On this week’s bonus episode of Lever Time Premium, open to all listeners, The Lever’s Nick Byron Campbell speaks with music writer Robin James and drummer Greg Saunier from the band Deerhoof to discuss the shifting corporate landscape of the music industry, and the larger dynamics of our economy.
A transcript of this episode is available here.
The three zero in on a worrisome development: The online music platform Bandcamp was recently sold to the multinational music conglomerate Songtradr, leading to layoffs of 50 percent of Bandcamp’s employees amid union contract negotiations, an ominous sign for the future of the last major independent music sales platform.
In today’s discussion, Nick, Robin, and Greg explore the exploitative practices making the industry harder for working-class musicians — and what an equitable music industry could actually look like.
- The Future of Rock and Roll: 97X WOXY and the Fight for True Independence by Robin James (The University of North Carolina Press, 2023)
- Miracle–Level by Deerhoof (Joyful Noise Recordings, 2023)
- What 90s Alt Rock Radio, Woodstock 99, And The Telecome Act Have To Do With Contemporary Right-Wing Media (Robin James, 2022)
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Episode Introduction — Edited Transcript
Nick Byron Campbell: Recently, there was a major shakeup in the music industry. And if you're not sure how the ins and outs of that industry relate to you, well, this story perfectly distills a dynamic that's playing out across our economy and culture, and that most definitely affects us all. At the highest level, it illustrates how large corporations and billionaires wield tremendous power to alter or completely do away with the things that enrich our lives and communities.
Whether it be Elon Musk slowly suffocating Twitter, or major consulting firms leading schools like West Virginia University to shutter profitable liberal arts departments, or Amazon mercilessly dominating the audiobook industry — the examples could go on and on.
But today we're talking about Bandcamp, a web platform that has been a critical part of the infrastructure of independent music for years. At this point, it's the only major music platform dedicated to purchasing and streaming music, rather than solely streaming, which is an important distinction we'll get into. And it is one of the only large music tech companies that has seemed genuinely concerned with the sustainability and success of music for musicians and listeners alike.
Bandcamp has chosen a very different path from the streaming giants like Spotify, and its strategy has in many ways paid off. It's largely beloved and it has been consistently profitable — two things Spotify is most definitely not.
However, Bandcamp was just sold to a multinational music conglomerate, named Songtradr, that was largely unknown to music fans and musicians. There were then massive layoffs that have raised legitimate concerns that the platform will no longer be run in a way that benefits those who love and rely on music.
An additional element of this story — Bandcamp was in the midst of union contract negotiations and the entire union bargaining team was laid off, which we discuss as well.
It's important with events like this that we take time to understand what has happened, and is happening, so we can take steps to strengthen our communities and protect the things that we love and need.
And to be clear, a vibrant music community is something we all need and benefit from.
To discuss this in more depth, I'll be joined by two brilliant individuals:
Robin James is a writer, editor, and philosopher. Her most recent book, The Future of Rock and Roll: 97X WOXY and the Fight for True Independence, is available from the University of North Carolina Press. She's an expert in pop music and politics, sound studies, critical theories of neoliberalism and biopolitics, as well as feminism, gender, and race as they relate to popular music. You may have already come across her writing in publications like Jezebel or The Guardian.
Then we have Greg Saunier, drummer and founding member of the band Deerhoof, whose music you'll hear in this episode. Deerhoof's independence and intense creativity have underpinned over 25 years of incredible recordings and tours. In my own opinion, no other band has had as incredible a run as Deerhoof with an unbroken chain of equally unique and inspired albums. Please go and enjoy their music, particularly their most recent album, Miracle-Level, out now on Joyful Noise Recordings.