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How Musicians Are Surviving the Pandemic — and the Music Industry

Nine US-based musicians discuss surviving and adapting to the changing music industry in our extraordinarily challenging time of pandemic shutdown.

Connecting Remotely

In her study of The Swedish Model, Nancy K. Bahm concludes that “In contrast to major labels, the indie music business is better situated to respond to the participatory turn, in part because it has historically had a strong ethos of resistance to corporate control.”

This participatory turn, as Baym points out, continues a “cycle of gift exchange” for independent musicians, this often including housing and meals provided by whomever books a show, and the creation of an environment that seems small, personal, and immediate as opposed to a mainstream musical encounter which is “enormous, distant”. Such a setting is valuable to the artist in helping create a “focus on the ‘whole fan’ and concentrate on their lifetime value as committed advocates.”

Bahm calls this “participatory culture” and points out that it emphasizes the interaction between the audience and the artist, “according to a new set of rules that no one fully understands.”

The Swedish Model cares about the market economy and seeks to participate profitably within it. Still, there’s a more significant concern with building a larger community that will benefit everyone. This model emphasizes all participants–labels, bands, and fans–using the internet to unite and expand that culture in place of centralized control and profit. Johan Angergård, founder of Labrador Records and one of the founders of The Swedish Model, refers to it as “like-minded people that share a common love.”

If that sounds a little utopian, this is probably a good place to mention that Swedish artists and labels have the protection of one of the world’s most comprehensive networks of social programs.

To share their music, members of The Swedish Model embraced two Swedish companies, The Pirate Bay, the largest file-sharing company involved in music piracy, and the (at the time) corporate upstart Spotify, thus accepting the black market as well as the mainstream market. In 2018, three of The Swedish Model’s founders, John Gadnert, Mattias Lövkvist, and Kalle Magnusson, launched Aloaded, an independent record distributor, to offer more creative and financial control to independent artists and labels. To date, they are working with more than 900 artists, and by September 2019, independently distributed songs held nearly half of the positions in the Swedish Top 50 daily charts on Spotify.

Looking at the Bandcamp numbers that Diamond has shared, is it possible that different circumstances and a different culture might create a similar revolution in the United States’ music industry, but via an actual marketplace instead of a streaming service? His concept seems to join the market to participatory culture rather than resulting in the clash between the two that Baym identified in her exploration of The Swedish Model.

In his foreword to Umair Haque‘s The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business“, Gary Hamel lists beliefs that need to be challenged under the current capitalistic dictum. He includes thinking of customers as end-users rather than full partners in the work of value-creation and value-sharing.

Haque states, “Social wellness is about connectedness: the quality, intensity, durability, and quantity of relationships. To affect this category of wellness, you need to ask: Are we helping people have better relationships? Do we amplify the number of relationships people have? Do we facilitate more trusted relationships, with prolonged contact and more affiliation between people?”

That sort of relationship-building is illustrated in audience response to products musicians have offered on Bandcamp Fridays and by artists and labels providing donations to relief funds and progressive political causes.

Krukowski thinks the link between Bandcamp and progressive politics is logical. The direct connection between fans, artists, and labels is about “being an agent, rather than a passive participant,” he says. “When you have not surrendered your agency, it makes perfectly natural sense to think, ‘What can I do with that agency to take some action?'”

Marisa Anderson provides an excellent example. When George Floyd was murdered by the police, she recorded a song called “The Fire This Time”. She put it up on Bandcamp for two weeks, with all proceeds benefiting the Minnesota Freedom Fund. This organization provides bail and immigration bonds for people who cannot afford to buy their way out of jail or ICE detention.

“The response was much more than I expected,” Anderson says. “The song ended up raising over $2,500. I received only supportive feedback. I’ve been involved in social justice, environmental and activist movements for the past thirty years. It would be unthinkable not to use my voice at this moment.”

“I don’t have very much money myself, but I can raise money with my music if my audience knows that their purchase is going to support a good cause,” says Joyner. He also has a history of political activism and fundraising and has given a percentage of sales to various causes this year. “I can make donations to these organizations that would have been impossible for me to come up with otherwise. It seems more funds can be raised for causes when everyone uses whatever tools are at their disposal to convince people to open their wallets.

“I often think of that great line from Bob Dylan’s “Wedding Song” where he says, ‘when I was deep in poverty, you taught me how to give,'” Joyner says. “The times require us to get out of our own heads and be as generous as possible. I’ve seen a lot of encouraging humanity throughout all this, maybe in direct proportion to how much destruction and selfishness is out there.”

On 13 October, Jackie Venson made a Facebook post offering a free download of her then-unreleased album Vintage Machines to early voters in Texas. “I am the record label; I can do these things lol,” she wrote.

She also supports local music charities by auctioning some of her guitars online. “I have also used my platform to raise awareness of Black Lives Matter and the call for change regarding racial injustice and police brutality in this country,” Venson says. “I also have called upon my local music scene to change and address its obvious inequity issues.”

Sarah Louise echoes that last sentiment. “One thing that seems realistic to change from within our industry is to give more BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) and women and non-binary people curatorial power,” she says. “It’s great if festivals work to book BIPOC performers, for example, but I think there needs to be more diversity on the programming level as well.”

Louise has also been giving 25% of her earnings towards reparations and intends to continue that.

“It feels so clear that the privilege white people have is not rightfully ours because it is due to systemic racism,” she says. “Paying reparations is an active way of practicing that truth regularly and in a small way, trying to right those wrongs.”