IIn the early 1990s, Prince He began appearing in public with the word “slave” written on his cheek. The face-painting was a protest against Warner Music, which 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 squibble—but remained distrustful of the industry that had “enslaved” him until his death, hiding master recordings of his songs in a secret vault under his Minnesota mansion, Paisley Park.
In this provocative book, Rebecca Giblin and Corey Doctorow argue that every working artist is a pawnbroker today. Culture is bait for the ads sold around, but artists see almost nothing as the billions from Google, Facebook, and Apple scrape their backs. We have entered a new era of “strangle capitalism,” where companies cut their way between audiences and creators to make money that should belong to the artist.
An early chapter presents the growth of the Amazon, a relatively direct example of this phenomenon. First, the company has successfully attracted publishers to its site by offering them great prices. Once it became clear that they couldn’t survive without it, Amazon lowered the price of the cap. The gorge point image that recurs throughout this book is evocatively horrific. There’s only one pipeline through which authors can reach their readers, and Amazon squeezes it in, dictating exactly which books 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 arouse apathy. The word itself was spread in an indefinite, almost murderous way, used as a catch-all explanation for a variety of modern ills: inequality, the housing crisis, cookies that track your Internet search history. Instead of trying to understand the details of how Google controls the ad market, we make vague references to the algorithm. There’s something oddly comforting about giving away your agency in this way: if the way an algorithm works is too complex for you to understand, you’re in for trouble. Why bother trying to fight him?
What makes this book so refreshing, by contrast, is that it never lets its reader off the hook. The authors remind us, again and again, that our ignorance is being used as a weapon against us. If we don’t understand how big corporations created their stranglehold on us, how will we ever be able to evade their grip? As such, the first half is devoted to explaining precisely how companies gain the whip over artists in the key creative industries: publishing, screenwriting, news, radio, and music. Giblin and Doctorow’s analysis of creative job markets is very technical, but this is a considered choice. At the beginning of a particularly dense section on music licensing, the reader is expressly warned that the next few paragraphs will be “mind-numbingly” tedious, but we should try to pay attention anyway. Licensing laws are purposefully designed to confuse casual creators. “The people who get richer from it while the artists starve don’t want you to know how it works.”
The level of detail in the book will make your eyeballs hurt, but it pays off. By thoroughly exposing how companies make their money, the authors are able to uncover holes in the enemy’s armour. In one of the more surprising chapters, Giblin and Doctorow argue that big tech’s habit of watching you isn’t particularly effective. Google and Facebook make billions of advertisers selling the most intimate facts about your life – whether you’re depressed, have erectile dysfunction, or are considering cheating on your partner – but it’s all scams. There is no conclusive evidence to prove that collecting customer information makes it easier to sell. There is just something frustrating about this (data mining may not actually 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 a vast, almost supernatural force, capable of building mind control systems that can trick us into buying just about anything. It is from the inspiration of this book that much of this power is illusory.
The second half of Chokepoint Capitalism is where we get our hands on potential solutions: practical ways artists can get back a fair share of the money made from their work. In one chapter, the authors lay out a plan to overhaul the “demonic” complex copyright laws that make it possible for Spotify to pay the average musician only about $0.003 per song stream. I have to admit that the solution itself was too complicated for me to follow through. Giblin and Doctorow are at their most lucid and inspiring, when they write about the more concrete ways artists can band together to demand fair wages. One interesting passage from the book tells the story of how a group of freelance writers created a new collaborative platform for authors after discovering how much audiobook sales Audible was taking.
Chokepoints are not unique to the creative industries. Many companies try to create conditions that allow them to get a disproportionate share of the value of other people’s work (Uber is a classic example). What makes artists uniquely vulnerable to this kind of exploitation is that they are prone to working for nothing. Companies are getting rid of the “human urge to innovate.”
When I read this line about “the desire to create,” I felt a twinge of embarrassment. If you work in a creative industry, it can be hard to justify why you should keep trying. If you’re not a prince, and you’re not going to achieve anything close to that kind of commercial success, there’s probably a part of you that thinks what you’re doing is self-indulgent. If you’re not earning enough, it’s because you’re not doing well enough, not because the platform you’re posting on (or self-publishing) that work isn’t paying you your fair share. One of the really encouraging things about this book is its insistence that no matter where you are in the cultural ecosystem, you are entitled to get paid decently for what you do. I see it as the kind of guide that will provide you with the know-how (and confidence) to demand more.