October 10

What do Singer-Songwriters Want from Socialism?

I would say I’m more spiritual than religious about socialism. But I was thinking the other day about how many socialist goals are difficult to align directly with things that musicians, and in particular singer-songwriters, want at first glance. For instance the concept of a union doesn’t obviously apply to singer-songwriters who work a bunch of one-off gigs for a very disparate set of venues, where income is generated directly from individual listeners, as opposed to a single employer who pays all of one’s income. (Though it does apply to some musicians in other contexts).

Moreover many things that many socialists want are not things that are peculiar to being a musician. I want universal healthcare for instance, and higher minimum wages, and all sorts of protections as a social safety net for people who are in hard times. But while these are things that many musicians would like to have – music barely makes money for anyone these days – these aren’t specifically arts-specific. I want these things for everyone, if they fall on hard times. This isn’t a thing that socialism can offer specifically to singer songwriters.

I suppose the concept of “owning the means of production” might apply. Though, singer songwriters do in an obvious sense own their means of production. If a listener pays the artist directly for their work, there is just one producer, the musician, who owns his or her own production.

But then again that’s not really right. There’s the chain of distribution, both in terms of making the product available and marketing it, which is involved in the consumer ultimately getting the product. So for instance, even for a really really independent project, there are distributors (broadly speaking) including Distrokid, Spotify and Apple. There are also publicists, and there is of course the music press, which at times acts more as an advertiser than journalism.

Expanding even further, if we look at all entities who “take a cut” in the process, Facebook and Google are involved too. If you pay for Facebook ads, especially where Facebook downgrades posts on which it can capitalize, Facebook literally owns part of the means of production, though it’s a case of them interposing themselves to prevent word of mouth, in order to take an ownership role in production.

So actually just looking at the concept of seizing the means of production and worker rights, there’s actually quite a bit there. What singer-songwriters want then is fair compensation for their role in production, and bargaining power in ensuring fair compensation, taking into account all of the corporations that interpose themselves into the production, broadly speaking (distributors, advertisers, publicists, etc…). Normally ensuring bargaining power is done in the form of unions, but maybe there should be other ways in which socialism takes a role in helping singer-songwriters out.

Monetization of word of mouth feels like an important concept here because musicians can’t make money unless they are able to get their work out. And they cant get their work out until they pay the word-of-mouth troll a fee. Is eliminating monetization of word of mouth (“MOWM”) a goal that aligns with socialist principles? I think it does in the very basic sense that MOWM inordinately grants a greater power to speak to people and entities that have money.

An initial stab at what socialism can offer singer songwriters.