How to build the future music industry we want and need
I made an album last year that was heavily inspired by feminist science fiction and took place on a parallel world called Ardis. An “ardis” is the point of an arrow: a nexus in space and time, and a helpful symbol for thinking about the future. My planet Ardis was a bizarro Earth; it was Earth, mutatis mutandis (which translates to, “the necessary changes having been made”). I liked using that philosophical tool, mutatis mutandis, to reframe the problems of today — applying hopeful future vision to glimpse what a better world might look like.
In some ways, making Ardis prepared me for the task of writing this guide, and grappling with hypothetical futures for the music industry from a perspective of hope. What are the necessary changes we can enact now to pave the way forward? And do we, music workers, have the power to make them? These are big questions, and when framed in macro terms can feel overwhelming. But once you adjust your lens, the constituent parts of the question become clearer, and the problem more answerable. Science fiction plays with scale and perspective all the time, maybe we as music workers should do the same.
Since releasing Ardis, I’ve become better acquainted with the present status of the music industry through a project I started called Future Music Industry, an online compendium of music organizations with womxn and non-binary people in leadership. The intention behind creating that list was to provide an alternative to the fairly homogenous (white, straight, cis male) gatekeepers of the industry, and to offer artists and industry workers a resource for working with and empowering organizations that have more diverse leadership. Making the Future Music Industry list empowered me to engage critically and thoughtfully with the state of the industry, and directly informed the content of this guide. Correspondingly, the directives contained here will serve as a charter for the future of that project.
The advice you’ll find in this guide is not purely based on my own experience and opinion. In preparation for writing this, The Creative Independent and I partnered to create a survey geared toward illustrating a vision for a better future music industry. Nearly 300 musicians and industry workers shared their input and experiences, and the guidance contained in this guide directly pulls from and synthesizes those survey responses. As we combed through the collected data, major themes emerged — including key challenges and unanimously agreed-upon pathways for improvement. I’ve attempted to synthesize those themes here, and as each is described, you’ll see corresponding quotes pulled directly from survey participants. If you’d like to read a more detailed list of key takeaways from the survey findings, please take a look at the full report here.
I encourage you to explore what follows with an “Ardisian” attitude: imbued with a sense of future vision, and ready to thrive on a planet where the necessary changes have been made. Let’s nurture the future music industry tenderly. The fruits of creative labor are context-dependent, and we are the architects of that context. Together we can build a place that will be a good home for us, all of us.
— René Kladzyk
Editor’s note: This guide is part of our ongoing Music Industry Investigation, which includes essays, interviews, guides, and more — all in service of making today’s music industry a bit easier to navigate.
As a first key learning to surface in this guide, it’s necessary to point out how entirely dependent one’s music industry career is on their ability to have the right personal connections. This tendency is frustrating for those who lack access to opportunities, those who don’t want to hang out in bars late at night (for any number of very valid reasons), and those who live in more rural areas where it’s hard to find your people. So much decision-making happens through handshakes in green rooms and at parties, and it feels unfair because it is. However, there are ways that this same nepotistic urge that perpetuates the boys’ club and an exclusionary feedback loop can also be re-harnessed and corralled into a democratizing force.
We must tend carefully and conscientiously to our in-person music community and music-sharing experiences. Bookers, venue owners, promoters, artists, press, fans: all of you have a role in this. Live shows are a primary way that artists access opportunities, the most lucrative way they make money, and are extremely fun when done right. We put up with the garbage parts of the industry because of the profound joy of seeing and feeling music together in real time. In-person experiences of collaboration, collectives, live concerts, and local scene social dynamics are a critical realm for music industry improvement, and one that’s widely accessible.
Based on my personal experiences and insights from survey respondents, here are some ways to build your own career — and the future music industry we want and need — through tending to your in-person music community:
Be radically kind.
This one might sound obvious, but it’s worth analyzing how your kindness can genuinely affect your career, your relationships, and the industry as a whole. Be careful of ego and nurture your personal and professional music industry relationships with a high level of care. Not because you hope the people you’re nice to will someday help you out (though they probably will), but because they are human beings and (like you) work in a very difficult field.
Find your people, and aggressively support each other.
Join a collective (or start one!); participate in your local scene and help it grow. Many survey respondents shared stories about how they found their voice and a community to support them by organizing, joining up with others, and forming active groups.
“Collectives enable people to manifest their own heterotopias and bring them into the world. By creating their own rules and leading by example, these groups have forced changes to venues, culture, festivals, and legislation rather than waiting for change to happen top down.”
Find ways to consistently give back.
Share resources, recognize your privilege, and help others who lack the opportunities you have. If you’re a more experienced artist or professional, consider mentoring someone new to the field — many survey respondents noted the need for more mentorship opportunities as a way to concretely improve the music industry. Be part of a grassroots change for the better by thinking beyond your personal interests and offering the spirit of generosity to your creative community, in whatever way feels appropriate and doable for where you are in your career and the resources you have.
Prioritize diversity, inclusion, fairness, and transparency.
Among both musicians and non-musician industry workers, survey respondents overwhelmingly suggested that diversifying leadership in the industry would be a key way to affect positive change. But how do we get the old gatekeepers out and inject new energy and new perspectives into industry positions of power? Step one is opening access to opportunities as they emerge and avoiding insular “boys’ club” situations. Assess the specific ways that your creative community can be more diverse and open, and the role that you can play in pushing it in that direction — either by stepping up, or taking a step back. Think about who you uplift and why.
“We need more active change in individual decisions in the workplace rather than waiting for a broader industry change to come to you. Who are you supporting/paying/making money for? Are you taking time to redress the lack of diversity in your work? Are you taking the time to understand how your professional behaviour is creating a hostile environment for people who aren’t other white, cis, straight privileged men?”
Populate and promote safe spaces.
Venues have a tremendous responsibility in terms of creating and maintaining spaces that are free of harassment, discrimination, and intimidation. However, this responsibility also extends to so many others who work with venues: bookers, promoters, musicians, and press should be considerate of which spaces they occupy frequently and why. If not everyone would feel welcome or safe in the space you’re in, reconsider your participation in that space — be part of changing it for the better or don’t go there anymore.
“Creating inclusive, interesting, thought-provoking and safe community spaces always takes away from the prevalent ego-driven structure of things in the industry, and takes it back to the music and the dialogue surrounding it. Making music accessible and emphasizing its importance to the fabric of life, that is what will change things.”
“I’ve seen concrete smaller-scale effects in my own scene when bookers commit to more diverse lineups, and can see a straightforward path to broader change if larger booking agencies and promoters could commit to similar priorities.”
Step 2: Consider the ripple effects of your participation in the music industry. Then, write your own ethical code.
When I began creating this guide, I wanted it to be an easily implementable list of concrete actions that would galvanize industry folks to transform our collective landscape. I naively started to mentally compile blanket declarations & rules that I thought would improve things undeniably. It’s such an enticing notion, the universalizing urge. Unfortunately, as I’ve been reminded throughout this process, umbrella statements seldom fit all the varied dynamics that exist in this world and in this industry.
Consequently, I have an unsexy request to make of anyone reading this, that if enacted broadly will effect potent change: carefully and critically consider the ethics of your involvement in the music industry, and then write your own ethical code. And don’t just consider your personal code of conduct once; rather, make it an ongoing process of inward and outward reflection. Be a champion of fairness, mutual uplift, accountability, safety, and positive collective growth. Who will you work with? What ripple effects (or even direct effects) will you have?
Take out a pen and paper, and dedicate some time to composing your code of conduct. Consider these points while writing:
Identify your own values and standards.
When working with others in the music industry, what will you and won’t you tolerate? What amount of sacrifice are you willing to make in the interest of fairness? Of the safety of others? Take the space and time to critically consider who you are and who you would like to be to those in your creative community. Many survey respondents highlighted their frustration with people who perpetuate and prop up unfair practices and structures. Instead of falling into that camp, be able to pride yourself on being a person with strong values and high standards.
“Implementing ethical approaches, no matter how small the remit or impact, is important.”
Be accountable — both to yourself, and to others.
There is a wild-west sensibility within the music industry, and it enables people to get away with a lot of shitty behavior. So in this often-unstructured arena, you must first and foremost be accountable to yourself. Once you have identified your standards, uphold them in word and action. Be brave by being willing to express an unpopular opinion, to call out someone even if they are in a position of social power, to say no when appropriate and to make decisions that extend beyond personal gain to the needs of your broader community.
“I know it’s intimidating, but I try my best to call out shitty behavior when I see it, because I’m tired and I want people to be better.
“We’ve seen the craziest abuses in the industry — marketing firms taking $10,000 for 3-month campaigns, then going on vacation for 2 of those months. No one at the label says a word, so the artist is left with nothing. The lack of professionalism and accountability in the industry is staggering. Meanwhile, the artist affected by the poor decision is dumped on the street because another one can always be found.”
Check your privilege, and use it to help others whenever possible.
As we found in the survey, 25% percent of musicians and 34% percent of industry professionals self-identified as “financially privileged.” Of course economic privilege often also aligns with other forms of privilege, be that of race, gender, ability, and beyond. If you yourself benefit from some sort of privilege, know that you carry a greater ethical responsibility to counter the structures of inequality that shape the music industry. Opportunities are far more accessible to those who have a financial safety net, and financial insecurity is a key element to nearly every branch of the industry. Listen to those whose voices tend to be marginalized, and see what you can do to uplift and empower them.
“I would love to to be asked my opinion more by cis white men in the industry. I get tired of someone having to introduce me or explain what I do before someone is impressed.”
Are there implementable ways you can help improve your music community? While you’re composing your ethical code, list concrete things you can do that will help make your scene, the places you populate, and the people who operate within them better (more fair, more diverse, more safe). Maybe for you that means adding an inclusivity rider for shows that you play, or not booking/attending/promoting shows that have no diversity among artists. Perhaps it means supporting the work of artists who might otherwise be marginalized, and prioritizing fairness in money matters. There are many positions from which people approach and engage with the music industry, and the onus is on you to interrogate your position, the ways that you operate, and how on a day-to-day basis you can be part of a force that’s improving things.
When investigating the difficulty that artists and industry workers face in carving out a sustainable career, streaming services like Spotify are the music community’s prime suspects. The valuation schema of music has comprehensively changed in such a way that the creative labor of musicians is valued much less (in terms of dollars, at least). Listeners acquire and consume music differently now, and many of them have no idea how significantly streaming platforms have hurt the ability of independent musicians to survive. In researching this guide, I spoke with journalist Liz Pelly about the current streaming landscape. Pelly is a cultural commentator who has written extensively about the nature of streaming platforms like Spotify, and the sweeping effects they have on music consumption, music-makers’ livelihoods, and beyond. She identifies a key tension between the values of streaming platforms and the best interests of artists:
“As a starting point, anyone who is an artist or fan of music should think about which ways of releasing and supporting music feel most fair. And think about the extent to which they’re willing to give up a little bit of convenience in order to contribute to something that is more sustainable. At the same time, it’s also important to think about what things like ‘fair’ and ‘sustainable’ mean, for streaming but also within music more broadly.”
For artists and music industry workers, fairness of course is a primary concern. Unfortunately, this is not the case for ad-driven digital platforms. Convenience, mass accessibility, and a frictionless user experience always win in their cost-benefit ratio.
So what do we do? Musicians and those who work with them can make choices about the ways they engage with streaming platforms and fans. Although there is a tension implicit in the competing aims of creative integrity and the bottom line, there are overall gains to be made with improving the fairness of streaming services, and there’s real consensus across the industry that streaming platforms need to change in order to value music creators more highly.
Taking the above into consideration, below are a few tips for reevaluating your relationship with digital platforms.
Recognize the real harm caused by streaming services.
Survey respondents disproportionately identified streaming services as the sector of the music industry most in need of change. The primary problem? Services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal do not pay artists fairly for their creative labor. As primarily ad-driven platforms, streaming services are oriented toward passive music consumption, and this carries significant material consequences for working artists, independent labels, and beyond:
“I think we all need to wake up a little in terms of streaming. We all know it’s bad, we all know they’re tech companies, so why do we still use them? If there were a greater organized ban of at least Spotify throughout the music industry, could our voices start a new chapter and create a more sustainable future for artists?”
“I honestly think we’re all screwed if we’re depending on people in the tech biz. They are short-sighted and don’t care about musicians.”
Evaluate how you’re spending time on virtual platforms, and consider what you’re actually getting out of them.
Be conscientious about how and where you focus your efforts on online platforms like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, etc. Burnout is real and you can’t do everything. Which platforms and services present the greatest opportunities for uplift? Where is your work and voice most valued? Focus your time on platforms that nurture your growth and the growth of artists you believe in, and consider leaving those that do not.
“The advertising, capitalist model that a lot of these platforms are built on has exacerbated certain problems under the guise of everyone being ‘independent’ or accessible, and it’s a distortion of the worlds that were previously centered around community-building and barrier-breaking. I’ve heard horror stories of people booking tours based on streaming figures, and then being disappointed with the turnout. Your audience isn’t a metric.”
Voice your discontent, and ask your community to support you in ways that actually matter.
One of the most common refrains among survey respondents was dissatisfaction with the valuation schema of streaming services, and yet when I talk to people outside of the music industry, few of them have any idea how harmful these platforms are to those who make their living in the music industry. Be louder about how messed up, exploitative, and harmful these streaming platforms are. Let fans know that they do have choices, and that them making a slightly less convenient choice (like buying an album on Bandcamp) has a significantly positive impact for the sustainability of their favorite musicians.
From Liz Pelly, again:
“A lot of these companies like Spotify, streaming companies, social media platforms — they’re all banking on people’s need for convenience and seamlessness in their lives, and trying to find ways to capitalize on and profit off of that as much as possible. Within music, it’s important to remember that sometimes, even though it might seem small in the moment, it actually means something to go with the option that is perhaps less convenient but more beneficial to artists and music communities. That is sort of square one. Beyond that there is also more broadly the work of asking what it would look to reimagine the economic systems and power structures of music.”
Step 4: Be realistic about the nature of this industry, and consider your well-being and goals through that lens. Define success on your own terms.
The trajectory of the music industry in the past decade has been an oxymoron of capitalism. It somehow keeps getting more competitive and oversaturated, as it becomes less lucrative for the average musician. The playing field is hard, crowded, and in many ways fueled by a celebrity-obsessed attention economy that not only devalues creativity, but also leaves kind-hearted people by the wayside.
So, consider: what does success mean to you? I encourage you to step outside of normative definitions of success and instead look critically at who you are and who you’d like to be. What would make you happy? What would it take for you to thrive? What nourishes you and why do you do this work in the first place?
Take your pen and paper back out, and consider what success looks like for you. As you do, bear in mind the following:
Music is older than capitalism.
There’s a familiar narrative in the music industry involving a few megalithic gatekeepers, and an army of content-producing ants struggling to collect the crumbs they cast off. This is a story of capitalism, and it’s accurate enough. But it isn’t the only way to understand the world we work and play within.
When defining success for yourself, consider another story, one that’s older than capitalism. Music is fundamental to the human species. It flourishes in every part of the world, and has for as long as we’ve had voices and rhythmically pumping hearts. People will always need music, people will always cry to music and dance to music and make love to music and give birth to music and die to music. It’s essential, no matter what. When the towers of money crumble, we’ll be humming new world songs in the rubble. Although we exist within a system of capitalist power structures that are geared toward inequality, unfair distribution of resources, and hierarchy, it is not the only system of meaning-making that holds strong sway on planet earth.
Thriving looks different for different people.
Part of why capitalism is such an insidious lie is that it teaches us that everybody should want to be rich. But have you seen rich people lately? They’re miserable. Rich people are more likely to be depressed, more prone to addiction, stuck in an empty race where they can’t stop running because if they do they’ll have to face the fact that there’s nobody there at the finish line. Fame operates similarly. It alienates the famous person from their friends, family, and creative community, puts them on an insane pedestal which they inevitably fall from when attention spans lag, just in time for their ego to be totally distorted from all the attention. By and large, fame makes people miserable. But fame and wealth have been the primary metrics of success in the music industry for as long as I’ve known. Why?
It’s important to grapple with what success would look like for you, on your terms, not just because this is a difficult and competitive industry, but because you only have one life! Music is a profound way to luxuriate in a moment, to stretch and bend seconds like taffy. Interrogate how you define and understand success, goals, and what gives your life meaning, and then write your own story.
“In my mind, musicians need to understand that their worth/success isn’t based on streams and plays.”
Delightful as it may be to have anti-capitalist conversations, we still have to earn money to survive in the Earth year 2020. Engaging critically and realistically with your financial present and financial goals is part of defining success, even if your ultimate objective doesn’t involve bathing in diamonds. But while doing so, it’s important not to get too wrapped up in expectations or ideas of others. For so many people in the music industry, they have another job that offers steady financial support. Among survey respondents, over two thirds said they made less than 20% of their income from music-related work. What success means to you, and how it relates to your financial reality, is your prerogative.
Don’t compare yourself to others.
An unfortunate byproduct of social media is that it fuels this already competitive industry with an attention economy that depends on insecurity and anxiety for content. The pressure of digital platforms for artists and industry workers gears toward sameness and one-size-fits-all solutions. But that simply isn’t the way that music or humans work. We all approach this industry from radically different perspectives, life experience, ability, privilege, and (hopefully) goals. Once you start comparing yourself to others, that’s when you get wrapped up in other people’s ideas of success, which may or may not fit the life you are trying to carve out for yourself. Take space when you need it, prioritize the things that make you feel fully alive and charged, and be careful with hierarchical thinking. There’s room for everyone, and there’s no bottom to the well of creativity. The muses want you to be fully you, not somebody else.
This guide has been mostly geared toward doing the personal work that’s essential in order to approach the future music industry with the fresh perspective necessary for implementing change. But really, doing that personal work is only the beginning. After you’ve designed your code of conduct, defined success on your own terms, streamlined your virtual attention, and critically considered the way you interact with your musical community, then what?
There is so much to do that it can feel overwhelming, but you don’t have to do it all. Just do something to help. Get involved (see my list below for music industry organizations that want your help), write Wikipedia pages for women and POC musicians, support and help local collectives, mentor younger or less experienced artists or professionals in your field, or participate in an online or IRL activist campaign to improve a problem you see. Stay attuned to problems that you can help remedy, and be fearless and bold in the ways you address them. If you don’t know where to begin, here’s a resource list of organizations, collectives, and initiatives that would love your help.
Help make music entries on wikipedia more diverse:
Volunteer in a mentoring or educational program:
Join a collective:
Donate to these awesome projects:
Also, here are additional reading materials and online resources that were suggested by survey respondents. Explore them as you critically engage with the nature of the music industry!
- How to Release a Record
- She Shreds
- Liz Pelly’s Baffler articles
- Penny Fractions by David Turner
- EQL Directory
- Feminist Sound Collectives
- Future Music Industry (this is the list project that I started)
- POC Audio Directory
- Many Many Women
- Noctuary Database
- Pink Noises
- Red Thunder Audio: List of Non-Cis-Men Makers of Electronic Music Hardware
- Sound Girls
- Women in Red
Find a way to engage that appeals to you or your specific abilities. Do things that are small and locally focused, then grow outward. Take it a day at a time, and employ care and thoughtfulness. Don’t let it happen to you, steer your own boat.
“There’s a sea change taking place right now and it’s palpable!”
René Kladzyk is a musician, writer, perfumer, and cultural geographer who performs under the moniker Ziemba. Drawing from a background studying feminist geography and the U.S./Mexico borderlands (René is an El Paso, TX native), her work frequently interrogates identity, culture, and ethical issues in the performing arts. René’s music has been performed at venues including MoMA Ps1, Pioneer Works, National Sawdust, and featured in publications including Vogue, The Fader, Art in America, Bandcamp Daily, i-D, and V Magazine. Her writing has been published in Teen Vogue, i-D, Listen to This, and more. Her most recent full-length album, ARDIS, was released in the spring and summer of 2019, and functions as a series of portals into a fragrant sci-fi adventure and parallel world. René also co-leads Xoir, an experimental vocal collective, along with Berlin-based artist/musician Colin Self. René was a Kickstarter Creator in Residence in Fall of 2019.