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

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. 

Issue 5 – Editor’s Note

Art by Michael Rancic; Peter Rock’s “Brown Leaf” courtesy of Pexels

Welcome to the fifth issue of New Feeling! 

This one is particularly exciting for us because its release marks a new milestone: we are now 100% reader and member funded. 

From the beginning of this project, we didn’t want to make the same mistakes we’d seen and experienced at other outlets with regard to ownership and funding, and how those complex relationships can often take precedence over, and negatively influence, the work. So as a cooperative we’ve been very adamant that however we go about funding our work and paying the writers and artists we work with, it has to be in line with our values

We want to produce quality writing from perspectives you don’t often see or hear from in the Canadian music media landscape, and we want to pay for that work fairly. At some point during our careers, most if not all of us at New Feeling have been asked to write for free. Being able to compensate for that labour is a priority of ours exactly because we know how pervasive it is and how the unpaid labour of so many writers props up a system and model that doesn’t have their interest in mind. 

This latest issue feels like a huge step in that direction, but being funded by our members poses a new challenge, which is evident in the overall size and scope of this issue. We’re only into our third month of fundraising and membership drives, and have yet to hit the funding targets we set for ourselves to be able to afford to produce the kind of work we had been doing previously out-of-pocket. 

This new reality has forced us to think on our feet and be creative with how we use the funds we have. Ultimately, our Editorial working group chose to focus on record reviews as it allowed us to cast a wider net by covering and engaging with a greater number of musicians, and it allowed us to work with a greater number of freelancers. Two new freelancers appear in this issue, Montréal’s Dave MacIntyre and Yara El-Soueidi. 

You’ll also see reviews from familiar names like Tom Beedham, Jesse Locke, Michael Rancic, Laura Stanley, and Daniel G. Wilson. 

The real showpiece of this issue is Kaelen Bell’s scene report from Winnipeg, Manitoba, the latest instalment of our column Yes In My Backyard. We were lucky enough to work with Kaelen for our previous issue, and when it came time to commission another report from a scene that doesn’t get enough love, we knew exactly who to ask. Kaelen’s enthusiasm for Winnipeg is evident in the thoughtful way he introduces each act, and the spectrum of sounds his report covers. We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we did. 

If you’re a regular reader or this is your first time, welcome! Either way, if you like what you’ve read, please consider subscribing to New Feeling. We rely on the support of our readers and members to continue doing this work and to help build this platform into a sustainable one.

– Michael Rancic

Tush – Fantast

Do Right! Music
Toronto, ON
RIYL: Love Touch Records; Escort; Lisa Shaw

Some 40 years after it was pronounced “dead,” disco endures and is just as relevant today thanks to artists who understand the style’s transformative power. The opulence of the typically rich vocals, basslines, and arrangements can alter any regular checkerboard dance floor into a lavish and unforgettable dream. Toronto’s Tush draw on this power with their modern take on the sound, wielding it with an aspirational and motivational point of view.

With its encouraging bass and drums, “Don’t Be Afraid” anchors the record through both its original version and as a reprise on the second half. “There’s always time,” vocalist Kamilah Apong assures early on, as buzzing electronics offer an unsettling counterpoint, like drifting doubt. But her voice cuts through the uncertainty, and the live instrumentation (led by Tush’s other half, Jamie Kidd) rises in supportive response. Layer after layer the song builds to a decadent crescendo, as a chorus of voices repeat the song’s title, urging Apong to vamp it up and show off her vocal range.

The record is full of moments like these, where irresistible grooves meet thoughtful lyrical affirmation. Those highs are made all the more impactful by recordings Apong made of family members in Black River, Jamaica speaking to the way the songs encourage listeners to confront their challenges head-on. These interludes of personal conversation add a feeling of intimacy, strengthen the thematic backbone of the record, and give the album peaks and valleys that make it an exceptional listen. 

Michael Rancic

Secret Witness – Volume I

Secret Witness
Volume I
Bienvenue Recordings
Montréal, QC
RIYL: DIANA; late night rideshares across town; Everything But the Girl

Four artists at the top of their game—house producers Gabriel Rei and Gene Tellem, pop singer/songwriter Laroie, and percussionist Pascal Deaudelin—join forces for this fruitful collaboration that sees each stretching their abilities creatively under a veil of darkness. 

The bubbly bass of “Endless Nights” pulls focus quickly, letting the introspective keys establish the nocturnal mood of the quartet’s debut EP. The sustained notes give a sense of the enduring shadow that the song title alludes to and which envelops the entire record, while Laroie’s voice is chopped and looped, stuck in time. 

As the material progresses, the band gels and moves away from comfort zones. The song that gives the group their name feels less rooted in house music and more in line with ’80s sophistipop, with the hand-percussion and laid back keys feeling lush and dramatic. Laroie delivers her self-reflective lyrics with a cool restraint that verges on a whisper. For a song that’s about being subsumed by feelings of jealousy, the group keeps things remarkably on the level, but in doing so they emphasize the subtle shifts in Laroie’s voice, and the way the song rises in tension as she reaches the chorus. 

For only six songs, what’s exceptional and exciting about this record is hearing how well everyone connects. Whether it’s on the instrumental “Refuge,” which with its glowing keys, insistent drums, and phasing electronics, leans in to the romance of the night, or EP highlight “Influence,” which features an excellent call-and-response vocal part from Laroie and guest Kris Guilty, Volume I is brimming with sharp songwriting talent and is enough to make any listener to never want the night to end. 

– Michael Rancic

Vince the Messenger – Trustfall

Vince the Messenger
Charlottetown, PEI
RIYL: LXVNDR; Chong Wizard; Da Grassroots

I think I learned about the risks of trust falls before I ever took part in one. By the time it came up in elementary school as a team-building exercise, I was already well aware of the chance that whoever I was paired with might choose comedy or cruelty over actually catching me. 

Whether those lessons actually help to engender trust amongst a group of people remains to be seen, but maybe the deepest truth they offer is that the nagging fear of misplacing your trust in someone never quite goes away. With Trustfall, Charlottetown’s preeminent emcee Vince the Messenger explores what happens when that trust is betrayed. 

The album art depicts Vince plummeting solo through the sky—leaving it open-ended as to whether he’s waiting to be caught—or falling because someone he’s relied upon has already let him down. 

“La Vie En Noir” suggests that regardless, Vince is persevering. Over a murky boom-bap beat, courtesy of local phenom niimo (who has been Vince’s primary collaborator, and who also produced LXVNDR’s killer Warmth EP), he finds renewed clarity and drive, rapping “Still the same Black boy, but now the wind in my sails / Momma told me go get ’em, so I’ma give ’em hell / They might wanna see me fail, but they fake when I prevail.” Elsewhere, a syrupy Smokey Robinson sample is the soundtrack to Vince outlining that the root of his power lies in his outsider status on album highlight “Black Sheep.” 

Though it’s made clear across the album’s 31 minutes that he’s been let down by others, the overlying message isn’t “trust no one” as much as it is “trust yourself”—as having that faith in your own abilities is key to picking yourself back up any time you fall. 

Michael Rancic

Three Headed Elephant – Queer Magic

Three Headed Elephant
Queer Magic
Montréal, QC
RIYL: Elevium/Doiron/Squire; Isaac Vallentin; Cedric Noel

Three Headed Elephant’s sophomore album is a study in doing a lot with very little. Songwriter Wolfgang Barbosa-Rocha is both a skilled vocalist and guitar player, and both talents are on full display on this collection of minimal songs. 

Barbosa-Rocha sings “I break so easily” on the album’s opening track, “Fantasia,” a fragility that is clearly communicated via the spare guitar and vocal arrangement. This no-frills approach pulls focus to the subtle changes that happen in each song and fosters a kind of intimacy, rather than lulling into a kind of sameness over time. 

Even at its most repetitive, as in the sprawling album highlight “Sunshine,” Barbosa-Rocha achieves a kind of beautiful hypnosis of wandering electric guitar and lyrical mantras that wax, flourish, and never outstay their welcome. The song clocks in at seven minutes but it could easily stretch twice the length and be just as divine. 

The minimal arrangements of the first half make the introduction of percussion on “Wild Thing” hit like a shock, giving an arc and shape to the album’s structure as the second side contains more performances with a full band. These nuances collectively affirm how thoroughly Barbosa-Rocha understands how even the slightest details make the world of difference, and make Queer Magic a truly affecting record. 

– Michael Rancic

Mustafa Rafiq – If I Were A Dance

Mustafa Rafiq
If I Were A Dance
Pseudo Laboratories
Edmonton, AB
RIYL: Lichen; Blume; Brandon Wint

A mainstay of Edmonton’s scene, experimental guitarist Mustafa Rafiq’s latest is a deeply contemplative and personal effort. 

The album takes its title from British-Somali author Diriye Osman’s short story of the same name (Osman’s art also serves as the album cover), which explores an intricate weaving of queer desire, domesticity, intimacy, performance, and intertextuality through layered narratives, making this a thrilling and rewarding project to dig into.

The first side of the album includes Rafiq’s collaboration with spoken word poet Dwennimmen, split across four tracks. Dwennimmen’s diction and delivery is careful and deliberate, letting every word hang in the air to be felt and imagined. Rafiq’s guitar work also looms but wavers in intensity like ichorous blots of marginalia in a text, adding emphasis in sweeping lines, asterisks of percussion, and strokes of inspiration. 

The entirety of side B contains Rafiq’s collaboration with Nepalese folk musician and multi-instrumentalist Bhuyash Neupane, a live recording taken from Rafiq’s first performance after an injury caused a months-long absence. Stretched over 15 minutes, Rafiq is given the opportunity here to exercise a kind of patient restraint, playing off of Neupane’s tabla and voice with their own guitar and vocal musings. 

When juxtaposed in this collection, these songs from two distinct projects create something wholly new and unique from anything we might have heard before from Rafiq in previous projects like Pyramid//Indigo, and hopefully just the beginning of the kind of thoughtful work we can expect in the future. 

– Michael Rancic

Gene Tellem – Mind Reader

Gene Tellem
Mind Reader
WOLF Music
Montréal, QC
RIYL: D. Tiffany; DJ Dial-On; Gabriel Rei

Seeing Gene Tellem at MUTEK in 2019 was both a highlight of the festival, and without question a highlight of my music writing career. The Montréal-based producer lit up the room over the course of her set opening for Chicago luminary Jlin. My notes from that night recount the experience in point form: “superb,” “fluid rhythms,” and “transcendent.”

Her second release with the U.K.-based label WOLF Music brings much of those same danceable instincts, and the intuition in regard to energy and atmosphere that I found so enthralling that night two years ago. Lead track “Ain’t Got Everything” grooves steadily right out the gate, with shimmering synths creating a counterpoint of treacly stasis to the driving beat, irresistible bassline, and vocal earworm. Connecticut-based veteran producer Jenifa Mayanja homes in on the track’s atmospheric tension for her remix on side B, letting it build before cutting it with some grounded acoustic percussion. 

The EP’s two other tracks also bring the heat, with the chopped vocals and urgent tempo of ‘Mind Readers’ challenging the compelling bassline to keep up, while the victory lap of “2nd Time Around” closes out the minor-key introspection of the three prior tracks with an all-out party. Though it’ll be a while still before we can all hear these songs properly in a club, this cerebral mix of four great tunes gives listeners plenty to get lost in. 

– Michael Rancic 

Bleu Kérosène – L’artifice de l’aube

Bleu Kérosène
L’artifice de l’aube
Quebec City, QC
RIYL: Patrick Watson; Daniel Bélanger; Half Moon Run

Bleu Kérosène’s origins stem from a gift pianist Jérémie Hagen-Veilleux gave to his sister, Erika Hagen-Veilleux, in the form of piano instrumentals written to support her spoken word poetry. It’s surprising then to hear how much this project has developed into a cohesive band, doing more than just acting as window-dressing for someone else’s songs or ideas.

If anything, Erika’s confidence and range give the band permission to also be as open and exploratory with their own parts which are complementary but never get lost in the mix. “Le fracas” is a bold and jaunty EP opener that feels jazzy with its choice of clean guitar, brushed snare, lively bass, and climbing woodwind parts (c/o guest Antoine Bourque). “Child,” the only song sung in English on the EP, follows, and also feels like the moment where the material really hits its stride—it’s complex but also unremittingly gorgeous. Its juxtaposition with the previous song makes the band’s sound difficult to pin down. The ensuing songs don’t make that challenge any easier as they flirt with styles across a continuum of post-rock, baroque, and jazz pop. 

While there’s nothing here as explosive as the album title, L’artifice de l’aube (the fireworks of dawn), might suggest, what Bleu Kérosène have accomplished is less about the bombast of a pyrotechnics show and more closely resembles the careful choreography of colours, shapes, and contours that are at play.

Michael Rancic