is “independent” music doomed to fail?

i’ve been reading this article and scouring reddit at the same time. an interesting juxtaposition.

it was written about 12 years ago, about when streaming starting to pick up but before it changed how we listen to music. its been making me think a lot about independent music, and what that means for people who want to make a living off of music but aren’t planning to be a part of the industry.

what even is the music industry? from wiki:

The music industry refers to the individuals and organizations that earn money by writing songs and musical compositions, creating and selling recorded music and sheet music, presenting concerts, as well as the organizations that aid, train, represent and supply music creators.

so it is possible to be a musician, or make music, or be a producer, or a singer, and not be a part of the music industry. you can just create. but how would you survive?

from artists who fully manage and distribute their own music, to artists on micro-labels doing their own development; there is a lot in-between surviving and just trying to get attention for your music. open mike eagle’s podcast often dives into the topics of independent rap music and what it takes to survive doing that work. from tours, to merch, to being your own manager and marketer, its a full time job. for artists like open mike eagle and perhaps armand hammer, this type of self-managing is a core part of the music and presence in life. a bit more like working man’s artist.

sometimes music is a commodity, sometimes its created for working people. here’s a quote from wiki:

Art as a commodity embodies intangible concepts and ideas by transforming them into material goods, capable of being marketable, sellable, and collected.
in this culture, much of popular art is a commodity. using the word popular will imply there are systems behind the art which are profiting and have incentive to push the art further. it may not exactly align with the system in morals or ethics, but the system is profit driven regardless. i believe tupac is a great example of this. a lot of his music at the core was for working class people, and people that shared a similar experience to him. the system made a bunch of money (and continues to) from his art and his image, and now we see that his message and music is watered down. when music is turned into a commodity, the message and purpose inside of it become less important.

this will lead us into our article:

A commodity always depends for its status and its value on its relative scarcity; once the reproduction and distribution of that commodity become effectively free, then it necessarily loses that value and that status. This is great news for consumers of music, but for producers, it means, quite simply, that they suddenly have nothing of value to sell.

in relationship to the means of production, music has changed drastically. the ability to create and produce music has become very open and easy to access. this is awesome, because people are now able to creatively express themselves easier. but this is bad for music as a commodity, because it removes the work and labor that musicians have committed their lives to. whether it’s AI samples, prebuild midi chord progressions, using templates, and more; it doesn’t require as much technical skill to create music as it once did. now creative directors, photographers, videographers, can make their own music and don’t need the skillset as much; and maybe that skillset is just less valuable.



[the music industry] only generates profits by feeding off this energy and channelling it solely into the production of commercial commodities (rather than, say, free public services, or innovative artwork, or open source software).

this is an important point to reflect on as an artist. if our music stands for people or stands for change, how does our production of art continue to perpetuate the same system? many times, music created for change is in turn profitting the system overall, which uses profits to fuel corporate interests; not people interests. i think this is a common trap that artists get caught in, where creating & producing music for the people is tied to their heart, but in reality everything they produce is just used against the people over time. if artists can understand this distinction, they might be able to take these profits themselves to apply them to their community or technology.

yes, there are many artists making music focused on social change, but:

what exactly is the relationship between music scenes, understood as sites of inherently collective and collaborative creativity, and capitalism, understood as the endless quest for private profit? … intense collective creativity as the real source of value and change in the world, and sees capital as having a merely parasitic relationship to it.


the labels that run our systems

let’s talk about our platforms and systems now. instagram, tiktok, X. these platforms define how we spread art and information across the globe, and i assume you know who owns them. the primary means of how we socially connect is owned by the most powerful corporate system in the world.

the complete failure of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation to find any way to make MySpace profitable for them during the several years when they owned it – even at the height of its centrality to global music culture – perfectly illustrates Hardt & Negri’s hypothesis ( that music succeeds and thrives without the threading of profit seeking )

independent record companies historically tended to lack the kinds of resources which required the heaviest capital outlays – recording facilities and large-scale marketing and distribution systems – superior access to which was always a great advantage to the ‘majors’ and to mainstream media outlets


the revolution in digital recording and distribution has enabled small-scale organisations and even individual producers and musicians to bypass the traditional power-centres, recording and distributing their own musics much more effectively than was previously possible

the same technological revolution has ultimately produced a situation in which it is now very easy for some of the largest capitalist organisations – most notably Apple and Google – to bypass completely the traditional mediating ‘grassroots’ institutions (using demographics , age, look alike groups to build taste testers for music and applying that filter across the whole system)

If the old power-centres of the industry were the major-label ‘A&R’ departments, record-store chains, commercial radio and the print music press (then the new power players own instagram, spotify, apple music, and other individualized centers of information and data that comidify our tastes and music for advertisment )

there isn’t much need for capital to invest heavily in creative infrastructure of any kind, with so many musicians out there willing to buy their hardware for themselves and a huge community of listeners willing to research and select the most popular acts for themselves. And there’s very little need for them to pay musicians much at all, with so much back catalogue to exploit, and so much music available for free


Music as such can no longer sustain itself – live or recorded – on the basis of sales to the public. Instead, it can only be sustained by corporate sponsorship. Music is now a branch of the marketing industry, whose function is to use its extraordinary power to affect our moods, our sense of self, place and time, in order to enhance the brand identities of its corporate patrons.

This is a situation in which the relation between musicians and those who pay them has to some extent reverted to a quasi-feudal relation of patronage and clientism, but in other senses has simply become fully capitalist, as the employer simply pays for the musicians labour for a fixed amount of time, instead of contracting to pay them a royalty on sales

there was always something problematic about the idea of copyright in the first place. Copyright is a useful tool for ensuring that the labour of particular individuals does not go unrewarded, but is is a very bad tool for taking account of the collaborative nature of creativity which is invested in every piece of music, in particular every recording.

For the scenario I have just described depends on that audience being willing to pay at least 10 dollars for a CD: my fear is that such audiences are already dwindling into historical relics, and that once international broadband speeds reach the point where distribution of high-quality 24-bit wav files is as easy as distribution of Mpegs already is, then they will largely disappear altogether. (Rip CDBABY)




summing up the article

  • music in america used to be for the people in the 1800’s(not for profit)
  • musicians generally want enough money to survive, while record companys want to create sustained profit over long time periods
  • music industry is know to create anti-markets where essentially 1 or 2 company’s own everything
  • Maurizio Lazzarato famously refers to this kind of work as ‘immaterial labour’ or biopolitical labor