platforms and the precariat

Is it possible to be a musician today and earn a middle class income?

The music industry is fundamentally broken up into three separate arms: recorded music, music licensing and live music. Where recorded music — physical album sales — was once the bread-and-butter for musicians, first the advent of piracy platforms like Napster, and then the gradual shift to streaming services like Spotify, Amazon and Apple Music made that framework unsustainable.

“In order for me to earn a minimum wage, an annual minimum wage of $30,000, I need to gain six million streams at the average royalty rate of half a cent per listen,” [musician] Sainas said. “That’s unattainable.” —CBC 2021-03-11

In 2005, the oft-quoted business guru, Seth Godin suggested that the long tail would provide for middle class entrepreneurs and musicians.

So, what I would say to the struggling entrepreneur or pundit or expert or consultant or musician or person spreading that important idea is this:
1. it’s okay if it doesn’t happen fast
2. don’t worry so much about getting the approval of those who came before and are farther along the curve
3. keep costs as low as possible so you can do this without panicking when it doesn’t work so fast
4. surround yourself with friends and colleagues who “get it” and root for you, even when it’s not going so fast
(variant: fire the friends and mothers-in-law who aren’t supporting you so much!)
5. realize that it’s not about you or the way you look or what you wear. It’s about the tail.
Where is the rainbow?

But the demise of the middle class in a platform economy has been evident for a while. Jaron Lanier in You Are Not a Gadget (2010) wrote:

“The people who are perhaps the most screwed by open culture are the middle classes of intellectual and cultural creation.  The freelance studio musician, the stringer selling reports to newspapers from warzones are both crucial contributors to culture. Each pays dues and devotes years to honing a craft. They used to live off the trickle down effects of the old system, and like the middle class at large, they are precious. They get nothing from the new system.”

To be successful in the network era you have to find a niche market and work to be the best at it. Ross Dawson made a strong point in 2012 stating that “in a connected world, unless your skills are world-class, you are a commodity”. Expertise, relationships, and innovation will mark the successful people in the emerging network era economy according to Ross.

If you are not one of the recognized best in your field, can you make a living online or are you just part of some platform’s long tail, valuable only to aggregators and their advertising revenues? As a content creator are you providing the fodder that lets Spotify, Amazon, and YouTube earn huge market valuations? Will there be a middle class in the emerging network creative economy?

It’s not easy finding new market niches but that seems to be the only option for most of us who are not in Silicon Valley building the next social crowd-milking platform. The only way to make our talent profitable in the network era seems to be to turn it into a highly specialized capital asset. Feeding these platforms is not a sane small-business operating model. I think it’s better to find your own cow than be milked by someone else. But it’s much more difficult.

One emerging platform for writers is Substack but it remains to be seen if this will be a viable way to earn a living.

We believe that writers, bloggers, thinkers, and creatives of every background should be able to pursue their curiosity, generating income directly from their own audiences and on their own terms.

When readers pay writers directly, writers can focus on doing the work they care about most. A few hundred paying subscribers can support a livelihood. A few thousand makes it lucrative. —About Substack

The robber barons of the 21st century are the platform owners controlling much of the economy. The ‘job’ was the way we used to redistribute wealth, making capitalists pay for the means of production and in return creating a middle class that could pay for mass produced goods. That period is over. What emerges over the next decade will depend on active citizens lobbying governments for regulations that ensure a thriving middle class. Without a solid middle class, our democracies will be more at the mercy of demagogues taking advantage of an ever-expanding precariat.

Next: you are a commodity

anti-capitalism poster 1911

Pyramid of Capitalist System, issued by Nedeljkovich, Brashich, and Kuharich in 1911. Published by The International Pub. Co., Cleveland OH

2 Responses to “platforms and the precariat”

  1. Joe Raimondo

    We are the para-class of the cognitariat. We’ll chant it at the barricades.


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