Artists struggle to make a living wage in internet era

Gone are the days when the path to success was fairly direct. Graham Henderson, president of Music Canada recalls the way it used to be:

“In 1999, if you’ve got a record deal, and were lots of record deals large and small, you had a legitimate shot at a career. You’d sell 50,000 records, get a gold record. And then you’ve got a lot of touring. And then there’s radio play. It all added up to an opportunity (Globe and Mail, September 22, 2019).”

Country musician Mike Plume recalls his 15-year deal at a Nashville record label and the regular touring opportunities. Back then he was able to earn a decent living. Royalties from the use of his music on TV shows such as Dawson’s Creek further supplemented his income. “It was a nifty little chunk of change that came in. It made life a little easier for a couple of months,” Plume said.

After his deal expired in 2015, Plume returned to his hometown of Edmonton. He earned a bit from voice-over and narration work. The contrast between before and after the internet became obvious.

The new reality is one of rags or riches. “It almost feels like there’s no such thing as a middle-class musician,” says Plume. “You’re either making $25,000 a year or you’re making north of a hundred grand.”

Breaking into recognition is difficult and once you get a break, wages are still in the poverty range.

Internet streaming and creative theft is making entry into the creative middle class harder than ever. A 2018 survey of music industry professionals in British Columbia showed that 24 per cent of respondents are considering leaving the industry primarily due to concerns about wages.

Music Canada, a non-profit trade organization advocating for the rights of creative professionals, found that the biggest offenders were from free streaming services such as YouTube.

It’s difficult but can be done. Talented Kamloops singer Madison Olds is navigating the complex path to success. This year she made top 10 in CBC Searchlight and launched her debut album. She has a more than a million cumulative streams on Spotify.

Madison Olds , mage: Indie Week

Artists need to be both talented and media savvy, Madison’s mom Ronda told me:

“Artists are assessed so many ways today because of the accessibility to artists and music today.  Artists need to be creating and stockpiling new music for which they have to pay for production, distribution, promotion, radio push.  One song, if going to radio, by the time all is said and done, can cost upwards of 18k. The greater the number of followers/fans, the greater the perceived ability to market music and merchandise and for the potential to make money. It is a difficult industry to navigate and to gain traction when there is so much accessible music now. The days of slipping a CD under a radio programmer’s door are gone as that poor programmer may be filtering through 400+ submissions a week.

Ronda has advice for music fans:

“The best things that supporters can do is any of the following: engage with their favourite artists on social media, stream their music actively or passively, buy music/merchandise, share their content, tell them you are hearing their music and that it resonates for you.”

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Can blockchain save Robin Hood?

The Robin Hood Co-op was started by a group of artists at the University of Aalto outside Helsinki in Finland. It’s a hedge fund like no other, formed as a piece of “economic performance art.”

image: Information Age

Problems started when the artists began to raise money and invest in the stock market. The university administration took issue with the concept and forced the co-op to shut down.

Instead of shutting down, the artists left the university to venture out on their own.

Since then they focused on building a global network of countercultural investors from Helsinki to California.

The Robin Hood Co-op doesn’t exactly steal from the rich to give to the poor. The goal is to distribute profits to worthwhile causes globally. “Part of the profit generated by the fund is invested into projects building the commons,” according to their website.

They have no regular offices and meet in different places, often abandoned buildings, to hold workshops in conjunction with a local host group.

Reporter Brett Scott went to one of these places in a graffiti-strewn former slaughterhouse in Milan occupied by a radical arts group called Macao. He writes:

“In the hall is a naked woman painted blue, wearing a gas mask, dancing to the sonic violence of industrial deathmetal music. Next door is a punk street-theatre collective manufacturing artificial vomit in buckets to throw at a protest (CCPA Monitor, Nov/Dec, 2018).” Among the assembled were hackers, coders, designers and artists. The meeting had the feeling of the blend of an intellectual salon, a hackathon and a political campaign meeting.

Not your average corporate boardroom.

Portuguese artist Ana Fradique, who co-manages the fund, describes Robin Hood as “artivism”—a mix of arts and activism.

Robin Hood has its critics like Serbian activist Branko Popovic. “I understand you’re trying to be like a vampire on the market,” he says, “but why be a vampire on vampires? They have nothing to give us.”

That’s an ongoing tension amongst activists: do you work within the system to build a more equitable world or tear down the system and rebuild it from scratch?

I many respects, Robin Hood Co-op is conventional. They invest in the Wall Street stock exchange using an algorithm they invented called “The Parasite.” Assets in the co-op are called Robyns. In the first year of investment, they made double-digit returns.

Some of its first distributions went to the autonomous arts space Casa Nuvem in Rio de Janeiro (€5,000) and the activist broadcaster Radio Schizoanalytique in Greece (€6,000).

However, Robin Hood Co-op members are impatient to grow. They plan to expand the model beyond the Parasite algorithm to implementing blockchain. “Robin Hood 2.0.” will be “even more monstrous” than the first incarnation said one of the co-founders.

Rather than being based in Finland, they wants to transform Robin Hood into a decentralized global cryptofund using blockchain -the underlying technology of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum.

While Bitcoins are turning out to be a bit of a dud, the technology of blockchain is promising. It’s an indelible ledger in which anything can be permanently recorded, including shares in an activist hedge fund. The advantage of blockchain is that it’s decentralized and global.

It’s a big leap. Implementation of blockchain will require a change in the culture of the co-op and paid staff.

Time will tell whether this chimera of art and capitalism will prosper.