Friday, May 31, 2019

SPECIAL EDITION: Songs For Today, an Album Tour



Note to readers of my column:  I normally organize my weekly missives in such a way that they work almost as well in written form as they do in podcast form.  This week is a bit different -- this week's podcast doesn't just involve a song at the end that's related to the subject at hand, but the podcast is about the album, and includes all 13 songs on it, interspersed.  But if you want to read all about the album without listening to it, keep reading!

From 10 am until about 9 pm on Wednesday, May 29th, I was working with an award-winning musician, producer, engineer and studio owner named Billy Oskay, along with his assistant engineer, Peter Wells, to record 13 songs.  We took a few minutes off to chat or have a snack or make some coffee now and then, but otherwise it was noses to the grindstone.  The result, by the end of the day, is my latest solo acoustic studio album, titled Songs For Today, in the form of 13 very high-quality WAV files that I put into a Dropbox folder.  For now, I'm making the album exclusively available to members of my CSA, or Community-Supported Art program, where everyone who signs up gets access to a folder with 42 albums in it, some of which are only available to CSA members, such as my latest.  But if you don't mind listening to me ramble on about each song before you hear it, you can also take in the album by listening to this special edition of my weekly podcast -- This Week with David Rovics episode 44.

I've never done a tour of an album in a podcast, but I also wasn't doing podcasts when I made any of my previous 41 albums, and it seemed like a good idea.  For a variety of reasons, but partly because it works well with the theme of several of my recent missives related to the economic and other logistical realities of being a working, independent musician.  What, exactly, goes in to making an album?  Where did these songs come from?  What was involved with writing and recording them?  It seems like a worthwhile topic to explore, using this album to do it, one song at a time.

Before I continue, for people who enjoy this podcast and the music within it, if you're able to join my CSA that would be amazing, and you can do that by going to davidrovics.com/subscribe.  If that's beyond your means, don't worry about it, but feel free to tell other folks about it who you may know, who like my music and also might be more gainfully-employed than you or I are.  Also please feel free to let folks know that they can hear this podcast by searching for This Week with David Rovics on any of the usual podcasting platforms.

The album is called Songs For Today, but I almost called it Somewhere On Spotify.  I decided against that title, not exactly sure why, but anyway, the album both begins and ends with songs related to a particular struggling profession with which I am most intimately familiar -- the independent, touring, recording musician.  Most of the songs on the album were written over the course of the past 9 months or so, but the first and last songs on the album are both songs I wrote the most recently, during the past month.

What predicated both of these songs, along with other songs I've written on related subjects, is decades of experience as a touring musician, working in a collapsing industry.  Having been on Spotify and most other streaming platforms since they came into existence, it was fairly obvious that this was going to be the music industry's game plan to do what they could to recoup their losses and that it would be their newest method of screwing struggling independent artists around the world.  Recently I've read extensively on the subject and have discovered that my suspicions are shared by many people who know much more about the details than I do.*

A little over a year ago I got word from folks in Manitoba that plans were afoot to commemorate the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.  The folk festival organizers and labor organizers in Manitoba who had brought me there on a couple occasions in the past were planning to do it again, for the first time in at least six years, as far as I could recall.  This gave me plenty of time to read up on the history of the strike, and write a song about it, which I eventually did last December.

I was already familiar with a lot of the context of the heady times the strike took place in -- the 1910's, with the backdrop of wars, revolutions, and many other general strikes in many other countries, including in other cities in Canada.  Reading the many accounts of the strike which emphasized the total solidarity in the city of Winnipeg among native-born Canadians, immigrants of all kinds, veterans of the First World War, non-veterans, unionized and non-unionzed workers, and even ultimately the police themselves, the chorus hit me.  I wrote the song as if I had been there, and obviously I wasn't, so on a couple different levels one's disbelief must be suspended, but that's how it is when you're writing from someone else's perspective, which is a fine thing to do on a regular basis, I find.  And although I wasn't there myself, I can be sure that when I say "if you weren't there you'll never know just what it was like when the whole city went on strike," this is true -- for me, too.  I can only dream -- and write.*

As a regular consumer of lots of world news in various forms, I've been closely following the ongoing and worsening economic situation in Venezuela that has been unfolding over recent years, particularly since the death of Hugo Chavez, who I opened for in Copenhagen in 2009, and who I wrote a song about before that.

Without, if possible, tooting my own horn in some narcissistic way, I think it's interesting to briefly explore what exactly goes into writing a song like the third track on the album, "In Venezuela."  How would we break it down?  Partly I just find it an interesting question because Spotify values one stream at one one-tenth of one cent, which strikes me as elitist.  Also because I, along with lots of other musicians, am often in the position of being asked to do a gig and being told that we will be paid "traveling expenses."  I always wonder exactly how this amorphous concept is defined, especially when they know they're talking to a musician who is not from their country.  Traveling expenses from the last city I played in to the city you're in?  Or traveling expenses from Oregon to Europe?  Do these "expenses" include food and lodging?  How about paying the rent back at home and feeding the kids?  And so on.

On the surface, obviously the song was written after extensively following developments in Venezuela, amounting to hundreds of hours of news programs from many different news outlets from many different countries and many different perspectives, as well as a similar amount of written material from a similar variety of sources.  The perspective behind the song, though it's a short song, also required that I understand the nuances involved in terms of the current government of Venezuela not being without fault, but also not being primarily responsible for the current mess.  Nowhere in the song do I present a black and white perspective, though this can obviously be inferred by anyone who really wants to infer one, given the small amount of information that you can really have in a decently-written song.  Equally, the perspective in the song also required an extensive knowledge of Latin American history and the history of US imperialism in the world more broadly and in Venezuela in particular.

As with all of the songs on this album, I'm using an open tuning called DADGAD, which I first learned from listening to the Scottish musician, Dick Gaughan, and then later discovered among many other players in the Scottish and Irish traditional music scenes especially.  The dissonant chords that feature prominently in this song are ones I adapted from listening to, touring with, and learning from Scottish master guitarist, Alistair Hulett, before his untimely death.*

There are many songs about events that took place which I never would have heard about if I didn't travel so much.  It also helps that at least some people know I'm always interested in hearing about things that someone thinks would make a good song.  Last year was when I first learned of the trial of the Rotherham 12, in the small, struggling, post-industrial northern English city of Rotherham.

Still today, if you mention the town of Rotherham in England, if anyone has heard of it, it has been in the context of tabloid press stories about Asian men grooming children to become victims in a pedophilia ring.  To read the English tabloids, you would think that all the Asian men in Rotherham were pedophiles, though obviously we're talking about a tiny minority, and no larger percentage than there is within the broader population.  Groups of Nazis capitalized on the situation by holding monthly anti-Asian rallies in Rotherham.

The fact that the police steered an anti-Nazi march directly in front of a group of Nazis, essentially forced a confrontation, and then went about actively vilifying and prosecuting the Asian men who defended themselves against Nazis, is still little-known in England, or anywhere else in the world.  But in the town of Rotherham, the trial saw many people from all walks of life mobilized in defense of these innocent men, who were ultimately acquitted.

I only heard about the Rotherham 12 last year, from Love Music, Hate Racism organizers in the area who were putting together a gig for me, who were also very much involved with the solidarity campaign.  The song went through several revisions before it got to its present state, as I checked with LMHR organizers as well as one member of the Rotherham 12 to make sure I was getting all my facts straight, and just as importantly, to make sure I was accurately representing the emotions behind the whole situation, particularly given that I'm again writing this song from the first person perspective, and I am myself neither from Rotherham or of Asian descent, and I was not on trial, either.

Musically, the song's chords and structure once again owe a great debt to Alistair Hulett.  Fans of Alistair's who are also serious guitarists might notice the unusual, dissonant chords in DADGAD in the song.  The other musician who was very influential in the guitar style employed in this song is Ani DiFranco.  I fell in love with her intense, percussive guitar style when I first heard her, in the 90's.  I developed my own right-hand thump technique, to keep a steady rhythm in between chords and riffs, around 2011 I guess, and it started finding its way into many of my songs, especially ones I wrote around 2011 and 2012, but it crops up again frequently in more recent songwriting efforts to varying degrees.*

Jeremy Corbyn is the elected leader of the biggest political party, by membership, in all of Europe -- the British Labor Party.  As an avid listener to BBC World Service and active consumer of other British media, I might have been forgiven for thinking that Jeremy Corbyn was either a pitchfork-bearing anarchist with a recently-contracted case of rabies, or some kind of a clown.  As a regular visitor to the island that contains England, Scotland and Wales, I know differently.  Jeremy Corbyn is a brilliant and morally upstanding human being.  Not only does he have a stellar voting record and great eloquence when it comes to explaining his very sensibly leftwing positions on most everything, but he is a personal friend of friends of mine, and one of my best former gig organizers in England is now in his shadow cabinet.  I wrote this song last November.*

I have been writing songs about refugees for a long time now.  Partly this is because I write songs about historical and current events, and refugees figure prominently into them, in many different ways.  Also the reality of refugees and what people go through to get out of war zones is a phenomenon I have intimate second-hand experience with, being close friends with many refugees from many different war zones, from Guatemala to Afghanistan to Palestine.

But particularly since what became known as the refugee crisis of 2015 in Europe -- which hit me hard, you could say, because Europe is where I do most of my touring these days, and being in the little niche I'm in, I did a lot of gigs in 2015 throughout Europe, and even a few in the US, with and in solidarity with refugees from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, and elsewhere -- I became increasingly aware that what hit me so hard about this situation is partly how closely it resembled the kind of situation my own ancestors were in, when they fled wars in Europe for the relative safety of New York.

Shortly after writing the song, "My Great Grandparents," last fall, I learned that at least on my father's eastern European Jewish side of the family, I have a lot in common with Donald Trump's xenophobic immigration czar, Stephen Miller, and Stephen Miller's uncle, who so eloquently denounced everything his nephew stands for in an open letter he published soon after I wrote it.*

I guess track 7 is the only song on the album that was written more than a year ago.  I wrote "Is That A Girl Or A Boy" in 2015.  I don't even have to look it up, because 2015 is the year I was mainly writing songs using an electric cello instead of a guitar as my main instrument for playing chords on, or some approximation thereof.  It was one of many "cello songs" that never made it on to the one album of cello-backed songs I made, Punk Baroque.  But pretty much every time I make a new album, I take some time to go over songs I've written over the past few years that have never made it onto an album.  There are many others I considered, but this is the only one I chose.  There were also many songs I wrote in the past year that also didn't make the cut -- not because they weren't well-written songs, but mainly because I'm looking for a nice selection of different themes and different musical styles when I'm putting together an album, and a good album, like a good song, is generally best when it's neither too short or too long.

The song was inspired by kids I've known who have preferred to dress in clothes that are popularly identified as belonging to a gender other than the one that they are generally identified with.  It's a song for all the boys who like to wear dresses, and all the other gender-nonconformists.  It was also inspired by the beautiful children's book, Jacob's Dress, and by other experiences in my own personal exposure to and slow development of an understanding of what so many people around me have been going through for so long, just because they don't conform to patriarchal gender stereotypes -- gender norms and expectations which we would all be better off throwing out, I have come to believe.  My own teenage daughter, Leila, has been a big part of my education on that front as well.*

I was once again thinking so much about my daughter -- at the time I only had one, now I have two daughters, as well as a son -- last September, during the Supreme Court hearings and related activities going on around Brett Kavanaugh, who of course was confirmed as a member of the Supreme Court, where he now presides over us all.  Hearing the testimony of Dr. Blaisey-Ford, hearing his pleas of total ignorance, it brought me back to my teen years, growing up around the same time as they did, in the same culture, in which teenage male football players are given a massive cart blanch to behave in whatever misogynistic ways they want to, with no repercussions, leaving a trail of destruction, pain and anger in their wake.

Long before these particular hearings, though, I struggled with the idea of writing a song like the one I ended up writing, "Behind Closed Doors."  My own feminist education has been a gradual one, and I didn't want to write a song that somehow left me off the hook, or implied that I have always lived up to my own standards of behavior, or that my standards have always been what they are now.  I grew up in the same sorts of suburbs as they did.  I never behaved the way Brett Kavanaugh did, but I knew a lot of guys who did, like the entire football team in my high school one year.  They talked about ending the football program and suspending the entire team.  As I recall, they did neither, and the idea of criminal prosecutions wasn't even on the table.

But listening to the way Blaisey-Ford described the party she was at, and the cultural environment and extreme forms of male entitlement around the football team in her suburb, in my suburb, I kept thinking of this one football player I knew from another town who bragged to me about how he got drunk and raped a fellow drunk teenager at a party they were both at one night.  He thought that his actions made him both cool and funny.  I didn't think he was either cool or funny, but it wasn't until last September that I started really wondering who was the girl he raped, and how has her life been over the past 35 years or so, since that kid told me about his horrifying accomplishments.  Then I thought about my own daughter, already in Middle School, soon going off into the world.*

The astute observer may have noticed thematic connections between songs appearing on the album.  Sometimes I opted for musical diversity and the changing of keys from one song to the next over thematic connection, while other times all those factors came together fine.  Tracks 4 and 5, about the Rotherham 12 and Jeremy Corbyn, are both about England, for example.  Tracks 7 and 8 are both related to gender and gender roles.  Tracks 2 and 3 are both about epic, world-historic struggles of the working class on Planet Earth.

Tracks 9-12 are all directly related to war and peace.  Track 9, "In '68," is an overview of some of the key events of 1968 on the streets of the US, France, southeast Asia and elsewhere.  The guitar part employs a bit of that thump I mentioned earlier, and some dissonant, Hulett-esque chords, played with a slightly funky right-hand part.

As with many other songs, this song was probably mainly written as a response to media coverage of 1968 that I was listening to throughout 2018, which did usually touch on protests as well as sex, drugs and rock and roll, but most of the coverage of the protests minimized them in terms of how much support the movement had, how global it was, how threatening it was to the powers-that-be around the world, and how much it changed the face of so many societies, despite the fact that the movement in the US, France and most other places was ultimately beaten back.  It may not be much consolation, but if not for certain social movements, things might be even worse now than they are.

The basic knowledge of history involved with writing a song like this involves a lifetime of reading history, news stories, traveling to key destinations, and personally knowing many of the people involved with this particular struggle, most of whom are still alive and currently in their seventies or eighties.*

I studied Political Economy at the Evergreen State College for a few months in the fall of 1993.  I was apparently unsuited for academia, and I didn't last long, but I had a lot of nice walks through the beautiful, forested campus, I met a lot of nice people, and I attended a lot of fascinating lectures about politics and economics by Pete Bohmer, some of which I understood.  I wrote this song as a surprise for his 75th birthday, but after I wrote it I liked it so much that I had to put it on the album, so I might lose the element of surprise before his actual birthday party.*

A man from more or less the same generation as my professor, but on exactly the opposite end of the spectrum politically, was the late Senator John McCain.  He was celebrated by liberals and conservatives alike, for very mysterious reasons.  To me, he was nothing more or less than a war criminal.  Not just because he flew bombing missions over Vietnam as a young man, but because in his long life as a politician, he supported every war that ever came across his desk, and every military expenditure, at the expense of humanity -- including his own.  This is my remembrance of Senator John McCain, who died last August.*

One of the biggest supporters of arming the criminal regime of Saudi Arabia and aiding the Saudi royal family in its apparent goal to completely destroy Yemen and kill all of the country's inhabitants was Senator John McCain.  His own death came twenty days after the Saudi Air Force bombed a bus parked in a crowded outdoor market in Yemen, killing 44 children, among many others.  They were all from the same school, out on a school trip.

There were a couple songs on the album that were significantly reshaped by my producer for the album, Billy Oskay, and "Today In Yemen" was one of them.  Those of you who want to hear the difference can check out earlier versions of the song that you can find on the very first episode of my podcast, This Week with David Rovics.*

The last song on the album is, like the first one, about the struggle of the working musician in the post-piracy, for-profit streaming age.  It is my musical effort to encapsulate what it is we need to do -- not to form an alternate platform or boycott the incredible infrastructure that we all now have at our fingertips in the form of platforms like Spotify, but to organize as a class against the ruling elite of Big Tech, as represented by predatory corporations such as Spotify, and their predatory companion corporations such as Uber and Facebook.  It is the theme song for the campaign I'm trying to get off the ground, which I'm calling the Penny Campaign for Streaming Justice.*

* In the podcast, a song interrupts my diatribe here.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Winnipeg General Strike



In these troubled times, around the world people seem to be asking each other, how do we fight back against this madness?  In May, 1919 in Winnipeg, the working class answered this question by shutting down the city and running it themselves.

I was born in 1967, and for many people my age, who turned 13 in 1980 or so, I felt like I was growing up in the shadow of a massive, exciting, really earth-changing social movement that I had missed out on -- what we have come to refer to as "the Sixties" in shorthand.  But as I grew up and became more and more interested in history, I increasingly came to realize that the most significant period of earth-shattering social movement activity around the world that I missed, at least as far as the twentieth century goes, took place a half century before I was born, one hundred years ago, with this month, the month of May, of 1919, being an especially iconic moment of the period.

In many circles, particularly among labor history buffs, one-word place names are all that are needed to evoke historical battles in the ongoing, thousands-year-long struggle on planet Earth between the haves and the have-nots, also known as the class war or the class struggle.  Refer to cities like San Francisco or Seattle and people think of many things, but in certain circles, say the name of these cities and "General Strike" will be the first thought that comes to mind, the moment in the history of these cities when the class struggle was on, and most clearly defined, and the workers were, briefly, in complete control.  By the same token, in the annals of the global class struggle in the industrial era, if anyone outside of Canada knows anything about Canadian history it can be summed up in a word and a number:  Winnipeg, 1919.

Being born and raised in the US, there is an ingrained tendency to assume that the US and Canada, both being former British colonies in North America with a whole lot else in common, that history and the development of the societies in the two countries happened along similar lines.  This assumption is sometimes not at all accurate, but when it comes to the first two decades of the twentieth century there was a lot of parallel stuff going on.

Westward expansion in both countries with the building of the railroads had seen the rapid development of cities and towns throughout the west of North America.  As usual, it was often those who had the least to lose who were the most itinerant, so a huge number of the people moving out west were immigrants and refugees from across Europe.

With widespread poverty, brutal exploitation of workers, massive unemployment as well as a huge influx of immigrants, conditions were extreme in so many ways, across both the US and Canada.  Extreme conditions tend to invite more robust responses, and this was very evident at the time, in the form, on the one hand, of a visionary, hugely popular, radical labor movement, and on the other, a very violent, often obviously corrupt, openly racist, actively xenophobic, and "pro-business" police state.

This was the sociopolitical context in both the US and Canada for World War 1.  Afraid of the potential consequences, there was much disagreement within the ranks of the militant labor movement of the day over whether to openly oppose this war that would pit the working classes of Canada, the US, Britain, France, Russia and so many other countries against the working class youth of Germany, Austria-Hungary and elsewhere.  Ultimately, both the Industrial Workers of the World in the US and the organization's Canadian rendition, the One Big Union, denounced the war as a bosses' war.  They said "a bayonet was a weapon with a working man at either end."

One half of Canadian draft-age men got medical exemptions to avoid military service.  In many cases this was evidence of the unhealthy state of the Canadian working class of the day, so many of whom were suffering from blacklung or had other chronic health problems related to working in dangerous mines, factories, logging camps, lumber mills, and so on.  But it's more likely that this statistic was also evidence of the widespread opposition to the war.

In the months after the imperial bloodbath in Europe ended, the class war in Canada came to a head in Winnipeg.  Both national and local authorities were actively promoting nationalism and xenophobia in their dual effort to garner support for Canada's participation in the war and defeat the organizing efforts of the One Big Union.  Their claims that the union was led entirely by immigrants and that the veterans of the war opposed the union were bald lies, which were countered by huge rallies of immigrants together with Canadian-born Canadians, including large numbers of returning veterans.

When the ruling class in both Canada and the US decided it was time to initiate their deadly, nationally-coordinated efforts to defeat radical unionism and divide the working class along immigrant and non-immigrant lines and to whip up anti-union, nationalist hysteria in the wake of the terrible sacrifices made by so many hapless members of the Canadian working class during the so-called Great War, in the midst of unrelenting, ongoing repression and a continent-wide backdrop of racism, xenophobia and nationalism, backed into a corner, with the only real alternative being to roll over and play dead, the working class, led by the One Big Union, responded.

In Winnipeg, this response meant unionized and non-unionized workers walking off their jobs throughout the city, and staying off their jobs for over five weeks.  By the end, they had no food.  The labor movement of the day was very militant and well-organized, but terribly under-resourced and constantly under siege.  There was nothing close to the kind of strike fund that would have been needed, but the strike happened anyway, because there was no real alternative.  In the end, the forces of capitalism and repression won, killing strikers, starving them out, and forcing them back to work -- if they were lucky enough to get their jobs back.

Many of the basic demands of the working class in Winnipeg in 1919 were later won by future labor struggles, and by political reformers elected to parliament from the ranks of strike leaders in the years after the Winnipeg General Strike.  But far more than those substantial victories that came later, it is the total solidarity of basically the entire working class of the city of Winnipeg in the very physical form of the shutdown and takeover of the entire city by the workers, that will long be remembered as the moment when the working class truly stood up.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Taking On Spotify: Why We Need A Global Campaign



How should independent musicians survive in the streaming age? There seems to be mostly a lot of hopelessness, along with a few dead-end ideas. I have another idea: demand streaming justice. Fight back against the vulture capitalists of Stockholm. How did we get to this point? Here are my two cents.

Extinction Rebellion is challenging the workings of modern capitalism and the ecocidal society it has tortured into existence. They say we must find a different way to live before our species -- and so many others -- is extinct.

Meanwhile, this same system of unregulated global capitalist insanity has, in the name of modernity, technology, freedom and smart phones, duped so many of us into believing that there is something positive and futuristic about viciously predatory, completely destructive vulture corporations such as Uber and Spotify. Just as cab drivers around the world are organizing on behalf of what's left of their profession, and Uber and Lyft drivers are also organizing, waking up to the realization that they are a super-exploited work force who are increasingly unable to make a living, since they were never an important part of the business model in the first place, me and my fellow musicians need to organize for streaming justice.

Spotify has behaved in exactly the same ways as Uber on the global corporate and political stage, pouring unbelievable amounts of money into a platform in order to make it totally dominant, at which point they go in for the kill. It is a debt-based form of vulture capitalism that is leaving the entire indy music industry in a shambles, benefiting only a handful of pop stars, so-called legacy acts, or their record labels, and viral sensations, while everybody else moves into their cars and signs up for Food Stamps.

The final straw that led to my realization that the only way forward is a global campaign targeting Spotify and other streaming corporations until they transparently meet our demands for a minimum rate per stream, was learning from veteran music journalist Anil Prasad that the payout rate per stream from Spotify was actually decreasing, rather than increasing. More evidence that Spotify is committed to the same predatory business model as that practiced by Uber.

With the extreme speed at which everything constantly changes these days, it's impossible to keep up, and there's a huge lag time between when everything breaks and when most people realize it broke. To use some good old Marxist analysis of the trends, different situations involve different sets of contradictions, and depending on what those contradictions are, different sorts of tactics are called for. The tactic that is called for now, most especially, is not forming alternate platforms, or embracing a life of poverty. What is called for now is direct confrontation -- independent artists organizing for our class interests, against the interests of our class enemies, represented in their most devastating form (for us) by Spotify and other "budget" streaming platforms.

I'll explain my thoughts. I think the best way to go about that is first to back up and take a little look at where my fellow musicians have been in, say, my lifetime. Being a musician, especially an independent one, has never been an easy profession, regardless of the mythology and the small handful of superstars. But certainly in my lifetime there has never been a more difficult time to be a singer/songwriter than now -- despite what you will hear all over the corporate press about how things are starting to look up for musicians. This statement is only true if you think, or want us to think, that the interests of the Big Three record labels have anything to do with the interests of the vast majority of working musicians in the world alive today. But they don't.

Once upon a time, the interests of musicians, record labels and music-lovers were a bit more aligned. Few people in society or in the music business in the US were fully cognizant back then that if the music business ever had a golden age, it was largely due to government regulation. For most of the radio age there were laws in the US that severely limited how many radio stations a person or corporation could own, and what they could do with them. This allowed for a local music scene to exist in every region of the country. Similar laws in other countries fostered local music, and at the same time helped prevent local radio in, say, Canada, from being dominated by artists from the much bigger US music scene.

In the US, the Reagan administration changed all that as soon as it came to power in 1981. What changed for independent artists? Well, before 1981, life wasn't fair and neither was the music industry, but there were local music scenes, there was relative musical diversity between them, different genres and different local styles within those genres. The genres were too strictly defined by the corporate industry, artists were always being put into boxes they didn't want to be in, pushed to create art they didn't want to create and not make the art they wanted to make. Things were very imperfect. But despite that, there were legitimate avenues for independent artists to sign deals with independent record labels, get local radio play, tour, and have a career of some kind, maybe even a really good one. Lots of great artists fell through the cracks, but enough didn't that for most musicians wanting to pursue a career as touring performers, the path of least resistance was to line up some kind of record deal.

Enter the 1980's. Independent commercial radio and, with it, independent record labels, began their rapid decline. With these avenues now cut off, more and more artists gave up on the idea of finding a record deal, gave up on the dream of being "discovered," and started doing it themselves. There was a flourishing of a new DIY culture, with new tape-pressing outlets opening up all over the place, with artists forming lots of one-person record labels, releasing their own recordings, spreading the word about gigs, tours, and recordings through word of mouth, zines, underground press, community radio, mixed tapes, and by other means.

The flourishing of DIY culture in the 1980's has often been explained by technology -- specifically the popularity of the cassette tape and the photocopying machine, which made self-recording and self-publishing especially accessible. I think this aspect has been wildly exaggerated, however, and the main reason for the growth of DIY culture in the 80's was a consequence of the closing-off of all other reasonable avenues. DIY became the path of least resistance because it was basically the only path available. If we weren't using cassette tapes, it would have been something else.

Soon it was -- it was CDs. Enter the 90's. Now we're talking about my own lived experience, because that's when I started making a living as a singer/songwriter and touring all over the US, Europe and elsewhere. It was a lot like the 80's, but far more so in many ways. The corporate record industry overall was more insular, elitist and bland than ever in the history of the music business. But the independent music scene thriving on self-made and self-distributed recordings was doing even better than it had been a decade earlier, with the advent of the internet, email lists, bulletin boards and other forms of online publicity. The idea of seeking a major label record contract was as distant an idea as it could possibly have been for me, but it also didn't interest me at all, knowing that no major record label would ever want to sign someone like me in the first place. But it was also a distant idea because I was doing just fine, selling several thousand of my self-produced CDs on tour every year, making tens of thousands of dollars on CD sales alone -- after the expenses involved with recording, mixing, mastering, artwork, duplication, etc., were covered.

This was the period when the corporate music industry was at its most monopolistic peak. It has since been in a state of freefall, up until the past couple years. And what has happened to independent artists during this period of industrial collapse?

Let's examine this carefully -- which is hard to do, because statistics are often unavailable or misleading, often intentionally. Universally, record industry executives will lament the Naughties, the period during which they were basically suffering colony collapse, lost at sea, with the future completely uncertain. The reason? Well, their whole business model had fallen apart.

Namely, you spend lots of money to sign an artist, spend lots to record them, spend far more to promote them, and then once you've spent all this money and done all this work so that everybody has now heard of this pop star you're pushing, you then reap your rewards in the form of millions of CD sales. But by now we had MP3's. So what most people were now doing, come the early 2000's, was hearing from the TV or radio about this band's new album, but then instead of going to buy it at Wal-Mart, they were downloading it for free on Napster or somewhere else on the internet.

This is the phenomenon that caused the corporate music industry to collapse, and this is why they are so happy about streaming platforms that pay them something -- billions, in fact -- unlike the illegal ones of the Naughties. Their executives will talk about the Naughties as the Dark Ages of their industry, and they almost always make the unspoken assumption that this was also true for independent musicians.

That assumption, however, is wrong, from my own copious experience of making a good living touring all over the world throughout the Naughties, selling thousands of CDs every year as I had in the Nineties, but also developing a new and bigger following globally as a direct result of the increasing popularity of the internet and the free MP3. I gave away all my music online in MP3 form throughout the Naughties, yet I sold as many CDs as ever.

Why did I and many other people voluntarily give away all our music during this period? There are many different reasons for doing this, and they differ depending on who you ask. For me, it was about many things -- getting the music out there to the widest possible potential audience, discovering new places to tour as a result, and other practical considerations, but most especially, giving away your music was now a new way to challenge the hegemonic dominance of the Big Three record labels and other hegemonic corporate entities such as the evil Clearchannel. We could do an end run. For us, the act of giving away the music was the promotion. For them, they already spent millions promoting the album, which is why people heard about it, so then they got it for free, rendering all that promotion useless.

For us, people were hearing our music who never would have heard it otherwise. For them, everyone knew their music through "conventional" means. For us, giving away our music was generally something we did ourselves, by uploading tracks to platforms that we had control over. By the early Naughties people had downloaded more than a million of my songs, just on one now-extinct platform alone. If I came out with a new CD that I didn't upload myself to the internet, however, generally no one else would bother ripping it and uploading it themselves. People did this with pop stars on a daily basis, but with artists like me they didn't bother -- it was just a little bit too much trouble to go doing something that took some time, and that most fans of my music wouldn't want to do in the first place. Paths of least resistance, once again.

Enter the 2010's. This is the decade when everything changed for me and other independent artists in the most profoundly negative way. This is also the decade when things started looking up for the very shrunken but still surviving corporate music industry. What changed? In a nutshell, the record companies, at about one fifth the size they had been in the Nineties, made peace with streaming. Now it's not just the indy artists, but the big record labels that are giving everything away. Well, not giving it away, but selling it for a fraction of a cent per song streamed. Which, of course, only works on a practical basis if you are getting hundreds of thousands or millions of streams per month on the full-spectrum dominant platform of Spotify -- not tens of thousands or fewer, like me and the vast majority of working singer/songwriters on the planet. And with the new deals the industry is making with Spotify, the percentages for indy artists are set to get worse, as the percentages for the big record companies get better -- as those with the most influence make the best deals with their new, vulture capitalist puppet-masters from Stockholm.

Now the central contradictions have changed, and we must change with them. Now, the path of least resistance for people -- by far -- is to listen to free music on their phones. Spotify Premium comes bundled with many cell phone accounts. People are led to believe they are helping artists by listening to their music on the platform, and helping us even more by getting a Premium account. It is actually much easier to find an album on Spotify than it is to stick a CD in a CD player which you no longer own. No need to look around on the Dark Web for bittorrents that may be infected with malware. And we cannot possibly compete with free.

This is exactly why crowdfunding took off in the 2010's, and not in the Naughties. The concept has existed for a very long time, and has been successfully implemented by NPR and Pacifica Radio for many decades, along with the Girl Scouts and loads of other organizations. It's not new, and although the technology of the internet is very helpful in setting up a crowdfunding operation, it's far from necessary. Crowdfunding became popular in the 2010's for the simple reason that independent musicians could not afford to record albums or otherwise survive by any other means, unless they quit doing music or got a second, or a third, job.

Most crowdfunding campaigns fail, however, and so many others never happen because musicians don't feel comfortable with the idea. They never used to have to beg. Most of them have never even been buskers. Suddenly it seems to have become the only way to survive for so many of us in the so-called gig economy. I'm sure that in the very near future, Uber drivers will be doing crowdfunders to buy their next car, since their wages as drivers won't possibly allow them to save up for one -- just as our income from streaming doesn't even come close to covering the cost of making the next album, unless you're making it with your cell phone. And forget about paying the rent.

And just as the idea of forming an alternative company to compete with Uber's race to the bottom is a dead-end idea, just as the idea of forming an alternate social media platform to the completely dominant Facebook hasn't worked, the idea of forming a different platform to compete with Spotify's race to the bottom is a pointless undertaking. Spotify is the infrastructure for streaming. Me, you, no one has the means to create a new one. We can keep crowdfunding, sure. We can roll over and play dead, or look for other ways to get by.

Or we can fight. We can organize, and we can win. History shows that memes can spread and have a huge impact, when they are spread in the form of art, music and lots of civil disobedience. The contradictions have changed. This is not the time for entrepreneurial innovations. This is not the time for more venture capital. This is not the time for making peace with a new form of serfdom. The new system, the infrastructure for music distribution on the planet, is now here. It is streaming, it is "free," and it is led by the vulture capitalists of Spotify, devouring the corpse of an industry they have destroyed -- but in such a hip and fashionable way, with an aperitif in between courses.

Fighting back against Spotify means demanding streaming justice. My suggestion is that our initial demand from these corporate vermin be that there be a minimum payout per song streamed of one US cent, without exceptions. A simple demand. Consistency, predictability, something we can understand, not a mysterious algorithm with a payout that radically changes month to month, despite our listenership increasing. If a streaming platform's business model does not start with paying artists at least a penny per song streamed, then screw their business model and their business. They can go out of business, and return the internet to the pirates, if a tiny fraction of a cent is what they think is acceptable.

A relatively small number of very committed people can, history indicates, change everything. Fellow artists and those who care about the survival of artists, and by extension other people victimized by the same sort of predatory practices of corporations like Uber and Spotify, and anyone else with a conscience, I ask you: who will join me in a campaign of music, art, and civil disobedience against Spotify? The beta version of the Penny Campaign is up at davidrovics.com/penny. Check it out and tell me what you think.

Musicians of the world, unite! We have nothing to lose but our chains. I'll meet you in Stockholm.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Somewhere On Spotify: My Own Industrial Collapse, Part 2




Spotify is not single-handedly responsible for my relatively impoverished financial state as a working musician.  But it is certainly one of the most prominent reasons for it.

Somewhere on Spotify:  My Own Industrial Collapse, Part 2.  I could agree with myself on the heading for this one, but I'm having trouble with the subheading.  This is the kind of thing writers, and editors, agonize over for some reason.  Nobody else probably cares or notices, or at least that's what they think.  There are so many things like that.  But I digress.  The subheading to follow up Somewhere On Spotify:  How To Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater was one idea.  How To Become A Dinosaur was another.  But then this is basically a followup to missive #27 from a few months ago, My Own Industrial Collapse, so, My Own Industrial Collapse, Part 2 made sense.

Listeners of my podcast will be aware that I always end it with an original song relevant to the subject at hand, sometimes one I just wrote.  Often it's a song related to recent events somewhere in the world -- Gaza, London, California, or wherever else.  This week I'll stay closer to home -- my own, specifically.  And by extension, millions of other people in the world who used to make a living traveling, playing music, and selling their recordings at their shows and through the mail.

The song I wrote that predicated this missive was not inspired by international, national or even local news.  Maybe local, but really, really local.  The news of my windowsill, in front of which sits a laptop on a desk, through which I have access to so much of the world's knowledge, art and music, basically for the cost of the Xfinity corporation's usurious monthly broadband fee.  I got one of those emails from CDBaby that I get every three months, telling me I can use their platform to upload a new album to all the various music streaming services -- use this code to get their fee waived, because I use them for web hosting, and that's part of the deal.  Then that email reminded me that I intended around now to make my most recent album, Historic Times, available on Spotify.

It's been quite a while since I've put an album up on Spotify.  The last one was Ballad of a Wobbly, in 2017.  With that recording and several others before it -- Punk Baroque, Live in Rostrevor -- over ten thousand dollars altogether went into making the recordings I made between 2016 and 2017, and I never had any intent of making that money back, or turning a profit on it, or releasing the recordings in physical form.  For two of the aforementioned recordings, I crowdfunded the recording costs, as I have done on many other occasions, with varying degrees of success.

The album I'm about to put up on Spotify, however, is a bit different.  It was, it is, a vinyl record -- my first and last.  I'm guessing I will have boxes full of vinyl records sitting on top of my closet, along with the boxes of CDs under my daughter's bed, for years to come.  The broad lack of interest in vinyl appears to me to be just as total as the lack of interest in CDs or any other kind of merch I might try to sell at shows or on my website.

Which makes perfect sense from a consumer viewpoint, and of course we all do it every time we search on the internet -- find free information, news, music, art, movies, podcasts, whatever else.  But from the vantage point of those of us who are what they call "content creators" it's an unmitigated disaster at this point.

Those of us born yesterday might take heart at recent Spotify-related news.  Spotify has invested half a billion dollars into becoming a major podcasting platform.  I don't know if this is related, but my listenership on Spotify has recently doubled -- up from 2,700 monthly listeners to over 5,000, each of whom are streaming about an album's worth of music about once a month.  My monthly revenue from Spotify has risen from a three-digit number beginning with a "1" to a three-digit number beginning with a "2."

In the business cycle of a touring musician there are times when you're making money and times when you're spending it.  Well, you're always spending it, but there are times when you're also making it, and other times when you're just spending.  Like when you buy lots of plane tickets for tours coming up that you haven't done yet, so you haven't actually made any money yet, you've just put a whole bunch of plane tickets on your credit card.  The hope, and sometimes the reality, is that at the end of the tour, you've paid off your credit card and you've even got some money in the bank.

So as I was contemplating uploading my latest album to Spotify, I actually found myself looking at my $9,000 in credit card debt after all those plane tickets and everything else, contrasting it with the $2,000 currently in my bank account after having just paid rent for the month of May, and thinking, if I upload this album now, maybe by next month there'll be an extra $50 coming from Spotify.

That's when I was suddenly overwhelmed with the kind of emotion that leads a songwriter to write a song, let's just say.  Sometimes it seems too dangerous just to let yourself feel what you're feeling, and to acknowledge it to yourself.  You can always put a positive spin on most things, if they're not totally dire -- I'm putting my album up on Spotify, cool, now I'll make an extra dollar a day for a little while, in ten years or so I will have paid for the cost of the recording, and hey, all those people out there who are too lazy or otherwise will never bother downloading the album for free on my website can now get it the way they prefer to consume all of their music, on Spotify, without leaving that particular Swedish corporation's now-ubiquitous platform.  I might get dozens of new fans around the world because of this album being on Spotify.  Maybe some of them will even come to my shows, on the unlikely occasion that I happen to be playing wherever on the planet they happen to live.

Sometimes my internal voice of motherly optimism just gets squelched by the reality of my collapsing industry.  The act of putting this album on Spotify, which I invested so much time and money and effort into, this album that represents everything that went into four different recording projects, including a days-long session to record new songs specifically for this album -- it hit me that the feeling was almost exactly like how I felt as a kid on behalf of my friend whose parents forced him to "give away" his dog to someone who lived on a farm in the countryside, because the dog would be happier there.  In retrospect, they probably made up the bit about the farm in the countryside.  But, assuming, as we did, that it was true the dog was going to live out the rest of its days on a nice farm somewhere, romping around in the fields, our overwhelming sense as children was one of loss.  We wanted to keep the dog, even though we only lived in the suburbs, not the countryside, where dogs apparently belonged, according to my friend's parents.

This record isn't alive, but I raised it.  I wrote all those songs.  Each one represents a day or several days or sometimes weeks of spending much of my time reading, writing and playing to get the song right.  Most of the money for making most of the recordings was crowdfunded, it's true, but the idea of being compensated in some real way for my time and effort in this whole process, the idea that there's any direct relationship between making these recordings and paying my rent, is at this point a cruel joke.  If the money for the recordings weren't crowdfunded, where would it possibly come from?  There are no sales.

Putting the album up on Spotify feels like nothing more or less than an admission of this fact.

I had a wonderful concert at a labor history conference last weekend in Portland.  These are my people -- I recognized a lot of the faces in the room, labor organizers and leftwing academics from all over western Canada and the US.  There were 130 people at the show, I believe.  An enthusiastic and appreciative crowd in the triple digits.  A decade ago at a show like that I would have easily sold enough CDs to pay that month's rent.  As it is, I was happy that I sold a handful of recordings.  Let's see, I still have the cash right here, let me count it -- $110.

I know that depending on what you do for a living, whether you're paid by the hour or on a salary -- or not at all -- it's hard to get your head around the workings of someone else's profession, and the expenses and costs involved with it.  But you probably get the basic idea.  I made a lot more money at gigs when I was in my thirties than I do now, in my fifties.  I didn't crowdfund for making expensive recordings because I didn't need to.  Now it would be impossible any other way.

But wait, people say, when I whine about the state of the profession I'm in.  There's home recording -- you can get a nice microphone and set up a studio in your nonexistent extra room in your overpriced apartment or perhaps somewhere in between the cribs and the diapers.

Which brings me to the bits about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and being a dinosaur.  I am, I now realize, a dinosaur, and I presumably will be for the rest of my life.  Because I remember what it was like to make a living as a touring musician, largely from income derived from selling your physical recordings to people who liked your music so much they wanted to listen to it at home, which more or less required that they buy physical albums.  I remember those days, and I always will, and so will everyone else who had that experience, which now seems like a fantasy.  Hard to believe that there was once a time where it made sense to spend thousands of dollars of your own hard-earned money on making another recording every year, because if you made it, you'd sell more during that year of touring than you would otherwise, such that it would easily make up for the expenditure involved, and then some.

I'll be the dinosaur who remembers the days before we embraced USB mics and technological optimism at the expense of recording studios with engineers and producers in them.  My well-meaning fans, friends and acquaintances on Facebook and Twitter give me advice -- cut costs, record at home.  Some of them are even musicians, most of whom are too young or outside of the realm of more professional music circles to have ever worked with a professional engineer and producer in a real studio.  If even musicians don't know the difference, why would anyone possibly expect music consumers to know how much of a difference such professionals can make?  One of the fantasies currently being promoted by the pop music industry is about this one young woman who supposedly makes her recordings in her brother's bedroom.  Maybe they live in a mansion somewhere in Beverly Hills and her brother is a producer.

You've probably heard about George Martin, the producer who was behind many of the Beatles' albums.  He's one of those producers that people have heard about.  One of those producers where people might have some idea that his contributions to the music of the Beatles were as incalculable in their impact as the contributions of any of the actual members of the band.  They call him "the fifth Beatle" because he was.  Now multiply George Martin by thousands and thousands.  Behind most great albums is a great producer.  That is certainly true of anything I've ever recorded with other musicians.

I was recently stranded at the Los Angeles airport overnight by a late flight and a tight connection.  Exhausted, I booked a nearby hotel room, though it was outrageously expensive on my budget, rather than spend the night as a zombie wandering the airport until my new flight left at 6 the next morning.  I wanted to get to the hotel, and I didn't see any taxis anywhere.  I asked someone who worked at the airport where the taxis were to be found.  He looked at me, confused.  "Oh, you mean like Uber?"

I lived with two cab drivers in San Francisco for years, and I have never yet paid to ride in an Uber.  But I discovered that near where the Ubers were, there was still a taxi stand.  It had three taxis in line -- a far cry from the dozens that would have been in the line there years ago.  I know that those taxi drivers have all been told by their friends, why don't you just drive for Uber?  It's something about the tens of thousands of dollars they spent on those medallions that are now worthless, that keeps them from driving for Uber.  Others give up on cab-driving, sabotaged and betrayed by capitalism, technology and government corruption, and drive for Uber, as the debt they incurred from the medallions that they never finished paying for now mounts, since they don't make enough on Uber to keep making those payments.  In the space of eight months, six such cab drivers in New York City killed themselves last year.

Unlike with the medallion system, with all its flaws, recording studios with engineers and producers didn't exist just as some kind of control on the industry.  It's not like, get rid of medallions and you have freedom -- get rid of medallions and you have total unregulated capitalist insanity in the form of the terribly exploitative Uber corporation.  By the same token, it's not like you get rid of recording studios and then you get lots of great home recording.  You get rid of recording studios and people will still write songs and make recordings.  However, they certainly won't be nearly as great as they could be.  But there will be fewer and fewer people alive who know that to be true as the years go by, and people like me will seem more and more dino.

And of course, although the great producers we are losing may never be replaced, the skills of the engineers in the real studios are gradually being replaced by technology.  As the software improves, it can increasingly compensate for everything -- background noise, bad microphone technique, bad microphone placement.  We have more and more control with software over making adjustments to pitch and rhythm and so much else.  I'm sure that someday soon the idea that anyone used to go through the trouble of soundproofing rooms for recording purposes will become as obscure as the notion that cars once had drivers, or that there were once people who made a living by recording albums and selling them at their concerts.

I'm one of the lucky dinosaurs.  One of the ones who was lucky enough to record a dozen albums back in the days when they paid for themselves, who developed a following around the world because of those albums and the fact that they paid for themselves, and who can now beg my relatively numerous fans for support in the form of the Patreon-style program I run from my website -- I call it my CSA, which stands for Community-Supported Art.  To really make the whole thing work without needing to crowdfund for recordings and such, I would need four times as many CSA members than are signed up at present or at any given time.  But the support I do get has allowed me to at least stay in the running as someone making some kind of a living from making music.

But before I put the next album up for adoption, out to pasture on the Spotify ranch, I will memorialize it first, too, and all the time and effort I put into creating the next album that I will give away -- whether or not it involved a producer, an engineer, an assistant engineer, seasoned studio musicians, soundproofed isolation booths with really thick windows, or if the next album is made somewhere in between the cribs and the diapers, while carefully avoiding the days when the guys with the leaf-blowers are outside my window.

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