Just over a year ago, the music streaming giant Spotify announced a new addition to its services: an innovation called Artist Fundraising Pick, which would allow people to send musicians the online equivalent of a tip. The move came just as controversy began to snowball about the often pitiful returns from streaming, something that reached a peak in April this year, when such big-name musicians as Paul McCartney, Kate Bush and Stevie Nicks signed a letter calling on the UK government to finally get to grips with the issue.
At around the same time, there was rising speculation about the Spotify co-founder and CEO Daniel Ek – whose net worth is put at £3.3bn – leading a consortium that wanted to buy Arsenal football club. In the context of that potentially vast deal, what Spotify had launched highlighted the tendency of big business to offer its detractors and complainants mere crumbs, but there it was: an acknowledgment that many musicians needed some extra financial help, coupled with an apparent attempt to shift the onus on to their fans.
For bands and artists, switching on the feature remains a matter of discretion. A quick rummage through Spotify’s artist pages reveals that while such stars as Taylor Swift, Drake and Coldplay – and, for that matter, McCartney, Bush and Nicks – will probably not be activating it, plenty of less famous names did so as soon as they could. The pandemic swiftly killed the revenues from live performance that keep many musicians afloat, so they could hardly be criticised; indeed, some musicians say they have come to like their steady trickle of comparatively small change.
Then again, given that Spotify’s annual revenues were last put at nearly £7bn while the per-stream rate it pays to artists is currently reckoned to be around 0.35p, why has the company decided to ask for contributions to their welfare from mere listeners? And will musicians now only keep the money coming in by hovering just above the level of subsistence, so no one deems them too successful to deserve donations?
Online tipping is now spreading fast – and beyond music services. With a view to familiarising people with spending money inside their domains, most of the big internet companies are joining in. Twitter has just launched a feature called Tip Jar, aimed at channelling donations to “creators, journalists, experts, and non-profits”. YouTube is expanding a feature called Applause that does the same for its influencers and video-makers; the new audio app Clubhouse, recently valued at $1bn, has introduced a tipping tool to “help creators build community, audience, and impact”. For some people, such words might ring true. But they also have a familiar sense of tech players trying to sidestep big questions about the dissolving of creativity into “content” and what that entails for thousands of people’s earnings, as the number of genuine “creatives” able to earn a living from their work seems to dwindle, something clearly accelerated by the Covid crisis.
The story extends from tipping into the ever-expanding world of platform-based writing. While traditional magazines and newspapers endlessly hit the skids and their collegiate, team-based model of journalism goes with them, an increasing number of writers and presenters now compete for individual donations and subscriptions via such platforms as Patreon and Substack. Particularly on the latter, the money earned by the most successful people seems impressive – but thousands more do their work for very little return at all.
Moreover, just as streaming favours wham-bam pop songs with the shortest of intros and an infectious hook built into every bar, these services are not centred on the kind of dogged reporting that requires serious resources, but commentary and polemic (as the British writer Helen Lewis recently put it: “shoe-leather reporting, deep investigations, and FOIA requests … rarely drive clicks by the million”). This is one of the reasons, perhaps, why we live in an age that is generating a lot more heat than light.
The cultural and media economy of the analogue era, by contrast, worked on the basis of a different model. Whatever their failings, the best of the organisations and companies that kept the show going – from publishers, through record labels, to old-fashioned TV channels – worked on the basis that the mainstream success of their biggest attractions would help subsidise less bankable talent, and also allow adventurous, driven people to take chances. To an extent, this is still the modus operandi of some institutions that have managed the transition from the old world to the new (you’re reading this thanks to one of them). But what is happening elsewhere looks altogether more Darwinian, even if some online giants now want to be seen as generous benefactors – and what’s telling is the way that any big rewards seem to go to stuff that flips into people’s field of vision and then just as quickly disappears.
Over the last six months, there has been a run of stories about a new mood of generosity supposedly gripping some social media companies battling for market share. The New York Times recently ran a story about the huge sums of money apparently being paid by Snapchat to “social media creators”, as it faces off against TikTok. Among the newly minted people who were interviewed was a woman from New Mexico who had earned half a million dollars from “a video of her sister deep frying a turkey”, and a high school senior in Maryland paid around twice that amount for “unboxing videos and funny content”, including one clip in which “she spins on a hoverboard while seamlessly appearing in new outfits”. Meanwhile, 1,800 newspapers have closed in the US since 2004, and Rolling Stone magazine has been hosting appeals to help “struggling music industry workers”.
The 21st century’s digital dazzle conceals age-old tricks. In keeping with the ways that charity has always been used to smooth over questions of fairness and exploitation, the new vogue for ad hoc donations seems designed to distract us from a handful of tech players getting ever-more wealthy, while the people on their platforms who would like to enrich the culture with something more substantial than cat videos are living increasingly impossible lives. If you doubt this, you might want to dwell on what would happen if the veteran superstars who signed that letter were starting out today. I think I know the answer: McCartney, Bush et al would be desperately uploading their songs while fearing the worst – and then holding out a virtual tip jar that, to any objective eyes, would look more like a begging bowl.