The Music Industry and the Death of Cowboy Economics


Yesterday, I was back to working my way out of the cold-that-wouldn’t-die, so I took the night off and watched this documentary about Jared Leto’s band (yes I know) 30 Seconds to Mars, and the fight they had with their label a while back. If you can stomach yet another rock band documentary, there’s useful information in the film about how the economics of the music industry works, both historically and in the present climate.

When I woke up this morning, the cold was better, which means “yay writing”, so here I am, butt in the chair, typing. What came to me today is how much the challenge facing musicians in general, and bands in particular, centers around how to not have our desires exploited by money-grubbing parasites, while also not succumbing to an ineffectual suppression of our needs to have an audience, to make a sustainable living from our work, to create. I don’t mean to criticize Leto’s decisions here — if anything, the impression that I got from the documentary was that he did the best he could, given the enormously shitty situation he and his bandmates found himself in — but my long-term goal for years now has been sustainability, not global superstardom, the occasional fantasy notwithstanding. If that means not having a career in any significant way, I’d rather go that route and do the best I can, rather than find myself entangled or back-shelved (or worse) for years in the likely-fleeting hope that I can eventually do international tours and such.

Meanwhile, the Eye-of-Sauron-like hold the increasingly-less-major labels have over a slowly diminishing land of would-be rock stars carries on. (If I recall, there was a segment in the doc where someone from OK Go referred to the labels as a cyclops, casting its amalgamated singular eye in the direction of anybody who is trying to Make It.) While most of us indie types are working to figure out fair and sustainable ways to collaborate with listeners and audiences, the music industry is doubling down on their already-shady practices through things such as 360 deals. (If the old model was pure Nixon-era quasi-neoliberalism, the new one is pure plutocratic mercantilist Dubya.) Given this, cowboy economics dominate still. EMI gets bought out, nearly tanks during the last crash, gets swallowed up by Citibank, gets sold again. Companies such as Amazon and Uber force (or attempt to force) their way to the top, frequently through shady dealings of their own. The afore-mentioned 360 deal is viewed critically if not despised outright, save for the people profiting from it. The clear answer seems to be to put your own work out there independently — but to do so successfully means that you have to have people working on promotion and marketing to such a degree that your project, in effect if not literally, becomes a corporation in order to stay afloat. Which means being a boss, which means, well, meh. Back in the day, my long-term goal was to eventually start something like Righteous Babe, and work hard to turn it into a co-op, if not starting it that way from the beginning. Things have changed a lot in the indie music world since then, but on the other hand, Ani’s still around, which given the nature of the music business, is no small thing. In a way, such an enterprise is still my goal, but like I said, things continue to change, and it’s not clear to me that single-minded clarity of intent is necessarily my friend here, in a climate where things are changing daily. “Embrace chaos” seems to be the norm, and much more in an “or else” sort of way than the typical TED talk one.

Regardless, the old economic models of the culture industry are dying, and new ones have yet to coalesce to the degree that they become viable. What is clear is that the industry practices that exploited consumers and creators alike are on their last legs; what emerges to replace that remains to be seen. It’s my “hope” that a more radical economics can flourish, not only in a deepening of mass economic power, but also, via approaches that empower creators to have sustainable relationships to their endeavors, both as working artists and as working people in general. Loosely-formed networks, and more tightly-joined collectives come to mind, as well as forms of mutual listening and engagement that view creators and consumers as partners, rather than potential adversaries being jointly exploited by typically faceless corporate entities, casting a pallor over the land called creativity, while most of us just want to get by.

That all said, workers within the culture industry are not without our critics, both from the right and the left. I don’t care one bit about what the right thinks regarding how I practice my craft. I do care about what the left thinks, though; given my years of work within a variety of movements in the U.S., at times I care a bit too much, but so it goes. Artists in general have a complicated relationship with mainstream mores and values — sometimes criticizing them, sometimes having complicated relationships with them, sometimes upholding them. If getting signed (or the equivalent) represents being part of the petit bourgeoisie within the culture industry, it comes with economic restriction so byzantine that discussing participation in the industry in doctrinaire Marxist terms becomes pointless, in the vast majority of cases. Not to mention that most musicians aren’t signed, and even if they are, signing with a major can represent the start of massive problems, not the ending of them, as the situation with 30 Seconds to Mars clearly shows. Dismissing the cultural industry as a whole as being elitist not only misses the point, it glosses over an entire range of labor practices and cultural realities that are critical to understanding the world we live in. How do you measure class standing — and by definition, revolutionary potential, or the lack thereof — within an economic structure that trades massive contractual debt in exchange for what are fairly fundamental needs for creative professionals? It’s my view that all too often, assertions from the radical left about the backward-if-not-collaborationist nature of making art as a living suffer from a lack of analysis of how the culture industry works, and to be blunt, the heavy lifting around all that from Adorno onwards is on the ones doing the asserting, regardless of ideology.