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A New Union of Musicians Is Taking on Spotify

Over the last decade, streaming services like Spotify have become increasingly dominant, sucking up all the profits at the expense of the musicians who make the work. Now, the newly formed Union for Musicians and Allied Workers is mobilizing to ensure musicians receive the royalties they’re owed.

Union of Musicians and Allied Workers protesting at Spotify's corporate headquarters in San Francisco. (Patrick Perkins / Unsplash)

There was a time when Los Angeles’ Arts District was actually an arts district. The 1960s and ’70s saw plenty of broke artists in search of affordable space move into the area’s abandoned warehouses. In a few short years the misused industrial area was completely transformed. Cheap bars and coffee houses hosted DIY art exhibitions and gigs. Many a well-known street artist honed their craft here. Bands like the Residents, the Fall, and Sonic Youth played some of their earliest LA shows in the Arts District. The neighborhood became such a phenomenon that in 1980 the city passed the Artist-In-Residence bill, rezoning the area and making it easier for artists to comfortably live there.

Those days are long gone. The affordable artist housing is few and far between. Most of the old bars and coffee shops have shuttered, replaced with upscale restaurants and hoity-toity art galleries. “Disrupters” like WeWork, Soylent, and Honey hold offices in the repurposed warehouses. So does Spotify, though you would not know that from the sidewalk. Its neon sign can only be viewed by entering a courtyard at the corner of Mateo and Palmetto Streets. One wonders why, in a city that has had such a massive impact on popular music, the streaming giant feels the need to hide its face.

Justice at Spotify

On March 15, a crowd of musicians gathered at this intersection. It wasn’t large — perhaps forty people — but it was certainly noisy. Trumpets, sleigh bells, and harmonicas could be seen (and heard). Most in attendance were members or supporters of the recently founded Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW). In October, UMAW launched its Justice at Spotify campaign, demanding that the company pay artists a penny per stream (up from what is currently about a fourth of a cent), provide a more transparent business model, user-centric streaming, and to appropriately credit all those who worked on a recording. March 15 was the first national day of action for both the union and the campaign, with rallies held at Spotify offices around the country, aiming to deliver UMAW’s demands.

Demonstration for the Justice at Spotify campaign. (Photo courtesy of Alexander Billet)

“I started at UMAW because I was concerned about the future of creative music and wanted to learn more about it,” Julia Holter told me. Holter, a recording artist and composer whose albums have gained notable critical acclaim, said she has been luckier than most other musicians, but is concerned about those just starting out, as well as the general future of recorded music. Over the past decade, services like Spotify have become increasingly dominant in music. This has been accelerated by the pandemic, and mostly to the detriment of the artist.

“The reality is that 83 percent of all recorded music income now is from streaming,” says Holter. “But the recording artists themselves aren’t getting most of that money, so they have to tour. During COVID, of course, musicians haven’t been able to tour, so the inequity has really become very apparent.”

It was a short march from the corner through the courtyard to Spotify’s offices. Predictably, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) showed up, reminding the crowd that they were on private property, and that they would be arrested if they didn’t leave. Spotify’s offices were locked; those inside were unwilling to receive UMAW’s demands. Holter duct-taped them next to the doors.

Back at the corner of Mateo and Palmetto, UMAW member Joshua Sushman called Spotify’s current model a pathway to the “musak-ification” of music. Sushman, a South LA native, is a keyboard and woodwind player who has been part of several projects that cross the borders of genre. They cited CEO Daniel Ek’s comments from 2018 in which Ek said that artists should no longer expect to make a living releasing one album every three or four years. Instead, they should expect to churn out release after release after release — with little regard for quality, curiosity, or their own artistic exploration. This, combined with the pressure to make it into one of Spotify’s coveted playlists, has already had an impact on the shape and sound of music.

“The goal of Spotify is to reframe how music is listened to,” said Sushman. “They’re trying to prioritize the playlist, right? They connect to the playlist because that’s how they commodify music more easily. You just put it on in the background.”

Demands of the union duct-taped to the building that houses Spotify offices in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of Alexander Billet)

According to Sushman, this undercuts the ability of artists to push boundaries and expectations, and in turn for people to discover music that might provoke them to look at the world in a different way. “I don’t think people create relationships with Spotify’s playlist,” said Sushman. “It’s actually an impossibility, because it’s a naturally ephemeral thing.”

In fact, most playlists are curated as background noise, aiming not to capture our attention so much as to soothe it. It becomes a buffer between us and the space we might be able to change. We are lulled into satisfaction with the work or study or other task we have to perform, rather than be shaken into a different rhythm in which we might question why we have to be so productive in the first place. Popular music, it would seem, is closer than ever to Theodor Adorno’s description of it as “a social cement … above all a means by which [we] achieve some psychical adjustment to the mechanisms of present-day life.”

Driving Gentrification

Speaking with me, Sushman directly tied this process to gentrification. Since the start of the pandemic, countless independent venues have had to shut down permanently, including in LA. This leaves a giant question mark over what kind of opportunities will be waiting for musicians after live music returns. Those most likely to weather the storm will be those who could afford it, whose booking model is far more tied up with profitability than it is with giving the new and experimental a platform.

“It’s harder to live here,” they bluntly told me. “So the access to space that we used to have is dwindling. And when we have less space, it’s harder to make music.”

About ten days after the rally at Spotify’s headquarters, the LAPD attacked protesters at Echo Park Lake. Many were arrested, several injured, and one had an arm broken by a cop. The demonstration was in defense of a homeless encampment around the lake. Earlier in the week, city council member Mitch O’Farrell had announced the park’s closure for “cleanup,” effectively displacing over a hundred unhoused people who have organized and supported each other over the past few years. In the eyes of many of the park’s residents and their supporters, the camp’s egalitarian, democratic structure is a threat to O’Farrell, a man who never met a private developer he didn’t like.

O’Farrell, of course, has enthusiastic support from the neighborhood’s more well-to-do, those residents who fifteen years ago wouldn’t have dreamed of even driving through the area but now see it as their own personal back yard. These are the people who can afford LA’s increasing rents, despite its stagnant wages.

They are also indifferent to the city’s refusal to find adequate housing for a homeless population that is approaching seventy thousand. After the park’s residents and supporters were pushed out of the park, the city surrounded it with a large, chain-link fence. The few residents who managed to defy eviction were essentially trapped inside. They too were eventually pushed out.

This is not an environment conducive to a stable, meaningful, fulfilled existence for the vast majority. A city that puts profit before human need fears the democratic intervention of its own citizens. Little wonder then that there is no support for artists, most of whom also struggle to pay rent and bills, and many of whom are at risk of homelessness.

It is difficult to imagine an arts and music scene that can thrive when so little affordable housing is on offer, which is to say nothing of the lack of affordable studio and rehearsal space, or venues catering to tastes outside of the mainstream.

“To Remake Our Cities and Ourselves”

In fact, funding for the arts may not be so far afield from the more basic and essential needs of shelter, food, medical care, and education. If we take seriously David Harvey’s definition of the right to the city — “the freedom to remake our cities and ourselves” — then we have to ask what democratic mechanisms must be in place for our collective creativity to impact the world. Private enterprises like Spotify don’t fit that bill.

Which is why the foundation and mission of UMAW is so important. According to Sushman and Holter, the union is in the process of forming locals, including in Los Angeles. Though the local will naturally center its work on the betterment of music workers’ and musicians’ working conditions, there is a clear intent to engage and support other struggles in the LA area: housing justice, Black Lives Matter, and activism around the Green New Deal. There is a clear understanding that UMAW members’ interests as culture workers is bound up with others, and that they have a stake in the shape of a city starting to emerge from under the weight of coronavirus.

The post-plague world is in sight, at least in Los Angeles. Live shows and other indoor gatherings have started booking for the fall, albeit not without trepidation. But the paths on offer to us are increasingly polarized: a city of hostile repression and sharp inequality with the shiny wrapping of Big Tech aggressively monopolizing our attention, or one where the sound and shape and future of our city is dependent on us, on our ability to live, to thrive, and to create.

A few days after the rally, Spotify released their “Loud & Clear” initiative. Claiming to partially address some of UMAW’s concerns, it reads much like the front of Spotify’s offices: slick, inoffensive, and impenetrable. “We asked for transparency,” read a short statement from the union, “but this website answers none of our questions about the sources of Spotify’s income in addition to subscriptions and ads, payola schemes for playlist and algorithm prioritization, or the terms of their contracts with major labels.” The fight for UMAW’s demands, it would appear, continues.

Back at Spotify headquarters, after the LAPD ejected us from the courtyard, security wasted no time closing the gates. The message was clear: though we may make scads of money from you, you are nonetheless unwelcome. The small crowd of musicians and UMAW supporters continued to mill around out with signs and chants for a while after. Plenty of passing cars honked their horns in support. Among those who didn’t, one has to wonder how many had their windows rolled up tight, ignoring a changing world while their phones instructed them what they were going to listen to next.