Suppression in the music industry leaves artists voiceless

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There are some serious problems in the music industry. Some of them are reasonably well known: streaming sites are ripping-off artists and independent musicians struggling to make ends meet. However, while the topic has been touched on, key factors have been missed out; people aren’t joining the dots. Corporate nepotism, suppression, and the extraction of wealth all play their part. Ultimately, the industry needs to change. But how can we collectively make the situation better?

The journey

Any musician, performer or DJ will tell you it’s not an easy road, especially in the digital era. My journey started back in the ’90s as a vinyl DJ. I realised the power of music and words in 2006, which pushed me to promote positive roots reggae on the radio. Since then, I’ve been working in the reggae industry and run Pauzeradio.

During this time, I’ve seen first-hand the suppression in the genre. I’ve spoken out about it many times, and have seen things get worse – not just within reggae but on a broader scale across all genres. If you say something against the system or the status quo, you risk being blocked. Big corporations are silencing voices that dare to speak out about wrongs and injustices.

But what about when an organisation tries to suppress an artist because they touched on a subject it doesn’t want highlighting? For example, Palestine.

UK hip-hop artist Lowkey has faced suppression recently. He told The Canary:

If Israel is able, through lobby groups like BICOM and We Believe in Israel, to shut down political music which looks critically at power then the same process can quite easily play out in other contexts with other states. It would be a terrible precedent for free speech everywhere.

So, how are indie artists supposed to survive?

Read on...

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Tour or starve

Many independent artists only make money from touring. Sales are not a reliable form of income anymore. Streaming revenue for a year rarely covers the cost of the studio time to make one song. Even famous musicians are struggling.

The Financial Times sums up streaming very well:

All the money that the streaming services have generated for the music industry, very little of it flows back to any musicians

Spotify has been talked about a lot, but it’s not the only one paying poorly. Pandora, YouTube Music, Amazon Music, Deezer and Apple Music are also among the lowest payers per stream.

This gives a lot of power to streaming platforms, and takes away the little power musicians once had in terms of generating income.

Music and the pandemic

So, when the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic started and governments locked everything down, musicians suffered greatly from this. Often those from marginalised backgrounds who relied on income from touring were hit hardest.

Horace Trubridge, the Musicians’ Union’s general secretary, told the Guardian:

Musicians are working in supermarkets, being Deliveroo drivers, going back to things they trained for early in life

Help from the government for musicians rarely arrived during this time. Many did not qualify for support, so they had no choice but to find other work.

Oscar Rickett from openDemocracy stressed:

Britain right now is a place where those who hold power either don’t care about the arts or are actively contemptuous of them.

This lack of care from power is a dangerous place for the arts to be in.

Too poor to learn an instrument, but not for zero-hour contracts

It’s been happening for years: marginalised groups are pushed out of the arts and forced into other jobs. They have the talent and skill to be in the music industry, just not the bank balance.

This situation is not new. I remember my state school in the ’90s sold off the music block and built houses on the land. There was no replacement.

The best way to silence a voice is to remove them from or price them out of the industry. These are the same voices that often have the strongest views against government policy, and are likely to express that in their art.

The corporate capitalist model forced upon us always affects poor people the most. As the Musicians’ Union reported:

Families with a total household income of less than £28k are half as likely to have a child learning an instrument as more affluent peers with a family income of £48k or more.

On top of this, the more money you have, the more likely you are to lean towards the right in politics.

Social media: working against independent artists

Social media can help independent musicians get heard; however, it still doesn’t work for many of them.

In a similar way to Facebook hiding left-wing news sites, YouTube has a history of demonetising and view-suppressing content. It’s also widely accepted that to be successful on YouTube, artists have to release huge amounts of content. Again, this is sometimes only possible if you’re in a financial position to do it.

Recently, distributors blocked US reggae artist MediSun’s song Digital Fascism because of alleged copyright infringement. It was a ridiculous claim that he spoke about on Instagram:

This is what happens when algorithms and 3rd parties become powerful enough to revoke your right to circulate your own intellectual property!

YouTube’s rules around copyright are equally bad – sometimes unnecessarily going beyond the actual law. Once again, it’s independent artists who lose out and big corporations who win.

Conflicts of interest

Major streaming platforms’ grip on the industry is not a good sign for independent musicians. As Euronews reported:

As the number of subscribers increases beyond that of many industry’s wildest dreams, smaller artists are growing frustrated with the lack of income available to them for their work.

And of course, the corporate nepotism of streaming sites having shares in the major record labels and vice versa does skew the playing field.

Lowkey summed it up well. He told The Canary:

The major labels have commandeered YouTube and Spotify very well, it makes it harder for independent artists to be heard generally.

Studies have shown that if you’re not into mainstream music, the algorithms leave a lot to be desired. Again, this is more suppression of independent musicians, in favour of the major labels.

It may come as no surprise that Spotify favours three major labels on its curated playlist. Music fans are being spoon-fed music from them – yet again disadvantaging independent musicians.

Mainstream music consumption

Lowkey told The Canary he thinks there’s a political reason why streaming sites and major labels suppress conscious and political music:

The blank slate, corporate crap which provides the mood music and cultural ambience for our society, particularly popular English language music, has very little in it that could cause listeners to seriously question dominant power structures.

Another good way to suppress what musicians are saying is simply to blame the music for current problems within society.

Politicians and establishment media blaming music which has roots in Black culture for society’s problems is not new. It happened with Jazz, Rock n Roll as well as Hip Hop, and more recently Drill.

Moving away

The Canary asked UK soulful artist MIRI about her thoughts on moving away from reliance on the main streaming sites. She said:

Ethical streaming platforms Sonstream and Resonate are continuing to grow and strengthen.

And as some artists and producers will be on the fence about moving to ethical streaming platforms that pay a fair share to musicians, MIRI has some great advice:

Do what feels right for you. We’ve all got to eat and I get that. Do your research and even if you decide to stay on Spotify support ethical streaming platforms too.

Lowkey also offered some great advice:

Make sure you have a sustainable income from a direction other than music.

It’s not just about musicians

Music is not just about musicians – it’s also about those of us that consume music. How we digest it can have just as much impact on the change it invokes.

Consumers should get to know ethical streaming platforms like Sonstream and Resonate, which are growing in use. As MIRI told The Canary:

Sonstream now have a bigger catalogue of classic artists like Blondie, Artic Monkeys and Toots and The Maytals, whereas originally it was mainly DIY acts like myself.

It is all about creating awareness. Many people do not realise what exactly is going on. MIRI concluded:

We need to find a way for more consumers to understand how Spotify and streaming works.

We can all change the music industry

Those of us who listen to music have a big responsibility. We have to think carefully about what we’re investing our money in. Do we want to continue giving power to the big corporations that are putting money into war tech and toeing a government line, while they spoon-feed us bland music?

If we continue to consume music in this way then the industry will push independent artists out. It will force them into low-paid, zero-hour contract jobs, far removed from where they should be.

Making changes now can make a difference – buying physical music like CDs and vinyl directly from an artist, or supporting their side hustle can be very effective.

Speaking as a member of the music industry, I’ve seen the slow decline since the introduction of streaming, and it saddens me. Let us change the game together, because if the way we consume doesn’t change soon, the music industry for the independent artists that we know and love will not exist anymore.

Featured image via Android Police – YouTube

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  • Show Comments
    1. Is this anything new? In the classical era, many musicians had to rely on the patronage of the wealthy (whose wealth would likely have been from deeply suspect sources such as enslaving people) or take jobs in the Church writing pieces on demand. There was no such income stream as recorded music, whether physical media or streaming. Most musicians would have – like Lowkey advises – had income from jobs or, if they were lucky, from family or as a landlord. Little has changed or is likely to do so in a capitalist society.

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