Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

Don’t blame the pandemic: the arts were already in crisis

Why you should buy straight from the artist

The June issue of Harper’s Magazine features a report by William Deresiewicz on “What the pandemic has done to the arts”. According to Deresiewicz, the effect on the arts economy has been “devastating”, and most of us don’t see just how bad things are. A catastrophe is happening all around us. What becomes clear as we read on, however, is that that the pandemic restrictions are not the even the primary cause of the problem. The arts were in crisis long before the pandemic struck and cannot be expected to recover just because it ends, as it surely must do eventually. The big problem facing artists, writers, musicians and performers is the result of a deliberate strategy that has been followed by huge, predatory corporations for years. In Deresiewicz’s words:

Art hasn’t really been demonetized. For the companies reaping the clicks and streams, free content is a bonanza. Along with Spotify and a few other players, the tech giants are diverting tens of billions of dollars a year away from creators and toward themselves. They have been able to do so only because of their size, which has given them leverage over labels, studios, publishers, publications, and above all, independent artists, and because of the influence it has given them in Congress.

So, it’s not that there isn’t money to be made from the arts, it’s that powerful monopolistic interests are grabbing the great bulk of it before it gets anywhere near the artists who created the work. This has been going on for years. In 2012, Ewan Morrison described Amazon’s business model for making money from self-publishers:

… a model called “the long tail”. With five million new self-publishing authors selling 100 books each, Amazon has shifted 500m units. While each author — since they had to cut costs to 99p — has made only £99 after a year’s work. Disillusionment sets in as they realise that they were sold an idea of success which could, by definition, not possibly be extended to all who were willing to take part.

(I’ve quoted this passage before, in a post from 2018 titled “Why I’m no longer a self-published author”.) Morrison expected this model to collapse within 18 months, but it’s going strong nine years later — and still just as exploitive as ever, which means that Amazon has already made several times more money from it than any reasonable observer could have expected.

I was bemused recently when I read that Daniel Ek was trying to buy Arsenal football club. Surely the CEO of Spotify, a music streaming service notorious for the minuscule earnings that musicians and songwriters make from it, shouldn’t have the kind of money that he’d need to buy a football club? So I looked him up on Wikipedia. It turns out he had already made his fortune from other tech ventures before he started Spotify in 2006. That’s all well and good, but the streaming company has been running for 15 years, making only the very occasional quarterly profit. Even if he started out with unimaginable riches, oughtn’t he to be running out of cash by now?

If I’d thought about it at all, I’d probably have assumed that Spotify was unprofitable because it’s hard to make money out of distributing music. We had all been sold the idea that Napster and Bit Torrent, as well as the ease with which digital files can be copied, had brought about a situation where everybody expected music to be free now, so that it was almost impossible to get them to pay for it. No wonder Spotify wasn’t making money.

I really should have been paying more attention. If I had been, it might have become clear to me that Spotify was unprofitable, not because it had quixotically chosen to go into a business where there was little money to be made, but because it was deliberately pursuing growth rather than profitability. That strategy had previously worked very well for Amazon, who went for years without making a profit while they expanded into more and more markets and seemed to be trying to monopolize retail. Suddenly, Spotify’s tiny royalty payments seemed less like an unfortunate necessity imposed by market conditions than the result of a conscious strategy to exploit the creators so that the business could grow at their expense.

I was heartened by a recent post from Alan Jacobs in which he wrote:

I’m waiting and hoping for some major musical artist to say, “Screw this. I’m taking my music off all of the streaming services, and instead will sell it from my website and on Bandcamp.” I don’t understand why this hasn’t happened already.

Jacobs suggests that Bandcamp could “do for musicians what Substack is doing for journalists: offer them a way to escape a broken system full of roadblocks and perverse incentives.” I should say at this point that, while I’m an enthusiastic user of Substack, I do have some misgivings about how it might develop in the short-to-medium term. Substack has raised a number of rounds of venture capital, so I think we should be aware of the risk that its investors will put pressure on it to offer its users (i.e. writers) a rawer deal than we get at the moment.

That’s what some people think happened with Patreon, who took a lot of funding that they arguably didn’t need and now need to generate the kind of return that venture capitalists expect. It seems that the arts and creative activities are profitable after all, but for venture capitalists and startup founders, not for the artists and people who actually do the work.

If we want to make sure that the right people get paid, we need to find ways to route around the likes of Amazon and Spotify, who show every sign of being even more rapacious and exploitive than the old-style publishing houses and record labels. So, Alan Jacobs is dead right: musicians should sell their music on Bandcamp and their own websites. More to the point, they should do everything they can to encourage their audience to buy from these sources.

Don’t be in any doubt about it: if you rely on a music streaming service for something to listen to or on Kindle Unlimited for your reading material, you are doing at best the bare minimum to benefit the artists and creators. What you’re really doing is helping a billionaire to go on an off-world joyride, or perhaps to buy a football team.

So, please buy straight from the artist when that option is available. And where it isn’t, consider the possibility that you might do less harm by getting your books, music, film etc. by way of the traditional “gatekeepers”, who probably aren’t quite as efficient at exploiting creators as the leaner, meaner high-tech “disruptors” are.