IIn the early 1990s, Prince began appearing in public with the word “slave” scrawled across her cheek. The face painting was a protest against Warner Music, which had signed Prince when he was just 18, and had the power to dictate the pace of his creative output as well as own the rights to it. Prince managed to escape his original contract – in part by changing his recording name to an unpronounceable scribble – but remained suspicious of the industry that had ‘enslaved’ him until his death, hiding master recordings from his songs in a secret safe under his Minnesota mansion. , Paisley Park.
In this provocative book, Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow argue that today every working artist is a bonded servant. Culture is the bait that ads sell, but artists see almost nothing of the billions from Google, Facebook and Apple and walk away with it. We have entered a new era of “strangled capitalism”, in which corporations weave their way between audiences and creatives to raise money that should rightfully belong to the artist.
A first chapter describes the growth of Amazon, a relatively simple example of the phenomenon. The company first attracted the attention of publishers to its site by offering them advantageous rates. Once it became clear that they couldn’t survive without it, Amazon reduced their sale price reduction. The image of the choke point that recurs throughout this book is evocative and gruesome. There’s only one pipeline through which authors can reach their readers, and Amazon squeezes it, dictating exactly which books will make it to the other side and at what price.
The problem with most books that have “capitalism” in the title is that reading them tends to induce apathy. The word itself is used loosely, almost fatalistically, used as a catch-all explanation for a variety of modern ills: inequality, the housing crisis, cookies tracking your internet search history. Instead of trying to figure out the details of how Google came to control the advertising market, we make vague references to the algorithm. There’s something oddly comforting about giving up on your agency like this: if the algorithm’s workings are too complicated for you to understand, you’re off the hook. Why bother fighting it?
What makes this book so refreshing, however, is that it never lets its reader off the hook. The authors remind us, repeatedly, that our ignorance is being weaponized against us. If we don’t understand how big corporations have established their hold on us, how can we ever break free from their hold? So the first half is dedicated to explaining precisely how corporations are taking over artists in the main creative industries: publishing, screenwriting, news, radio and music. Giblin and Doctorow’s analysis of creative labor markets is highly technical, but it is a deliberate choice. At the start of a particularly dense section on music licensing, the reader is explicitly warned that the next few paragraphs will be boring, but we should try to pay attention anyway. The licensing laws were deliberately designed to confuse the average creative. “People who get rich while artists starve don’t want you to know how it works.”
The level of detail in the book will hurt your eyes, but it pays off. By deciphering precisely how companies make their money, the authors are able to expose the cracks in the enemy’s armor. In one of the more surprising chapters, Giblin and Doctorow argue that big tech’s habit of watching you isn’t even particularly effective. Google and Facebook have billions of advertisers selling the most intimate facts of your life – whether you’re depressed, have erectile dysfunction, or are planning to cheat on your partner – but that’s all just a scam. There is no hard evidence to show that collecting a customer’s private information facilitates the sale. There’s something depressing about that (data mining might not work, but Google will keep selling your secrets as long as advertisers keep buying them). But it’s also liberating. We tend to think of big tech as an inordinate, almost supernatural force capable of building mind control systems that can trick us into buying almost anything. One of the revelations of this book is that much of this power is illusory.
The second half of Chokepoint Capitalism is where we get some possible solutions: practical ways for artists to recoup a fair share of the money made from their work. In one chapter, the authors lay out a plan to reform the “devilishly” complicated copyright laws that allow Spotify to pay the average musician around just $0.003 per song stream. I have to admit that the solution itself was so devilishly complicated that I couldn’t follow it. Giblin and Doctorow are most intelligible and inspiring when they write about the more tangible ways artists can come together to demand fair compensation. A captivating passage from the book tells how a group of freelance writers created a new co-operative platform of authors after discovering how much of their audiobook sales Audible was taking.
Choke points are not unique to the creative industries. Many companies try to create the conditions that will allow them to take a disproportionate share of the value of others’ labor (Uber is a classic example). What makes artists particularly vulnerable to this type of exploitation is that they are likely to work for nothing. Companies free themselves from the “human need to create”.
Reading this line on “the desire to create”, I felt a pang of embarrassment. If you work in a creative industry, it can be hard to justify why you keep trying. If you’re not Prince and you’ll never achieve that kind of commercial success, there’s probably a part of you that thinks what you’re doing is complacent. If you’re not earning enough, it’s because you’re not doing well enough, not because the platform you’re publishing (or self-publishing) that work on isn’t paying you your fair share. One really encouraging thing about this book is its insistence that regardless of your place in the cultural ecosystem, you have the right to be paid decently for what you do. I see it as a sort of manual that will arm you with the technical know-how (and the confidence) to demand more.