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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.

A Neoliberal vs. a Progressive Response to the Plight of Artists

The view that creating and rewarding an arts culture should fall wholly on the backs of artists and arts organizations is apparent in the Trump administration’s 2020 budget proposal, which proposed eliminating both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities for the fourth consecutive year. The report suggests that private fundraising platforms like Kickstarter are a more appropriate source of funding the arts since “the Administration believes audiences and aficionados are better than the Government at deciding what art is good or important.”

The model most closely related to this one is found in the United Kingdom, which has followed a neoliberal path in departing the European Union. The result is that even with the leverage of a musicians’ union (something that exists in the US but can be challenging to understand and navigate for rock-oriented musicians), one-third of 2,000 professional musicians polled in September stated they are considering abandoning the industry entirely. On 6 October, a 400-musician ensemble performed outside of Parliament to protest those freelance musicians, which make up 72% of the sector but are not eligible for grants under the government’s current self-employed income support scheme.

Compare that to France, where President Emmanuel Macron has called for a 12-month extension to special unemployment benefits for actors, performers, musicians, and technicians, to help protect them in the downtime between jobs. He also announced that the recently founded Centre National de Musique would receive a supplementary investment of €50million.

“Cultural venues must be brought back to life,” Macron said. “Artists must be able to create again and to work together to reach audiences, even if, during this intermediary period, we’re going to have to rethink a new sort of relationship with audiences.”

Although much of Europe has strayed from the European social model in recent years, the prevalent model of capitalism is still “progressive” enough, if you will, to inspire discussions that deal with the difficulty of maintaining a system of social protection in a changing global economy. Macron’s statement illustrates that and also gives a point of comparison to a neoliberal model.

In “Music and capitalism — an introduction,” Anna Morcom, the Mohindar Brar Sambhi Chair of Indian Music at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music, wrote “this rising interest in research on music and capitalism is linked to the broader focus on neoliberalism across disciplines. However, recorded music itself has also undergone profound changes and crises in its role as a medium of capital accumulation during the neoliberal era with the advent of digital technology and the Internet. This has led to the emergence of new logics of exchange, where even popular music—the paradigmatic “commercial” music—may be more of a gift than a commodity, or something produced for subsistence rather than surplus.”

That thinking informed The Swedish Model, a collective formed by seven independent Swedish record labels in 2008, the year Bandcamp and Spotify launched. The founders of the collective concluded that giving music away on the internet is the way to build a base and establish identity worldwide, leading to a much-expanded market for booking tours and a more interactive relationship between musicians and fans.

“The internet has brought about many new conditions for the music and other media industries,” wrote Nancy K. Baym, formerly a Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas and currently a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, when she was researching The Swedish Model in 2011. “They have lost their status as sole distributors of their core commodity and have not yet been able to regroup. In place of a power base built on content, control is a decentralized, participatory structure in which the content has been fiscally devalued but still widely circulated and socially valued. This can be understood, at least in part, as a clash between an economy built on market values and one built on participatory values.”

Baym’s statement is supported by research published in 2017 by David Hesmondhalgh and Leslie M. Meier in their paper “What the digitalisation of music tells us about capitalism, culture and the power of the information technology sector“. Throughout 15 pages, the two media and communication researchers outline that recent disruptions within the music industry by digitalization are simply a continuation of the music industry’s use as a “testing ground for technological change”.

The difference now is that we’ve experienced the shift from consumer electronics to information technology. This includes radical concepts such as listeners leasing their music rather than owning it and unbundling, allowing listeners to add individual songs to their collection instead of buying albums. That has had a drastic impact on how music is presented to the public and ceding control of the organization of one’s music collection to IT companies and their software.

Throughout the music industry’s history, some participants find these changes exciting while filling others with a sense of loss. The results have nothing to do with music and everything to do with creating new markets for capitalistic expansion to control and dictate change.

Thus, the power of music, if you will, has dissipated. For years, it was a “domestic” product, primarily consumed at home or in a vehicle–settings that resulted in much more sharing of the experience. Now, it has become a system of networked mobile personalization. Music is ever-present but often experienced as a remote distraction rather than a focal point. In other words, music may be more central to cultural life than ever, yet it has far less resonance. Proponents of technological change see that as an argument based on nostalgia.