The epic handshake meme where one arm says "musicians," the other arm says "music journos," and their handshake says "solidarity."

Would you congratulate me if I got a job at Spotify?

By: Michael Rancic | Meme by: Michael Rancic

Watching musicians and music journalists congratulate someone who landed an editorial job at Spotify is a moment from last year that will stick with me for a long time. The announcement arrived on Twitter less than a month after artists like Santigold and Animal Collective canceled their respective tours, citing that it would be impossible for them to recoup their costs if they went ahead. It was hard to not feel nauseated seeing the wave of congratulations with this recent news in my mind — the dissonance between the kindness on display and the worsening conditions of our industry was truly bizarre to witness.

Why are we congratulating this?

Opportunities for journalists in this country are few and far between, and only diminishing. For many, the Spotify gig is a rare chance to be able to do what we do best for a living, and actually have our work affect the lives of artists and the tastes of fans alike. Spotify Canada says they have 11 million users — what music publication in Canada has that kind of reach? What music publication in Canada pays a living wage to do it? You’d be a fool to not try for that job. 

What happens when that living wage is made possible by exploiting the very artists you’d be using that platform to champion? In an ideal situation, our work can help turn people on to new music, feature emerging artists, shine a light on the vital work happening within communities, and help provide context for the music that people fall in love with each day. What do our words, respective tastes, or areas of expertise even matter if ultimately the result of that work contributes to the further devaluing of music as an art form, and further marginalization of musicians in our country? 

Figures from Comparably estimate that a Spotify editor makes somewhere in the realm of $79,000 USD a year (around $105,370 CAD). Spotify claims it doesn’t pay artists/rights holders per stream, but instead by their “streamshare” in a given month (the monthly percentage of streams that their work accounts for in their country), so the per stream rate actually fluctuates. But whether the service pays out $0.003 or $0.005 USD per stream, focusing on that number feels like splitting hairs — or pennies — it’s a fraction of what those artists should be paid for their work. By those rates, it would take roughly over 26 million streams for an artist to make equivalent to that paid editor staff position at the tech company. Even at a more modest $50,000 USD a year (around $66,700 CAD), an artist would need over 16 million streams to reach that sum. To put that in perspective: an artist clearing that much in royalties from the streaming service would require more than one play per registered Spotify user in the country, which is a kind of ubiquity most artists that we spotlight here at New Feeling only dream about. And that’s just for one job. Spotify has an entire editorial team, not to mention all of the coders and other staff who keep the tech company afloat.

Let me be clear: this critique is not an indictment of the person who took the job, others who’ve made the same choice before them, or the people who congratulated them. As journalists, we’ve been put in an untenable position where the only choices afforded to us to be able to do what we love is to do so at someone else’s expense. This struggle is an issue we all have to navigate, but one that I’m hopeful we can begin to navigate together.

Last month, Spotify proved just how necessary and urgent it is to understand how these struggles are intertwined when CEO Daniel Ek announced a company-wide restructuring, laying off 6% of their staff worldwide. That figure translates to roughly 600 workers, including editors and coders. Though still operating at a loss in terms of yearly revenue, this series of layoffs, along with news of a promising close to 2022 (thanks to a spike in earnings and member growth), spurred a rise in the company’s stocks, their best day on the market in a year. Shareholders come before employees and musicians alike, all because the platform paid too much for Joe Rogan’s podcast. Can you imagine who will bear the brunt of things if artists are ever in a position to negotiate higher rates from Spotify in the future? It won’t be the shareholders. This hierarchy is exactly how capitalism and competition sow division between workers who can and should be organizing alongside one another. This current restructuring is part of an industry-wide trend amongst tech and media behemoths like Amazon, Google, and VoxMedia who are all cutting costs through their workforce, despite performing well in 2022. 

Stay respectable, stay employable

Respectability demands that we congratulate the peer who nabbed a rare gig, even if that job is inherently bound up in the extractive policies that make our profession harder and harder to do, because how polite and agreeable we seem affects our own employability. A nice smile and “congrats” to the person who has their hands in your pockets fishing around for cash is both a survival tactic and a coping mechanism. That’s not to say that the congratulations in this case were insincere — we all want to see our peers do well — but these kinds of interactions, especially highly visible ones on social media platforms like Twitter, are invariably tied up in the politics of the insecure working conditions that dominate the lives of musicians and journalists alike.

In “Never Employable Enough: The (Im)possibility of Satisfying the Boss’s Desire” Ciara Cremin writes about how the scarcity of good, well paying work coerces workers to adjust their behaviours in line with the expectations of an imaginary “spectral” boss. “Because we cannot afford to rely for our satisfactions on employment in a single company given the perceived insecurity of labour, desire cannot be directed to appeal to the desire of one boss in particular. To remain in contention for jobs and promotions we seek the approval of a generalized boss, a non-existent big Boss: a spectre of capitalism: the spectral boss.” Cremin, a critical theorist based in New Zealand, points to the means-testing of unemployment benefits like welfare as an example of how this notion of a universal, omnipresent boss is reinforced. 

When it was being distributed, part of the qualifications for receiving CERB involved applicants confirming that they were actively looking for work, and that they were not turning down legitimate opportunities for employment. Applicants were also required to have made at least $1,000 in the previous tax year, barring anyone facing unemployment prior to COVID-19 from using CERB, and later CRB, as support that they could leverage to change their situation. In determining whether or not we were even worthy of receiving financial aid, that worth was rooted in our capacity to generate wealth as workers, not in our wellbeing as people. 

This reality is one that disabled and unhoused folks have had to contend with forever, and was especially made apparent during the first year of the pandemic, as CERB payments were almost double that of monthly disability allowances from programs like the Ontario Disability Support Program.The Canada Revenue Agency even launched a snitch line to encourage the public to report people suspected of receiving these aids illegitimately. Capitalism asks us to surveil ourselves and others in the name of demonstrating our own obedience and commitment to it, because doing so might impact our employability. We’ve all had that coworker who times other peoples’ breaks, going so far as to inform management when there’s an indiscretion. 

Within this panoptic and precarious dynamic, scarcity breeds further anxiety about our own employability, forcing us to fixate on how we can improve ourselves in the eyes of our spectral boss. “Rather than the structural relations that determine employment, it is the worker who becomes the cause for disappointing employment histories: she has to overcome herself if her prospects are to improve,” Cremin writes. Our gaze turns inward to self-improvement, blinding us to the structural relations that really determine and shape our employability. These fears are legitimate — work is hard to come by — putting us in a double bind where it makes social and professional sense to congratulate someone on taking a job we’re all well aware is making things actively worse.

Cremin’s observations are echoed by Amelia Horgan in Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism. “Today’s workers are expected to excise the scalpel on their own personalities. Productivity, once primarily a question of national statistics, becomes an ethos, guided by apps and hacks designed to make you the best possible version of yourself,” Horgan writes. “Of course, this process of optimization can yield results that are positive, that feel fulfilling, but the question of what we are self-optimizing in service of can’t be answered without reference to the diminishing chances of securing a job.” I’m currently looking for full-time or part-time work and making a habit of locking my Twitter account every time I fire off another application, even though I largely use it to share my professional accomplishments and published work. The instinct to hide that part of myself comes from uncertainty of whom I’m actually trying to appeal to. That lack of specificity makes us all work harder to find creative ways to become appealing and likable.

As Cremin notes above, this inward, self-critical gaze and preoccupation with surveillance and self-improvement also creates barriers toward seeing and understanding the structures that actually shape our work and how capitalism socially constructs our relationships to other people. These barriers also sap time, energy, and perspective away from organizing around our labour and actively make doing so undesirable. If you’re underpaid, underemployed, and under the assumption that the problem is you, what incentive is there to band together with your competition? And if you do eventually land a job, any job, we’ve seen in recent high profile cases at Amazon and Starbucks that starting a union could be grounds for dismissal. But for the working conditions of journalists and musicians to improve, we need to work in league and build solidarity together.

What can solidarity look like? 

To even imagine a world where it’s actually frowned upon to be taking a job that actively hurts, marginalizes, and exploits others’ art and ideas, we first need to nurture solidarity, and that begins with understanding what solidarity actually means. Solidarity is a relationship built on the foundations of reciprocity, sympathy, and mutual support. It’s that relationship that becomes the basis for collective action. 

We can strengthen that relationship by recognizing our commonalities. We share this “spectral boss,” which shapes and determines so much of our actions and behaviours, not just in the music industry but for all working class people. All of us live under and are influenced by white supremacy, settler-colonialism, and capitalism. All of us are subject to the skyrocketing costs of living, housing unaffordability, and conservative governments that are forwarding agendas of austerity that gut social programs and assistance. Professionally, we work from project to project, are underpaid for our work, and often have to chase clients for months to be paid. The work we create itself is used to generate wealth for multinational corporations, venture/vulture capitalists, landlords, real estate investment firms, and tech companies. The conditions of that work often force us to put our own health and wellbeing at risk because getting sick means not getting paid. If journalists are not approaching our work with this understanding of our interdependence and the intersectional forms of oppression that relate our struggles with that of artists and musicians, then there is no point in doing it. When our writing focuses on artistic merit alone, it obscures the political contexts that led to the creation of the music. 

It’s also important to recognize our differences. One of the reasons why there isn’t a stronger sense of solidarity between journalists and musicians right now is because there is an imbalance in this relationship that engenders mistrust. I see this often manifested as “if you’re not a musician, you shouldn’t write about music,” a sentiment I obviously disagree with, but one that I can’t blame musicians for harboring. If I were a musician and saw journalists fawning over jobs at Spotify when I can’t afford to even tour, I wouldn’t trust us either. I would also be skeptical of efforts to unionize, like the Apple Together movement at Apple, or the Alphabet Workers’ Union and striking Youtube Music/Cognizant workers, when the unionization literature makes no mention of either company’s exploitative policies around compensating artists for their work. Music journalists, our editors, and publication owners hold so much sway over the lives and livelihoods of the artists we write about (even the ones we choose not to). We need to acknowledge that imbalance, and in doing so, take it upon ourselves to build that trust by understanding how our struggles are linked, and approach our work through that lens. 

Dr. Anita Varma, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Media at UT Austin, leads the Solidarity Journalism Initiative, which supports journalists to improve coverage of marginalized communities and resists the notion that journalists can, or should, be neutral in their reporting. The Initiative has prepared a very helpful guide on Solidarity Journalism in practice. Varma writes: “Solidarity in journalism means that journalists stand for basic human dignity and against suffering, and is practiced through newsworthiness judgments, sourcing, and framing that center the lived experiences of people subjected to unjust conditions. The decision to report – or not report – on these conditions inherently leaves neutrality behind.”

Ultimately the greatest way to build solidarity is through action. We must align ourselves with the political causes of artists, for instance: refusing to attend or cover shows that take place at venues and festivals where management takes a cut of merch costs, in line with Cadence Weapon’s #MyMerch Campaign. We can refuse to attend or cover shows at venues and festivals that are not physically accessible for our disabled colleagues. We can refuse to attend or cover shows at venues and festivals without masking policies in place, because we know they create a higher risk of COVID-19 infection and isolate immunocompromised people from our scenes, and we know that pandemic denial is directly related to the affordability crisis pushing artists and creatives out of urban centres. 

Together, we can resist precarity. In the same way that sharing pay rates with one another increases our collective ability to bargain for fairer compensation, finding commonality through the exploitative nature of our work helps build empathy and collective power. Invariably the only way forward is through bold steps like divesting ourselves from streaming services like Spotify entirely, but for that or other initiatives like a general strike to be successful, they require solidarity.