Mat Dryhurst is an artist, researcher, writer and lecturer based in Berlin.
Now more than ever, questions about who owns music, who funds its creation and who is profiting from its commodification are being raised. Whether it’s Kanye West fighting to reclaim his masters, or electronic producers eschewing established release schedules to drop music directly to fans each Bandcamp Friday, the traditional makeup of the music industry and the power structures within it are shifting. The traditional model, which sees major labels offering small profit splits while artists tour tirelessly to recoup costs, no longer makes sense in the new normal, where tours are postponed indefinitely and the bulk of a label’s promotional work can be done from your own laptop.
Commonly, this shift is framed as a move towards increased artist independence. If an artist can now keep the rights to their own music, market it themselves via social media, and sell or stream it directly to fans online, what role do labels, distributors and outside institutions have left to play?
According to Mat Dryhurst, though, the independent model misses something, and is not one that we should be embracing so wholeheartedly. Not only are the tools most commonly used to implement it – Spotify, Facebook, Instagram – designed to take advantage of its users, but the life of a wholly independent artist is an isolated and lonely one. Instead, we should look to pioneering models that favour interdependence: where networks of worker-owned co-operatives – labels, publications, studios, venues – band together to take control and collective ownership of the scenes they are so vital in creating.
Ahead of an upcoming Zoom workshop, held as part of FIBER Festival 2020, Dryhurst has compiled a list of reading materials and resources. Here, he introduces the topic of interdependence versus independence.
When attempting to conceive of what an interdependent music might look like, I think it is useful to abstract away from common and overplayed music industry and internet folklore, and focus on contemporary and historical projects that perhaps offer different ways to organise ourselves around different values. I find conversations about streaming micropayments or selling wax to be dull, and miss the fundamental point that there are so many opportunities that scene musics have to transform themselves that don’t exist in other areas. Here are some ideas that I think are far more inspiring, and increasingly feasible.
A Power Stronger Than Itself: The A.A.C.M. and American Experimental MusicBy George E. Lewis
Holly [Herndon] and I are conceptually indebted to Professor George Lewis’ work, both as a scholar and an artist. His book covering the history of the AACM (of which he was a member) is a remarkable read, and an example of how collective structures can produce significant aesthetic breakthroughs and also provide a means for individuals to shine as part of a robust group.
His early work with machine learning also serves as a beautiful parallel narrative for collaboration between artist and machine, contrary to the skynet kitsch stories that are far more common – and dull. His talk at CTM on improvising computers is a great primer.
Computer Lib/Dream MachinesTed Nelson
I also owe a debt to Ted Nelson, whose original vision for hypertext and other designs articulated in Computer Lib/Dream Machines present a counterfactual of how the web could have been. Nelson’s sensical ideas of hard attribution between sources are still relevant today, and beyond that serve as a reminder that there are no inevitable conclusions as to how we might organise ourselves through technology. I find this particularly important to remember when conversations often drift in to what I would describe as a streaming fatalism. The future of the music economy need not involve us debating the rent or sale of files that are a reductive proxy for the true value of music in our lives. Nothing is inevitable, and it ought to be whatever we want it to be.
NorthEast Investment Cooperative
Space and communion is the lifeblood of most of the music I care about. We record so that we can perform. Many make music so they can hear their work in a club with others.
Over the past few years I’ve become obsessed with the idea of network-owned clubs. Rather than focusing on streaming atomised files for pennies, what would it mean to instead invite investment to support a space that produced and consummated a particular kind of music? Why can’t a global community of people who cherish a certain style of music, of place and purpose invest in a space to ensure its continued thriving? I find the idea quite beautiful.
The NEIC is interesting as they’ve used an investment vehicle known as an REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust) to allow for a coop of neighbours in the Minneapolis area to collectively buy and provide space to small businesses. It’s a win/win, as rather than have extractive property speculators step in, the coop members get to democratically vote on the future of their town, help others out and also all share in the proceeds of the value generated. Similar arrangements in music are not too difficult to imagine.
DAO (Decentralised Autonomous Organisation) models are compelling as they allow for mini coop/guilds to emerge online, pool funds and vote on where to send the funds to. Moloch is one of the more mature ones, and currently has over a million dollars in its pool to give to proposals to benefit the Ethereum ecosystem. Last year they gave away $300k in grants to anyone whose open proposal was approved by the group. There are already ways to make your own DAO emerge that require no code skills, and I think in no time we will begin to see DAO labels and publications
The Ownership Economy / Headless Brands
I’m throwing these together as they correlate, but it’s valuable to qualify that the kind of collective models I am discussing are not just feel-good, granola-type idealism. As both these pieces clarify, there are already wildly popular and robust networks that operate through shared ownership. Recently a venture capital fund emerged who are making the big bet that the next major development of the web will be what they describe as “The Ownership Economy”, in which it is just expected that you own a piece of what you contribute to. These Variant Fund and Other Internet pieces both explain these developments very well.
Interdependence, or how I learned to love again on the dancefloorBy Jon Davies
In this piece and previous writings Jon really gets to the point of why we might want to focus on interdependence at all. I tend to spend time on infrastructural and economic stuff, but principally we agree that the fundamental value of music is in finding and sharing our lives with other people. We’ve been musicking and forming shared meaning in groups since before we had the mental capacity to comprehend our own actions. It is crucial to acknowledge how irreplaceable communion and a sense of belonging in place is to our mental health and sense of hope.
If you are interested in these topics, Holly and I have been having casual but high level conversations with people attempting to create bridges between what we see as important 21st century conversations happening in culture, tech and politics. We have already seen examples of discussions having an impact on decisions people are making within different industries, which validates the time spent on it so far. It’s also really affirming to talk to people who are building stuff. We might not always agree but particularly during Covid it has been helpful to feel some assurances that there is some cause for cautious optimism! You can find our Patreon page for the podcast here.
Mat Dryhurst will appear at FIBER Festival, which runs from 24-27 September