Protocols: Duty, Despair and Decentralisation transcript
Just dumping the transcript from this talk given at CTM:Persistence here, if you prefer to read stuff. The end gets messy as it was largely adlibbed.
Gratitude to Liz Pelly, who has made haranguing Spotify the newest and most exciting genre of music journalism. This used to be a marginal position.
It might get worse before it gets better
No-one is going to pay for music anymore sufficient to keep scenes as we know them going. At least not in the ways many have been used to. So while some artists might make petty change from digital sales through Bandcamp, my assumption is that those figures will dwindle over time as streaming establishes greater supremacy. My assumption is also that whichever streaming platform wins (as all roads lead to monopoly in this current paradigm), the artists that benefit from that streaming platform will be those that most dutifully satisfy the requirements of the streaming platform, which I think is a very different aspiration than satisfying the requirements of feeding healthy international and local music scenes. When Daniel Ek says he wants “one million artists to live from their work”, I think of one million musicians, sitting in flat shares, stocking playlists for people to shower to. Music from nowhere, for no-one in particular. A far cry from a healthy, or interesting, music community that people in attendance today might care about.
My other assumption is that Spotify won’t succeed. If I were Google, or Apple, or Amazon, I would look at Spotify’s immense burn rate: “they posted an operating loss of $461 million on revenue of nearly $5 billion last year”, and bide my time. From where I stand, Spotify is spending immense amounts of money to reorder the way music works as we know it. They might well eradicate the traditional label and publishing model, by finding new ways for artists to post directly to their platform, locking them into new forms of agreements over their work that also indemnifies them, or any prospective parent company, from legal action over copyright infringing material that might be hosted on their servers. Soundcloud is trying to do something similar with their new agreements, and in lieu of a viable business model appearing, all I read from that is that these are moves to leave the door open to potential acquisition by a bigger fish. Unless either of those services can find a way to turn a healthy profit, they are currently doing a lot of work on behalf of the bigger fish that may eventually step in to acquire them when their moonshot business models potentially fail.
Another bias of mine: Local, niche models are wonderful, but insufficient so long as they are competitive with the platform monopolies. Basically, if you are set up to play the same game as them, you will be trampled. I’ve tried more than most to test this assumption, and have moved on in my thinking. I don’t think there will be a streaming competitor to Spotify, or whoever might acquire them. Our best bet is to drastically reconsider the value proposition of music. What do people value and what are they prepared to support? The good news is that is a far more interesting and creative discussion to have!
Club music is a bit of an anomaly that everyone can learn from. A cold-light-of-day reading of trends over the past ten years, the rise of every scene attempting to find some compatibility with club music, is that the club music economy is resilient in ways that other scene economies are not. Unlike traditional music venues and the bands that occupy them, club music is a lean and efficient economic engine. Club artists have lower overheads, DJ’s can switch their set every night sufficient to be able to play the same city multiple times a year, and the club experience is durational, and thus profitable, in ways that “band” music is not. Venue/band music is more “a la carte” - people develop strong associations with acts that have the good fortune to catch their attention in a crowded marketplace, drop in and drop out. Club music, on the contrary, is very much based on location and loyalty, and is more generalised and functional. People go to dance, and are often less concerned with who is playing than what they are playing. As a result, those spaces become very powerful in their own right, and a minority of interesting artists can successfully make careers for themselves by establishing relationships with those spaces and their expectations. I think that’s great, but ultimately, as with streaming, the artists that thrive in those spaces are those who can best satisfy the requirements of the club. The club is king. The functional underpinnings of most club music are also compatible with the functional expectations of streaming, as both require a fast and steady stream of somewhat anonymous compositions that transition seamlessly into one another. Music to work to. Music to play to. Seamless. This is all well and good, but again we are left asking, what about those musicians who don’t want to tailor their output to a predetermined function?
One of the significant battles we face at the moment is a war between music from nowhere, and music from somewhere. Music designed for instantaneous engagement, and instantaneous dismissal, and music that communicates with an archive.
The archive is collapsing, and who will preserve it? More magazines will go under. Many that are hanging on do so due to clever side business models that don’t depend on journalism turning a profit. The role of the critic has been under threat some for time, and will continue to lose influence to algorithmic populism, and the kindof process-hack algorithmic manipulation that makes stars on Instagram and Youtube. Spotify and Apple are already hiring journalists to cover the work they promote on their platform, so we will see more hagiographical journalism feeding that system, and the traditional idea of the critic as arbiter of taste, and gatekeeper of the archive, will continue to be eroded. Other gatekeepers, such as labels and niche festivals, will continue to lose prominence over time unless they radically reconsider their value propositions. The end of history? Nope, but the end of an era for sure. Another cold-light-of-day re-reading of the surge of poptimism in the press over the past decade is to see it as the bargaining stage of grief over the seemingly inexorable charge of bot-like popular figures who hoover up ideas from the margins and deploy significant resources to capture a moment with music fortified from any potentially critical angle one might level at it.::
Pop stars are better understood as monarchic CEO’s of content production studios atop a feudal, trickle up, creative economy. They have adapted to the online ecosystem far faster than the critical systems that might have one day raised objection to them. For many, the only thing to do now is to sit back and commentate, like a formula one spectator, as these fast & furious culture scanning vehicles whizz past everyone.
Who can protect the archive?
The recent announcement that Conde Nast intends to paywall all of it’s publications, presumably including Pitchfork, by 2020 is interesting news. Exclusivity like this might work for the cream of publications, and also might perhaps trigger a snow ball of similar subscription plays by smaller publications. I like it when people pay for things, and we will see how that experiment plays out, but once paywalled, what we understand as the archive might well end up being housed behind those walls. Better that than disappearing altogether, perhaps.
On the other hand, we have organisations like RBMA and Boiler Room, who have found ways to leverage brand money to keep things visible and accessible. Archiving, as far as I can tell, is a big part of their model. They are cartographic entities, in much the same way that Google is cartographic. Google created maps of the web, and RBMA and Boiler Room have been busy creating maps of culture. Maps are valuable, as they allow for the establishment of trade routes. On the one hand, RBMA and Boiler Room are doing a great job, as their models are predicated on the primacy of the kind of cultures that are under threat by the algorithmic populism of say, a Spotify or a Youtube. They hired good people, hiring knowledgeable local promoters and journalists who, at this point of writing, have done an admirable job of drawing attention to artists whose goal is to advance. the form, in much the same ways that labels used to scout and ‘put artists on the map’. In light of the slow heat death of the critical infrastructure, there is big part of me that despairs as to what the musical landscape might look like without entities like RBMA and Boiler Room artificially inflating the value of challenging music. Let’s be clear, it is an artificial inflation; I know intimately that there are few other viable models for challenging artists to create large live shows and be so visible in the conversation without this injection of cash and visibility. As things stand, the money isn’t there outside of the very functional, parallel, club model I outlined previously. It is also quite miraculous that these orgs also manage to do so quite unconditionally, with regards to the kinds of art they support. So long as you are cool with the association, there really aren’t any creative restrictions as to the work you can make. Why is that? How can that be?
Contrary to the hackneyed divisions that linger from the past, there really is no “mainstream” or “underground” in this new economy. Under ad-driven platform capitalism, there are either fertile pathways to sell people stuff, or barren and quantified pathways to sell people stuff. It’s a map. I’ve said a million times, in this economy, unique niches (or unexplored corners) are highly valuable. If you are an artist whose practice speaks to a unique intersection, say based on genre, identity, or personal narrative, then you are an interesting proposition to advertisers, as you are prospectively establishing new territory to sell people stuff. Brands, as patrons, want you to establish new territory on their behalf, and be first to that party.
A cold-light-of-day reading of the prominence of representation politics in the current media landscape can borrow a lot from this observation. Think about it this way, how does one generate value from what is ostensibly an over abundance of music or culture? Through narrative and identification rituals. You ought to care about this, as this is for you (you, the new, untapped market previously untouched by more generalised marketing efforts). This is a legitimate adaptation strategy for the platform era, but inarguably renders the development of the musical form a secondary consideration.
So, for example, if now millions of people have the tools to create good-enough-Jeff-Mills-derivative techno tracks, it only makes sense that the distinguishing logic that someone might use to opt to support producer X over producer Y would heavily focus on tangential narrative elements. So much so that these narrative elements become the main source of value when competing with art of similar formal characteristics. Those tangential elements are perhaps better understood as metadata; equally optimal for growing new audiences and courting the interest of brands looking to achieve visibility in new niche markets. 〽️
In most cases, these kinds of intersections happen earnestly and without cynicism. It is however important to demystify why indeed these niches are compelling to brands, and understand that unless your niche is ideologically fortified from any brand participation, most likely someone within that niche will opt to establish those pathways to sell people stuff. That’s the platform economy, as things stand.
But this raises a really interesting conundrum. Brands are fundamentally interested in artists doing whatever they want, and intermediaries such as RBMA have found an impressively seamless model to fund those artists’ eclectic visions and continue the kind of specialist archival model of music that the algorithmic populist platforms have decimated in the forms of labels and magazines. Yet, some people are still passionately upset about it. Let’s try and unpack why!
Indie: the impossible burden
I grew up an independent musical zealot, a romantic. I can’t shake aspects of it. The anomalous period of time when physical music sales were lucrative provided a healthy economic environment for local music communities to represent themselves, and raise sufficient money by creating maps of the culture emerging around them, which in turn supported diverse and distinct visions of music’s future. Warp Records, for example, started on a £40 Enterprise Allowance grant from the state, and in their early days managed to sell 130,000 copies of the first, groundbreaking, LFO single. I began my professional life working at Southern Records, whose founders Crass allegedly sold over 1.5 million records. The original indie pioneers did a great service to music, but let’s be real, have left us all an impossible legacy to continue. Record sales = money in the bank = options. Period. Options to say no. Options to do wild, and risky things. Who has those options today? Where would the money come from? 😕
More interesting, perhaps though, is to ask the question: what is the ideological difference between the principles of the original indies and this new climate of brand partnerships? This feels like an important question to unpack, as in my mind, this distinction accounts for the vast majority of anger around this topic. I’d like to move the conversation on from that.
So the original indies, as far as I can tell, were predicated on two firm principles:
1.The majors were corrupt, strong armed bad music into the popular spotlight, and ignored radical new developments in music creation and localised scenes that needed to be represented.
2.On the other hand, being independent meant doing what you wanted, however you wanted it, with no-one above you influencing your creative decisions. Self sufficiency basically. People who colluded with brands were considered sell-outs as they had to tame their vision to appeal to a wider audience and secure that funding.
That’s about it really, in a nutshell.
So where are the ideological differences here? I can see them clearly in opposition to the algorithmic populism of Spotify or Youtube, who I have long regarded as being the natural inheritors to the major labels of yore in terms of their ability to put shitty culture in front of people, and create monopolies of attention around the artists who they elect to represent their interests.
But as I’ve clarified, most brands, and the intermediaries that negotiate funds from them, put a premium on artists doing what they want, unconditionally, as the model that funds those operations depends on new and novel narratives emerging to create unchartered pathways to sell people stuff.
Think about it. What views could you want to air that are incompatible with a brand partnership, particularly through the abstracted lens of an intermediary? I’ve known of a handful of eco-activist projects in my lifetime, but they’d also presumably not be cool with the manufacturing of vinyl under the traditional label system, or the dependence on fuel burning transportation in the live economy. I know of more people who cite concerns about the gentrifying effects of transnational cultural institutions spending money across the globe, but lets be honest, indie music scenes of socially mobile young artists were doing just fine at gentrifying neighbourhoods before brand money got involved.
So, in the vast vast majority of cases, what is the inconsistency here? Warp, or Dischord, or 4AD, or whatever, aren’t communist enterprises. They aren’t radical free culture enterprises. No. They are and were, for better or worse, entities that made great strides to support the individual visions of unique artists, and helped them to gain prominence in the market for music, and for a period of time symbiotically reaped the rewards from sales of that work.
None of these labels were cooperatives, where the profits from individual album sales were pooled and divided up between all community participants equally, or shared with local residents in solidarity against gentrification. There are fringe, isolated examples of this, but that would be far from the standard order of operations.
I think that in many ways, the foundational logic of independent music won. Now large portions of the economy are predicated on the promise of individualist independence. Everyone is free to self publish their unique perspective, and hypothetically find an audience for it online. That being said, we hardly live in a utopia as a result. As I think Liz has also pointed out, this logic also extends to work writ-large. Now many people are precarious independent agents floating around a market economy. Drive an uber, deliver someone some food -make your own schedule!
Of course, what we see when these fragile romantic ideologies are taken to their logical conclusion, is that not everyone is equally independent at birth. It is no secret that many of the original indies were founded by the wealthy, or in many cases by middle class entrepreneurs who could afford to dedicate their 20s to a speculative cultural business. Similar today, I would argue that this kind of erosion of institutions has led to a stratification of culture that threatens ideological monopoly and conceptual stagnation. The risk takers who can afford to, say, reject brand money to fuel their artwork, are often upper/middle class artists who have a plan B, and C if things don’t work out. Who else has the flexibility to take risks, if no-one is willing to pay for artists to take them?
It makes sense that if everyone is truly independent of institutions to redress societal imbalances with curation and stimulus funds, those with more resources or connections will end up being able to operate more independently than others. Platform logic, under the seductive narratives of equal access and ‘democratisation’, has gutted the institutions and habits (i.e PAYING FOR STUFF) that make artistic social mobility possible. Equal ability to publish something means nothing when only those with the ability to fund promotion of the work are discovered. I’ve said it before, there will be an abundance of free culture, and free time, in the slums. Amazon can produce your product cheaper than you can, and strong arm you out of business unless you work with them. Facebook can acquire any competitor before they become dangerous. Pop music can appropriate and spit out your micro-scene before it has any ability to generate its own momentum, or it’s own funds.
In 2019 we all work for Kanye, only some of us figured out how to get paid for it.
So in the absence of the ability to accrue a foundation of wealth and stability for new music, independent artists who gained prominence via the centralised media channels of the 80s and 90s will reign supreme over the long tail of precarious younger artists until the day they choose to call it quits. The gravitational pull of those artists who established the categories by which playlists, and festival line ups, must orient themselves to reach enough people, dictates that most new music emerging needs to flatter the formal and conceptual foundations of those pioneers.
There is going to be a whole lot more music that flatters the impressive legacies of Aphex Twin, Bjork, Timbaland, Missy Elliott, Aaliyah, Jeff Mills etc as those are the kind of petrified shapes of envelope-pushing music from just before when the volcano of Web 2.0 went off 🌋 .Radical musical culture circa-1996 preserved forever, like the ruins of Pompeii - or as I believe Mark Fisher (or Simon Reynolds, or both??) referred to it, a kind of permanent 1990s. With respect to the accomplishments of those legacies, this is all a bit weird, as for my money the world we live in has changed so dramatically in the past 20 years that it feels a little like a failure to be creating artwork in the permanent shadow of artworks made in a dramatically different socio-economic context. One wonders if the impressive accomplishments of the artists aforementioned could have ever been possible under those same restrictions or expectations.
So, in conclusion, I am yet to hear a strong argument as to what the ideological distinction is between the original indie legacies, and this new era of brand-aligned scene maps. Good news! You aren’t a hypocrite for participating in that economy, and as far as I’m concerned, I won’t judge you for doing so. I’m actually exhilarated that for the vast majority of practices, and for working class or traditionally marginalised artists, there is still at least one way to make your work unconditionally and find an audience outside of the abjectly dystopian free market populism of the platform monopolies.
So then everything is good, right? Not really.
We still have a really sticky and unfortunate problem. What of all these wonderful gatekeepers and intermediaries, who have contributed so much and still have so much to contribute to the development of new and interesting music? What of the niche festivals, the local DIY organisers, the labels, and thoughtful journalists and editors? The people who have weathered the storm to this point? What will become of them?
I loathe to say it, but I think that things are going to get way, way worse.
Well on the one hand, the platform monopolies like Spotify and Youtube are going to continually erode your influence with every new person that comes online. Their algorithms will direct traffic away from your priorities, and towards theirs, and to survive in that ecosystem you will need to satisfy their agenda. Doesn’t sound too independent does it? Journalists will have to write more about what Spotify prioritises. Artists will have to make work to satisfy the debased formal requirements of those platforms. Labels will be shoo-ed off like annoying pests that are messing with the platforms long term vision. Really bad, and a great reason to be really angry at that particular logic of culture. 🎊
So what then about these kind of new intermediaries, the organisations that have successfully managed to leverage brand money towards supporting culture? If your previous raison d’être was to support marginal communities, and weird music, you are probably going to end up being out competed by their models. Models that manage to leverage brand money to support those communities will grow and grow in prominence. The thing is, if you are playing exactly the same game, and one entity found a model to support exactly the same thing that you have supported traditionally, but more effectively, then you are probably going to lose that game. It sucks, but that’s what is likely going to happen.
Let’s add to the mix all the potential turbulence we see upcoming. Brexit, ouch! Stricter and stricter American border control, miserable! A potential decline in EU funding for cultural festivals, and a general nativist political turn across the board! It’s very, very depressing - and I’d propose quite a good reason to think hard about what the hell we are doing as a community. If we are indeed still a community with agency who can figure things out together, rather than a bunch of platform-mercenaries stepping on top of each other for a moment in the spotlight.
It’s going to cost a whole bunch of money and expertise to arrange those visas and keep international cultural conversations circulating, and to give credit where it’s due to an organisation like RBMA, they have been quietly putting their resources to that task for a long time now. I know of countless stories of artists from outside the US and EU being given the chance at a career as a result of RBMA’s ability to work on visas, for example. That resource will only prove to become more and more significant in future.
So yes, for the next few years at least, organisations of the type of RBMA and Boiler Room, in parallel to state supported festivals around the EU, are going to continue to be key to maintaining some semblance of musical progress, consistent with the legacy of the archive that has been established, buttressing scenes from attack from both the platform monopolies and unconscionable political developments. If you are competitive with them, I think that it makes sense to reconsider your model.
However! Despite my insistence that those entities be acknowledged for the role they play at the moment, I also think that we are in dire need of viable, complimentary and antagonistic new models of music infrastructure.
I think the ‘cultural cartography’ model discussed before is quite precarious, as of course they too need for new and diverse things to actually be happening on the ground in order to maintain the model that they have built. Companies dependent on brand money are always a few emails away from being out of favour. State supported festivals are very fragile to that possibility too. As the popular narrative that Spotify is ‘solving the problem’ of music proliferates further, it is going to become increasingly difficult for people to convince brands, or an increasingly conservative state, that these niche pockets of music we might care about are worth the investment. Stat-supported music, if unimpeded, will come into direct conflict with state supported music.
So I actually think it is in everyone’s interests for new models to emerge.
I think some of those models can be complimentary to the institutions we have today, and some can be wholly antagonistic, and ideally we would see both come to prominence in the next few years for the health of scene development across the board.
As I said before, one reason I see things going south for competitors to the brand-aligned organisations is that they are competitive. You solve this problem quite easily by becoming uncompetitive, and doing something they can’t or won’t do.
One thing brands or their intermediaries can’t do, for example, is distribute ownership under a cooperative model. They literally can’t. But there are all kinds of reasons why that might make sense for various different cultural scenes or organisations.
Co-operativising creates loyalty and an alignment of interests between an organisation, festival, artists and audience.
Co-operativising allows for collective strategising towards common objectives. Rather than funds being ingested to the benefit of one artist, in competition with another, those same funds can be channeled into infrastructure that helps everybody and keeps the culture afloat.
Co-operatives can make a profit, and can even receive brand money! For example, if brand X comes along and says “we want to support Y culture” - under a robust cooperative, Y culture can say “do so by funding our co-operative”. This kind of collective bargaining is also smart business, as you have far more collateral to negotiate, and thus can potentially bargain for more ambitious things than simply a gig here or there for one or two lucky representatives of your scene.
A strong co-op presence in a city or scene can fortify it from hypothetically pernicious brand money displacing what you do. Like a union, if Brand X wants to come into town Y, perhaps they will need to negotiate with terms of the group, if you can succeed in convincing enough people to build it.
Co-operative thinking is an uncompetitive model with the potential to hold its own in this new environment. If you believe in something dearly, it might be worth testing it, and seeing if others can get on board with it. I can see co-operative festivals, tied to perhaps labels, becoming a really feasible international proposition, in which people have a say on who comes to perform, and who is released, and look forward all year to joining their fellow community members IRL. It’s not the most lucrative idea, but it could be a sustainable and resilient alternative for many different scenes to adopt. Membership and coop models have worked for hacker spaces.
That would be quite a dream, to think of scene based logics focussed enough in their differing convictions to be able to grow robust cooperatives around what they do. Some might choose to partner with brands and intermediaries unconditionally, some might insert conditions, while others might reject that path entirely, but there would at least be some pro-active, forward momentum.
The challenge, however, is that when I ask most people about the prospect of pegging their opportunities and earning potential to a co-operative of their peers, many are skeptical of the idea. As things stand, this is a very marginal position, despite how resilient it might be. Most just want to make tracks and put them out there. That’s fine, but if you are both skeptical of brand alignments and co-operative structures you will need another proposal. Unless there is a transformational political upheaval that I don’t see on the horizon, I really don’t think there is any going backwards.
I do think, however, it is worth considering the option that when in conversation with brands and intermediaries, individuals and collectives could benefit from being a little more imaginative about what they ask for. Which takes experimenting with what you would like to see. I actually think that there is a lot more that could be experimented with in the short term, but I’ll save that for another time.
So what of decentralization? To explain what decentralisation is, I’m going to borrow from Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin’s model, which is focussed on technical infrastructure but has application beyond that.
He breaks decentralisation into 3 groups:
Architectural (de)centralization — how many physical computers is a system made up of? How many of those computers can it tolerate breaking down at any single time?
Political (de)centralization — how many individuals or organizations ultimately control the computers that the system is made up of?
Logical (de)centralization — do the interfaces and data structures that the system presents and maintains look more like a single monolithic object, or an amorphous swarm? One simple heuristic is: if you cut the system in half, including both providers and users, will both halves continue to fully operate as independent units?
Benefits of decentralisation in the context of music:
1) the network/archive is hard to take down. If Soundcloud fails, what happens to all that music, and the activity around it? If a magazine goes down, what happens to all of that history?
Decentralised, nodal systems like blockchains, or torrent networks, are resilient both architecturally and logically. You can’t cut the head off them. It took the state to take down What.cd for example, such was its resiliency.
Projects like IPFS propose a peer-to-peer immutable web, a web that can never be taken down, fortified by a nodal structure not dissimilar to torrent seeding.
2) regarding political decentralisation, this can be approached by entertaining ideas of common ownership. Rather than a centralised team at Spotify, or Youtube, making decisions that determine how your artwork is distributed, or the logics by which some work is made more visible, and prioritised over other work, politically decentralised networks entertain the possibility of pluralistic and democratic decision making.
3) Decentralised networks, when dealing with an open source code base, also allow for forking. If you don’t the way things work, you are encouraged to take the code and build something that disagrees with it. Over time what this mechanism creates is a healthy competition of ideas, and participant choice.
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A bunch of adlibbed babble about cool decentralized alternative logics that you can follow if you listen to the talk
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A few interesting projects to come out of the decentralised/art scene space of recent years:
The greatest respect that we can show to the pioneers of independent music is to do what they did, and build protocols as adventurous and contemporary as they did at the time.
To begin to do so, we must all ask ourselves, what do we stand for? We cannot inherit the ideologies of the past. Many outright failed. In the case of the independent labels, as I argued earlier, they won — and we now see the results of a world riddled with mercenary independent agents. Is that one we want to live in? If not, then perhaps we need to ask each other what we do want, which is a long and difficult process we would do well to start ASAP.