*this was written in September 2013. Since then many great articles have been written on this issue, articulating similar concerns. Steve Albini’s keynote here is worth checking out for sharing similar optimism about a digital DIY. It’s also worth celebrating that since I wrote this, there seems to be a far more open and progressive attitude towards digital only releases and cultures. I have also altered aspects of my opinion in that time.
A few weeks ago I wrote a slightly exasperated tweet: "Rich kids run music. Journalists oblivious or complicit. 1% indie. How this is not a conversation baffles me." Some conversation ensued, and I collected a fair few new followers, however Twitter is a limited medium for any debate, and I didn't really get much of an opportunity to articulate my frustrations, concerns and logic.
To provide some transparency, I feel it's important to start this with a few words about my background. I was born into a first generation middle class English family, with two working class parents who got state subsidized degrees and somehow ended up teaching at a private school in the wealthy Gulf Emirate of Kuwait for over 30 years. As a result, my brother and I got to attend a very good school, amongst the sons and daughters of some of the most powerful people in the region. I never wanted for anything growing up, however being exposed to wealth for most of your upbringing makes you acutely aware of it's (often silent) presence and patterns.
I accrued debt at the University in London, and began working at the ailing, yet highly respected, independent record label Southern out of college, working on releases for a starting salary of 12,000 English Pounds. I then migrated to Berlin, working on mostly electronic releases before moving to the Bay Area in 2008. I have invested over a decade of my life into independent music and culture, foregoing more lucrative options in the belief that it provided an important platform for ideas with the potential to transform and influence society for the better. Approaching 30, I think it needs some serious reconfiguration.
I was seduced by a narrative of 'independence' that implied transparency, parity and a meritocracy that allowed for powerful ideas to gain popularity off the back of the support of the public and a critical infrastructure that was alert to the changing times. In recent years I have observed the opposite, which I'm going to clarify in list form (as is the vogue) as there is quite a lot to digest!
- what we knew of a thriving independent music industry no longer exists in the same state as when that term was introduced, and a lot of this has to do with people no longer buying physical music (myself included). Today, many critically successful independent or alternative records would do well to sell 4,000 copies. For context, 10,000 copies is sometimes enough to put you on the billboard chart (and absurdly was enough domestic copies sold to place Rihanna at the top of the UK albums chart in 2012). For further context, contrast this with Warp Records first commercial success, LFO's 'LFO', which sold 130,000 copies in 1990. Those kind of sales provided a foundation for rapid growth.
- despite spiraling sales, there are many people with a vested interest in maintaining the myth that the independent record industry is thriving and as relevant as ever, none more so than many publications whose existence is dependent on the purchasing of advertisements from labels and other companies. You might note that you are now more likely to see an ad for a festival or live event than an album release, such has been the shift in emphasis on the financial side, as live fees have actually increased significantly for many since the advent of the internet.
These advertisements are bought under the impression that people are viewing and valuing the content. Most editors would ratify that the only content that is actually thriving is free content provided by artists, such as mixes (which in turn give away others music for free without permission). In this relationship, publications distribute free content (and labor) provided by artists, and in return use those download numbers to sell ads to private companies. This exposure drives interest in the artists, who are able to convert that rep into live fees. There are pros and cons to this ecosystem, but those are the fundamental mechanisms at play. When critiquing the role of companies like Red Bull in directly patronizing artists, it is also worth noting how similar funds support the way in which you receive your news about music, which is a crucial factor in artists, promoters and labels receiving attention to drive their sources of revenue. In most cases, fortunately, there seems to be little editorial oversight by private companies, so I’m actually pretty relaxed about this fact. But it is important to recognize that ads run almost everything around us.
- journalists are paid poorly, if at all, so have little incentive to pursue anything investigative, which in many cases would also compromise the social and cultural perks of their position. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone sees everything. Journalists have the unenviable task of balancing their own passionate inquiry within the industrial reality that their field has become even further dependent on ad revenue, and only a few are able to secure full time employment, fewer even within a strong and inquisitive editorial framework. Many of the brightest lose steam and move on. In line with the poor compensation, it is also worth noting that music journalists can also commonly be quite young, and as a result very reverent of the artists and label owners in their midst, and relatively uninformed about how the industry has worked for a long time now.
- importantly, most publications still do not review releases that are only released digitally. Digital releases still exist in the ghetto of 'internet music' that Adam Harper so eloquently writes about in this article. This will become important later, as physical releases are expensive to produce, and as we have learned, do not sell very well. Who can afford to produce and promote expensive objects that very few people buy, in order to maintain a presence in the social & critical landscape? Similarly, who can afford not to, as in most cases only releasing something digitally basically condemns your artists to obscurity.
- All these realities expose a fragile and interdependent ecosystem, with struggling independent labels and artists dependent on publications for exposure, and struggling publications dependent on labels for advertisements and access. I believe that this co-dependent relationship goes some way toward justifying why I described journalists as either 'oblivious or complicit' in not investigating the growing wealth inequality in independent music.
So at this point I will state that I know for a fact that a great many independent record labels currently thriving in US and UK independent musical culture are also bankrolled in various ways by independent wealth. I will not, however, go on a witch hunt and name names. I don’t know how helpful that is. If you are curious about this aspect, it will not take you very long to find what you are looking for. I do think that this is one of the most important aesthetic and ethical concerns facing contemporary music. I also think that this is long overdue, and investigating the role that private money has played in independent music will articulate a powerful alternate history of the culture - it has always been a factor.
We are in the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, and yet independent music, believed by many to be a primary outlet for transgressive thought and the voice of a discontent youth, is to a large extent silent about this issue. Could this have something to do with the prominence of and proximity to wealth within the industry? In any normal industry, the press would consider it their duty to expose competitive inequality, and yet I have not yet read one piece discussing this subject. Instead I read farcical articles encouraging readers to print expensive objects they will never sell, sign artists they will lose to more established competitors, and invest their teens and 20's into a career path that promises little financial or cultural security.
PATRONAGE AND SECURITY
Being reductive, wealth in music works in three ways, direct investment, indirect security, and silenced beneficiaries. Direct investment is fairly obvious to decipher; someone with money invests into a business or artist, helping them to succeed by covering expensive promotional and manufacturing costs despite a paltry return in sales. This basically follows a Medici style patronage model, that has funded some of the most important art throughout history. I have no issue with this model other than when it is conducted secretly.
Indirect security is a different beast, pertaining more to the fact that someone from a wealthy background has less to lose (less opportunity cost) as a result of dedicating their youth to pursuing music and the arts in the face of the pretty bleak financial realities that blight the industry.
Silenced beneficiaries are the many artists, journalists or facilitators who are in precarious financial positions, who are aware of the role of the circulation and dominance of private money, however are unable to speak out about it for fear of personal consequences. The liability associated with discussing this stuff is high when your career could depend on not burning bridges, seeing this support disappear, or conceding that you perhaps have benefitted from investment that could damage your credibility (which is absurd). In this scenario, the people who know the most about how music actually works are rendered mute, which doesn't bode well for presenting well researched and feasible alternatives. You can't solve a problem that you can't analyze accurately.
All raise the concern of unequal opportunity, for a number of reasons:
- there are a number of independent institutions, who through important work in a time when records made money have established a legacy position within the culture. Due to the near impossibility of new labels being able to generate enough revenue through sales to grow in stature, many will have to either partner with, or simply lose their artists to these institutions, whose name recognition and long established distribution and promotional networks are still miraculously able to provide opportunities to a minority of artists. In a climate where most smaller labels are not making any money, only those smaller labels with private investment are in the position to potentially grow to the same level as these legacy labels, with the rest seemingly resigned to lose their best artists as a result of real financial obstacles. Let’s not forget, part of the reason that these legacy indies developed such a strong foundation is because they were admirably able to support a consistent stable of artists - or facilitate a new sound. As a culture we are in some ways doing a disservice to that legacy in hampering opportunities for newer labels to build the same identity over time.
In many ways, running an independent record label without this funding is basically like running free R&D for one of the more established companies. This is not to say that legacy labels do not do important work, or that anomalous successes (think Burial) can emerge from unfunded independent labels, however this does present an obstacle for significant aesthetic and infrastructural ruptures, and to some degree explains why we can often get stuck in looped holding patterns that fetishize the aesthetic and cultural strategies and aspirations of the 80s and 90s, and are skeptical about internet native musical cultures. Genres like techno to some degree maintain their counter-cultural potential because the club system is a separate economy, and still doggedly values vinyl trade. Alternatively Techno also represents a largely quantified strategy for transformative culture. It would be nice to see competitive approaches that weren't so rooted in old media.
- personal wealth inequality has always existed, however now arguably provides a greater competitive advantage than ever before. On top of declines in sales based revenue, media centers such as New York and London have become impenetrably expensive, which creates perhaps the biggest obstacle considering how few artists thrive without the validation of organizations and publicity generated in those locations.
- personal wealth also plays a significant role in your ability to pursue the arts academically, at least in the United States. Graduation cohorts from expensive private colleges throughout the country transparently develop into scenes comprised of journalists, curators, artists and others that all mutually support each others ascent in major cities. This is not a conspiracy, but is demonstrably true, and can lead to a lack of diversity of perspective, output and opportunities.
Music journalists so often talk about racial or gender disparity, and yet surely in this recession wealth disparity is as pertinent a concern for a sustainable musical practice? Why are we unable to acknowledge this?
WEALTH, TALENT & AUTHENTICITY
It should be said, having money available to you does not preclude you from being a talented and hard working artist or curator. Nor does spending private money in and of itself suppress radical expression. In many cases, these funded or legacy labels do a stellar job at supporting their artists trajectories, and a great many artists of privilege are very good at what they do. If it weren't for wealthy young artists and facilitators experimenting at their leisure, the artistic and musical landscape would look a lot less colorful. Marx himself was a histrionic child of privilege.
It’s also important to note that not all wealth is equal, and there are likely very few cases where unlimited money is available to people, and even that money may bring with it it’s own obligations and pressures. Most people are hustling and genuine in their intentions, just some have a significant advantage.
I do, however, take objection to the idea that wealth be kept a secret, or only be discussed between disgruntled artists and journalists in private. Firstly, because it is not clearly communicating the choices available to aspiring young artists, who take on egregious student debt and risk their financial futures attempting to emulate the artists that they admire. I also believe that perpetuating the mythology of a thriving independent musical ecosystem also makes it harder for us to find more equitable and feasible methods to sustain and grow the practice of transformative artists. I would much sooner, as in the gallery or fashion system, accept the reality that the arts must court wealth in order to thrive, and build strategies accordingly. Perhaps patronage is the most sustainable way to fund radical arts, and we need to find more wealthy people to invest unconditionally.
If so, the critical infrastructure needs to revise the false pretension of 'independence' and 'non-independence', altogether. The reason many are not transparent about the source of their money is that critics are encouraged to mistrust it implicitly, or skirt around the issue, and many people from privilege are encouraged to disguise it in hoodies and sneakers in order to qualify as ‘serious'. So then we end up with a big elephant in the room, with no tools to identify or analyze it diplomatically, let alone design something better.
ESCAPE OR EXIT?
Another major concern is that if the artists thriving in independent culture are either financially comfortable or professionally obligated to private wealth, who will sing songs to represent the rest of us?
So much of the language of contemporary music is predicated on escapism. The themes of retrospection, ethereality, wonder, psychedelia, introspection and intuition are dominant amongst young musicians, and yet patronize the levity of the economic and aesthetic challenge ahead of us. For me, these themes reflect the comfort, anxiety and obfuscation of the predicament that independent music finds itself in - docile, hesitant, closeted and forever looking backwards to better times (that most of us never even knew).
This is not a time of complacency and wonderment. This is a time to figure out an exit from this crisis.
If patronage is the most successful system to fund tranformative culture, as it was before the era of mass produced physical goods, let's find ways to do more of it, openly. Let's do away with cynicism towards micro-patronage models, and do away with an insistence that one must be entirely self sufficient in independent music, as that bias only favors the most fortunate. We become divided and conquered. Let's identify and engage benefactors, many of whom live outside of existing major cultural centers and may be swayed by an argument to support artists in smaller cities. This can only be done once we identify the problem and amass a case for their involvement. Nobody outside of music knows that music is broken, because we won’t admit it.
If physical is not working, lets embrace the digital. All aspects of it. Let's do away with the absurd insistence that computer music and web services, which have made high fidelity home production and distribution more available and affordable to artists, are somehow less substantial than old instruments that cost thousands of dollars to purchase, transport and store. This absurd expectation can break the spirit.
Deviate. If an artist liberates herself from an insistence toward physical objects, then why not liberate yourself from the history of the album? In the absence of investment, you stand to make no money anyway, which means you also stand to lose nothing by experimenting and creating new models and demand around them. Look on the bright side, the death of the old music industry is the death of the old music industry! Music will always have value, and we are perhaps a few targeted incisions away from redesigning an alternate infrastructure to support everyone equitably and transparently.
We will need to communicate with each other honestly to get there. You can't solve a problem that you can't talk about.