Karl Marx to Taylor Swift and back again

“The means of production is now in the hands of the workers,” as Ted Leo once sang and every Marxist philosopher has written about at one point or another. But the money’s moved from production to distribution so we’re all still looking down at empty hands.

When it comes to music, everyone thinks they know “how it really works.” As a business it’s complex, more so than most industries, and rather than taking the time to understand the complexity or admit not understanding it people build simple “truths” and rely on them as a crutch. I have well over 15 years experience working in the music industrty in various capacities and still have plenty to learn. Over all those years I’ve developed my own simple truth that I rely on daily:

“Trust artists.”

No one wants a world without musicians, and few vilify artists as a general practice. But when a new platform or service comes along all shiny and pretty most will happily put convenience before the artists whose music is sought after enough to create that service around. Music is a massive industry, built like all on a base laid by workers: musicians.

It’s the work of musicians that drives the industry of music, and those artists more than anyone know the challenges they’ve faced and the choices they’ve made. So when an artist is willing to share sincere thoughts or concerns about the business they’re in, as a fan, you should listen.

Taylor Swift just shared some balanced, thoughtful, and vital thoughts. It wasn’t the first time she’s done so. She’s proven herself to be smart, knowledgeable not only about the empire she’s built but the environment in which she built it. Her thoughts are critical to understanding what a lot of artists are thinking at the moment. Yet she’s dismissed.

Like her music or not, Taylor Swift brings an inside perspective to any discussion about music that you can’t get from a tech blog, a newspaper, or your friend who “actually gets it.”

Music is an industry fueled by the labor of many. Pretty Marxist, I get it. We can all laugh and photoshop rad white beards on me together. But it’s true. Looking at labor movements of the past it’s easy to say “well artists need to get together and organize.” Also true. But labor movements were built at a time when money flowed around production and workers could collectively shut down a factory.

Now production is meaningless to the profit of the largest corporations making money in or around music. Do you think Apple or Spotify care if an album costs $100,000 or $100 to produce? Both numbers pale in comparison to the billions they deal in, and frankly the production isn’t their business anyway. Distribution is king, so in winning the means of production from those services artists only managed to take on more risk. Companies like Apple and Spotify are currently building new models and trying to define the reward. When Taylor Swift or your favorite independent record label say they won’t share their catalogs with a new services it’s the only power they have to potentially win a seat at the table and help decide how to carve up the reward in these new ventures.

This strategy is sound and vital, but only works in moments like these. So how can musicians as a whole win more collective power in the digital world?

I’m glad you asked.

The answer isn’t traditional unions or litigation or lobbying for new policy. Lobbying is slow, litigation makes your friends sad, and musician unions are effective in some areas but can’t cover even a fraction of the voices in a chorus of “all musicians.” The real promise for artists in the digital age lies in code. Open source code.

I know I’ve written plenty about this shit before. It’s what I do. But think about open source as a shared resource that we all build together. It’s functionality built by demand, by listening to the people who use it, to make the web a better place for us all. We can create all the new models we want — if they aren’t open and available to all then they will ultimately lead to new middlemen and increased risk for artists without a real say in the reward.

This isn’t a new idea, this is extending the concept that artists should create a relationship with their fanbase and use that to give fans a reason to support them. It’s a natural extension to say that it matters how that relationship is built and who controls it.

In an open world, artists build that relationship to their audience how they want, and control the means of access to that relationship. That access builds leverage for artists. That leverage brings power. That power brings more control over distribution and lets artists help define their reward while they take on all the risk of production.

Building an open web with decentralized open code is a labor movement for the digital age. I talk about musicians, but this is a universal truth for all creators: writers, designers, game builders, and beyond. There’s power in open, and peril in closed.

Look at what Apple is doing and Taylor Swift’s objection in this light. Apple is promising artists a better future if they control distribution. I have my doubts but they’ve been a lifeline for musicians in the past and there are good people there. So I do hope they build a better future. But it won’t be open, so long-term this is about Apple, not artists. This is about profit in the phone business and content for devices.

Apple is making promises and asking artists to incur yet another risk in addition to production: user onboarding. This is wrong. It’s their platform, their phone business, and ultimately their profit. Musicians have already taken a risk, so asking them to bankroll your new accounts acquisition when you sit on a pile of money larger than the federal reserve is simply not right.

My hope in all this, beyond Apple listening to Taylor Swift and doing the right thing, is that people can start to see new web platforms as modern labor issues. As we shape new digital landscapes we need to consider whose work is responsible for creating these new opportunities. We need to think of those people with empathy and do our best to continue supporting them and value the work they do.

To make this version of the future possible, creators need to embrace open as a core concept. Open licenses, open source code, and open minds leading to open models. Withholding catalog only works now, at the beginning of this journey. To make sure that artists retain a voice in all this it’s important they build options for themselves on the web. The only way to do that and truly represent the interests of all musicians is to do it in the open.

It’s time we talk not just about a better future for artists, but about an open future for artists.