Applied Science #7: Independent as F*ck

On Sony buying AWAL, false binaries of independence, a vertically integrated future, and NFT's

CD insert from Company Flow’s debut album Funcrusher Plus. Released in 1997 on Rawkus Records, the seminal independent rap label that also happened to be founded by one of Rupert Murdoch’s sons (James) and absorbed by a major years after its heyday.

…structural inequalities always create what I’ve called ‘lopsided structures of imagination,’ that is, divisions between one class of people who end up doing most of the imaginative labor, and others who do not.” - David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules (p.94)

Walmart became famous both for selling very cheap consumer products and also for its ruthless exploitation of its workers and suppliers. On closer examination it is more of a logistics company, which succeeded also through using information to organize the flows of goods and labor through its distribution system. It was an early adopter among retailers of computerization. It even bought its own satellite to more efficiently manage its own data. Early on, founder Sam Walton found likely locations for stores by scouting from his own private plane, but this soon gave way to a ‘data-driven’ approach.

Walmart’s infrastructure has a hub and spoke form, with box stores clustered around distribution centers. What is less well known is that it has almost as many data centers as physical distribution centers, and they are about as large. The parts that the consumer sees—the big box stores, the endless trucks on the road—are a physical expression of a computerized logistical system that determines where they will be and what they will do.” - McKenzie Wark, capital is dead (p.8)

When I hear the term “independent artist,” a particular mirage pops into my brain: A young E-40, selling tapes from the trunk of his car in early ‘90s Oakland. A titan of his home turf, E-40 looms over the history of independent hip-hop, an early, vocal proponent of ownership and artistic control. His relentless sales-oriented mentality, dedication to his base, and shrewd deal-making set a blueprint for independence far more informative and resilient than the fluffy fantasy that rocketed Chance the Rapper to a Grammy and a bitter feud with the major label industrial complex in 2016 and 2017. 

This vision of independence hinges on a quaint, fading notion: A world apart from corporate monoliths, populated by mom and pop manufacturers and retailers, small recording studios, hand-to-hand sales, and manually kept ledgers. If you imagine the supply chain that brought an E-40 album to market in the ‘90s, everything can be an emblem of independence: Microphones, synthesizers, tapes, CDs, distributors, photographers, graphic designers, printers, delivery services, record stores—all stops on the train to the consumer putting $10 in E-40’s hand for a copy of Federal

Even in this archetypal vision of independence, it is almost impossible to escape the tendrils of some corporation pumping out product at international scale. Tapes were almost exclusively made by massive companies (Sony, Maxell, Fuji, JVC), the cars and trucks that carried them were manufactured by massive companies (let’s assume Chevrolet or Oldsmobile here), and local distributors often found themselves pushed to the edges by the major labels (an excerpt from Stephen Witt’s excellent How Music Got Free illustrates this consolidation in his description of the Polygram pressing plant in Kings Mountain, North Carolina).

Now picture the E-40 story transposed onto a teen in 2021: 

They record music at home on a laptop (or a desktop or a handheld device). 

It’s probably a Mac. If it’s not, it’s almost undoubtedly a product pumped out by another publicly traded company. 

These devices are full of chips also sold by publicly traded companies (NVIDIA, AMD), manufactured in some factory in a country the company would likely prefer you not ask about. 

If the software’s not made by Apple, it’s made by a company that’s probably now an acquisition target for Apple or Splice. 

Once the music’s ready, it can be distributed through one or another of the myriad services available to artists now (Tunecore, DistroKid, CD Baby). 

In order for a song to make its way from the creator’s device to someone else’s device, it needs to travel via the internet—a service controlled by one of a handful of publicly traded companies (Verizon, AT&T) that assure you you’re absolutely getting the fastest available internet for your neighborhood and, no, they’re not throttling your connection, it’s just something to do with the cables on your street (or some other reason you’ll never possibly be able to verify). 

Did I mention that most of those independent distributors you’re researching aren’t entirely independent? Some are owned by majors. Some upstream to majors. Some have loose arrangements with majors where they share data to help inform potential future deals. Still others are backed by complex webs of venture funding.

Of course none of this is to say anything of music consumption, which now swims tightly through two main veins: Spotify and Apple. Spotify’s ticker symbol is SPOT, just in case you’re looking to invest (something the major labels did years ago).

Sony’s acquisition of Kobalt subsidiary AWAL inspired much handwringing. A cornerstone of a Kobalt’s artist liberation technology folding into a major’s landmass seemed to stamp out lingering idealism about solutions outside “the system.”

(It is darkly poetic that the month that began with the sale of AWAL to a major label ended with the explosion of NFTs and their touted potential to reward long-devalued creators, but we’ll get to that)

Sony’s purchase is simply the most public iteration of a decade’s hastening consolidation. Writer David Turner recently wondered bluntly if there is any independent music in 2021. It seems like a more jarring question than it actually is. The most commonly discussed notions of independence are largely fictive, rooted in ownership that still requires mass media outlets and tools for successful exploitation. Even Prince, arguably the most important paradigm for creative and commercial independence, did one-off license deals with majors in his early 2000s comeback period in order to maximize his product’s reach. He still owned the product, but the pipes belonged to someone else. (E-40’s career followed a similar path of joint ventures and distribution partnerships that typically worked in his economic interest)

When we speak of independence, we have to be more specific. What exactly are we talking about? 

The primary fixation seems to be control. In a Twitter poll writer Cherie Hu posted after AWAL’s sale, the notion of both owning your copyrights and no major label affiliation won a plurality of the votes (though each of those individually had similar vote tallies). Defining independence demands a further step. It’s not purely a matter of who owns and exploits the copyrights, it’s about data ownership and platform control. Autonomy is the ultimate goal—the capacity for self-determination.

The value of data and the corporate entanglements that complicate independence grow clearer when you look at almost 20 years of investments from one of Kobalt’s primary backers, Alphabet (Google’s omnivorous parent company).

When Google purchased YouTube for $1.65 billion in 2006, it had already cornered the market on internet search and was in the process of becoming an advertising titan. YouTube gave it an unavoidable footprint as a modern media player: It remains the most popular music “streaming” service, in spite of its primary positioning as a video platform and tepid attempts to convert free users to paying customers of YouTube Music. 

In 2015, Google Ventures (now rebranded as GV) led Kobalt’s Series C round (which totaled $60 million), openly endorsing a company bent on upending the established order in music rights administration since its launch in 2000. Kobalt’s stated mission: “Making the music industry more fair and rewarding for creators” by giving “artists, songwriters, musicians, labels and publishers the freedom and transparency they needed to build their careers.” Prior to GV’s investment, Kobalt had expanded its suite of services for creators, with the purchases of the aforementioned AWAL in 2012 and AMRA (the first digital performing rights organization) in 2015—two assets now in Sony’s war chest. 

In 2017, Alphabet led Series A funding for Steve Stoute’s United Masters, with a $70 million investment. Stoute, an advertising executive and former president of urban music at Interscope, launched United Masters as a supposed antidote to major labels.

In relatively short order, Alphabet bought YouTube, the primary access point for global music listeners. It invested in Kobalt and United Masters, attempts at shifting the music industry’s power balance and capturing a wide marketplace of independent creators. It already had a near monopoly in online search. With its adjacency to music and established core dominance, perhaps only Facebook and Amazon can match Alphabet’s insight into consumer habits. Like Amazon and Apple, Alphabet also manufactures cell phones (the Pixel) and voice activated home speakers (the Google Home). 

Alphabet gets to use the entire music business as a loss leader to drive advertisement, a prescient move plotted years in advance for a world that shifted from traditional demographic marketing to interest-based targeting. Alphabet benefits from the value of music without having to invest directly in its production or deal with the sticky matter of owning and administering copyrights. 

Alphabet’s primary concern is the data derived from consumer behavior around music—the invisible byproduct of our listening, searching, and saving.

When such profound corporate webs ensnare even the most vocally liberation-minded companies, independence distills down to owning information and reserving the right to exploit it as you choose. This collection and exploitation is the very basis of a company like Google’s power—the silent opt-in we all gave years ago with our first free searches and Gmail accounts.

The future of the major music business is a data lake, an aggregation of ISRC’s, ISWC’s, and IPI’s readily available for exploitation. The record label as we know it is a romantic notion, a vestige of a past in which labels dominated the funding and dissemination of music (not to mention the public imagination, symbols of quality and specific aesthetics worth wearing on a t-shirt). We are entering an age of vertical exploitation—the intellectual property locker as a hub surrounded by various spokes designed to find new ways to monetize the art stored in the core. 

Hipgnosis (with its hoovering up of every catalog available and its acquisition of independent publisher Big Deal) gives a hint at what the future might be: An utterly unsentimental intellectual property megalith, an entity designed with the express purpose of acquisition, gaining enough critical mass to become a powerful lobbying body as well as a souped up library—an endless repository ready to find new media partners and products to help breathe life into all its owned properties, generating income anew from the hits of yesteryear and the forgotten tunes alike. Syncs, samples, boxsets, Broadway adaptations of whole catalogs, television series built from songs. All that’s missing is an accompanying life rights business and you could have a biopic factory churning out Oscar-nominated performances at a dizzying rate.

Or perhaps the future is just a fin-tech tool that also plays music—an idea that sounds like it was abandoned on the cutting room floor of Black Mirror or Ex Machina.

Inevitably, all this talk of independence lands us on the NFT (non-fungible token) algae bloom currently muddying the waters. The promise of decentralized solutions. Smart contracts. Traceable royalties. Power to creators and original owners. The blockchain revolution we were promised. The dawn of a new independence.

While most still struggle to wrap their heads around what NFT’s and digital collectibles even are, savvy players are minting JPEG’s and making millions. Faster than you can realize that a subreddit pumping Gamestop was not, in fact, the new Occupy Wall Street, heavyweights like Christie’s have already gotten in on the NFT game. Even in the elemental understanding that NFTs are a (theoretically) more secure and efficient hybrid of contract and certificate of authenticity, their considerable potential remains obscured by artists like 3LAU using the fervor of the moment for personal gain. And none of this is to say anything of the debated ecological impact of NFT’s.

While some auctioneers simply seek eye-popping profit, artists like underground electronic mainstay Jacques Greene make intriguing statements that feel too abstract to provide concise, practical takeaways. Greene recently sold the publishing to one of his songs via auction to Brud founder Trevor McFedries (full disclosure: the latter is a friend and former coworker); McFedries spent 13 ETH on the rights to “Promise,” roughly equivalent to $23,000 at the time of purchase. Sales like this one could easily be reduced to commerce as performance art. Without an explanation of how the longterm benefits to creators (i.e. the inherent qualities of NFTs that clarify royalty tracking and pass along resale profits—matters likely on Greene and McFedries’ minds), it simply memorialized one in-the-know person supporting another in-the-know person and potentially misrepresenting the value of an intangible good. It’s worth noting too that this particular auction could have taken place at any time in any number of forms; additionally, a contract with all the implications of an NFT (such as the original creator receiving a portion of any resale of said NFT) could have been memorialized without the use of crypto or blockchain technology.

The novelty and excitement comes from the platforms and the potential to create frictionless systems for creators to monetize their work, but the underlying concepts are not new. The Jacques Greene auction is the least insidious example of my concerns about the NFT/creator economy, though it is exceedingly frustrating to see people conflate ballooning auction prices and the auctioned objects themselves with the underlying technology. When I see auctions soaring into the hundreds of thousands and millions, I tend to wonder if the crypto-rich and a sea of new age patrons are simply diversifying their hard-to-liquidate digital currency into other, cooler asset classes—temporarily staving off capital gains tax while stirring up a feverish public looking for get-rich-quick schemes in a time of profound economic distress.

This action inflates the exuberant presumption we’ve entered a new age of creator valuation. In reality, we’ve likely just approached a novel threshold of increased efficiency and clarity through the NFT’s particular attributes, which I think can be understood by Ben Thompson’s phrase “platform of platforms”: “an abstraction layer that connects different sides of a market, even if those different sides have dramatically different needs and capabilities.”

I’m all for paying creators more. If nothing else, the NFT explosion has been the loudest and most jagged exploration of valuing creative work beyond the dictates of traditional systems. Yet without greater, simpler education focusing on how tools like NFT’s can be implemented alongside existing legal levers and entrenched systems, the whole conversation feels hollow. We bask in the golden glow of a series of swollen auctions that simply perpetuates art’s value as a hype-based target—a damaging aspirational illusion (though still not as damaging as the painfully low payouts provided by DSPs).

Perhaps an autonomous future looks like what Zora and Audius are building—decentralized platforms that promise transparency and the ability for creators to have a stake in the platforms themselves, not just the product exploited on the platform. Perhaps it resembles Over Everything, the record-label-as-non-profit I’ve written of in the past, which eschews a traditional ownership model for something that resembles a hybrid between a mutual aid find and creative commune (full disclosure: I am presently a member of Over Everything’s board). If nothing else, NFT’s and the further consolidation of the record business reveal a truth of our age: Creators want the quickest path to a check and the most robust tools for world-building, often in one place. Neither outcome necessarily rests on independence, but both require an understanding of what you’re willing to barter in exchange.

And still—with all these new platforms, the inherent potential of blockchain technologies, the visceral thrill of auctions rewarding creators—there will be consolidation, manipulation, and corporate extraction. In light of the endless struggle for self-determination, it’s important to sketch a working definition of independence. I root it in six principles:

1) Data Control - Ownership of all data related to your art, from the metadata that governs payment and proper archiving, to the consumer data that tells you who’s listening and how.

2) Financial Clarity - A clear, complete sense of the income your art is generating and how much you personally make (and stand to gain) from its exploitation.

3) Financial Agency - The ability to make calculated decisions about the financial exploitation of your art, with full view of factors both beyond individual control (i.e. streaming royalty rates, which can be shifted by concerted collective action but not individual daily action) and well within your domain (i.e. the price set for the sale of a piece of music on Bandcamp or via auction).

4) Distributive Autonomy - The ability to choose a distribution partner that aligns with your needs and total clarity on what can tangibly be expected of said partner (i.e. financial support, retail support, simple A-to-B distribution).

5) Open Education - Easy access to clear, modern information about the music industry and how to build stable businesses within it.

6) Artistic Sovereignty - Control of your creation. Full autonomy. The capacity to shape the world around your art—to piece together systems around you as you see fit. When creators and business people alike speak of independence, the root of their desire is the ability to collect infrastructure that suits their needs without forcing them to compromise their vision. You could consider this concept either the bedrock or the sum total of the previous five.

These principles aren’t purely prescriptive or immediately achievable, but they point to a fuller understanding of how “independent” creation requires dealing with numerous interwoven factors and players. Each principle could be understood as a scale from 0 to 100, 0 the “least” independent, 100 the “most.” It is not a strict binary between two choices that never truly existed. Independence is a method, not a resting state.

I used to wrap these things with a playlist. I need to figure out a better format for it. For now, here’s my favorite recent music video and a list of songs you should listen to on whatever platform you’d like.

Skiifall - “Ting Tun Up”
Ruti - “My Sunrise”
Dawn Richard - “Bussifame”
Lucky Daye & Yebba - “How Much Can A Heart Take”
Cam’ron ft. Juelz Santana - “I Just Wanna”
D’Angelo - “She’s Always In My Hair”
Smerz - “Flashing”
Khaliente - “Muslim Dior”