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The gig-less economy: what could a post-pandemic dance music scene look like?

As dance music’s top-heavy, tour-focused infrastructure crumbles, people across the industry are wondering how new revenue streams can emerge to support artists during and after the pandemic. DJ Mag looks at different projects that are taking bold steps to reimagine how dance music can work for everyone

It’s been four months since COVID-19 sent dancers into deep freeze. With no sign of a vaccine, the suspicion is that clubs will stay closed until spring 2021 — a shutdown leaving thousands of musicians and industry workers without an income. But beyond the urgent need to support those affected, the pandemic has forced us to confront a broken system. It’s time to sift through the wreckage. How can we rebuild?

As was obvious long before COVID-19 hit, the music industry is dangerously dependent on live events. Shows are the most common source of income for professional musicians, despite record-high streaming revenues, and ticket sales trickle down to everyone else: bookers, venues, event staff, journalists. That’s why, when COVID-19 arrived in Europe, the mere prospect of a cancelled festival season caused such drastic and lasting damage.

The roots of this malaise are well known: as streaming replaced music ownership in the last decade, the collapse in record sales left artists reliant on performance fees. It’s not that there’s no money left in music — the three major labels now generate over $1 million an hour from streaming — but most of the wealth created by artists is pocketed by the tech companies that control how we listen to music.

This situation is not unique to the music industry. The labour market is increasingly characterised by work that’s poorly paid and unprotected, from warehouse workers on zero-hour contracts to freelance creatives bidding for jobs on Fiverr. It’s no coincidence that we refer to precarious work as the “gig economy” — musicians have been doing it for decades.

With or without live events, we need to think of new ways to inject money into music. The good news is there are tonnes of ideas on the table already, and when you start to click them together, an alternative economy emerges — one in which tech giants, major labels and venture capital are rejected, and a more sustainable culture that prioritises artists over advertising and shared ownership over share prices is accepted.

Pay For Play

The steady success of Bandcamp has proved that fans are still willing to spend money on music, particularly on ‘fee-waiver’ days when artists earn an additional 15% on sales. Other attempts at an artist-friendly alternative to streaming, including the Berlin-based co-operative platform Resonate, have struggled to square up to giants like Spotify and YouTube.

Bandcamp, however, doesn’t see itself as a streaming competitor, but as a cross between a record store and a music community. It’s for artists and fans, not casual listeners or café playlists, which means that there is an upper limit to its growth. If the company was chasing a lucrative IPO, that would be a problem, but Bandcamp seems to understand its niche. As long as fans keep spending millions of dollars a month on music and merch, there’s proof that underground music can be a thriving industry.

Bandcamp has changed the game, but in the future it could be just one node in a network of clubs, communities and collectives where money flows between people instead of faceless corporations. Fans are already using Bandcamp-adjacent tools like Buy Music Club, where DJs can create shoppable playlists, and Currents FM, where fans subscribe to artist channels offering playlists and exclusive uploads.

Currents’ artist-curated playlists are unusual in that they can be sourced from multiple platforms: Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud and Bandcamp. (None of these are known for their generous royalty payouts, of course.) But on top of being a glorified playlist maker, Currents allows artists to monetise their own music, demos and mixes, and even annotate their playlists with text and voice clips, as Berlin electronic artist Minor Science did with a “director’s commentary” version of his recent album.

The site also encourages artists to form collectives so that fans can explore multiple playlists for a single fee. Subscribing to Shanghai collective SVBKVLT for $9 a month gives access to seven separate artist channels (including Hyph11E, Osheyack and 33EMYBW) and uploads from the label, plus access to extra curation and discovery tools. A button on the site points out that $9 a month is worth more than 65,000 annual streams on Spotify, or 385,000 on YouTube.

Currents is just one of a growing number of subscription-based offerings. In the last month or so, Resident Advisor, NTS Radio, Crack, Truants and AQNB have launched supporter initiatives, offering exclusive content and merchandise in exchange for a source of funding that doesn’t rely on advertising, sponsorship or events. Right now, we don’t know which of these initiatives will succeed, but they could be the building blocks of a more sustainable scene.

Live Streams

Whether it’s a mix series on SoundCloud or a website posting features and reviews, the “free” content we’re used to is ultimately paid for by a nexus of advertising, data-mining and surveillance. Instead, imagine a network of paid-access online spaces hosting music, videos, writing, live streams and conversations — a “supportnet”, to borrow from a phrase from the critic Mat Dryhurst, where subscription fees go directly to creators instead of disappearing into a black box of measly royalties.

The supportnet could include services like ERIS, a subscription-based video streaming service set to launch at the end of summer. We’re used to watching live streams, but we’re not used to paying for them — that needs to change, believes ERIS co-founder and electronic music PR Melissa Taylor. “You can have 100,000 followers on YouTube, but if none of them will part with money for your art they actually have no value to you,” she says. “You can’t pay the rent with likes, and I don’t want to live in a world where only rich people can make art.”

ERIS will offer a package of channels hosted by artist collectives, labels, record shops and venues, who curate their own schedule of live broadcasts and repeats. As well as DJ sets and live performances, channels can broadcast Q&As, studio demos, book readings, video premieres or QVC-style merch sales. For the most part, viewers can only watch what’s scheduled — it’s not an on-demand service, and ERIS won’t archive content. The only stipulation for channel owners is that they have to work in a collective — a single act can’t have its own channel.

The structure is complicated, but it isn’t opaque. ERIS will take a 10-15% cut of subscription fees and put some of the money towards rights payments through royalty collection societies like PRS — every show that features music will require a full tracklist for this purpose. The subscription fee acts like a basic income, ensuring that even small channels receive regular revenue. On top of that there’s a token system enabling viewers to buy and spend tokens on live shows, archive streams, merchandise or private interactions like tutorials. Most of the revenue from tokens will go to channel owners and artists, with a small cut going back into ERIS.

The point, besides putting money in the pockets of creators, is to reject the “hustle” mindset that puts independent artists in competition with each other and instead to embrace collective action. “Art mirrors life,” says Taylor, “so I believe building a hub on the political, social and economic philosophy that we would like to see IRL is what we as creatives should be doing for society and ourselves.”

A similar concept is behind Nine Nights, a streaming series that began in June, led by an all-Black creative team based in London. It aims to become “a full ecosystem for Black culture,” according to the artists behind it, including rapper Gaika, singer GLOR1A, and producer and DJ Shannen SP. Viewers are asked to donate as they watch, with money split between the artists, production teams and charities like Justice 4 Grenfell.

“We are creating a new form of music television,” said the collective in an email. “From the first week we had such inspiring feedback from artists. People are there not just to entertain but for a purpose. This energy is highly electric and emotive. Our viewers are key to this too — the comments are always great to watch.”

Patreon Of The Arts

From temporary fundraisers to long-term support mechanisms, there are multiple possible nodes in the supportnet. A grassroots system is an opportunity to “fight back against the whims of advertisers or non-philanthropy,” points out music writer David Turner, who casts a critical eye over the business of streaming in his newsletter Penny Fractions. But the ethos of a supportnet could conflict with the tools we use to build it, he adds.

“Patreon, which I use for my newsletter, is a venture-capital backed firm that has repeatedly made decisions that were counterproductive towards its community. Any supportnet platform ought to be accountable to its workers, but also the users of the platform. Ideally there would be dialogue between those who make the platform, its creators, and those who supply money.”

Turner’s vision of accountability and shared decision-making is already being tested out. In 2018, a group of artists and workers in New York City founded Ampled, a music platform run as a co-operative. Ampled works similarly to Patreon, with artists posting content to a community of subscribers who pay a flat fee of $3 a month (or more, if they can). The aim is to provide artists with a regular, predictable income while letting them retain control of their work. Operations are directed by everyone involved — artists, fans and company workers — with each group taking three seats on the board of directors.

Co-founder Austin Robey sees Ampled as a retort to the kind of investor-backed platforms designed to create value for shareholders rather than creators. In his online guide How To Start a Co-operative, he writes: “In Silicon Valley specifically, fortunes are being created by extracting value from our ideas, art, labour, relationships, and data. We’ve become digital sharecroppers — tilling on land we don’t own, and giving our harvest away.”

Rethinking Ownership

These online tools offer new opportunities for underground music, but the scenes they support wouldn’t exist without IRL spaces, relationships and communities. With touring on hold for the foreseeable future, could we see a renewed focus on local scenes, with neighbours forming closer alliances?

Selwa Abd, AKA DJ and producer Bergsonist, is a co-founder of Pick Up The Flow, an online community where New York musicians can promote shows, swap gear and share information within “a sort of independent bubble ecosystem”. “Being part of the group gives me the drive to pursue more social work and think of new ways of using my social skills to connect people and channel resources, especially since the BLM protests and Covid-19,” says Abd. As well as Facebook and Instagram accounts, the community gathers on its own online forum, with hosting paid for by PUTF’s Patreon.

When the pandemic hit, Abd launched another Patreon for her music as Bergsonist, “but to be honest, it doesn’t seem like a viable system. Only a few people subscribed and they are actually the same people that support me on Bandcamp.” The $100 a month she earns from Patreon goes towards her own subscriptions. “Supporters are mostly artists who can’t really afford to pay for memberships,” she says.

Abd is excited by the prospect of a supportnet “in which big companies are obliged to fund musicians. We need more opportunities directly distributed to individual artists.” If music companies, festivals and magazines have profited from musicians’ work, she says, they should be giving something back.

“Without us they have zero content.” We don’t yet know what nightlife will look like after coronavirus, but could supportnet principles be applied in meatspace too? Dryhurst wonders what would happen if fans decided to invest in real estate rather than music. “Resilient subcultures always own the building. Hackerspaces have been ahead of everybody on this, but it’s a rule — own the space and you have a voice,” he said on the New Models podcast last year. “The amount of euros spent on vinyl in the city of Berlin — if that amount of capital had been invested in real estate, would the dance music community own all of Kreuzberg?”

A More Radical Landscape

Collective ownership might be a legitimate solution to the lack of affordable, permanent spaces for underground music, a problem that has frustrated artists and audiences for decades. But collectives can do more than share money and resources between themselves — they can also make demands on behalf of a group and call for changes to laws and working practices.

When coronavirus reached the US in March, a group of NYC-based music workers organised themselves into an action group. The Music Workers’ Alliance has successfully campaigned to widen eligibility for unemployment benefits during the pandemic, backed by supporters including Yaeji, Laurie Anderson, Crystal Waters and Umfang.

Their next campaign demands that YouTube and Facebook establish “basic fairness in the digital realm” by bringing in tougher measures against copyright infringement. Other musicians’ alliances are using their collective power to fight for other people’s rights, like No Music For ICE, a campaign to untangle the music industry from the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

The culture and demographics of underground music make artists more likely than most to support these actions. Yet musicians are often hesitant to identify themselves as workers, whose labour is exploited by a system. We frame them as solitary, independent creators, emphasising their talent, hustle and self-sacrifice — after all, if music is your passion, wouldn’t you do it even if there was no money involved?

So musicians — and anyone who makes part of their income from music — have a lot to learn from other labour struggles led by precarious workers, like couriers, cleaners and drivers. What would happen if those in music came to see themselves as a class — one that needs to look after itself as such, and one that can create bonds of solidarity with the rest of the “precariat”?

Nothing is more urgent than “unionising at every level,” according to Carin Abdula, the founder of Outer Agency, whose roster includes Huerco S and Machine Woman. “I’ve been shouting about this for years. It feels nice to be able to say it without feeling like a crazy tinfoil hat person,” she laughs. “When push comes to shove, the only way we’re getting things done is by collaborating with each other to put pressure on governments and at the local level. I’ve seen it happen between festivals, promoters and venues — people are communicating with each other more than ever, so to me that only spells unionising.”

When Covid hit, Abdula teamed up with a cohort of industry workers to launch the Independent Electronic Forum, surveying over 100 people for a report that puts forward some ideas and principles to help navigate the crisis. Most of those surveyed believed that the music industry “will be one of the last to return to normality” — but whether we ever want to go back to “normality” is another question.

Amid the devastation, the pandemic has opened up a space for reflection. Fundamentally, the problem is money — we need to give artists control over their work and the value they create. Ownership is also a pathway towards equity for the marginalised communities whose labour is foundational to the scene; if the profits from electronic music were circulated back to its creators, Black artists and communities would have the most to gain.

We’re living through a strange and rare opportunity to break away from a broken system and secure the foundations of a more sustainable underground culture. Before 2020, many of us were “too busy in the rat race to feel like we had the answers,” says the Nine Nights collective. “Having time to pause and look inward, to believe we can make a change against a system that is broken, is the root of revolution.”