“A Musicologist of the Present”: Dent Medallist Eric Drott on the Current Challenges of the Music Business

Continuing our series of interviews with RMA prize winners, Elsa Marshall interviewed the 2020 recipient of the Dent Medal, Dr. Eric Drott (University of Texas) after his keynote lecture at the 2021 RMA Annual Conference (University of Newcastle). The following blog includes edited excerpts from the interview, conducted on September 24, 2021.

Eric Drott is Associate Professor of Music Theory at the University of Texas at Austin. He is author of Music and the Elusive Revolution: Political Culture and Cultural Politics in France, 1968-1981 (2011). Current projects include the Oxford Handbook of Protest Music, co-edited with Noriko Manabe, and a book on music streaming platforms, titled Streaming Music, Streaming Capital. In 2020, he received the Dent Medal from the Royal Musical Association

Elsa Marshall: Your RMA Dent Medal Lecture surveyed music’s current relation to capitalism through a detailed overview of its role on online streaming platforms. Could you provide an overview of the challenges facing musicians on these platforms that you identified in your research?

Eric Drott: While I think the platforms are the leading edge of the transformations happening at present, what I was trying to do in that talk is use them as a case study, without limiting myself to just streaming platforms, because I think there are other, broader tectonic shifts currently taking place in the musical economy. From this perspective, streaming is just a symptom.

In regards to the problems that musicians confront, it’s important to bear in mind that there are a lot of great things about music streaming platforms. It is important not to automatically say we’re living in the worst of all possible worlds. Indeed, it wouldn’t take much to turn the current streaming regime into something better, if not utopian. It would be hard politically, but technologically it would be straightforward. This is because platforms have transformed music into a public good; it’s just that it’s a public good that’s been privatized, with access restricted, and with payment mechanisms that are fairly opaque and inegalitarian. But it wouldn’t take much to transform the streaming ecosystem into a public service, since it’s already halfway there. What’s standing in the way are the holders of intellectual property and platform owners, these massive concentrations of wealth and economic power, and ultimately the legal and economic framework that allows public goods (like culture) to be treated as private goods.

In terms of how this plays out for musicians, it does so in a number of different ways. The most important is that the payment that most people receive for the streams is very low. There are a number of reasons for that and it’s not all necessarily due to streaming platforms. Spotify comes in for a lot of justified bashing, but we shouldn’t ignore the role of record labels and, in particular, the three major labels, which have such a stranglehold on masters’ rights, arguably the most valuable intellectual property that any platform is going to need…

EM: … and some of those some of those restrictions you’re talking about, they’ve not just arrived in the last ten years, they’ve almost always been there in the recording industry.

ED: Yeah, except, until 2000 or so, they used to be backstopped by the fact that music had to circulate via physical media like CDs or LPs. This allowed scarcity to be enforced as a matter of course. The ability to control material objects gave holders of intellectual property a significant advantage, which then disappeared with the rise of the mp3. Streaming is a response to that. But it requires creating an artificial scarcity that’s technological and above all legal in character, based on a title to ownership, without the backstop provided by material goods.

Going back to the problems facing musicians, it’s partly a result of the fact that the major labels have negotiated deals with platforms, the details of which aren’t public knowledge. But from all accounts the majors have succeeded in claiming the lion’s share of whatever revenue is generated by the likes of Spotify. However—and this is something that I think doesn’t get emphasized enough—another important consideration is the temporality of the payment structure is very different than in the world of physical goods, and even mp3s. What is happening now is that musicians are getting paid per play. That’s an appealing aspect of streaming from the perspective of record labels, as well as for the asset management companies I talked about in the RMA talk: for them it provides a steady stream of income, like an annuity. And because they hold so much intellectual property, the fractions of a cent generated by a stream here and a stream there add up. But musicians generally don’t have anything like the massive and diversified portfolio of IP that major or even independent labels have. So their earnings are piecemeal, and all conditional on people actually listening. What happens is that same amount of money that might have been generated upfront by a record or MP3 sale is now being spread out over long periods of time (and this is all assuming artists have recouped whatever advances they received and are eligible to receive royalties).

I use a quote in the book I am currently working on. There was a US Secretary of Labor in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, who said “people don’t eat in the long run, people eat every day.” It’s the same thing with streaming. Yes, you may make the same amount of money from streaming as you may have made from record sales. But with record sales the money one receives from a sale is front-loaded. The same goes for the advance a musician might receive from a record company. An advance may put you into debt to the record company. But at least you get that lump sum, upfront. With streaming, yes, it may add up to the same amount in the long run, but as John Maynard Keynes famously said, “In the long run, we’re all dead.”

EM: It’s a lot of rethinking what it means to have a career in the industry. In your article on counterfeit on streaming platforms published last year [ “Counterfeiting Attention in the Streaming Music Economy,” American Music, 2020] you talk about a bottleneck and the superstar economy, the idea that a few hits are the focus or what are promoted as opposed to a more democratic sending of listeners to niche music, which at the start of the internet was seen as a possible ideal. The bottleneck, where only a few artists and songs get coverage, isn’t new, but it is occurring to an extreme degree at the moment. Without going into counterfeit means, are there strategies that new musicians can employ to get around this or is it very difficult?

The superstar economy has been around for a long time. I don’t know if we have particularly good data, but even with Liszt, you have a celebrity performer touring Europe who is likely reaping disproportionate rewards compared to performers working in smaller, local markets. The thing that the economists who study winner-take-all economies have pointed out, however, is that the size of the pool in which people compete exacerbates the phenomenon. If you think back 50 years, major record labels were transnational industries, yet markets were still highly segmented by country. When I was doing research for my first book on music and politics in France [Music and the Elusive Revolution, 2011], there was certainly some overlap between the charts in France and the charts in the United States. Occasionally you’d have Anglo-American acts breaking through, but it was a very distinct musical culture. Within France itself, there was a superstar economy: there’s a difference between Johnny Hallyday and some failed yé-yé star of that generation. But Johnny Hallyday, at least early on in his career, wasn’t in direct competition with the American rock ‘n’ roll musicians he was imitating.

Nowadays streaming companies have really transnationalised the market for music, increasing the competition musicians face. If you’re an artist, you’re now up against basically every other artist in the world market. There is still of course segmentation: the US popular music scene is different than say Mexico’s or Japan’s. But global phenomena like K-pop and songs such as “Despacito” a few years back are symptoms of these changes.

In other words, the disparity between winners and the people who fall in the long tail has been around for a long time, but it’s operating in a different scale at present. How do artists get around that? I don’t have a great answer. If we look beyond streaming, I’d say one answer is to cultivate a local audience within a local scene. Or cultivate a following that might be not geographically localised but comprises a niche music community or music scene. To me, that would probably be the optimal strategy for creating a sustainable career.

EM: I guess it’s about figuring out different definitions of what it means to succeed.

ED: Yeah, definitely. Before the pandemic, working musicians made most of their money through live performance and that’s long been the case. Covid threw a wrench into that source of income. Hopefully, when we get to a post-Covid world and live concerts can resume in a more sustained way, that will help people make a living from making music.

It’s important to note that it has seldom been the case that musicians made a lot of money from record royalties, apart from superstars. Streaming exacerbated this tendency, but one effect of the shutdowns was to focus people’s attention on the fact that there are these companies that have huge market capitalisations, at whose base is musicians’ labour. Spotify’s at $45 billion dollars or something crazy like that, and people have started asking what’s going on here? How do we fight back? In the UK there was whole series of hearings run by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport on the streaming economy, which took testimony from activists as well as labels and platform operators.

[The DCMS published its findings in a report titled “Economics of music streaming: Second Report of Session 2021-22” on July 15, 2021.]

EM: It seems like these streaming companies have been doing this for at least a decade or so, if not a bit more, with only some variations but pretty much the same sort of business model over that time. Are you seeing any changes to that, or is change even possible without new economic incentives coming in?

ED: Yeah, I don’t really see a whole lot of major changes in the way they’re operating, without outside intervention. Spotify has done a pretty good job of making a go of it as a standalone platform, initially just focused on music but now rebranded as an audio platform that includes podcasting, for example. How long they’ll be able to continue is an open question, because the 800-pound gorillas in the room are the major tech platforms: Amazon, Apple, and Google. There are Chinese equivalents, though I think with the rising international tensions between China and the United States in particular, it’s unclear if those two ecosystems are actually going to start to interpenetrate. Amazon and Apple can treat music as a loss leader. Spotify already does so in a way, because what they’re interested in selling are subscriptions, and ultimately selling themselves to investors. But at a certain point investors may want see the company turn a profit. And it’s tough to see how Spotify does so, given the balance of power between it and the major record labels. If Spotify tries to claim a greater percentage of the money that’s going out the door to Universal, Warner, Sony, the risk is that those labels may not renew their contracts because they can partner with Amazon or Apple instead.

So I do think there would have to be some form of political intervention to really shake things up. One thing that is changing is that in the past few years there’s been a backlash against tech—or what some people call a “techlash”—where all the tech utopianism that has been dominant since the 1990s is…

EM: …being questioned

ED: Yeah. Come into question. There’s growing interest in breaking up Amazon, breaking up Facebook. What the effects of that would be on music, it’s really hard to say.

EM: So, on an individual basis for musicians, focusing on sort of smaller communities and local communities is a way to perhaps have some sort of sustainable income rather than having a globalised vision of popularity.

ED: Well… listen, if you think you’re going to be the superstar, yeah sure, maybe you’ll get lucky, but the odds are not in your favour. It’s tough. And I try to communicate this to students that I teach. I don’t want to discourage people, but I do want to set reasonable expectations. So I’d say, yes, focusing on local communities can be a path to a certain kind sustainable career. But I do think there has to be action on a more global level, if only for reasons of distributive justice. And ultimately, there’s no fixing the inequalities in the music economy without fixing the inequalities in the global economy, full stop. And that is a major issue because I think we are entering a weird and potentially even worse economic arrangement at present. Neoliberalism is bad, but at least it has held out the promise that if you worked hard and were entrepreneurial, you might get lucky and succeed in a competitive market. Now it seems that we’re moving into what a number of thinkers have described as a form of illiberal capitalism or authoritarian capitalism, where people aren’t even going to be offered the promise of some reward for their hard work, let alone for engaging in risk-taking, entrepreneurial behaviour. No carrot, all stick.

EM: What’s the next research project that you are planning or working on?

ED: There are seeds of it in the paper I gave last week. I’m interested in thinking about music and capitalism beyond the commodity form. Commodities are still very important, of course. But, to a certain extent, they’ve kind of blotted out our view of other economic forms that are equally important, or that are becoming more important. One thing I’d love to look into in more detail is this transformation of song catalogues into asset classes, because that’s something that’s taken off in the past two or three years. It’s fascinating and disturbing at the same time, and will no doubt have significant repercussions. On a purely economic level, there’s a lot of interesting scholarship coming out surrounding these questions. People are starting to point out that assets and assetisation operate in very different ways than commodities and commodification. I’m also interested in social reproduction, the massive amounts of typically gendered work that that goes un- or underpaid, and I’m interested in how we might think about music in light of that framework.

There are other weird things going on, such as microcredit companies that target musicians looking to buy instruments and equipment, for instance. Scholars have talked about the financialization of everyday life, but I don’t think we’ve sufficiently examined the ways this plays out for musicians specifically. And then there are people who are trying to come up with a solution to the problems of music economy with cryptocurrencies, blockchain, non-fungible tokens… It gets incredibly dizzying incredibly quickly.

EM: Final question, have you got any advice for graduate music students? Also, considering your research, do you have any advice for graduate music students who are looking to conduct research that might have a bit more of a real-world difference?

ED: I was looking at the interview done with Gundula Kreuzer last year and I thought she had a great answer, which is that you should pursue graduate studies because you love it. After all, this isn’t like studying business or law, where there’s a reasonable expectation of a job with a generous salary at the end waiting for you. We all know how bad the job market for university positions in the arts and humanities are, and how decades of budget cuts have shrunk faculties. The one addendum or footnote I would add to her point is to say that while one has to have a real passion for academic study, one also has to be careful. One thing that studying the cultural economy music has taught me is that very often when we do what we love, others can take advantage of that fact.

This is also a dynamic that turns up in the research I’ve done on social reproduction theory, in the sort of work I’m collaborating with Marie Thompson on (her presentation last year is a great overview of this). Historically, the sorts of activities experienced as “labours of love” have been the means by which large vast quantities of unpaid labour have been mobilised. A person will perform tasks in the household for family members, for children, for parents, for loved ones out of the care one has for them. But that doesn’t mean that other people, institutions, and social systems don’t then benefit from or even take advantage of the free labour that is being performed. It’s important to do what you love, but to keep others (like employers) from taking advantage.

[Thompson provided the Peter Le Huray memorial keynote lecture at the 2020 RMA Annual Conference (Goldsmiths, University of London), titled “Music in the Post-Mom Economy” with Drott acting as a respondent. Last year, the two collaborated on a blog post on working musicians in the pandemic for the Working in Music International Research Network.]

EM: Making sure your work is respected as work.

ED: Yeah, and that’s the problem that the whole “labour of love” ethos often obscures.

Turning to your question of how to do socially relevant research, I guess my answer is to just go ahead and do it. Though that is easier said than done. Part of the problem is institutional. For so long musicology has defined itself as a resolutely historical discipline. History is obviously important, and I hope that the work I do is properly historicised. But I think that often the bad side effect of this disciplinary self-understanding is that people end up equating history with the past. But the present is also a part of history. There’s nothing to stop one from being a musicologist of the present.

Elsa Marshall is completing her PhD at the University of Sheffield, researching the business, labour, and techniques of formal integration in 1950s Hollywood film musical production. She is a student representative for the RMA and an organising member of the British Audio-visual Research Network.

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