JOver a year ago, music streaming giant Spotify announced a new addition to its services: an innovation called Artist Fundraising Pick, which would allow people to send musicians the online equivalent of a tip. The move came just as controversy began to snowball over streaming’s often pitiful returns, something that peaked in April this year, when top musicians such as Paul McCartney, Kate Bush and Stevie Nicks signed a letter calling on the UK government to finally pinpoint the problem.
Around the same time, there was growing speculation about Spotify co-founder and CEO Daniel Ek, whose net value is valued at £ 3.3bn – at the head of a consortium that wanted to buy Arsenal football club. In the context of this potentially vast deal, what Spotify had launched highlighted the tendency for big business to offer its detractors and complainers mere crumbs, but it was there: a recognition that many musicians needed. additional financial aid, coupled with an apparent attempt to shift the blame to their fans.
For groups and artists, activating the feature remains a matter of discretion. A quick glance at Spotify’s artist pages reveals that while stars like Taylor Swift, Drake, and Coldplay – and, for that matter, McCartney, Bush, and Nicks – probably won’t activate it, many less famous names did it as soon as they could. The pandemic quickly killed the income from live performances which keep many musicians afloat so that they could hardly be criticized; Indeed, some musicians say they have come to love their relatively small steady stream of change.
Again, given that Spotify annual income were last valued at nearly £ 7 billion while the rate per stream it pays artists is currently estimated at around 0.35 pence, why has the company decided to ask for contributions to their welfare from ordinary listeners? And will musicians only keep the money by hovering just above subsistence level, so that no one considers them too successful to deserve donations?
Online tips are now spreading rapidly – and beyond music services. In an effort to familiarize people with spending money in their fields, most of the major internet companies are joining them. Twitter has just launched a feature called Tip jar, aimed at channeling donations to “creators, journalists, experts and non-profit organizations”. YouTube is extending a feature called Applause which does the same for its influencers and videographers; the new Clubhouse audio application, recently valued at $ 1 billion, introduced a tilting tool to “help creators create community, audience and impact”. For some people, such words can ring true. But they also have a sense familiar to tech players trying to sidestep the big questions about the dissolution of creativity in “content” and what that means for the incomes of thousands of people, such as the number of real “creatives” able to. make a living from their work. seems to be dwindling, something clearly accelerated by the Covid crisis.
The story spans the shift in the ever-expanding world of platform-based writing. Although traditional magazines and newspapers keep falling on the skates and their collegial model of team journalism goes with them, a growing number of writers and presenters are now vying for individual donations and subscriptions through platforms such as Patreon and Substack. Particularly on the latter, the money earned by the most successful people seems impressive – but thousands of others are doing their jobs for very little return at all.
Plus, just as streaming favors wham-bam pop songs with the shortest intros and a contagious hook built into every bar, these services aren’t all about the kind of relentless reporting that requires serious resources, but commentary. and controversies (such as the British writer Hélène Lewis recently put: “Shoe leather reports, in-depth investigations and FOIA requests… rarely generate millions of clicks”). Perhaps this is one of the reasons we live in an age that generates much more heat than light.
The cultural and media economy of the analog era, on the other hand, operated on a different model. Whatever their failures, the best organizations and companies that have kept the show going – from publishers, record companies, to old-fashioned TV stations – have operated on the basis that the mainstream success of their most big attractions would help subsidize less bankable talent, and also allow adventurous and motivated people to take risks. To some extent, this is still the modus operandi of some institutions that have successfully transitioned from the old world to the new (you are reading this thanks to one of them). But what is happening elsewhere seems quite more Darwinian, even though some online giants now want to be seen as generous benefactors – and what is telling is how all of the big rewards seem to go to things that turn around in the field of vision of people, then everything as quickly disappears.
Over the past six months, there have been a slew of stories of a new mood of generosity supposedly gripping some social media companies struggling for market share. The New York Times recently ran a story on the huge sums of money Snapchat apparently paid to “social media creators” as he takes on TikTok. Among the new people interviewed was a woman from New Mexico who made half a million dollars from “a video of her sister frying a turkey,” and a high school girl from Maryland paid about double that. amount for “unboxing videos and fun content,” including a clip in which “she spins on a hoverboard while appearing seamlessly in new outfits.” Meanwhile, 1,800 newspapers have closed in the United States since 2004 , and Rolling Stone magazine organizes appeals to help “struggling music industry workers”.
The digital glare of the 21st century hides centuries-old tricks. In keeping with how charity has always been used to iron out issues of fairness and exploitation, the new vogue for ad hoc giving seems designed to distract us from a handful of increasingly wealthy tech players, while that people on their platforms who would like to enrich the culture with something more substantial than cat videos live increasingly impossible lives. If you are in doubt, you might want to dwell on what would happen if the veteran superstars who signed this letter start today. I think I know the answer: McCartney, Bush et al would desperately download their songs fearing the worst – and then hand out a virtual tip jar that, to any objective eye, would look more like a begging bowl.