Band together: why musicians must strike a collective chord to survive | Mat Dryhurst

Red Bull Music Academy is closing, alternative culture outlets are retrenching – and big tech prefers pop. Experimental musicians need to stick together

Just weeks after musicians and fans protested the BBC’s decision to marginalise Radio 3’s Late Junction show, the experimental music community has been dealt further blows. First, the news that the Red Bull Music Academy is to shutter. For 20 years, the sponsored initiative has served as the gold-standard example of how to use corporate funds to support art on the margins with practically no conditions attached. RBMA provided funding for performance visas and live-show development, and ran educational programs that forged deep connections between young talent and a diverse cast of legacy artists, in addition to staffing a well respected radio station and magazine. Already, the latter’s articles appear to be disappearing from the web.

Days later came news from founder Sean Adams that the editorial arm of the UK webzine Drowned in Sound is to cease operations after 21 years. The site provided a platform for social music discovery and debate long before the advent of web 2.0 platforms such as Facebook, which initially baited independent publishers to adopt their tools before switching to hold their readerships hostage, only accessible via purchasing advertisements. (Drowned in Sound’s popular forum will remain active.)

These developments – or erosions – contribute to the widespread concern that many of the foundations that provide experimental and challenging artists the ability to build a career and community are disappearing. Closer to my current home town, Berlin Community Radio, home to more than 100 artist-led shows that served to broadcast a diverse and challenging new vision of a city in transition, closed its doors in February.

Spotify lists on the New York Stock Exchange in 2018.
Spotify lists on the New York Stock Exchange in 2018. Photograph: Reuters

These institutions incubate independent music. They will not be the last to go as corporate money looks elsewhere and powerful platforms sideline independent voices. So what is to be done? One place to start would be for left-of-centre musicians to jettison our romantic association with independence. As critic Liz Pelly points out, the association of independence with the archetype of rebellious outsider has worn thin: we live in an economy that utilises the goodwill associated with the term as cover for impositions that threaten professional security by displacing institutions.

Streaming services lavishly advertise the ability for artists to take their career in their own hands, appropriating seductive narratives of independence from the noble legacy of small DIY labels and publications who established counter-hegemonic networks in aid of music deemed too challenging for broadcast. A service such as Spotify explicitly deprioritises musical provenance, decomposes the album and threatens to displace criticism as a source of music discovery. You could be forgiven for wondering if the elimination of the very institutions that lent credibility to the concept of independence is a core design priority.

I believe that those on the margins would do well to shift focus on to more ambitious and untested fund-generating efforts that emphasise the interdependence of musical communities of place and purpose. We need technical and economic concepts that reflect what working artists have long known to be true: an artist creating challenging work is dependent on resilient international networks of small labels, promoters, publications and production services to facilitate their vision. A vision of interdependence acknowledges that individual freedoms thrive in the presence of resilient networks and institutions. It asserts that even pop stars, and the streaming services that prioritise them, significantly benefit from those on the margins market-testing ideas so that they don’t have to.

Gazelle Twin performing at the Late Junction festival, March 2019.
Gazelle Twin performing at the Late Junction festival, in March. Photograph: Tricia Yourkevich

One proposal might be to develop cooperative-scene wealth initiatives, borrowing from the “Cleveland model” of networks of interdependent worker-owned cooperatives more recently piloted in the UK in Preston. In music, such networks, and the spaces and people that connect them, already exist, and are primed to be reanimated. Rather than pursuing the sisyphean task of imploring listeners to pay for files they already receive for free, why not invite people to become cherished members of an interdependent international network of venues, labels, publications and studios? Rather than corporate brands lining the pockets of individual artists under the guise of supporting the culture, why not collectively bargain for them to support the spaces and scenes that create it?

We need to acknowledge that those communities, and the sounds they foster, generate value that is impossible to quantify on a spreadsheet. The artist and writer Jon Davies recently invoked the ideal of interdependence to emphasise the role that social music spaces play in combating epidemics of loneliness and depression. As well as enlivening commercial culture with a trickle-up supply chain of new ideas, music on the margins offers many a sense of shared purpose.

Adopting an interdependent logic, artist communities might generate the collective bargaining power to insist on having a say in the technical and economic systems that impact our future: contrary to the much-publicised story that Taylor Swift was responsible for bringing Apple Music to heel over plans to offer artists no compensation for tracks played during users’ three-month unpaid trial, it is far more likely that it was an organised consortium of independent labels threatening to pull their catalogues that forced their hand. Under the current regime of so-called independence, dictated by an increasingly small number of platforms, we are divided and – as presaged by this recent cluster of closures – all too easily conquered.

• Mat Dryhurst is an artist who teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music.

Mat Dryhurst

The GuardianTramp

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