Living Wage for Musicians

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POSTED: March 10, 2024

The radical, oppositional singer/songwriter David Rovics makes music and writes copiously (often about various aspects of making music, or about the political and social currents that inspire or oblige him to make music).

Occasionally I reprint an essay of his here.

I have two reasons for doing this. Firstly I sometimes feel that he has said something that my literally dozens of readers might like to see. Secondly I sometimes feel that he has written something that I do not want to forget.

This time both apply.

Two days ago he published an essay on subStack called The Living Wage for Musicians Act: Why We Should Support It and Why Big Tech Won’t. I have reproduced it verbatim below.

On March 6th, representatives Rashida Tlaib and Jamaal Bowman introduced the Living Wage for Musicians Act. They’re working with the United Musicians and Allied Workers union, and the Make Streaming Pay campaign.
As a working musician as well as an advocate for other working musicians and the working class in general — in its traditional as well as its more contemporary forms — I’ll just come out and say right up that I’d like to encourage anyone in the US to use the form on the UMAW’s website to write your representatives, and otherwise to make noise about the importance of supporting this act.

On the face of it, it seems very simple, and like a no-brainer for across-the-board support in the Congress and in society at large. The whole idea, in a nutshell, is that music streaming platforms should pay at least 1 penny per song streamed on their platforms, and that this penny should go directly to the artists who wrote and recorded the song.

As with similar initiatives in the past, it will likely not pass. Republicans will oppose it because it would mean regulating businesses in a way that would be seen as a kind of tax hike for the rich, and they generally oppose that sort of thing. Some Democrats will support it, such as the progressive Democrats proposing the act, but those in the pockets of Big Tech will oppose it. Money talks much more loudly than regular people in our political system, and Big Tech has the money, not independent musicians or our advocates.
But to the extent that the truth matters, and making sense matters, and perhaps even fairness and justice and good arguments in favor of these things matter, I’ll try to respond to the most relevant questions this act raises. Namely:

  • how could this act transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of musicians?
  • could it really work?
  • how might it affect music consumers/listeners?
  • what arguments will Big Tech make in opposition to the act?

Before I endeavor to address these questions, I think it’s worth noting that my take on all of this is not only based on my best efforts to understand the broader economic, technical, legal, artistic, and ethical considerations involved, nor is it based on simple self-interest as an independent artist myself. While it’s true that I am a self-interested independent artist who stands to benefit tremendously from this act in the unlikely event of it passing, I’m also an independent artist who brings with me a certain perspective informed by certain factors:

  • my career as an indy musician began before the vast majority of people had ever heard of websites or email addresses
  • I have continued to pay the rent since those days, as a touring musician and recording artist, navigating the rapidly-changing rules of the game along the way
  • my audience the whole time has been disproportionately young people, who are the first to use new technology, so I can tell you all about the impact of it in real time

Probably the most relevant piece of information in terms of my own experience, which can easily be borne out with all kinds of statistics, is that the best time to be an independent artist was the 1990’s and 2000’s. Things got precipitously worse after that, in terms of the traditional income streams such as merch sales. Specifically, when the dominant streaming platform, Spotify, started their free tier in 2013, the impact was absolutely dramatic for me and so many other musicians, and overwhelmingly negative.

Growing numbers of artists now are too young to have had any experience as working artists prior to 2013, and a much smaller number remember the days before Big Tech, in the form of social media platforms and other websites, took over our communications and fully corporatized the internet. So contrasting what life was like for independent artists 25 years ago compared to post-2013 seems more important than ever to highlight, in the belief that what happened was not inevitable, and is largely reversible.

What could happen if the Living Wage for Musicians act passes?

Theoretically, ideally, all the streaming platforms currently paying a fraction of a cent per song streamed would all have to pay artists at least 1 cent per song streamed. If it were to go that way, and not be watered-down before passage, or sabotaged by the possible responses of the Big Tech corporations feeling threatened by this sort of thing, then it would be nothing short of transformational for many hundreds of thousands of artists.

According to my calculations, for me it would be the difference between $500 a month and $3,000 a month, which interestingly happens to correspond with how much income I used to derive from CD sales in an average month, 20 years ago. Obviously, for the many indy artists with a bigger following than me, the difference will be even more significant. For the many with a smaller audience, it could still mean the difference between making $50 a month from streaming to making $300. Not enough to quit your day job or stop touring or whatever, but a lot more than nothing.

The act includes a cap on earnings, since the fraction of a cent arrangement is working just fine for Taylor Swift. The idea is to lift up everybody else, and act like a society.

Could it really work?

The short, definitive answer to this question would seem to be “yes.” I say that simply based on the statistic that the average person spends about twice as much per year on listening in one form or another to recorded music now than they did back in the pre-internet days. The money is being spent, and it is going somewhere, it’s just overwhelmingly not going to the independent artists that produce most of the content, it’s going to the Big Tech corporations, and secondarily to the Big Three record labels that have made beneficial deals with them, at the expense of independent artists and also at the expense of many of the legacy artists represented by these labels, who themselves often see none of the royalties from streaming.

How would them paying a penny a play affect listeners on Spotify and other platforms?

I’m not an economist, but my best effort at understanding the economics of this large corporation, Spotify, and others like it or following in its footsteps, is the whole business model involved with the introduction of their Free Tier in 2013 was about rapid expansion of the platform, predicated on it now being free, and predicated on the payout per stream going out to artists plummeting as fast as the corporation expanded.

In other words, Spotify’s profits and rapid expansion since 2013 have been predicated on sabotaging the indy music industry around the world. My own experience is a perfect case in point. Before 2013 I was selling between 100-1,000 CDs in a given month. Since 2013, about 10% of that. For artists with a less youthful following it wasn’t as dramatic — but for me and many others, it was.

So, if Spotify were forced to pay a penny per play, at least in the US, might this mean they cancel their free tier and go back to charging everyone $10 a month for having access to tens of millions of songs? It might. Will you miss the ads?

Why will Big Tech say they oppose the law?

The actual motivations of most gigantic corporations are not the same as their professed motivations. They all have big PR departments that determine what the public want to hear, which is what they tell us. If they just said their primary directive, like all corporations, was to make as much profit as possible for their shareholders, that would certainly not impress the idealistic pro-tech crowd, or most anybody else.

Rather, what they’ll say is their business model is best for artists and best for listeners, win-win. (Oh yeah, and it’s also best for the gigantic corporations, too, but they won’t mention that part.)

The reason why they say it’s good for artists is because, according to their worldview, before Spotify et al came galloping along to save us all from the chaos, the internet was ruled by thieves who were stealing all of our music and freely distributing it, and it was such a rough time for musicians. Therefore, according to this faulty logical foundation, vastly expanding the legal music streaming business with their new free tier was a good thing, because artists at least get something, which is better than getting everything stolen.

The problem with this logic is it groups all musicians together in ways that have nothing to do with reality. While Napster presented a major challenge to the major record labels and the pop stars for sure, it didn’t work that way for most independent artists. I’ll save you the details, but us indy artists were selling CDs just fine. We could also choose what we wanted to make free online, rather than giving that power up to the corporations. And we could harvest email addresses and other valuable stuff like that in exchange for our free music, rather than giving that power away to the corporations as well.

They’ll say their business model is best for listeners because now everyone can get virtually all the world’s recorded music for free right there on their phones! How wonderful! Until you think for a moment about what the future of recorded music might be once there’s no money to be made in selling recordings or streaming them, most of the people that used to be full-time musicians have gotten day jobs, and fewer and fewer people can afford to embark on the kinds of time-consuming, labor-intensive recording projects that used to be a regular part of our work cycle.

If it were true that their business model were good for music fans, music fans wouldn’t be spending twice as much per year on recorded music as they used to, and the money they were spending would mostly be going to the artists making the music. We can keep spending more and more on music, with more and more of that spend going to further fill the overflowing coffers of Big Tech, or we could implement a solution to this profoundly skewed and unjust arrangement. That is the choice facing our Congressional representatives.

If Big Tech doesn’t once again win this round, I’ll eat my hat. And cry with joy. And move into a bigger apartment. Meanwhile, did I mention I’m on Patreon?