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Capitalism won’t save musicians; a basic income might

Musicians Need To Be Fighting for Meaningful Social Programs Like a Universal Basic Income

/ January 26, 2016

Photo via Spotify

Bert Stratton recently penned an Op-Ed in the New York Times with the warning, “Don’t Go to Music School.” Music school is rather trivial to the elephant in the article: money, and more specifically, the question of whether or not it is possible for musicians to make a living in the digital age. Complaints about Spotify’s slanted business model and lessthanequitable pay structures have become commonplace, if not tired. We hear over and over that musicians are struggling to be even slightly compensated for their work, yet nothing changes.

Stratton’s op-ed isn’t an anomaly, but rather, a barometer for how our culture compartmentalizes the dissonance between music and commerce. A recent attempt to reconcile this was Amanda Palmer’s viral Ted Talk, “The Art of Asking.” Here Palmer plays the part of a business pundit and informs aspiring musicians that if they just got a little better at asking for money, their money woes would go away. It’s essentially a supped-up “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative.

Perhaps musicians and other workers need to fight for a better social safety net – safeguards like single-payer healthcare and universal basic income – rather than search for a flashier sales platform.


In a time when the streets are paved with McDonald’s ad placements and free Converse recording studio time, successful musicians are still struggling. Cat Power was hospitalized in 2012 without health insurance and had to cancel a significant European tour. The so-called “indie rock royalty” don’t have it easy either. Streaming “doesn’t pay off… unless you’re Taylor Swift.”

Music is everywhere – elevators, doctor’s offices, on “hold” on the phone, in commercials, on TV. We enjoy music as a society; it is an essential means of expression, artistically and commercially. If streaming and file sharing has taught us anything, it’s that we value music but don’t often want to pay for it.

Stratton writes about his son Jack’s career and notes that in order to be financially viable, Jack must put his music in an iPhone commercial. This attitude is prevalent across the culture industries as artists and even journalists are told to brand themselves and take corporate sponsorship money not only to push their careers, but simply to survive. Basic existence for artists is becoming increasingly difficult under a grim financial landscape of stagnant wages and student debt.


Such a fundamental tension between art and commerce, and more broadly commerce and survival, is all too often the backdrop of everyday life. Artists and others have always had to negotiate this space. In order to pay my bills, between gigs, I do domestic work for people I love and care about a lot but whose business practices I sometimes disagree with. It isn’t always easy for musicians to find work that allows them the flexibility to make music. Unless you’re fabulously wealthy or successful, many existences are morally tainted by the contradictions of living under a system that serves up bad options on an assembly line.

A nuance that Stratton draws light to is the hazardous position that musicians find themselves in as freelancers who are self-employed. This isn’t necessarily a new spot for musicians, but rather one we’ve occupied and held for quite some time. What is different is more and more of the economy is de-professionalizing its work force and forcing workers to join cultural creatures in a “gig economy.” As more Americans find themselves contracting through apps such as Spotify and Uber, more will have to grapple with the ugly political realities of our time – a reality where working for yourself often means having no worker rights.

Leah Hunt-Hendrix and Astra Taylor eloquently pointed out in a recent issue of The Nation that, “New technologies will not solve our problems: People acting collectively will.” Which is to say, as musicians, we shouldn’t settle for market based solutions to support art and culture, but rather we need to band together and take a stand towards more equitable policy.

The 56′ tall Doritos Jacked Stage at SXSW took the form of a vending machine


Artists are taking sides and coming up with creative solutions to the problems at hand. In an interview with Pitchfork, Speedy Ortiz frontwoman Sadie Dupius said,

“A lot of bands believe there are certain paths you have to take towards success, and in the #branding era, a lot of those paths are paved with sponsorship money. But there are plenty of ways to work outside of those prescribed routes and we try to take those paths.”

Here in Western Massachusetts where I live there is a jazz concert series that operates like a (CSA) farm share where people contribute on a yearly basis and receive access to a number of concerts over the course of a season. The rock musician Kristin Hersh founded the open source music platform Cash Music and has made a living in a similar fashion by selling “shares” of her career. The O+ Festival that started in Upstate New York is a platform for musicians and artists to barter their work in exchange for access to healthcare. It is also worth noting the ways in which Kickstarter and Bandcamp have helped artists by giving them online tools to sell their own music and raise funds.

But even with creative solutions that represent progress for some, we still live in a for-profit swamp that lacks deeper solutions to these societal problems. We need  solutions that give agency, autonomy, and power to unheard voices and marginalized people.


A potential fix to this structural predicament that has support from radicals, progressives, and occasionally even some sects on the right, is a Universal Basic Income (UBI). A UBI would be a meaningful amount of money given to everyone that would guarantee enough to survive, thus allowing people to flee abusive working or living situations that are harmful to them and their environment. A basic income guarantee would further be a boon to all of the unpaid labor that happens when caring for children, the elderly, and the disabled. It might even be helpful in curbing climate change.

Interest in a UBI is gaining speed. Finland recently announced plans to implement one starting in 2017. A smaller experiment is taking place in Germany where 26 people will be guinea pigs in an UBI experiment financed by crowdfunding. In the 1970s, in Manitoba, a small UBI experiment took place in a town called Dauphin. Recently obtained government records demonstrated that in the few years that “Mincome” was implemented it helped teenagers who would otherwise have to work graduate high school, helped young mothers care for their children, and lowered hospital visits.

Although UBI has the radical potential to help balance scales in terms of equity, we must make sure that it doesn’t reinforce hierarchies of power. As Jesse A. Myerson thoughtfully noted in Jacobin, how UBI is framed is perhaps as politically charged as UBI is itself. Myerson argues that we must make the “anti-capitalist” case for UBI, in which a UBI would liberate people from work, decouple our society from the market, and function alongside other social programs, including those guaranteeing public employment and universal healthcare. We cannot allow a UBI policy to reinforce existing oppressive institutions by linking it with regressive taxes or allowing it to replace existing social programs.


A UBI has the potential to subdue the tension between art and commerce. Right now we are leaving music to the corporate labels and advertisers, when it should be a social good. We like to pay lip service to the arts holding deep value while creating conditions where artists have to sell out or work themselves to death in order to survive. Many social policies would help musicians and the arts, such as free healthcare or student loan cancellation, but a UBI would go the furthest to truly compensating artists for their important labor. By providing for basic needs, we’ll eliminate the need for artists to hustle at jobs that provide little value to them or broader society, and decrease the need to constantly sell art in ways that are counterproductive to making meaningful work. Organizing ourselves to fight for such social programs – not the development of some shiny new app or platform – could help make our ideals a reality.