The organization is our protest song
Part one: The part about how we’re systematically robbing artists of their voices — a critical part of our culture being silenced at the altar of new economies
I was having a conversation with a friend not long ago. He’s been making his living with his music for more than twenty years. He’s not Bono but he’s sold plenty of records. He’s an established name regarded by many — myself included — as one of the great songwriters of his generation.
We’re having this conversation about his rapidly decreasing income paired with an increased demand for his music. Cracking five figures in album sales doesn’t necessarily translate to big profits — certainly not when compared with the time, effort, and money required to make that album. Income from touring, even at mid-size venues, isn’t growing as fast as expenses associated with getting musicians and their gear from city to city.
So here we are, brainstorming ideas and talking about what we can do to make things a little easier, take away some of his worry. A plan is hatched. We start talking next steps, finding a way forward. It feels good to have direction, but this conversation I have all too often ends as it always does. First a bit of a pause, then a return to trepidation.
“I just don’t want to be working at Starbucks next year, you know?”
What can I say? This is someone I think of as both a friend and an important voice in our culture. Someone who, whether he wants it or not, influences thousands of people with his work. So I say the only thing I ever can: I’ll do everything I can to make sure that doesn’t happen. The arts are too important to society to allow them to be swept away in a tidal bore of new economics. Music is too vital an aspect of our lives to take away livelihood from musicians for the sake of what large corporations will tell you is “what listeners want.”
Then I mention that he could probably find a nice local coffee shop instead of a national chain, because I’m a bit of an asshole.
Fast forward a few weeks. Janet Weiss, the amazing drummer in Quasi, Sleater Kinney, and others posts this quote on Twitter:
“The music industry became an industry instead of a place to make change and change the world and be rebellious.”
It’s such a fantastic quote, and sadly it feels more true with every passing day. Instantly you think of counter-culture in the shape of Pete Seeger, Joni Mitchell, Woodstock, and beyond. The influence of music on a generation helping shift public sentiment against aggression and in turn help end a war. Punks like Albertine’s Slits, The Clash, or Bad Brains carrying strong messages about race and community that influenced their audiences. Audiences who would later form other bands like The Minutemen or Fugazi helping us question the corporate world, or Bikini Kill and Sleater Kinney examining feminism in a new light. Music acts as a powerful cultural force, distilling perspectives into entertainment and building them into community.
These are just a few examples. You can find them in any genre. Now think of our music today. There are still some genuine voices, people like Killer Mike and El-P speaking out about inequities, but they feel like the rare exceptions. It’s a dim wasteland of tamed music, safer and afraid of voicing real opinions in the light of day.
I know so many musicians who are frustrated, focusing on finding a way to survive, and pressured by economic realities to say less in order to make more. Don’t upset the sponsors. The social norm for musicians is an outdated idea of rebellion — touring, late nights, alcohol, drugs, and a cult of personality that’s hard to escape. When you argue that a musician deserves a livable wage people romanticize those expectations. They say there are no guarantees and absolve themselves of responsibility rather than think about how to support artists. There’s little consideration for family, rest, or healthy working conditions.
Pair that against writers. It’s socially “normal” for an author to live at home, working in a study, wear a sweater, and spend time with family. We see their need for stability as fair, and that paradigm is playing out in the current Amazon/Hachette dust-up. I’d argue that writers, musicians, painters — all artists are an integral part of our culture. It’s time we start to see their well-being as our own. We must consider long-term sustainability in creative careers and help ensure that the arts can be a healthy home for the artists who help shape our world.
To Janet I expressed all these things ever-so-eloquently in a tweet that read “[that quote] lays out a path forward. Fuck industry / music to the front.”
It’s not Shakespeare, but Janet got my point. What she said was a punch a handful of characters:
“We certainly have plenty to rebel against! However I am not sure musicians are currently interested in it. Rebellion.”
There’s depth here. I’ve read and reread those two and a half sentences. They hint at a massive problem that has already started to affect us all. We have been systematically robbing musicians of their voices as new models in music emerge because most new models don’t consider the musician, only the listeners.
I’m not going to start in on intent — sometimes bad people do bad things. Other times bad things happen as a side effect of good intentions. What’s important is that through fear and watershed change musicians are being silenced. Their art is bending to what they feel the audience wants to hear. A critical piece of our society is being diminished.
Economic uncertainty breeds worry. There is promise of a better future that never seems to get any closer. The echo chamber of social media dulls the senses to the world at large. Reliance on a series of startup businesses that fold or sell, taking hope and earnings with them establishes a pattern. Watching the profits of your labor disappear ten or fifteen percent at a time until you’re left with nothing is disheartening. All of these things and more are the reality for most musicians today.
Musicians I’ve talked to feel a sense of worry for their well-being and that of their peers. Apathy sets in for some. Others replace a sense of art with economics. The individual stories are all different, but the result is the same: we are a weaker culture, thanks to the slow erosion of a vital influence in our society. We think in closed circles, with art too dull to pierce the veil.
Restoring and ensuring the voices of artists is a rebellion that can’t be led by musicians alone. This is an issue that affects us all, and we all need to focus on a solution. We can’t rely on industry alone, because the social and cultural importance of popular art goes far beyond profit alone.
Music used to help stop wars. Now we see war everywhere, arguments instead of conversations, and battle lines drawn across uniform perspectives that lack any outside influence. We can’t survive in a monoculture. The impact of the arts in our lives is waning, and it’s time to rebel.
Part two: The part about how we pretty much fucked up the idea of social entrepreneurship and how we can reshape the nonprofit sector to fix it
To find new ways to support artists we must reexamine how we view economic structures. University economics aside, we generally talk about transactions in a binary sense with buyers and sellers, but little consideration for additional effects they may have to the world at large.
Economists talk about externalities — costs or benefits to people outside a given transaction. It’s one thing to compute the costs associated with every fossil fuel purchase or the dangers of second-hand smoke, but how to do we consider the damage done to our culture every time a teenager in need doesn’t hear the song that turns their life around? What is the cost of a great novel that goes unwritten, a generation never aspiring to the next Atticus Finch? The larger cultural and social costs are impossible to compute in the scope of short-term financials.
The subtle complexity of cultural implications in new business models makes us ignore them. Corporations press against regulation, worshipping at the altar of the free market; consumer demand and profit defining what is good or bad. There is a very real failure to separate culture from economics. Instead of finding a balance, rhetoric in politics and business has begun to simply ignore social implications altogether.
Extreme free market ideals are overriding our communal sense of cultural significance. Experts say an artform is no longer profitable and therefore of a lesser value to society. We map success against sales charts instead of artistic impact, in part because it’s simply easier to talk numbers over nuance.
By accepting the idea that money defines art we are literally selling our cultural legacy to the highest bidder.
The same laziness of thinking has infected the social entrepreneurship and nonprofit spaces. Most people, even businesspeople, think in simplistic for-profit versus nonprofit terms. A far more important distinction is whether the organization is profit driven or mission driven. A for-profit entity has a responsibility to…well…make money. Nonprofits are generally misunderstood to be either charities or foundations of some sort. Actually, nonprofits are mission driven organizations and their prime purpose is to uphold a stated social mission. (There are other types of nonprofits like trade organizations, but let’s stay in the social/cultural space.)
It comes down to mission versus profit. The overlap between them is where we should be innovating new types of social enterprises. This should mean new model nonprofits and more benefit corporations — for-profit companies that legally operate with a mission they can weigh against profit. What we’re mostly seeing, though, is a rise in social marketing as public relations: for-profit corporations who give a percentage of profits to charity, often while committing other profits towards deregulation specific agendas.
With more awareness around the benefit corporation structure and it’s little cousin, B corp certification, more people are starting for-profit companies with social or cultural benefit. This is great, but there’s nothing stopping the business model from changing. What’s truly missing is massive scale innovation in the nonprofit sector, guaranteeing mission stays at the heart of the effort. One of the unfulfilled promises of social entrepreneurship is mission driven nonprofits that can be as nimble and assertive as a startup in the for-profit world.
The shining example is Watsi, a new model charity that’s doing amazing work funding medical treatments around the world. Their work is inspiring, but I’d argue we need to go further. In a landscape where profit rules and businesses are scaling faster than ever before we need mission driven organizations that can aggressively pursue social and cultural impact in a similarly dramatic way.
Instead of relegating nonprofit to an also-ran status, we need to embrace its advantages. Nonprofits are not owned in the traditional sense, so they are not subject to mergers or acquisitions. They are legally bound to follow a mission transparently which brings trust and longevity. And while the initial startup of a nonprofit is significantly more complex than a for-profit enterprise, tax exemptions, trusts, and endowments can make them more stable at scale.
With more for-profit businesses leaning on tax havens and closing innovation behind patents we’re in an artificially harsh environment created by a lack of corporate oversight. Much of the for-profit sector is pitting profit against mission. Rather than complain in public or fight a losing battle in the courts I say mission driven organizations should embrace the climate and fight back. There’s nothing wrong with viewing a social mission as competition between culture and profit.
It’s time we think hard about how we can make real change in the nonprofit sector and build competition with for-profit companies in all industries. This effectively creates a system of checks and balances between business growth and cultural stability. We should all view art, culture, and the humanities as vital pieces of our social fabric that must be protected at all costs. A fight between economics and culture has already begun — it’s time we start holding our own.
Part three: The part where I bring it back to musicians and talk about what I think needs to be done — hopefully in a way that can be translated to all creative industries
I’m part of a nonprofit organization called CASH Music. Our mission is to help find career sustainability for musicians, making sure their voices won’t fade into the background. All of the ideas above drive us, and the organization itself is our protest song.
Our strategy is to combine open-source with education to effectively turn a layer of music technology into a public resource. We work directly with musicians and focus on less glamorous stuff: promoting and selling music, managing a fanbase, and adding functionality to existing websites. Building with open-source means the work is freely available to anyone who needs it. We also provide a hosted version of our code, also free, to make getting started feel less daunting. Couple all that with education and the result is an informed community of musicians who have the tools they need to figure out their own strategies.
The idea is that a nonprofit can build stable infrastructure that directly empowers the people whose voices help shape our world. Infrastructure for revolution.
We don’t want to stop anyone from using proprietary options, or put for-profit services out of business. We do want corporations to work harder in order to stay relevant. As artists take control over their strategies and the relationship to their audience they become self sufficient. With that, worry and fear diminish. And then an artist can truly own their own voice.
We’re still building towards our goals, and if I’m being realistic we always will be. Serving a cultural mission in a changing landscape means we’ll always be adapting. That’s how a mission driven organization needs to see the world. Accepting that the work will never end means adapting to the mission.
We build open tools as public resources so artists and their audiences can define their futures together; working with artists to ensure they have a voice, even when what they have to say is unpopular. An empowered artist is a free artist.
That’s why this idea is so important, in music and beyond. It is vital that we explore new ways to support artists and to let them support themselves. The artist’s perspective changes all of us, brings us together, and lets us see the world in new light. Art — music, writing, film, and beyond — is so much more than simple entertainment. We can’t continue to view it as something for mass market audiences alone. What’s best for business is not always best for culture. All the resources of the Internet are neutered if artists can only use them in defined ways.
I didn’t write all of this just to talk about what we’re doing. Let’s all reach for greatness in new ways. Find audiences whose voices are fading and help amplify them. We need to create new ways to organize and work together, new structures that can support all new missions. Let’s invent new things in the public domain and keep innovation out of the patent office; build new technologies using open source; and above all else be unafraid to pit cultural and social missions against someone else’s profit motive.
By focusing on mission over profit you are able to play by different rules and find new strategies. This is your advantage. Push against the market and leave a mark on this world.
To make that kind of change we need to reshape our ideas of social entrepreneurship. We need to find new ways of protecting culture built around new strategies for mission driven organizations. Art can stop a war. Art can change hearts and minds. Our communities need more artists, not more brands. It’s time for us to get to work.
By Jesse von Doom, licensed under a Creative Commons BY license.