Is it right that musicians do all the work while streaming apps like ‘LÜM’ make all the money? And what can artists do about it?
Musician Matt Cousin investigates.
In Madison, Wisconsin, USA, a new startup called Live Undiscovered Music or ‘LÜM’ is emerging. Its iPhone app promises musicians a new and innovative way to grow our fan-base and build a career where we can be compensated fairly for our work.
On its website, the company calls attention to the extremely low pay for artists on streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, and suggests the music industry is designed to only push what is already popular. Sounds all right. There’s just one problem: LÜM pays artists absolutely nothing.
Instead, LÜM’s chief executive Max Fergus says artists will be paid in “exposure.” Musicians with a bit of gigging or booking experience will recognise this decades-old cheap ploy to convince artists to play shows and make bosses money for no compensation.
Fergus and his team of fellow business school graduates are even worse than usual at keeping up this charade, however. In his own bio on the LÜM website, Fergus openly brags about discovering his passion for “entrepreneurship” at a young age by selling jewelry and convincing his younger sister to work for him for free. He adapts this model to LÜM quite naturally, targeting primarily young and up-and-coming musicians – who are often the easiest to convince they don’t deserve to be compensated for their work.
This is why LÜM calls itself a platform that artists may “graduate” from: the company can toss out any musicians who reach a point where they can advocate for themselves professionally, and turn towards the next generation of newcomers who lack individual leverage.
In another weak attempt to woo musicians, LÜM tries to pass itself off as a new insurgency in the music industry, claiming to represent something entirely new – even the future of the industry. This could not be further from the truth.
LÜM simply takes the familiar old lie of promising ‘exposure’ to disguise the fact it is making profit from free labour, and slots it into the well-established framework of the modern gig economy. LÜM’s board of directors even uses the same language as gig economy giants like Uber and Lyft, saying that when you supply music to the company, “you don’t work for us, you work for yourself.” Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that all the money generated from your music on the LÜM app is going to the owners and executives, not the artists making the product!
In fact, sitting on the company’s board of advisors is one Randall T Mays, a current director of multinational live music monopoly Live Nation. In addition to this, and sitting as a director of streaming giants CNet and XM Satellite Radio, Mays has held the offices of vice-chairman, president and chief financial officer at advertising mammoth Clear Channel Communications (now iHeart Media), owned by his billionaire father Lowry Mays.
For acts at the beginning of their careers, the small income from selling recorded music traditionally offset at least a little of the costs incurred by venues ‘paying’ us in ‘exposure’ for live shows. If recorded music is to be unpaid too, the billionaires are trying to take even this from us!
And LÜM does not hesitate to blatantly lie in the faces of artists. Like social media platforms, LÜM charges no fees to users – at the moment. When asked how the firm would make money, one director enthusiastically listed advertising, paid subscriptions and selling user data. Then, just the next day, when asked why LÜM refuses to pay artists, another member of the board immediately claimed the company wasn’t making any money! Perhaps it’s not yet – but it has plans for one and not the other.
Artists are apparently supposed to believe LÜM is doing it just for fun, and Silicon Valley investors are interested purely out of love for the arts. In a phone conversation, Endre Krumholz, a member of the board, claimed LÜM is “not trying to do more of the ‘play for exposure’,” but less than two minutes later explained that “LÜM creates the opportunity for more exposure.” It’s no wonder musicians are confused.
Of course, there is some truth in the idea that new technology has made it more possible for small acts to reach wider audiences. But on the basis of market competition and private ownership, the same old big corporations, with their advertising budgets and control of all the platforms, continue to dominate and squeeze out the rest of us (read more in ‘Let’s keep music revolutionary’ at badartworld.net).
And widespread free or low-cost music – Spotify alone has over a million hours available – is a significant step forward in access to culture. But again, on the basis of control by corporate interests for private profit, ever-greater access can in fact work to restrict the music available by imposing ever-smaller income on musicians.
Overcoming these contradictions means looking for a different model entirely, not just applying new technology to the old systems of exploitation.
Perhaps fortunately for musicians, LÜM has (for now) failed to take off in any significant way. Despite claiming 3,000 users on paper, the majority of songs have fewer than 50 plays, and almost all have under 100. Even these numbers are inflated by the fact that LÜM counts it as a play even if the song is skipped in the first few seconds. Users report the app is poorly designed and complicated to use – far from the streamlined, convenient, all-in-one platform the founders promised.
However, with streaming becoming the norm, LÜM or platforms like it will contribute to the music bosses’ growing efforts to turn our industry into a ‘race to the bottom’ when it comes to compensation for artists. To counter this, artists need to organise.
While artists individually may have little weight against the bosses – particularly at the start of our careers – we do have real power when we act collectively. We can decide together what we want the rules to be, protest and lobby for them, withhold our services if necessary, and so force change (read more in ‘End pay to play’ at badartworld.net – in particular the ‘Rugby Musician Collective’ case study).
Hip-hop producer Sonny Digital’s call for a producers’ union is an exciting development, as beatmakers are notoriously underpaid – even screwed out of payment altogether at times. There have been similar developments among visual artists in England in recent years with the foundation of the new Artists Union England. This mirrors developments in the non-artistic sectors of the gig economy, with Uber and Amazon workers unionising and striking around the world.
Bad Art stands for collective organisation of all artists and workers. We call on the existing unions, especially the musicians’ unions, to take the lead in this matter – but if they hesitate, artists shouldn’t wait. The first demands could include payment in cash for all streamed and live music. If the venue and app bosses say they can’t afford it, we say: open the books! Show us where the money’s gone! If there’s nothing, we campaign for public subsidy – but if the bosses are stealing it as profits, we demand our share.
We could produce a list of venues and apps who support artists with decent conditions and payment agreed by our union. We could discuss a boycott and protests by artists and audiences against apps and venues who don’t.
And ultimately, we need a new model of ownership for the whole music industry and the economy it sits in. Public ownership of the big venue chains, record companies and streaming services, linked to public ownership of the banks and top corporations, would give workers and musicians access to all the enormous wealth currently siphoned off as profits for the billionaire class. Then society could plan production and distribution democratically to meet the needs of all – including affordable access to music and a living wage for musicians.
This is a socialist vision for music (read more in ‘A contribution towards a programme for the arts’ at badartworld.net). And collectives and unions of artists could help us get there. We need a mass movement of workers armed with socialist ideas that can take on the big corporations and capitalist state. Not just to win better conditions today, but to get rid of the capitalist system which endlessly undermines those conditions – and to create new institutions of art and culture that will serve our artists and communities, not line the pockets of CEOs and super-rich investors.
Matt Cousin is a jazz saxophonist and Socialist Alternative activist in Madison, United States.