Now listen, I love me some indie rock. If you knew me from the age 14 on, just asking me a few musical questions you would be able to get an earful about the history of indie rock, rankings of my favorite Guided by Voices albums, and why post-punk is the platonic ideal of rock music. Nationally, there are only a few radio stations that fly that flannel clad indie rock flag as hard as Seattle’s KEXP. Even if you have never been to the Pacific Northwest, you may have seen the numerous “Live at KEXP” performances that proliferate around social media, many of which have some excellent performances that the muscle of the KEXP staff and community have helped produce and spread effectively. I’m a fan of the work done by KEXP, but it must be noted that they are well funded and institutionally connected, receiving millions from one of Seattle’s resident billionaires, Microsoft’s Paul Allen.
This week, KEXP received an anonymous donation of 10 million dollars from a very wealthy music lover. Obviously, this money going to KEXP is better than them just putting it in the stock market or a predatory business just so they can make more money, but this kind of giving raises some serious questions about the future of “the arts”, conscious capitalism, and philanthropy as a means of liberation. Especially in rich liberal cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and New York, average people find themselves too often waiting for the majestic largess of our new aristocracy to be able to adequately support the commons. What if instead of waiting for benevolence to balance the scales, we built systems that keep things from getting out of balance in the first place?
In the modern media landscape, the purpose of radio has radically changed. Long gone are the days of the family huddling around the 60 pound wood panel beast of a radio. With the advent of smartphones, the radio has been replaced as the main form of audio entertainment while we drive. The entire music business has been reinvented multiple times since the release of the iPod, from people buying and ripping CDs to turn them into mp3s, to digital music storefronts like iTunes, to the current crop of streaming services like Spotify and Pandora.
In all of the above mentioned transitions it has become harder and harder for those selling records to make money. Like in many other aspects of our hyper marketized society, the winners are winning a lot more and the rest of us are losers. Sure, the top musical artists with major label funding are making major bucks, but the middle class of the music industry, like the rest of the middle class, is dissolving. Those involved on the ground floor of music production like musicians, engineers, and producers are constantly fighting for scraps as managerial forces like streaming services and other distributors suck up revenue while putting musical workers in a bind.
Notoriously, even members of the band Grizzly Bear, one of the more prominent and successful indie rock acts of the past decade, were unable to afford health insurance even after multiple internationally successful albums and tours. If groups like Grizzly Bear, after having multiple songs in national commercials, having been sampled in pop mega hits, and playing medium to large sized theaters across the country for almost a decade are barely making ends meet, how can things like this be done for anything but “the love of music?” At what point does “the love of music” become just a romantic way of saying systemic exploitation, especially for smaller acts attempting to turn their love into their livelihood?
These trends in the economics of music are parallel with numerous societal changes as a whole. The growth of economic inequality, with a rapidly inflating top 1 percent while wages stagnate for the rest of the economy, has lead to a growth of philanthropic institutions and giving. The reasons for philanthropic giving are multifaceted, and to many across the mainstream political spectrum, it is viewed as an uncontroversially good thing. To those who subscribe most intensely to the ideology of liberal capitalism, charity and philanthropy are part of the reason for propping up the economic system that has distributed resources and pain in the way that it has. The thinking is that if we “unleash the market” across all of our society, then we can use the “dynamism” of capitalism to create wealth that will allow for more giving.
Yet, it seems like so much of this unleashing of the market has lead to the situation musicians, producers, engineers, and other music industry workers find themselves in. Unless the 10 million dollar donor to KEXP reveals themselves, we can’t know for sure how they made their fortune to be able to cavalierly give so much money, but it’s practically inconceivable that this kind of wealth was created without some serious exploitation along the path to riches. At what point is this kind of charity just a way to redistribute power in the donors image that highlights their own cultural signifiers and tastes vs. material structural change?
We could be witnessing a historical reversion to the European Renaissance model of patronage, with the economically precarious artist’s choices being dictated by fewer and fewer wealthy financiers and land holders who hold all the cards? Cultural production is an economic issue like any other: when the workers are not in control of their lives, the work will suffer. For the sake of artists and workers, we must find another model to propagate culture production, or the realm of culture will continue to be colonized by the whims of capital.