from electronic music were circulated back to its creators, Black artists and communities would have the most to gain.