Almost fifteen years in, streaming giant Spotify has been in the medial crossfires more than just once, most recently in the Neil Young / Joe Rogan controversy over vaccine-sceptical podcast episodes, which soon led to the public assault by the country-folk legend and his swift exit from the platform, along with other notable artists. Yet, while enraged outcries were (reasonably) quick to condemn the flawed schemes of the Swedish company, the perspective of the public protest has missed the opportunity to connect the issue at hand with the even larger problem that the streaming service poses for the artist world – to become a fair and sustainable platform for musicians to distribute their music on.

“During the pandemic I was very much made aware how fragile our artistic existences are, because there are no safety nets. We aren’t making as much money as we probably should. It’s not a very reliable business to be in.” (Joel Jerome, Union Of Musicians And Allied Workers)

Joel Jerome is the right man to talk to about this matter and as I reach him via Zoom over at Los Angeles, he appears more than dedicated to the subject – in fact, rarely have I spoken with an artist so keen on getting his message across. A “musician, engineer and producer” himself, he has got his “fingers in everything musically”, he inserts and thus knows what he is talking about. When the pandemic hit, he quickly joined the newly founded Union Of Musicians And Allied Workers (UMAW), which basically is an association advocating for the rights and concerns of everyone earning his or her money in the business of music – from songwriters and recording artists to producers, engineers and stage hands. The organisation was fuelled by the Covid crisis for the arts sector, but it is safe to say that its roots go back to rotten structures established long before the wake-up call of 2020.

Spotify: A Broken System

As convenient as the Spotify platform is from a user-perspective, and as “compulsory” it is from an artist-point-of-view, the business model of Spotify is one that defies fair compensation and representation, Joel emphasises. The system “was broken from the beginning”, he remarks. “They may have ‘saved’ the industry, but none of the musicians got any richer. None of the musicians who they built the industry on got anything from that”. During the pandemic, he outlines, “where everyone was losing money, Spotify’s evaluation increased by three times. None of the artists, none of the rights holders got more money from any of that stuff. So there’s obviously an imbalance. They are obviously making a lot more money than they need to make just to be a glorified digital jukebox“. 

“The general consumer is getting the world’s music for ten dollars a month. They are getting a good deal. I’m sure they are not thinking: “Wait a second, is ten dollars actually enough to pay for all music, that’s ever been made?” Obviously it’s not. They’re enjoying the platform, it’s obviously a user-friendly platform, it is interacting, you can find new artists, all that stuff is great.”

“There is no way they should make more than artists… and it’s been like that for a while”, he goes on and illustrates the absurd proportions to which Spotify has managed to evolve from a medium to a hierarchic distributive system which favours established musicians with a broad reach and casts aside user-artist relations completely:

“They say they are supporting artists by giving them money, but they are not talking about how much money they are not giving artists, by taking the profits from them. They are not helping artists. They are exploiting artists.”

That is where the organisation steps in, fuelled by a collective anger about the enormous injustices and discrepancies of the age of streaming:

“We at the UMAW are just trying to educate people about the fairness of Spotify and other streaming platforms. And that’s the thing, they don’t know about it. They just know a good platform, the experience of all their favourite music in it. They love this music and they get to hear it everywhere. That’s great, but what they also need to know, is that the artists that they are loving, are not getting that love back. They are not getting the subscription back, they are not getting the fair compensation. People are becoming billionaires, getting rich, except for the musicians. The fact that the CEO of Spotify is worth how many more times than Paul McCartney is, tells you everything you need to know. One of the biggest musicians and bands of all time is nowhere near as rich as the CEO of a digital jukebox. So that’s inherently something wrong there.”

The Organisation

With Covid as “the main catalyst” for the union, amplifying concerns like “unemployment, how we get paid, issues with labels, contracts, venue safety” and so on, the UMAW essays to tackle the manifold flaws in the music industry from a political perspective.

“It’s a union, we’re dealing with labour, we’re dealing with exploitation and we’re dealing with people in charge. Sometimes the only way to make rich people or the people in charge do the right things is the law, changing the law.”

And while the addressed issues largely revolve around the simple and ever so vital question of payment, the Union Of Musicians And Allied Workers is not yet another activist endeavour – at least not only that – but seeks to change the rules of the game via political visibility and to changing the very structures an economically driven system like Spotify thrives upon:

“One of our issues for our organisation is also trying to get royalties for people who play on the records that you hear. If you stream a song, the band, or the non-feature artists don’t get any of that money. They should also be paid. So, the only way you get that done is through legislation changes or some sort of pressure. We have to reach out to everything. To the private sector, to the political sector, we have to try to build coalitions and talk to everybody and see what we can do.”

The Goals

Asked about the crucial goals of the UMAW, it all boils down to three imperatives for Joel, and he is not short really emphasising the essence of them in a convincing manner: Our main goal is fair pay, he advocates.We are not getting paid enough. The music industry is growing, the streaming industry is growing, making a lot of money, and the musicians aren’t getting what they deserve out of it.” Second of all, the issue of transparency is vital to the values of the UMAW, as he explains:

Joel Jerome, artist, activist and advocate for the good cause. (photo by Julia Brokaw)

“We want to know how the percentages they come up with, how the deals with labels, how all that happens and how all that goes. We would like a say, how much we get paid. So transparency on how they work, we also believe they make money in other ways that don’t pay musicians, like data collection, a very big thing in the 2020s. Data is the new oil. A big company like Spotify that collects a lot of data on a lot of people’s habits, can be sold, which you can make a lot of money on, afford to advertise for a soccer team, whatever it is they are trying to buy next. A lot of money comes in from that.”

Last but not least, in a matter of summing it up, we want them to stop fighting artists and goes on  about a copyright percentage increase for copywriters and songwriters, Spotify was supposed to pass on to them. They have to pay it, but they are in court now, trying not to pay it. In other words, one of the few ways artists and songwriters can make money, and we finally get a raise and they trying to fight against that.”

The Means Of Revolution

“Most people that stream don’t understand or don’t even know we are not getting paid properly”, Joel laments and I can only sense the underlying frustration of sentences like that, coming from a man who is in favour of the idea of having music at the palm of your hands”. Yet, action needs to be had and for Joel it is first those things like protests, to make sure people understand the situation” and how this is affecting their favourite artists for making music”.

“We are trying to take that energy to figure out how to change it. We have a lot of things in the works: possible legislation, getting the stuff done through the law, if it’s not on a federal level it’s on a state level. I’m from Los Angeles in California luckily, so if there is any kind of progressive law that can be passed, California can be able to do it. And if there’s ways to do that, we’re working on that. The other part is to put these plans to action. But we are also fairly new as an organisation. We’re getting our bearings, we trying to figure out how to do this.”

However, the way is a stony one for sure. “No one’s been in a union before, no one’s a professional organiser”, the musician remarks – and a young organisation like the Union Of Musicians And Allied Workers depends on the help of many angry and disobedient minds to make a consumer’s giant like Spotify shake.

“We are all learning and trying to figure out what’s the solution to these things. Right now we are leading a lot to legislation or future legislation, and really just reaching out to Spotify and other DSPs [digital service provider] and trying to get the conversation going and see what they are going to say, trying to make this work for everybody.”

The solution’s not all that simple though, as Joel himself asserts vividly. Much rather he appears as someone amidst the struggle against the machine and it is hard to not instantly want to join his appealing and refreshing narrative:

“The way it works now, the money goes in the big pool and is all split up. There’s math involved. It’s not only paying the people you listen to. There’s ways to make it fair. It would start with just changing the percentages. We’re talking about greedy companies, greedy investors. It’s capitalism at its worst, you know? And musicians are an easy target, we have always been an easy target. But also not to be so negative, what are the possible viable ways to do this? A great way may be through legislation, we are trying to find out.”

Step Into Action

Admittedly, we are all part of the system, and even our beloved blog is doing too little to break Spotify’s hegemony, although one might regard our fresh focus towards artist-curated playlists one inch away from the seductive lures of the algorithm the industry has come down to. There is yet a long way to go and we are looking into strategies to elude the structures. 

“One of the best ways to support artists is to buy their music. You can stream their music, but how about buying the records, buying the T-shirts, go see them live. Very simple. All of us have a Bandcamp… they have Bandcamp Fridays, where they don’t charge their fees on Friday. I have heard so many musicians tell me they made more on one Bandcamp Friday than they do in a whole year of streaming, by far.”

In the end, taking action comes down to everybody themselves and it may just be the little things that matter the most, driven by individual appreciation of the artists, without whom all of this would not be possible in the first place. It all may seem an unpromising fight these days, but in the end, every bit of action matters – and the story of the Union Of Musicians And Allied Workers is a vivid indicator how collective uprising may result in the promise of change and progress. Come and join the party.

You can find out more on the Union Of Musicians And Allied Workers, join their association or donate to their cause.