38 The Spotify Problem, with Damon Krukowski

image for Damon Krukowski episode
Reimagining the Internet
Reimagining the Internet
38 The Spotify Problem, with Damon Krukowski

Did Spotify save the music industry or simply find a way for itself to profit from a power vacuum opened up by piracy? This week, we’re thrilled to welcome drummer and writer Damon Krukowski to talk to us about how Spotify became dominant and how musicians are fighting it to win a music industry that supports their livelihoods.

Damon Krukowski is best known for drumming in Galaxie 500 and Damon and Naomi, publishes the regular newsletter Dada Drummer, hosted the fantastic podcast Ways of Hearing, and has written books including The New Analog and a number of columns for publications like Pitchfork, Artforum, and The Wire. He also helped found the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers.


Mike Sugarman:

Hi, everybody. This is Mike Sugarman. I’m usually the producer on Reimagining the Internet. But today, I’ll be doing my best Ethan Zuckerman impression and taking over hosting duties. Over the coming months, I’ll be recording a few interviews and special episodes focused on what digital public infrastructure means for music and creative communities online. I have a longstanding interest in the community infrastructure that makes music and other creative scenes possible. And I’ve explored the ways such scenes use the internet to organize both through my own in Groove Cafe project and through research I’ve conducted on how Twitch was adopted by improvised music communities during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I’m excited to kick off this series, talking about music on the internet with some of the people who understand it best. First is Damon Krukowski. Damon is a bit of a Renaissance man as a long time touring and recording musician. He’s best known for his drumming in Galaxy 500 and his current duo Damon and Naomi. He’s a poet and a writer writing books like the New Analog and a Substack newsletter called Dada Drummer.

He made the Radiotopia podcast, Ways of Hearing, a fantastic and poetic series on how digital sound is intertwined with our contemporary lives. What prompted me to invite Damon to the show today is his role as a vocal critic of Spotify, which he’s been interrogating since he wrote an op-ed for Pitchfork criticizing the platform all the way back in 2012. That’s just about a year after the service launched in the US. Along with our past guest was Kelly who we talked to for episode eight, Damon is one of the most thoughtful and rigorous voices explaining what’s wrong with Spotify and how it hobbles an entire independence side of the music industry.

But since this podcast is not just the place where we talk about what’s wrong with the internet, but also how to fix it, I’m hoping to get Damon to tell us a bit about his involvement with the union of musicians and allied workers and what kind of vision they are offering for a more equitable future. Damon, thank you for joining us.

Damon Krukowski:

Thank you. That was such a lovely intro.

Mike Sugarman:

Did I miss anything?

Damon Krukowski:

No. Gosh, sure I don’t deserve such kindness, but it’s really nice to have, especially in these days that we all starve for a little kindness. Thank you.

Mike Sugarman:

Well, I hope this podcast is nothing of not kind, at least to our guests. I want to start pretty basic here. I think one of the more interesting ideas that you explored on your podcast, Ways of Hearing is that digital sound, doesn’t just kind of shape our lives on the internet, but also our human experience. You use this really interesting example of how the microphone on our phone is programmed to just strip the voice to a minimum, right? So we don’t have an idea of how the person on the other side of the line, how far they are from the mic, it’s hard to adjust their vocal intonation. It creates this weird kind of crystallized version of the person we’re talking to and changes how we relate to them. I want to take that idea and start simply, which is just how does music when it’s digital, how does that shape our lives as listeners, right? How does it shape your life as a musician?

Damon Krukowski:

Yeah, it’s a big question, but it’s, it’s funny how little time we really spend discussing it, that there’s been a true sea change in the way that music is handled because of digital. Of course, it’s a sea change across all our channels of communication as I know you study and this podcast delves into. Music is an interesting case, I think, in a larger spectrum of these issues, because, and this is what happened to us historically as musicians. Our data was relatively small to package and share online. So MP3s were very early version of being able to share a really meaningful unit of media across the internet easily, long before film could be done or anything else like that.

So we’ve been doing this the longest, and in your intro, you mentioned that I wrote my first sort of complaining piece about public space, about Spotify back in 2012. It’s incredible to me that it has been this long. But on the other hand, 2012 already felt overdue at that moment because the dye was cast. What was obvious in 2012 was actually not so hard to understand in 2002, and it’s been a long time for musicians dealing with this. So what are we dealing with?

We’re dealing with a shift in how we record our music, of course. But I think what we’re really talking about here is how we share our music. It’s a whole long, interesting conversation, I think, to be had about the technical shifts and emphasis that have happened in recording. But let’s leave that aside for more musician to musician conversations. But musician to fan or musician fan to fan or whatever, our channels of communication have been completely altered.

To me, the basic thing that happened is that music became free. It became free immediately, and it became free because digital media is copyable without any degradation. We learned in music. Before MP3s, we learned it from CDs because our music had been digitized on to be re on CDs. And the big shock, at least speaking from firsthand experience back then, the big shock was that you could copy the CD and you couldn’t tell it was a copy.

That sounds kind of at this point sort of abstract, I think since we deal all day long in information that’s copied without degradation. But as a musician, that was a really, really, really shocking thing. And this happened in the early ’90s as we moved to CD. Every CD, commercial CD is a master tape. Now, the major labels really went to great lengths to claim that it wasn’t true, but I can tell you it is true. Here’s a simple illustration of that. When we’ve gone back to reissue our work that was recorded, some of it even recorded analog. The mastering engineers that do the reissues, they ask for an unopened commercial copy of the CD. That’s what they want.

We have all the gold CDRs, all these kind of like bogus formats that were handed to us as better than a CD at the time archived. I’m like, “Don’t you want this gigantic cassette thing that only plays on one Sony manufacturing machine that’s a digital thing from 1992?” And they’re like, “No way, those things don’t work.” “Don’t you want the gold master CDR that we were given by the mastering studio and claim this?” “No, no, no, no. Those probably have errors. A commercial copy, unbroken unplayed is the least likely to have digital errors on it. So just send me one of those, if you’ve got one in your closet.”

I’m like, “Okay. Now, that’s the truth.” In the ’90s every record that was digitized was the master tape was disseminated to anyone who had a copy. Not only that, that master tape could be copied on a CDR. There’s really no distinction. So this is pre MP3 data compression and lossy compression and channels over the internet. But what happened then was that’s the end of recording as a physical property that can be protected according to traditional protections of physical property.

Mike Sugarman:

Yeah. It’s interesting because I think there would be two ways of looking at that, right? One is that it’s actually pretty amazing that we have access to reproductions of the recording that are at that pristine quality. I’m sure that it’s something that audio files who are spending $50,000 in 2020, $1 back in 1975 could only dream of, right? You’re like, “Man, I’ve only had this copy of Steely Dan, Aja that was like the most, absolutely pristine version of what they did in the studio.” And we have access to that. Right? But the other thing, and I think you’re putting out what so weird about this, is that it’s a literal exact copy. And now we move from just having exact copies on CDs to, anytime you open your phone, you can get an exact copy of that piece of music. It’s very different than having your well loved cassette. It’s like a totally different thing to say I can just tune in and get the exact thing that was recorded and maybe, I don’t even have to pay anything for it.

Damon Krukowski:

Absolutely, yeah. And really to me, I’m not sure we should pay for it. I can’t say I speak for a lot of people necessarily when I make that assertion, but I think I am speaking to the act of the matter. The fact of the case is digital is free. I really firmly believe that. All the smoke and mirrors that have been created, that have been made to pretend that there is controllable value in digital media has just distracted us from the principal issue in front of us which is that digital is free. It’s for sharing. I mean, the internet is a free, or was meant to be a free channel of communication, decentralized, open source. That was the whole point.

And the perversion of it by corporate walled use of it, and data collection over the last 20 plus years is leaving it barely recognizable from that original ideal.

Mike Sugarman:

I think that there’s a crucial thing that’s left out of the story that you told, which is that about 20 years ago, a little bit longer than 20 years ago, again, Napster which was so easy that as an eight-year-old on the internet, I was downloading all of these parody songs.

Damon Krukowski:

Is that what you were drawn to?

Mike Sugarman:

Yeah, exactly. It was like, “Oh, wow. That guy’s singing in the Austin Powers voice. And it’s a parody of ACDC. I love it.” I also did some pirating of probably like Limp Bizkit. Something major labels will not be happy with, but I think that kind of the story that people told in the ensuing decade, the real crisis was that musicians used to have livelihoods. The industry used to function, and now the music is free. How are we ever going to have music? How are we ever going to support for this music that we love?

I think you can ask, when we’re talking about supporting music and supporting a music industry. If we’re talking about, do we try to find a solution for major labels, these kind of like conglomerate corporate players who had a system for making money and were pretty upset that that got, to use for a lack of better term, disrupted. Were we talking about working musicians, being able to support themselves? Which is like a very different version of the music economy that I get the impression. I wasn’t really around at the time that you could sell enough records, tapes, CDs, whatever, to basically fund recording them, to fund at least a modest living, but an actual living off of making music. And in theory that wasn’t possible after Napster came along, right?

So I think Spotify comes in. And Spotify, the appeal of it aside from the user end of thing, which I think is arguably cool in the way that you are talking about music should be free, is like you have access so much so readily, but the other appeal of Spotify is that in theory, it creates a revenue stream around digital music. It’s something that you write about a lot that this revenue stream is really kind of a revenue stream shared by effectively a cartel of major labels who are invested in Spotify and have a very different contract with Spotify than you or I publishing music on the platform would.

What we end up getting is effectively the option of buy into it on the terms that Spotify and these major labels have made for the people who don’t benefit in the way those major labels do or leaving music off of it. Neither of which are particularly appealing options. Right? So if you could, give me the critique of Spotify from the perspective of the person who is maybe consenting to have music on Spotify, but not really happy with the terms of that agreement.

Damon Krukowski:

Yeah. I mean, first I would say that just to go back to Napster for a moment, historically, I think Napster was not a threat to the music industry. I think it was a threat to those at the very top of the pyramid in the same way that piracy… Piracy never seems to really harm anyone, but the top of the industry, because they’re looking at China move millions of copies. I mean, back when it was physical copies. Pirates, of course had a greater commercial incentive to pirate those records than they would say my records.

It was the major labels who freaked at Napster and led a fight to shut it down. Napster shut down at the end of the ’90s. The majors claimed that it was destroying their income. But I’ve never heard musicians say that it destroyed their income. I mean, this was a big distinction that leads to the question about Spotify. So the majors were very upset at the idea that their work could be shared for free online, although they were the ones who had profited endlessly from the conversion to digital in the first place from CDs. The boom of the ’90s was just extraordinary for them.

And they did that again, not sharing it entirely with musicians. They took advantage of older contract terms that were in place already for forms of reproduction that cost the labels a lot more than CD would cost them. We were not being paid proportionally a share of the extraordinary markup on CDs that fueled all those 90s profits for the labels. It didn’t all flow to musicians.

In any case, Napster comes along. Really very few musicians complained about it. Certainly very few that weren’t already in the top 10 and Billboard 100, and on a major label. So the major shut it down, and we were left with this aura of our listeners are not to be trusted with our digital product. I mean, that was kind of the big message. And the campaign against Napster was you can’t trust… Even an eight-year-old is going to download, right, and upload major label intellectual property.

And that’s ridiculous because who do musicians need to work with? It’s like we need to work with our listeners. So who else do we have except our listeners as our principal reason for being in the industry in the first place. We have to have communication, and in exchange with our listeners. It’s a way more important relationship than to your label, for example.

So the label sort of cut bands out of the argument from right at that point, I think where they said labels don’t trust listeners. Bands weren’t even part of the argument, if you see what I mean. Anyway, so they put Napster out of business. Now, where are we left? We’re left with a digital free for all, unleashed online through technological means because it was… Now, computers were fast enough and hard drives were big enough that you could still manage to share your work online easily at anybody’s record, whether you had Napster’s platform to do it on or not.

So sharing of course was continuing. And Apple stepped into this void. So the iTunes store stepped in to make a paid version of Napster. It’s a long story, but this is how we get to Spotify, was the iTunes store. Apple stepped in where no major label into a vacuum created by the major labels lack of really anything positive to do with digital. All they did was sue the majors to the ridiculous point where they were suing like college students for downloading on uploading stuff.

Mike Sugarman:

And famously like grandmothers.

Damon Krukowski:

Yeah. Just the worst behavior. I mean, behavior that I think no musician would ever really condone aside from Lars of Metallica. So what are we left with? We’re left with this vacuum from the music industry itself and into the vacuum rushes Steve Jobs. I mean, he was a genius at rushing into vacuums. Also, he was a passionate music fan. There’s a wonderful photo, you can find online of his personal stereo equipment, a portrait that was taken of him back at the beginning of the founding of Apple in his California home. And it’s this sort of beautiful living room.

All that’s in the living room is a Tiffany lamp and a stereo that’s worth tens of thousands of dollars and a bunch of LPs. That’s how he lived. There’s no furniture in that room. It’s just him on the floor with his LPs and his expensive stereo. It’s like baby boomer dream life of apotheosis of that whole dream. And that’s part of who he was. So he steps in. He’d always wanted to be in music, I think, and sees this complete vacuum. What do they do? They set up Napster with exact same… Even the columns were the same. I mean, if you go back and look at the interface for Napster and the interface for the iTunes store, they match, except there’s one extra column in the iTunes store, which is price.

So he just took Napster, the format added arbitrary price, 99 cents a track, which is pulled out of a hat. I’d never found anything that documented anything except that they pulled it out of a hat and talked the labels into letting him put all their work up there, all their copyright held work for this price. But it was a very unsustainable model because for one thing, who’s going to pay 99 cents a song when, again, you can get the identical thing for free?

Now, we’re really talking identical even more than digital copying, lossless copying because now we’re talking, there’s no artwork anyway. There’s no physical product anyway. I mean, when you copy to CD and gave it to somebody or sent a copy online to somebody, you got to keep the artwork and the pleasure to the physical object. So now you’re really talking about nothing except a meaningless price tag, arbitrary price tag, 99 cents per track. That fell apart is how can you charge people a meaningless thing forever. And into that steps streaming of course, again, because technology increases in the channel. Things get faster and machines get quicker and we can now stream without too much buffering and pausing music.

Again, first music then video because music always was easier to get across the lines because it’s smaller. So Spotify steps into the space created by iTunes and just basically does that with no sale, but a rental or subscription model or free with advertising model, right? And that’s mirroring everything we’ve got online.

Now, all are social media, et cetera. The problem is that they built this model that was introduced to the subscription model or the free with ads model is really… It’s a data driven model. It’s that Spotify’s real profits come from data. And just like Facebook, just like Twitter, just like Google. There’s no role for the music producer in that equation. There’s not even a role for the music label. So Apple may have formed a middle man between the labels and the fans, the buyers, but the subscription model from Spotify effectively eliminates the labels in that as well.

So now you’ve got the platform as the only relationship to the listener and they’ve got a real… This is why I think we’re at a crisis because they never bothered because it doesn’t matter to them. They never bothered to calculate how does the music industry still survive on this model? There’s no role for us. There’s not only no role for us. There’s no role for the labels except as investors, right?

How did they get to… Spotify got all the copy… Apple went to the labels sort of we’re going to rescue you from Napster, and they agreed. Spotify went to the labels and said, “We’ll give you shares in the company.” That’s how they got their copyrights. So they got the labels on as co-owners in the platform.

So the labels sold out their own artist contracts at that point for a terrible royalty agreement because the labels had no incentive to share this money with the artists. They had been brought on wholly 100% on the side of the platform. And then the platform subsumed them. I mean, the platform is worth more than any of the major labels. So now we have an industry that is just platforms and users. We have no labels anymore and really no room for musicians anymore. And that’s why I think it’s at a crisis point.

Mike Sugarman:

I think you bring up a really interesting point and I would point listeners to an illustrative exercise using Spotify. Go find an album you like. Go find the name of the label on that album and try to click on that label. Right? So much of the infrastructure of how music is documented online labels are really central to that whether you go to Wikipedia, whether it’s usually a Wikipedia page for a label. You go to discogs, which is basically mainly a marketplace for the resale of physical media.

One of the main ways organized is through labels, and I think for people who go to record stores, for people who really are avid music fans, one of the main ways you find out about stuff you don’t know about is by looking up the labels. Spotify doesn’t offer this, right? Because Spotify mainly thinks you should discover music by depending more on Spotify, right? You use their algorithm. You use playlists that either an algorithm or a person is generating, they kind of obfuscate it.

Maybe you use a playlist that a friend made and somehow they find a way to send you a link to that which Spotify also makes kind of hard. All of this, I think raises the question. Is this an issue with streaming or is this an issue with Spotify? I think Spotify is synonymous with streaming these days. So it can be hard to separate them. But what do we make of this?

Damon Krukowski:

Yeah. I remain an optimist about our channels of communication. Just as I wouldn’t blame the internet for the loss of value in digital music, I wouldn’t blame Spotify for having perverted any concept of streaming from the point of view of the music industry. The reason is that it’s not sticking to the ideals that I think the internet flourishes on, which is open source, free exchange of information. These are the hallmarks of a positive use of the internet that I think we have to really hold on to. The platforms like Spotify, Apple, Apple Music now, and from a musician’s point of view, are these forces ranged against the free use of our music.

Ironically, they’re using our music for free. I mean, this is the crazy thing. So we’re in this crazy situation like me and my colleagues at UMAW, Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, we’re arguing stop using our work for free online. Now, complicated, convoluted footnote sounds that I would add to that is please use our music for free online, just not Spotify. Apple is like, what, the most valuable corporation on the planet now or next to? And Spotify, it’s $60 billion valuation on the New York Stock Exchange.

They do not need my music for free. They should be paying it for it. But listeners, please use it for free. The canny, our listeners are, the more likely it is actually that I think we are actually paid by them. This is the fantastic paradox that hasn’t really been fully explored or taken advantage of online in some ways, which is that voluntary payments and other forms of payments actually work like they exist.

I think Bandcamp, which is a platform that a lot of musicians really enjoy using because we control our own work and the way it’s presented on it. We keep our albums intact, if we choose. We can set the price. We can also set the price to zero and users will voluntarily pay for music on Bandcamp. There’s no explanation that fits in the typical narrow capitalist idea of who users are and what value is in our work. That explains that.

They could have it for free. So why don’t they just take it for free? Well, many do and that’s okay too, because to me that’s part of the environment of the internet. If we would just accept that this is the environment, this is the reality of digital media, that it is free, then we could start to construct a true means of exchange of money in addition to this, because I do believe that we can.

I mean, subcultures can survive if we’re allowed to, but we can’t survive if we’re shoehorned into a very narrow minded idea of where value lies. Spotify has the idea that the value lies in data, I believe. I mean, that’s only thing I can see. And in dominating the market, it’s the same model that Amazon has followed and Facebook. If you can grow so big that you can dictate the terms to everybody in the marketplace while you become a billionaire, right? What you grew big on, be damned. It’s just going to disappear. If it disappears, it disappears. What is not your business?

They’re not on in the business of making music survive. They’re not even in the music of really pleasing listeners. They’re really in the business of keeping people on their platform for as much time as possible and collecting as much data from those people as they can. That’s a different thing than saying we want to make sure you really enjoy your music.

I think the current investigations of Facebook that are going on, which are more public than we’ve managed to get with Spotify are very revealing for all the platforms because you see into a bit of the decision-making on the other side, which is we really don’t care what is communicated on the platform so long as we keep people on it and thereby succeed in our model of profit. Spotify is the same. They don’t care what you’re listening to. They don’t even care if you’re listening to music. They’re buying up podcasts now and promoting them very heavily because they figured out they have a profit model there that may be even better than music.

They may move on from podcasting to something else. It doesn’t matter so long as you gauge with the platform. So we’re just drowning in this bad faith behavior from these platforms that are ultimately disinterested in our work. And that’s partly why Spotify won’t even negotiate for example with my union, my nascent union that we’ve been building during COVID because they have no interest in negotiating with us. They’re not interested in what musicians have to say.

Mike Sugarman:

I mean, you are describing a really interesting kind of a cyclic thing that’s happening, right? So I mean, I think our Marxist listening would say that Spotify looked at music and said, “Hey, here is some capital I can primitive accumulate.” They basically said, “Hey, this stuff is basically free. So we can just mine it and make money off it.” And by taking advantage of something that Napster opened up, which is, I think you’re right. Something that actually a lot of people want, which is whether you’re a musician or whether you’re a fan, you want to listen to music.

It’s okay if it’s free, because there are other ways of valuing music outside of just the dollar amount that you put on it. Even saying 99 cents for a track is pretty absurd. Right? What that does when Spotify makes that decision, but then also finds out, “Oh, we can capitalize on data. Oh, we can capitalize by having partnerships with other businesses.” Because it actually subverts the opportunity for money to flow back to the people who are involved with making the music and for those people to build things. And famously musicians, labels, fans, they’ve built a lot of stuff over the years, right? Whether those are record stores or whether those are music magazines.

Damon Krukowski:

Or music blogs. Music blogs were amazing.

Mike Sugarman:

Right. Where did those go? Right? Music blogs for so long were such a great way to share music. You would either post a track or you would post a whole album download. And weirdly enough that stuck around for a really long time in a pretty dominant way. If there’s an ideal way to rearrange this or an ideal set of values that you can use to undergird the thing that works better for all of us than Spotify, we’re not just saying because of money, but because it actually supports creative communities and creativity, what does that look like? I mean, does it look like a library where it’s a little bit of a community space, that’s a little bit where you can access media.

Does it look like Napster but with some infrastructure that helps you talk about shows and share music and maybe pay musicians? I mean, you don’t have to get so specific and you certainly don’t have to pitch me a tech product. But yeah, I would love to hear, especially from a worker’s, and a working musician’s perspective, like what would be nice? What would work?

Damon Krukowski:

Yeah, that’s great. I think to me, the answer is all of the above. I mean, I think if we could open it up so that there are a multiplicity of channels and possibilities and functioning communities and means of exchange. That to me, is a healthy environment, and really that’s what we had more of before these platforms got so dominant. When we had physical media, of course, the market from the major labels point of view was dominated by a handful of chain stores like Kmart even and whatever, Walmart and the major record label chains. But we had so many shops in every town. So it didn’t matter.

Sure, the Kmart could be selling the charting record with a special deal from the major labels and getting more of a profit per unit. Fine. But there was room for all these other places to be selling music and to be making viable communities built around music. It’s the same in venues. We’ve had a tremendous consolidation in the ownership of live venues. We’re now dominated by two massive corporations, Live Nation and AEG. It’s just like Apple and Spotify. COVID has only made it worse because a lot of independence venues for obvious reasons couldn’t survive being closed for a year plus. And these two companies have been buying up smaller and smaller properties and more and more and more.

So as we come out of COVID, we’ve got our live music also dominated by monopolistic corporations. It’s the same story. It’s that there’s less and less room to operate outside these dominant models. To me, any and all other models should be encouraged. The library is a great one to look to, and it’s one that we’ve discussed at UMAW. There’s a wonderful proposal out there online from Henderson Cole, independent scholar who has proposed going through the public library system basically for a digital music library that could work outside the commercial models of Spotify and Apple Music.

I think that that’s healthy because whether or not you end up being paid more or even anything, it means that there are more channels. And the more channels there are, the more possibilities there are for building viable, sustainable existences.

Mike Sugarman:

Which is why it’s really interesting to look at projects like for instance, the Resonate co-op out in Germany, which is saying like, “Hey, can you actually a stream platform that’s owned by workers, owned by musicians?” I think there are two interesting questions about that. One is, would it pay people better? Would it be more sustaining for those people if you value people getting paid by streaming. The other is are people going to listen to it?

I think what you are driving at is the closest that we’ll ever get to a panacea, which is let’s have diversity again. Let’s have a lot of small players having an opportunity to [inaudible 00:35:43] at their own space. You and I both live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which just introduced this interest, something called Miyawaki garden. I don’t know if you’ve read about this.

Damon Krukowski:

Oh, over in Danehy Park, right?

Mike Sugarman:

Yeah, exactly. And the idea is that if you want to rehabilitate a local ecology, you can use this thing called the Miyawaki garden where basically over a really short period of time, they pack this small area of square acreage with as many native plants as possible. They do it in a plant staged way. And what it does is it reintroduces native species to the area at a rate that’s like 20 times faster than if you just planted this stuff around town and all of that. Basically, with the idea that the way you create a more resilient green city is by fostering the most diversity possible. And it sounds a little bit like what you are describing with music.

Damon Krukowski:

Oh, I love that. I love that analogy. That’s great. Yeah. That’s exactly it. I feel that’s exactly it. I think that the model that we have from the platforms is don’t allow any intense propagation of ideas outside their model to happen. Stomp out those gardens because they’re just going to spread. They might spread. We don’t want those local native species spreading around and screwing up our profit model here. That is precisely it. So yeah, I would point to yeah, Resonate. Ample is another one. Bandcamp I think is an interesting model.

There are many, many ideas that out there, and I think ultimately we need as many as possible. UMAW, our union has talked about, “Well, do we endorse one of these alternatives?” So far, our strategy has been, no. We just want to encourage them all and try and do what we can to lobby, to rein in the models that are preventing innovation from happening elsewhere. Which means reining in Spotify, Apple and Google, basically.

So what we’re doing, we’re actually looking to the government, which is alternately hopeful and heartbreaking and disappointing all the time as government issues tend to be. But the idea is maybe we just need constraint. We just need good old fashioned liberal regulation of these unregulated industries so that we can get some innovation happening.

This isn’t really attacking capitalism the way that say the public library model would, which is very inspiring. But it’s more just like, could we just at least use the true additional tools of restraining big capital in the interest of open competition, which is something you can get a lot of politicians on board with even Republicans at times, because they nominally support small business.

Mike Sugarman:

Recently Union of Musicians and Allied Workers did speak with a couple of congress people. Maybe you can just give us a quick recap of that as our conclusion.

Damon Krukowski:

Yeah. We’ve been speaking to congressional reps and we had Rashida Tlaib from Detroit actually did one public thing with us on YouTube. You can go online and find it. And she held a public conversation with some of our members including local Detroit musician and talked about some of the labor issues and some of the other issues involved in this version of platform capitalism that we’re facing.

Rashida Tlaib comes to this from the stance of a progressive Democrat, very pro-labor, pro-union and reads immediately our issues as workers that we’ve been pushing at the union. Other congressional people have been interested in it, reading it as small business versus monopolistic behavior and reading it through the lens of antitrust. We’re also exploring connections to the executive branch, to the FTC, which is very interested in constraining Amazon for example, and sees our struggle alongside that where you have Amazon, for example, notoriously will say suppress because they produce products as well as selling products from other producers. They will suppress the listings of competitive producers and use their platform distribution to create unfair competitive practices for their own favorite products.

Spotify is doing the same thing. Spotify owns some music outright that they place prominently on playlists. Spotify has partners in the major labels that they place those partners work prominently in the playlist to favor their work over ours. It’s not a free and open market place. So we’re not even dealing with an ideal capitalist platform at this point. I think that’s why we’re getting some traction in the government because we’re not coming to the… We’re more or less a socialist organization, Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, but we are not coming to them necessarily with that so much as saying, “Could we at least have some good old fashioned competition here?”

That would already be a huge boon, be a huge boon. My own beliefs, I believe that if we had that, what will rise to the top is a more equitable socialist exchange of music. Because again, I think digital actually favors that. I think that’s also the fear of digital that a lot of corporations have in free digital.

Mike Sugarman:

Well, let’s not forget that one of the earliest uses of the internet for music was for Grateful Dead fans to get in touch with each other to mail copies of cassette recordings of their live shows, right? There’s this kind of sharing culture, this kind of communal spirit baked into how music works on the internet because when it comes down to, it’s a big network of people, I think the tendency is very different than with Spotify.

Damon Krukowski:

Yeah, absolutely. I think sharing remains a tremendous threat to the capitalist economy because it’s a non-monetary structure for thinking about our information and even our physical products that we make for one another. And that remains just really fundamental threat. And I think that you can read a lot from a very large scale view of this last 30 years in music, 25 years, you can read a lot of it as reaction to that threat. How are we going to denigrate and then dismantle the ability to share freely online. And that’s where we are now. So again, I would advocate that sharing is actually a very good model to follow and see where it leads. I don’t think we’ve been allowed to see where it goes.

Mike Sugarman:

Well, I think on that note, talking about something that we all learned to do in kindergarten, Damon, this has been fantastic. Thank you so much for joining us on Reimagining the Internet.

Damon Krukowski:

Thank you. I’m really honored to be here. It’s an amazing list of people you’ve had on this show. Thank you.