Streaming with the Fishes
Modern music industry tactics feel like tricks from the old neighborhood
The view from the studio where I record my records—a converted bedroom in my four-room apartment in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn—is of the elevated subway line under which the epic car chase in the movie classic The French Connection was filmed. It’s got an unmistakable tough-guy vibe.
Three generations of my family have lived within these walls. Since I moved back here in 1998, determined to “make it” as a musician in New York, I’ve learned some life lessons I doubt I’d have learned had I kept pursuing life in London or San Francisco, places I explored after leaving home a week after I graduated high school.
This neighborhood used to have an ethnic homogeneity, known in film and legend as an Italian landing spot after huddled masses slogged through Ellis Island, mixed in with Jews from similar European peasant lands. Also famously, the Gottis and Gambinos, whose homes still line 11th Avenue, resplendently adorned with leaping-fawn lawn statues and elaborate topiary. Their families (and “families”) had the defining influence determining what could and could not happen in Bensonhurst for fifty years.
My great uncle Tommasso used to tell us kids about how everyone looked forward to Sundays, not just for big family dinners of “meatballs and gravy,” but because that’s the day that “Uncle Tony” (who was no one’s uncle) parked at the corner of 84th St. and 17th Avenue, his truck loaded with a bounty of goods for sale at rock-bottom prices—appliances and furniture that were understood to have fallen off other, less fortunate trucks. These people were obedient Catholics, and they respected the kind of order found by cowing to stern authority figures and turning blind eyes to other people’s, er, business. Above all they liked to buy cheap goods so they paid their origins no mind.
This was all way before my time, but I heard the stories often enough to feel their vestiges in the neighborhood I returned to decades later. In 1998 it was still mostly Italian, but the upwardly mobile Italians and almost all the Jews had seen change coming and left, moved on up to the pastoral islands Staten and Long. I started to see bedazzled Ukranian women in fur coats dyed improbable colors and entrepreneurial Cantonese who opened (really good) restaurants while their hipster-looking offspring introduced bubble tea lounges and optometry stores selling YSL frames. Arabs were running all the bodegas, and there were always a few African-American commuters on the subway. I was relieved. The place got way cooler.
But even as most of the old guard’s flag-bearers, their protectorate (Gotti, Gambino), were quickly either dying or “going away” for a long time, those that remained tried to hold to their former homogenous glory using all the old ways.
I got a job in the neighborhood tending bar at a red-sauce Italian restaurant run by a 60-something guy who is bipolar (I know this because he used to send me to pick up his meds). He’s still there today. He sings opera in a middling tenor for patrons on weekends, accompanied by a tinny upright piano played by a white-haired guy who says openly racist things all night long. It feels like 1948 in there.
The boss was mercurial, and would often have yelling outbursts at staff and patrons alike. If you complained that your veal wasn’t cooked right he could just as easily dedicate the next aria to you as tell your Nonna to get the fuck out and never come back. One time some connected-type douchebags came in and took me with what I was told later was an old scam; after paying for a round they told me politely I gave them the wrong change, that they had paid with a $100 bill, not a $20. I looked in the till and there was the hundred, so I gave them the change and they quickly left. But it was from another transaction with another bartender. My fault, ultimately, but I was devastated and I cried. I had never been tricked that way. Toughen up little girl, they all said.
When I think of how my life as a working musician has evolved during my time here I am reminded of these types—their dominant characteristics of knuckle-dragging conservatism and a lack of true creativity, and how that contrasts with how the immigrants seemed to embrace new lives with a spirit of inclusiveness, of “when we work together, all boats float higher.” These new people didn’t waste time fretting if they were Chinese and a family from Iran was moving in next door, only that you swept your stoop and your kids didn’t play that rapper music.
The internet entering the business part of musician’s lives was something we at first didn’t understand, then got used to, then got good at. We used it like a street, like the immigrant-run emporia on Bensonhurst’s main-drag 18th Avenue thoroughfare. We embraced virtual shops, selling CDs and downloads. iTunes was a great marketplace for us. We always knew how many records or downloads we sold, and for how much, and our cut was deemed fair. It was transparent and sustainable.
Then some newly-minted “Mustache Petes” (Google/YouTube, Spotify) figured out how to cash in by selling streaming service subscriptions and hosting advertising. They decided to strong-arm their way to dominating the street—trying to trick us into thinking they were doing us a solid by selling access to our music for hundredths of what we were getting before for the same product. Their math was indecipherable and there was no more transparency. It’s the $100 bill scam all over again.
The corporations, particularly Spotify and Google, think musicians are simple, still and stupid. They talk down to us, as if they are the only ones that can consider what they do to be a true business. Spotify recently valued itself at $5.7 billion, which it got by selling the equivalent of Uncle Tony’s ill-gotten blenders (is paying us $.0045 per stream really that different from fencing it outright?). For this they want us to be as delighted as a neighborhood child flipped a silver dollar by a capo in a thousand-dollar suit. Gotti was famous for doing that. But in my neighborhood, some of those children were the sons of the men who worked honestly to make the goods they were parted from by Uncle Tony, who everyone knew was one of Gambino’s goons. This irony was not lost on many, but no one dared say anything.
Now I know a wannabe gangster when I see one.
And just as the Russians and Arabs and South Asians would be steadfast in claiming their right to make an honest living in this neighborhood, so musicians need to claim their share of the fruits they reap for Google/YouTube, Spotify, Pandora and all the other corporate old guard (as with the Italians, it’s their attitude that defines them as such, not how long they’ve been around). They’re trying to muscle us out of our piece of the pie. Google/YouTube put a horse’s head in cellist Zoë Keating’s bed, calling her a liar for exposing their avarice and intimidation. And they’ll try that again with other musicians, in other ways. But she won’t “go back to her country” or pay protection money to thugs who create nothing of real value. And neither will we.
Bensonhurst weathered a transitional period in the ‘00s and midway into the ‘teens it seems more like the true melting pot that is most of Brooklyn. Everybody seems to get along now. The thoroughfare is shared by the Italian bakery, the bodega and the bubble tea house, and all are thriving. That’s what’s possible when the merchants don’t bow before the capos.
Musicians’ power is real. The corporate street can’t exist without us. We provide the goods people want. They make nothing, contribute nothing to music’s creation—they only control the warehouse (covered in ugly billboard ads), which they use to fence what we create.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If musicians transcend our own fear, of their size, of the confusion they sow; if consumers (always aware of that bottom line) understand that if the gangsters have their way, the whole neighborhood will stay mired in a place where there is no change, no greatness, no creativity; and if the old guard embraces modernity — the notion that a culture rich with musicians able to afford to make music will indeed raise all boats, then everyone will thrive. There are all kinds of solutions. Go to www.c3action.org for information and answers.
And if they still don’t want to share the street, it’s my prediction that it’s they who will “sleep with the fishes.” Or, they have my blessing to move to Staten Island.
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