by Niall Walker
How has the pandemic begun to reshape the arts sector? Perhaps it is too early to say. However, clues seem to be offered in the dizzying profits being made from artists who are perversely seeing their own incomes decline.
We spoke to Sadie Dupuis, a musician and member of the Union for Musicians and Allied Workers. We discussed how serious the situation currently is for music workers, organising in the arts sector, and what an inclusive streaming service could look like.
What did 2020 look like for you?
I can tell you what it looked like for me. As a teacher, I saw lessons migrate from the real classroom to Google Classroom. ‘Zoom’ became a verb, and my main form of communication both at school and with the other editors of this site. Each day, I checked my Gmail, uploaded to Wix, posted on Twitter and procrastinated on Youtube, often to a soundtrack coming from my Spotify desktop app.
The pandemic, which has been so devastating for many, has been inconceivably lucrative for Big Tech. Jeff Bezos of Amazon nearly doubled his billions last year, while Spotify cashed in on the streaming boom with a 22% rise in revenue.
This hasn’t translated into an increase in the slice of the pie for most of these platforms’ workers, however. With regards to Spotify, any increase in streaming revenue for musicians is dwarfed by the loss of income from live performance. “A lot of music listeners don’t realise how little of their money goes to artists” Sadie Dupuis, the lead singer of Speedy Ortiz, tells me (via Zoom). The figures are derisory. “A third of a cent goes to the artist” Dupuis explains, “if you’re lucky”.
Let’s put that into perspective: for Dupuis to make a dollar, Speedy Ortiz would have to be streamed 263 times. To make the living wage, they would need 657 895. And that’s if only Dupuis was taking an income: when you factor in bandmates, songwriters and other support workers, it is only the top artists in the world that can realistically make a living off of Spotify’s derisory payment scheme.
These are the figures - and the argument - produced by the Union for Musicians and Allied Workers. Formed by activists from the No Music for ICE campaign against Amazon, and launched in the middle of a pandemic which has decimated the music sector, the Union’s first campaign has been to expose the injustice at the heart of Spotify’s business model. So far, they have received the support of 26000 music workers.
Dupuis is a founding member of the Union, and has felt the impact of Covid-19 first hand. “90% of my income has come from touring in previous years” says Dupuis. “I feel really lucky that I have other freelance work - I previously worked as a teacher, I’ve done writing...but there are plenty who have trained for this specialised job their entire lives and now can’t pay the bills.”
This is the threat for most musicians around the world. It isn’t just that venues are closed now; many won’t reopen in the future. Nearly 300 in the US have already permanently shut their doors.
This, of course, has been a longstanding concern. Yet the pandemic has catalysed organisation in a sector that isn’t renowned for labour movement. “Coming to organising is a new thing for many people in the arts” says Dupuis. “A lot of our work is trying to show people you shouldn’t just be grateful for any opportunity or exposure”.
The online era once promised to democratise the music industry. Exposure would no longer depend on money or location: if you were good enough and had a bit of luck, a global audience was at your fingertips.
That vision of the future is a distant memory. As streaming services capitalised on an infinite pool of music, many of the familiar obstacles have re-emerged for workers in the industry on a larger scale. In November, Spotify announced a new offer for platform users hoping to increase listener numbers for their work: for a further cut in payment-per-stream, they would allow artists to choose songs they wanted to be promoted on their lucrative algorithms.
Dupuis calls it what it is. “This is a new payola campaign”.
Payola refers to the practice of paying commercial radio stations money to air your songs. It became notorious in the ‘50s, and was subsequently outlawed. Yet in the midst of a pandemic and economic crisis, Spotify are bringing it back. “For the musicians they’re claiming to support”, says Dupuis, “it’s going to even more embarrassingly reduce our compensation”.
UMAW seem to be an excitingly active union. Their Justice at Spotify campaign is only one aspect of their work. Dupuis is actually on the venues sub-committee, separate to the streaming sub-committee, and one of 8 separate branches which include the sub-committee for police abolition. She also lists an impressive number of different groups of workers affiliated to the union. “We have producers, live sound engineers, show promoters mastering engineers, talent agents coming in...we’re really open to anyone whose work intersects with music” she tells me. “we’ve disallowed involvement from bosses though. If you’re a major label CEO, maybe we’re not for you!”
It is their campaign against Spotify, however, which has gathered real interest. On their website, UMAW list 6 demands they make of Spotify, including paying a cent a stream and ending payola. Yet it seems to me that there is another demand - to another group - that is being implied here.
That group includes me and 320 million others who use the platform every day. Dupuis explains that “a lot of people who work in music don’t see themselves as workers”, but it is also true that many music listeners share the same blind spot. But they are, and as the numbers of them speaking out against the practices of Spotify and other streaming services grow, we have to decide at what point continuing to listen becomes a form of virtual picket crossing.
UMAW aren’t alone in organising against big tech. The Make Amazon Pay movement has gone global this year, while the Alphabet Workers’ Union has formed in response to the working conditions at Google. Yet our solidarity shouldn’t end with artists. Let’s be clear: Spotify is operating slave wages to the people who make its platform function. If we truly value music and art, it is up to us to save it.
This article is part of our 'State of the Arts' series, looking at how the arts sector and workers across the industry are responding to the pandemic, isolation, and neoliberal decline more broadly. To find out more, or if you want to submit an idea or share your experience, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
Niall Walker is the founder and co-editor of the Radical Art Review.