Hi! I'm Michael Donaldson, and I write about music on 8sided.blog, license and publish music through 8DSync, and make music as Q-Burns Abstract Message. I think about music all of the time. My guess is you do, too.
This is the eleventh episode of Ringo Dreams of Lawn Care, a newsletter loosely about music-making and music-listening and how technology changes the culture around those things.
Each episode of this newsletter has a theme song. At this point, since we've safely passed ten episodes, I feel a need for full disclosure. All of the songs so far have been rescued from the song dungeon, cast-offs that I liked but not enough to throw out as part of an official release. It looks like I'm about to run out of these. At that point, I'll start excavating unfinished tracks (there are a lot) and quickly completing them for the newsletter. And then, if all goes well, I'll eventually exhaust those, and the pressure will be on me to create new tunes from scratch. That's the master plan: to ease me back into music-making and a regular home studio schedule. I hope it goes well. I'm a little nervous. And so I now reveal this week's cast-off, a bouncy little number we're calling "Shurjeh." Please enjoy listening while reading this week's ramble.
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Do you want to hear a joke? From memory, I only know one:
A tour manager, a sound man, and a guitar tech are cleaning up backstage after a big show. The guitar tech discovers an ancient bottle hidden below a mass of speaker cables and wires. He opens it and out pops a genie.
"Thank you for releasing me," the genie says. "To show my gratitude, I shall grant each of you one wish."
The guitar tech thinks for a minute and says, "I wish to be transported to my own private island with the most beautiful woman in the world!" The genie nods and says, "Your wish is my command." POOF — the guitar tech disappears.
The sound man is a little bit smarter than the guitar tech. He thinks for about thirty seconds and says, "My wish is to be transported to my own private island with one hundred of the most beautiful women in the world!" The genie nods and says, "Your wish is my command." POOF — the sound man disappears.
The genie then turns to the tour manager and says, "And now, your wish?"
Annoyed, the tour manager crosses his arms and immediately responds, "I need those two back here in five minutes."
Of course, it was a tour manager who told me that joke. He's probably out of work right now, as are most in the concert industry alongside the touring bands and musicians. Many acts are relying on the support of fans, asking for purchases of downloads, shirts, and other merchandise. There are are also requests for donations. And for the more prominent services to add functionality for accepting donations. "Your wish is my command."
Spotify went and did it, and I never thought they would. A 'tip jar' was added to the service this week. Well, technically, not a tip jar — it's a button that an artist can add to accept donations from fans. Or, if the artist is well-to-do or paladin-like, the button can trigger donations to various charities.
A significant (and surprising) aspect to this option is Spotify doesn't act as a go-between for distributing the donation. To personally receive money, the artist designates a link to a PayPal or CashApp account. I suspect once our crisis is over and bands can start touring again, Spotify will no longer offer this tool. Or Spotify quietly transforms it into something different and starts taking a percentage.
Support for artists is crucial in The Strange Times, and donations from those who have the means are generous and welcome. But it's awkward coming from a platform that actively lobbies for artists and songwriters to get paid less. And I worry about a creeping acceptance that an artist's recordings are worth what's earned in tips, rather than appropriate compensation from the platforms that profit significantly from the music.
We have to accept that, on its face, a 'tip jar' on streaming platforms is a bad idea. It disguises the insufficient pay-outs to artists — as well as the lousy record deals where many artists find themselves trapped — by claiming they can (and should) live off tips. There are already ethical problems with paying service industry workers far below minimum wage due to the possibility of 'tips.' We shouldn't continue to normalize this practice by extending it to recording artists.
Ben Beaumont-Thomas writes about this gesture in The Guardian, going as far as calling Spotify's move "a slap in the face for musicians." His main issue is Spotify's forcing musicians into a choice between accepting donations for themselves or encouraging fans to give to charities. "Spotify's courting of charity donations should have been made in a different context from one where they're trying to raise money for musicians," he writes. "By combining them, it has undermined both types of giving."
Spotify should pay more to artists, Beaumont-Thomas argues. And the tip jar "is a tacit admission that artists are not being paid enough by the very service offering it." But Spotify — and other platforms — would have to raise prices to pay more. Even adopting a so-called 'user-centric' model for calculating out royalties won't make much difference unless the services are bringing in more money. I do believe they should charge more — $10/month for access to most of recorded music history is quite a deal — but it won't happen until one of the highly competitive platforms moves first. Don't hold your breath.
One solution is to loosen dependence on Spotify and corporate streaming platforms. Unfortunately, a tip jar does the opposite. A tipping system on Spotify, used by artists for income, increases reliance on the platform. It's another method of separating artists from their fans, with Spotify standing in the middle. If the domination of these platforms is what brought us here, wouldn't it make better sense to offer solutions that lessened an artist's ties to them? I worry that including Spotify et al. in plans to help independent artists shuts us off from outside-of-the-box ideas that further artist independence.
I'm not proposing that artists and labels pull their music from Spotify. Having music available in many outlets has advantages and it helps those not-yet-fans discover artists. But artists should encourage fans to seek their music in places that offer more benefits. Ideally, this would be an artist's website, featuring fan club-like perks, a unique presentation of the music, and frequent surprises to inspire return visits. Neil Young's Archives site is a great example.
Bandcamp, which I mention often, is another option. The platform's reasonable 15% cut on sales income isn't its only attraction. Bandcamp facilitates direct relationships between listeners and fans. Usually, it's the artist or label that maintains a Bandcamp page, and any sale or 'follow' opens direct communication with the fan. I guess if someone sends a donation to you through a PayPal link on Spotify you can reach the fan by email but, otherwise, Spotify seems to prefer artists are separated from their fanbases. It's more important to the platform that they're fans of Spotify.
(Side note: at a music conference — remember those? — I was having a conversation about Bandcamp with a manager for a large independent label. He mentioned that he wished Bandcamp worked with distributors because it was a hassle for him to upload releases to the platform. Albums and all corresponding data are manually uploaded, one-by-one, rather than submitted simultaneously by a distributor, also servicing Spotify, Apple Music, and the others. With his busy release schedule, he said, it was an inconvenience to submit releases this way. I smiled and (half-) jokingly told him, "You know that's by design … to discourage larger labels like yours.")
If a fan buys a download or merchandise off Bandcamp, there is an option to pay extra — in other words, a donation. And artists can designate a release as 'name your price,' where the downloader is allowed to enter $0.00 if she wishes. But often the downloader offers more. I know this from experience as I've set the releases on my small label at 'name your price.'
Bandcamp's option sounds like a tip jar, but I'll argue that there's a difference. Importantly, the artist or label is in control of this choice — it's not an add-on to supplement the lousy pay-out rate of a streaming platform. And there's an option for adding the downloader's email address to the artist's mailing list. The artist can make this mandatory if the price named is zero. This way, the artist owns access to her fans. They're not faceless listener stats or 'followers' only reached when a post is boosted ($$).
Artist and ponderer Mat Dryhurst recently posted this on Twitter, and it's a compelling thought experiment:
Emilie Friedlander talks with Dryhurst about this concept in an article for Vice:
… "independent music" is no longer fit for purpose. For one thing, the cultural context it describes—that of an alternative musical economy arising out of the indie rock label system of the 1980s and 1990s—no longer applies in a world where underground musicians and pop stars are all competing for attention on the same publicly traded platforms. […] Dryhurst was quick to credit [the independent] spirit of "irreverent individualism" for powering some of the greatest counter-cultural moments of the 20th century (think: the hippie movement, punk rock and hip-hop and early DJ culture, 1990s "do-it-yourself"). But in the era of platform capitalism, he fears, it may simply have the effect of dividing us.
In the thread to the tweet above, a few commenters mention Dischord Records as an ideal historical example of the concept. Dryhurst agrees. The thing is, in the '80s, it was tough for Dischord to accomplish this type of autonomy. Sure, some things were easier — training fans to buy records directly by mail-order is less complicated when digital streaming isn't an option. But challenging aspects like distribution, fan outreach, even nuts-and-bolts stuff like tracking publishing royalties — these are now available to all of us. It's the punk rock dream if you want it.
There's no reason not to think like this. It's all about mindset. Position your artist and label project as something best experienced as a direct interaction with its audience. You can use Spotify and Facebook and all the others if you want, but understand they are merely tools. Instead, own your house, put out the welcome mat, and give your fans a good reason to knock on the door.
Last week's discussion of club culture made me think of the movie Tarnation [trailer]. In one sequence, director and star-of-the-film Jonathan Caouette documents how he snuck into Houston's gay clubs when he was underage. He dressed as a girl as it was easier for him to pass as 18. Those clubs were an essential escape from his fractured home life and for self-discovery and connecting with others. It's probably a lot harder to sneak into Zoom clubs, but would one have to?
Tarnation is a remarkable film, officially described as "part documentary, part narrative fiction, part home movie, and part acid trip … a psychedelic whirlwind of snapshots, Super-8 home movies, old answering machine messages, video diaries, early short films, snippets of '80s pop culture, and dramatic reenactments …" Infamously, Caouette created the film in the early 2000s on iMovie, pre-installed on an iMac he received as a gift. The estimated total budget was $218.32 (pretty exact for an estimate). It was picked up for distribution and given an additional budget of $400,000. Caouette spent a lot of that on music licensing — the soundtrack is fantastic.
The saying goes that the few people who originally bought the first Velvet Underground album all started bands. I think Tarnation — for its bold and personal subject matter, technique, and DIY backstory — did the same for filmmakers who saw it in 2003. A few years ago, superstar vlogger Casey Neistat (whose career I'm fascinated with, I'll admit) released a 'Guide To Filmmaking' on YouTube. He calls out Tarnation as an inspiration for forgoing his goal of working on big-budget movies where there's no control. He traded that for a successful run of documenting his daily life on YouTube, in the process creating a whole new style of video presentation.
I'd love to recommend Tarnation, but, sadly, it's not available digitally anywhere. Not to rent, to stream, anything. I hope that's not because of expirations on the dozens of notable music licenses in the film (the movie Heavy Metal was unavailable for many years for this reason). All I can point you to is the DVD — it looks like there are some copies left on Amazon. If you're game, then I'd love for you to see it. It's a profound film and prescient of our YouTube age. [link]
I hope you enjoyed this episode of Ringo Dreams of Lawn Care. This episode was a little more ‘inside baseball’ than usual but artist autonomy is something I think about all the time. Maybe my ramble gave some of you an interesting idea or two. As always, let me know if you have any comments or questions or need someone to write to in this challenging time. I'd love to hear from you. You can learn more about me, what I do, and contact me with your comments here.
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Thank you so much for reading. In the spirit of ‘interdependence’ let’s think about how we can help each other through this difficult time. Perhaps we’ll come out stronger and more united once we’re on the other side of this thing. Hang in there and I’ll see you next week! 🚀