First Monday

Behind the music: How labor changed for musicians through the subscription economy by Saskia Muhlbach and Payal Arora

Subscription services for users with low or no cost access to vast libraries of music has initiated a decrease in revenue for musicians. The growing evidence of exploitation of creative workers in the subscription economy and the sparse scientific coverage of the artist perspective motivated this paper. Through in-depth interviews with musicians, it examines how labor changed for artists in the music industry through the rise of streaming platforms, specifically in the context of Germany. The findings show that the non-creative process takes up more of the artist’s time. Artists perceive their music as less of an artistic product and more as a marketing tool for their own brand. To support the non-creative tasks, artists leverage on data that platforms provide. We witness a re-intermediation in the music market as well as an increase in competition. This paper pushes the conversation on labor and precarity in the music industry that is fast becoming platformized.


Cultural intermediaries and platformization in the music industry
Findings and discussion
Concluding thoughts: The two-sidedness of subscription services




In the last few years, many musicians have taken to digital platforms to share their music. Yet, we know little of musician’s new forms of labor that enable them to capitalize on streaming services. Schwarz (2014) states that the disruption of the music industry confronts artists with the burden to become solitary entrepreneurs. Drahokoupil and Fabo (2016) contradict these claims, arguing that the sharing economy mainly reorganized markets that already relied on self-employment, such as the music industry itself. Cave (2016) proposed the idea of a subscription economy as part of the sharing economy as both are based on the move from product to service and the abdication of ownership. The subscription economy includes subscription-based business models, such as Spotify, which gradually replace conventional pay-per-product (or service) approach (Whitler, 2016). However, even though the sharing economy enables disruptive innovations of established business models (Cheng, 2016), it has been criticized for preserving centralism, hierarchy, and inequality (Pick and Dreher, 2015).

This flourishing labor debate around the sharing economy is of particular interest to society in order to understand these changes. There is little evidence if this criticized shift of uncertainty from employer to employee and the accompanying exploitation is the case for the subscription economy. Moreover, while there is rich scholarship on cultural intermediaries (Arora and Vermeylen, 2013; Boyle, 2018; Negus, 2002; O’Connor, 2015), there are few works that critically explore how digital platforms are functioning as the new intermediaries in the music industry and how they contribute to the longstanding tensions in cultural production. Hence, this paper examines how the labor of artists in the music industry has changed through the rise of streaming platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music.

The German music industry is the targeted context for this paper. Germany is the fourth largest music market in the world, competing neck-and-neck with the United Kingdom (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, 2017). Even though the peculiarities of the German music market may not differ significantly from other Western music markets, small deviations still promise new forms of regional practice in this industry, offering a more nuanced and inclusive global perspective of this sector. Specific to the German system are, for example, the copyright system and the assertiveness of German copyright collecting societies (Eddy, 2016), which help copyright holders, listed with the society, to earn fees for the use of their assets, as well as the existence of state-funded musician support (>Die Künstlersozialkasse [The artist social fund], 2018). In addition, Germany is known to be a late adopter to digital trends, backed by the fact that only recently physical format sales (CD, DVD, Vinyl) have been outperformed by digital formats, with music downloads also declining (Bundesverband Musikindustrie [Federal Association of the Music Industry], 2018).

As the German music industry is currently in the middle of tremendous shifts, it is worth examining how artists perceive these changes in this market and at this specific time. This focus is also a response to the growing concern of universalisms uncritically applied to diverse cultural contexts, including that of the music industry. To investigate the global implications of the subscription economy, it is essential to move beyond the usual suspects of the United States and the U.K. as chosen contexts for research. Hence, this paper adds to the conversations on the globalization of digital labor and provides a basis for comparative analyses with other markets.

In essence, this work focuses on musicians in Germany and investigates how their labor has changed with the rise of streaming platforms. This includes creative processes as well as non-creative processes, such as marketing and financial compensation. To what extent is the subscription economy empowering or exploiting musicians today?

The shifts in relations within the industry, especially regarding the role of middlemen needs to be understood in order to identify if artists are facing an unjust system. Through this research, struggling artists can find possible solutions and inspirations from the approaches of fellow musicians.



Cultural intermediaries and platformization in the music industry

At the end of the twentieth century, the music industry was dominated by five major corporations — Bertelsmann AG (Germany), EMI Group (U.K.), Seagram/Universal (Canada), Sony (Japan), and Time-Warner (U.S.). Musicians at that time who signed contracts with these corporations only needed to develop their creative abilities and were not expected to possess non-creative skills. They were dependent on their contracts with record labels as it was impossible for individual artists to collect the resources needed for music production or distribution. In exchange, they were expected to align their work with the creative vision and the organizational expectations of a given corporation (Hracs, 2012).

Musicians have come a long way it seems. In the digital era, there appears more freedom for an artist to produce and distribute their products at low cost. These disruptions in the music industry can be traced to the rise of subscription services like Spotify or Apple Music. The business models of these platforms seem promising. They provide listeners with access to vast libraries of music for free, and in turn, these listeners either endure commercials or pay a subscription fee to enjoy an unlimited number of songs undisturbed (Nguyen, et al., 2014; Peitz, 2018).

In this paper, ‘platforms’ are defined as infrastructures that enable the design and use of applications and connects various actors to communicate, interact, or sell their products/services (Gillespie, 2010). This is backed by the shift towards complex multi-sided markets. For instance, for Facebook, the most critical sides became advertisers and users, while content producers became more dispensable (Nieborg and Poell, 2018). Further, through the process of platformization, cultural entrepreneurs are reassembling the way they produce and circulate. Datafication or “the systematic collection and algorithmic processing of user data” [1] caused a change from editorial to more demand-driven approaches to production and distribution. This led to cultural commodities not only being modularly designed but also continuously reworked and repacked based on user data (Poell, et al., 2017).

Another good example is Spotify as it enhanced cherry-picking of songs by customers. Such shifts in consumer behavior force cultural entrepreneurs to change the way they produce, distribute, and market their product (Poell, et al., 2017). The process of platformization, therefore, has the potential to disrupt the labor market and employment relations within the music industry through the organization of work itself (Drahokoupil and Fabo, 2016).

Next to the disintermediation in the market, caused by the direct worker-client contact these platforms facilitate, Graham, et al. (2017) found evidence for a certain reintermediation. New intermediaries can have a positive influence on the work process, e.g., through taking over quality control or the assignment of activities. On the other hand, they can capture part of the earnings that formerly belonged to the producer (Graham, et al., 2017). An example for this reintermediation can be found in the art market. New voices added to the market in the digital era question common understandings, such as the hierarchy in the art world (Arora and Vermeylen, 2013). Consumers’ voices became more authoritative as they “are becoming increasingly involved in art evaluations and in doing so, are at the very least challenging if not eroding the role of the traditional gatekeepers” [2].

The low compensation artists receive for their work is the biggest point of criticism for music streaming services. The discussion came to the forefront in 2009 when rumors circulated that Lady Gaga received only US$167 for her song ‘Poker Face’, which had been streamed over a million times. Following that, a record label founder stated that whereas 5,000 track downloads in iTunes made US$3,486, nowadays 5,000 streams only yielded approximately US$6.50 (Marshall, 2015). It becomes clear that these new intermediaries take over a major revenue share and, therefore, drive the dependency of artists on live performances, merchandising, and other vehicles for revenue generation (Tilson, et al., 2013).

Even though some proponents see streaming platforms as rescuers of the music industry, it seems as if they mostly bring advantages to consumers, record labels, and themselves (Ellis-Petersen, 2017). Artists, on the contrary, face an inevitable transformation of labor, which could have an impact on their livelihood as workers. Cockayne (2016), points to the need “for further research into the relationships between flexible and precarious work, the conventional troping of work that justifies particular working practices over others, and changing technologies” [3]. He stresses that the analysis of the topic needs to be conducted on a “platform-by-platform basis” [4]. This paper, therefore, responds to this call.

Labor of musicians then and now

While there is much research on how the digitization changed labor for artists (Bockstedt, et al., 2006; Hracs, 2012; Negus, 1998), there is far less work on how creative and non-creative labor for both signed and independent artists has been affected through streaming platforms.

Creative labor

Subscription services use their analytical tools to analyze listeners on a significantly more profound level than just genre preferences. The Echo Nest by Spotify, for example, uses more than a trillion data points and focuses on every element in a song, for example on the pitch, tempo, or dance-ability but also on single notes and their connection (Prey, 2016). The question arises on how the availability of vast amounts of user data influence the creativity of musicians and if they rely on user data to create content. A look into the video-on-demand industry demonstrated how Netflix supported creative decisions for their original content with user data (Tsuchiya, 2015). Navar-Gill (forthcoming) found that the architecture of streaming services, their detachment from old-fashioned industry structures, and the access to user data, provided writers with the possibility to enjoy an even greater creative freedom.

Hence, it is worth asking how artists themselves perceive the impact of streaming services and availability of user data on their way of working and how they cope with the variety of new tasks and possibilities.

Non-creative tasks

Digitization confronted artists with an increase in non-creative tasks, such as promotion, booking, or applying for grant money (Hracs, 2012). Regarding the tasks artists need to face after the rise of streaming platforms, it is known that due to the decrease of the role of intermediaries, more artists have beem expected to work as solitary entrepreneurs. Even though this provides them with freedom, it challenges them to find alternative ways to profit from their content (Schwarz, 2014). Next to the creation of music, artists need to participate in branding and merchandising like never before.

The enormous number of artists on the major subscription services as well as their programmed recommendation playlists, such as Discover Weekly or New Music Friday on Spotify, enable customers to find and listen to artists, whom they would not have discovered before. Spotify presents this as a chance for artists to reach a wider audience (Erlandsson and Perez, 2017), whereas one could argue that it also enhances competition on these platforms significantly.

Therefore, artists need to rely on specific marketing methods to make themselves competitive. Thus, artists or labels include playlist promotions via streaming services into their marketing strategies. Even though this practice is often criticized for the amount of money it requires to be featured in a playlist, certain services also offer promotional support for artists for free (Peoples, 2015). Additionally, social media marketing has increased in importance recently as a method for artists to gain a wider reach (Salo, et al., 2013).

Other possibilities for artists to monetize their content is revenue generation through alternative platforms and Web sites. Examples of these are PledgeMusic, Artist Share, Indiegogo, Patreon, Kickstarter, Feed the Muse, ArtistConnect, Bandcamp, or Topspin, which connect artists with consumers. These support revenue generation of artists through crowdfunding (Miller, 2019) or simply through direct-to-fan sales (Meier, 2014). However, to market their music and build a particular fan base, artists even provide their work entirely for free on platforms like Soundcloud, which yields no compensation. Quite the contrary: Soundcloud’s revenue model even relies on premium subscriptions by producers, which provides with extra storage and user data. Even though framed as a producer-oriented platform, enabling artists to connect with consumers, the business model of Soundcloud does not seem to be favorable to democratizing musical production and consumption (Hesmondhalgh, et al., 2019).

Perceptions and emotional responses to cultural and creative labor

Critical voices link developments such as the offering of music on SoundCloud to criticism on prosumption based on Marxist thought, which would describe these processes as steering creators/users into precarity. These platforms build their business on the labor of users, which in this case are also musicians. They consume music while simultaneously helping these services by providing content needed for their platforms (Bruns, 2016). Services like SoundCloud, therefore, can utilize user labor for commercial reasons, while not providing even the slightest share in profits. One could also link subscription services to this approach, whose payment to the producer tends towards zero. In prosumer capitalism, control and exploitation are enforced by a trend towards unpaid labor and offering products at low economic but high data sharing cost (Ritzer and Jurgenson, 2010). The instability and precariousness of employment of cultural workers and (new) media workers becomes elevated so that we see a movement to more insecure, contingent, and flexible work (Gill and Pratt, 2008).

In sharp contrast is the argument that artists have always treated freedom as compensation for security. Gill and Pratt (2008) point out that within Marxist discourse, the differentiation of cultural work to other forms of work is often ignored. For example, Gill and Pratt state that the most consistent finding of research on work within the creative industries is that it is experienced as satisfying and intensely pleasurable by many involved with it.

Hesmondhalgh and Baker (2010) researched the emotional responses to creative labor in three cultural industries, including the music industry, and ended with the same conclusion. The lines between pleasure and obligations tend to blur. On the one side, self-exploitation seems to be an issue, especially for young individuals who are willing to work for free in exchange for a chance to be consumed. Further, cultural workers tend to work long hours for which there is no compensation. On the other hand, this dedication is often made voluntarily due to the pleasure, enjoyment, love, and fulfillment these workers perceive in their labor. To cope with the precarity that comes along with being an artist, they often build a stable foundation for themselves by taking alternative employment (Hesmondhalgh and Baker, 2010).

To summarize, through subscription services, the revenue which artists earn from their music has reduced significantly (Marshall, 2015; Tilson, et al., 2013), while the competition has increased. Therefore, they need to make themselves competitive by participating in more non-creative tasks, such as branding and public relations. However, the impact that subscription services have on these processes, both creative and non-creative, through the provision of user data has yet to be investigated. Further, alternative platforms might exist, but we do not yet know if artists perceive them as an alternative way of generating revenue. This paper seeks to fill these gaps and contribute to studies of perceptions and emotions musicians have regarding their work as well as their work environment.




This research follows a qualitative approach, delving into the perceptions of musicians on the current state of the art of labor through in-depth semi-structured interviews. It does not aim at being representative but at rethinking normative assumptions on the role of contemporary cultural intermediaries and the creativity process in the music industry, in particular, in the German music market.

The participants in this research include musicians in Germany that offer their products on at least one music subscription service, such as Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, or Deezer. Because of the similarity of these streaming platforms, especially their revenue models, the focus of this research does not lie in one specific platform. This approach enhances the generalizability of the research. For this paper, a non-random purposive sample was drawn. Thirteen interviews were conducted whereby the interviewees were found through snowball sampling. This strategy of sampling had multiple starting points including one of the researcher’s networks, popular music venues in Germany, and their networks. In the end, the sample consisted of artists from many varying genres, and at different career levels: emerging, mid-career, and established artists.

The first set of questions dealt with creative labor and investigated how the production of music as well as other tasks, such as rehearsing, video production, or graphic design changed with the onset of the sharing/subscription economy. The respondents were, for example, asked whether they used data of their listeners and if yes, how this influences their creative process.

The second set of questions on non-creative labor encompassed all tasks musicians need to face, such as managerial aspects — media relations, booking, and licensing as well as technical tasks, such as recording, editing, or equipment management. Further business-related tasks like merchandising, financing, and branding were explored.

The third set of questions addressed intermediaries, where we asked about the relations between artist and consumer. The goal was to see if the role of middlemen indeed declined and if not, how the network around musicians changed. Respondents were asked to reflect on organizations or actors between them and their listeners.

Lastly, the fourth corpus of queries, the perceptions of musicians, aimed at somewhat sensitive themes such as the satisfaction and pleasure but also the insecurity artists perceived in their work. Questions for this topic also explored if they felt compensated justly or the opposite.



Findings and discussion

Rethinking music production

The investigation regarding contemporary creative and non-creative labor of artists, the state-of-the-art intermediary network, and their perceptions brought to the surface a surprising finding: the shift in what constitutes as music:

In principle, music becomes less and less a product, I think, but rather a marketing tool to make the brand of your band known and to subsequently find other sales channels. (Julien S., personal communication, 8 April 2018)

This also changes the role of artists, as the whole music industry is now focused on promoting the artist-brand, instead of just the recordings, so that musicians are compelled to sell themselves (Meier, 2014). That also influences how they approach non-creative tasks.

The base of this perceptual change lies within the often-criticized revenue model of subscription services, which makes it almost impossible for artists to generate revenue solely from their music (Marshall, 2015; Tilson, et al., 2013).

Following one interviewee’s approach, artists first need to place their music at the disposal of the public and only after a positive reaction can they develop a means of revenue generation. As he declared:

I think that in the future it will be more like this that when you do something, you first set it free and then you see how to make money out of it [...]. If you [...] try to generate money out of every click that you get somewhere, you will not reach that many people and ultimately not obtain that much with your music. (Konstantin K., personal communication, 5 April 2018)

This approach resonates of the long-practice of laboring for free; artists deliver their preliminary work, without any prospect for revenue. The nature of labor they provide are, however, neither tangible nor predictable in the beginning. This also adds to the Marxist criticism on prosumption, where the provision of the artist’s free labor helps new intermediaries to secure value needed for their platforms but also steers the originators into precarity and exploitative working conditions (Bruns, 2016; Ritzer and Jurgenson, 2010).

Nevertheless, other artists contradicted these claims and pointed to a need to differentiate between genres. Electronic music is commonly distributed and listened to on free services like SoundCloud. Other genres, which primarily aim towards an older target group, however, still have other, more traditional possibilities of generating revenue, for example CD sales. The question here is, how long a differentiation between genres is still sustainable. As stated before, even in Germany, known for being a late adopter, the CD has lost its position as the main revenue driver in the music industry after 30 years of supremacy (Bundesverband Musikindustrie [Federal Association of the Music Industry], 2018). Further, as the population ages, digital natives gradually replace older generations, which will amplify this decline. Therefore, over time, a differentiation between genres in how revenues are generated through music might be obsolete.

Additionally, for all respondents, a second foothold was unavoidable: Not a single artist would be able to make a living by her or his music alone, even though quite a few aspire for that. Through a second job “at least [...] the existential component is taken care of” (Konstantin K., personal communication, 5 April 2018). The under-compensation of creative work as well as the uncertainty accompanying it adds to the criticism on labor conditions in cognitive bio-capitalism, in which relational and digital labor have become more commonplace. In cognitive capitalism a distinction between life and labor loses meaning and, through a lack of income, individuals are pushed into a precarious existence (Fumagalli, 2015).

Surprisingly, some respondents used the same logic to criticize the mindset change of music consumers:

Nobody is up for paying five euro for a youth center concert even though they spent seven euro for a coffee at Starbucks two hours before that. (Konstantin K., personal communication, 5 April 2018)

They equated the amount spent for music with that for coffee. This points to a tremendous shift in societal values and arguably, the devaluation of culture. The streaming industry, led by Spotify and Netflix, convinced consumers that they do not really need to own cultural assets in order to enjoy them. This, however, eradicated the perception of scarcity, abruptly decreasing the value of music or movies (Wolk, 2015). This finding is also supported by Atasoy and Morewedge (2018), who discovered that digital products are always perceived with less value than physical ones. The need to evoke a new change in the mindset towards cultural value becomes paramount, as culture is not only music, cinema, or theatre, but a question of societal progress.

The streaming craftsmen?

Most of the respondents did not recognize any change in their creative behavior with the rise of subscription services. However, some vital influences were noticed.

One crucial change is the length of the songs. Subscription services led to a shortening of the time that artists have to persuade their listeners, due to the ease of skipping to the next song. As Christoph S. stated:

Through that, you see that songs are getting increasingly shorter [...]. And I also notice that personally that I produce songs extra for the radio so that they are ideally short. And that you, of course, need to try to catch the listener with something within the first five seconds. (Christoph S., personal communication, 9 April 2018)

Artists are adapting to the needs and wants of their listeners. As business models are often built on user data, artists are using information about their users’ behavior to change the nature of their music (Jenkins, et al., 2013). Therefore, a powerful beat in the beginning can function as a critical hook to keep a listener from swiping to the next song.

Another artist added that the knowledge about which songs are the favorites of listeners influences the live set and helps to adjust the sequence of songs to the preferences of users. Felix H. and his band, for example, always play the song with the most streams on Spotify and which was also picked by curated playlists at the end of their live set.

This finding pushes our understanding of the online-off-line relationship between artist and customer. As Lepa, et al. (2015) stated, the experience of live music leads to an “embodiment” of this music and a changing experience when listening to a song later.

Nevertheless, artists who also acknowledge the need to adapt to the peculiarities of subscription services, struggle with adapting their creative output. Konstantin K.’s claim points to the dilemma artists find themselves in:

If you would use data from the Internet, from services like Spotify, to change your creative product then you are not an artist anymore but a — I don’t know — a craftsman? (Konstantin K., personal communication, 5 April 2018)

It shows that even though musicians perceive music as a tool rather than a product, they still resist pure instrumentalization of their music on the basis of user data. This is in contrast to Navar-Gill’s (forthcoming) findings, which indicate a shift in the minds of video content writers to perceiving data-informed creative choices as something desirable. This indicates that music can still be differentiated from other products or services, which can be possibly traced back to the personal emotions invested into producing a song.

The datafied music audience

Subscription services provide useful insights into demographic and behavior-related user data. As the artist brand becomes increasingly important, the datafication of their listeners could support artists on their way to success. Some of the respondents actively used this benefit, by acknowledging, following, and interpreting results.

The data perceived on these platforms can have intangible and tangible impacts on artists. Jonas A., for example, is influenced by the data he obtains about his listeners in a way that makes him feel appreciated; realizing that people really listen to him and acknowledge his music motivates him to improve his technical skills to offer a better listening experience.

A more tangible impact can be seen when looking at Mark V.’s and Felix H.’s experiences. For both, the information about the cities their music is mostly played in help to plan concerts or even tours more efficiently. In both cases, the cities their bands were located in, were not listed under the top cities on Spotify.

This is pretty interesting, we are located in Regensburg, but Regensburg is maybe in position fifteen of all the cities when looking at the listeners [...] — our numbers are way higher in the north than in the south. And we noticed [...] that exactly in those cities, where we had many listeners on Spotify, there were many [concert goers] too. So, that was an excellent predictor [...]. I assume that when we plan the next tour, we are going to orient ourselves actively on that. (Felix H., personal communication, 28 April 2018)

Information retrieved from subscription services, therefore, provides a chance for smaller, unknown artists to allocate their resources more efficiently.

Further, user data can not only be a massive support for tour planning, but also for social media strategies. Knowing the correct target group — for example, their age, gender, and location — can improve communication with a given audience. Artists can influence their audience recommendations by partially determining how people talk about them online. One may think that the place of origin does not influence geographical success with the onset of social and digital media. However, Verboord and van Noord (2016) found that artists from certain vital cities still experience higher exposure to users and media critics. In some cases, geography still matters even in the highly globalized music market and that the communities which are formed online may not be in alignment with the exact locality of a musician. Therefore, the power of off-line engagement, relative to social media, should not be underestimated. User data provided by Spotify can thus help to reasonably invest in concerts in those cities where exposure is already significant.

Subscriptions services — and the data they provide — can enable all artists to facilitate global reach with efficient financial approaches. However, some of the respondents did not even consider the possibilities of user data. Notably, these respondents were those with smaller numbers on Spotify than the rest. This, however, leads to the question of why relatively unknown artists refuse to rely on user data to facilitate their reach. One reason could be that they need an optimal number of streams to secure reliable reports about patterns in listening behavior.

Datafication, at least partially, caused a change from editorial to more demand-driven approaches in the music industry (Poell, et al., 2017). Nevertheless, creative production is only marginally influenced by user data. Regarding distribution, artists have a possibility to profit from their insights into user behavior, if used correctly.

Promoting the artistic self

The branded music experience, which subscription services offer through their recommendation systems, is often their only means of differentiation from other services. Therefore, their recommendations are not only influenced by objective user data but also their own interests of positioning themselves as an unique brand (Morris and Powers, 2015). Hence, artists need to assert themselves not only against increased competition on these platforms but also their subjective algorithms to secure attention of listeners. Through that, attention, measurable through streams, clicks, or likes, becomes a kind of capital for artists. In the race for attention, some new ways of promoting music has appeared for artists such as playlist promotions, enabling them to make themselves competitive on these platforms.

However, the concept still seemed to be new to most of the respondents or at least something they have not actively pursued. Two of the respondents were promoted through playlists curated by Spotify, such as Mix of the Week, which increased the number of their streams. In that case, Spotify functioned as an unexpected springboard enabling a more significant reach.

For Mark V., the pick of one song through Spotify changed the exposure of his song extraordinarily and generated a significant reach.

There are these playlists generated by Spotify like Discover Weekly [...] and Release Radar and Your Daily Mix. So right in the beginning, there was Release Radar, which picked our song and then we had 6,500 streams on one day. On one single day! (Mark V., personal communication, 11 April 2018)

Until rcently, it was not possible to directly pay Spotify to secure positioning into popular playlists. This approach of generating revenue could place Spotify in a conflicted position as users trust Spotify’s quality and expect a curation of releases on popularity and expertise, not based on money streams. Nevertheless, Felix H., for example, tried to trick the Spotify algorithm: To facilitate a playlist promotion without investing much money, his band used Facebook to influence user behavior on Spotify. Their approach, for example, motivated their fans to move a song into their own playlists, which was recognized by Spotify’s algorithms.

This demonstrates that while Spotify, as well as Facebook, are algorithm-driven, they are nevertheless connected to the off-line world, giving artists an opportunity to, at least partially, game the system. Virtual and physical lives are strongly interconnected, and creators do not act in isolation in the digital world. They are surrounded by families, friends, the public, and whole institutions, such as universities, distributors, and publishers, building a social context that has some influence to shape the online world (Taylor, 2014). The success of such attempts, however, can be questioned in the long run. The examples of Instagram, Google, and Facebook, analyzed by Petre, et al. (forthcoming) show how cultural producers, despite their efforts, lose against platform algorithms in the end. Petre, et al. uncovered double standards in the system, which positioned growth-oriented practices by platforms as innovative but, when performed through cultural producers, as manipulative or even criminal. Through that, the power of paternalistic platforms rises even more so over cultural producers.

Nevertheless, social media in general serves as a marketing tool in the hands of artists. The time that artists spent on social media platforms is positively linked to the financial intentions of their fans, making them less likely to illegally download music (Daellenbach, et al., 2015). Thereby, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram help users to sell their personal brand across the Internet and increase prominence and recognition (Khamis, et al., 2017).

However, the importance of social media in the music industry stands in contrast to the specialized skills and the knowledge that is required to plan a social media strategy. Several respondents expressed uncertainty towards the right strategies on marketing platforms. As Jonas A. complains:

Some things, which are utterly absurd, have an incredible reach, while messages about a release of an EP or so only get a handful. I do not get what reaches the people and what does not. (Jonas A., personal communication, 7 April 2018)

This adds to the ‘black-boxing’ of platforms (Pasquale, 2015), in other words, the non-transparency of how a system works for musicians while the pressure continues to mount to engage their audiences online. It also indicates the increasingly unrealistic expectations towards artists to have professional skills in so many varying disciplines.

At the same time, this relational labor challenges artists to balance their own needs and the wishes of their audiences to connect with them continually. While this constant communication flow becomes central for many careers, it continues to be uncompensated (Baym, 2015). Further, platforms like Instagram demands the sharing of intimate moments of the lives of artists. This adds to a loss of emotional and personal information, which already occures in the course of writing, producing, and distributing their own music. The commodification of the artist, hence, requires a loss of privacy, facilitated by the need to be “always on” when it comes to social media.

To recapitulate, it can be seen that increased competition make image, identity, and branding more crucial than ever before. In the contemporary media landscape, artists are required to put much creativity not only into the production of their artifacts but also in their self-marketing. This creates a tension between time dedicated to creative work and time needed for successful marketing (Sjöholm and Pasquinelli, 2014).

Intermediaries in the German music industry

Rather than facilitating an open exchange between musicians and their listeners, platforms have increased intermediation between producer and consumer. This change is due to a need to compensate for lower revenue from sales of physical recordings through extensive promotion or alternative forms of compensation (Negus, 2014). Specific networking partners have changed. Subscription services are powerful intermediaries, yielding often disproportionate power over the success of a given artist. They are more about marketing or networking than performing as merely a sales platform. As Felix H. remembered:

One time, we also looked for contact opportunities for employees from Spotify, which curate them [playlists], because bands we know made it in there without money. However, unfortunately, that search was unsuccessful. (Felix H., personal communication, 28 April 2018)

Other examples are digital distributors, which enable musicians to upload their music on subscription services without a label. These distributors are perceived with gratitude because of the ease and affordability that comes along with their services. Some of them even offer support for artists to be discovered on subscription services, for example through playlist promotion. Digital distributors further function as a safety net in case a song is not picked and released through a specific label.

Things like these distributors, which somehow offer all of this stuff on every possible streaming vendor [...] are, I think, a great thing. Otherwise, it would cost me much more time if there was not this possibility. (Julien S., personal communication, 8 April 2018)

It seems, that even though this newly emerged intermediary is also positioned between the artists and their listeners, it still adds to their independence and autonomy.

The copyright collecting societies system in Germany, which includes for example GEMA [5], is a somewhat traditional intermediary. However, they are perceived as a helpful partner, because of their support for artists in royalty collection. More than one respondent mentioned that artists in other countries probably envy Germany for this functional system.

The GEMA is a great thing, and I think that the whole world, especially the USA, is envious of such functioning copyright as we have it here in Germany. (Julien S., personal communication, 8 April 2018)

However, some artists questioned the usefulness of collecting societies like GEMA and expressed their confusion about these particular settlement and organizational matters. This, again, points to a certain obfuscation and non-transparency of these intermediaries and adds to the power imbalance between traditional intermediaries and artists. For instance, Kira needed to give 40 percent of her GEMA revenue to the label, even when the revenue was made through her playing her own songs at a gig.

This leads to a second intermediary, whose role changed with the rise of streaming platforms: the labels. A surprising finding during the data collection phase was that except for one respondent, all others which released their music through a label, were not exclusively signed. This means that they were able to conduct their creative processes with more freedom than envisioned. Collaborations with release partners enabled artists to leverage on the expertise of the labels. On the one hand, this seemed like a big step in the direction of real independence for artists, however, collaboration did not mean that the artist was financially supported completely. In some cases, revenues generated by labels did not even reach an artist. Further, the wish to release a song through a particular label can have a significant influence over the creative process. Therefore, the independence of artists with non-exclusive label relations needs to be questioned.

Some respondents perceived the number of intermediaries that they saw between them and their listeners as high and some others as low. This could be tied to the different details that they provided relative to their networks. Musicians still have a choice of whom they participate with and whom they exclude within their value chain. Only subscription services and one distributing intermediary, either a digital distributor or a label, seemed indispensable.

Even though many artists enjoy a do-it-yourself approach and liked to be in charge of every single process affecting their artistic outcome, many of them also liked support from professional intermediaries. As Julien S. stated:

Because of that reason, I do not have a problem with them [intermediaries], because none of these actors has anything to do with my creative process. (Julien S., personal communication, 8 April 2018)

Shortly after the turn of the millennium, Negus (2002) wrote that “cultural intermediaries reproduce rather than bridge the distance between production and consumption” [6] and “like much of the imagery, words, and symbols they are engaged in constructing and circulating, they offer the illusion of such a link rather than its material manifestation” [7]. However, every new intermediary, such as a digital distributor or social networking platform, enabled an almost unconstrained relation between artists and listeners, generating even more intermediaries. Some respondents expressed their longing for additional intermediaries, which would take over non-creative tasks in a professional manner, allowing artists to focus solely on creative processes.

The aim is that this tilts at some point, that it changes. That the creative part rises and that is the reason why you have people at some point that take care of booking, tour-management, the general management or social media stuff [...]. So that you can do what you really want to do: being creative. And that you do not get disturbed by all this other stuff. (Tabea Luisa B., personal communication, 11 April 2018)

As Hracs (2015) found, in diverse music centers, such as Toronto, DIY artists tend to collaborate on specific creative and non-creative tasks with varying contractors. One intermediary which is increasingly sought after in this landscape is the freelance manager. These managers are hired on-demand and provide support in operational business matters, including the connection, coordination, and curation with contractors. This model might represent an ideal future intermediary network for artists, leaving them with the freedom to create their music without the need to worry about non-creative tasks. Of course, this intermediary also requires a certain revenue share, but these managers can spontaneously be hired as soon as a given financial situation permits it.

To summarize, a certain process of reintermediation in sharing economy markets, as found by Graham, et al. (2017), can be proven when looking at the music subscription industry. New intermediaries emerged, with some positive influences on the work process, while simultaneously capturing part of the earnings belonging to the artists. In general, old intermediaries in the music industry seem to persist, while new ones seem to rise. Because of that and because they remain desirable, at least for some artists, the question arises how a “fair” reciprocity could be ensured. Marketing and PR intermediaries could not only connect production to consumption but also channel social information from the public into the production and marketing process. The need for a functioning system, which enables producers, intermediaries, and consumers to justly capitalize on each other in the future, becomes obvious.



Concluding thoughts: The two-sidedness of subscription services

Germany held on to traditional formats longer than other major music markets in the West. However, this did not imply that cultural producers in this market were less affected than those located in faster-adopting countries. This is, for example, proven by the major concerns of the interviewees regarding their strategies on algorithm-driven platforms, such as Spotify and Apple Music but also Facebook and Instagram. In general, this study emphasizes why in spite of cultural differences, these digital intermediaries are able to scale. Differences possibly emerge based less on national characteristics and more on the status of the artist, genre, and other criteria. This serves as an opportunity to reconfigure the discourse of globalization away from national boundaries and more towards thematic and group identification beyond specific states.

The study showed that subscription services are faced with varied opinions. On the one hand, they are perceived as a curse, disrupting long-established processes. On the other side, those services can be a blessing by catapulting unknown artists to a wider audience within hours. Through these success stories, newcomers feel the need to be represented on these services to become successful, even though they cannot monetize their music.

There is bi-directionality between, on the one side, high pressure and uncertainty and, on the other side, enjoyment and pleasure. The high pressure is especially facilitated by increased competition in the market and the need for technical development. However, increased competition also stands in relation to the ease to distribute music.

Additionally, uncertainty is facilitated by unsteady revenue flow, generated through subscription services, and further, the non-transparency of this revenue flow. Artists suspect that even good work is not good enough.

On the other side, making music remains highly connected to passion and fulfillment. As many artists noted, the experiental aspect, the feeling of standing on a stage at a live show and the possibility to do what one loves and reaching people through it provides a high amount of enjoyment. Labor as a musician is also defined by a powerful striving for more and hoping for a big break, enhancing pressure. However, in this new economy, the breakthrough point seems to be more of a myth, as the rise and fall of an artist appears more dependent on algorithms and their associated platforms.

Regarding the disadvantages that subscription services bring, German artists seem to be in a state of lethargy, keeping an emotional distance. Why were more of the respondents not stimulated to change the status quo? A possible reason would be that geographical boundlessness provided by these services also leads to an inhibition of solidarity between workers and a feeling of disempowerment (Cockayne, 2016; Graham, et al., 2017).

To conclude it can be said that artists find themselves in a constant discord between enjoyment and pressure, self-actualization, and self-exploitation, freedom, and insecurity. This paper makes evident that the labor of artists indeed is precarious. Artists do not have any assurance whether their long working hours will be compensated; they are strongly dependent on networking for new chances of employment. Additionally, they have no chance for an objective assessment of skills, qualifications, and knowledge (Negus, 2014) and therefore suffer from tremendous uncertainty. Their striving for and aiming at intangible values, which are typical for creative labor, results in spending a significant amount of time on immaterial labor, which in turn is only sparsely compensated. The situation of musicians, thereby, resembles the situation of many workers in neoliberal capitalism — an overburden of economic risk, coupled with a rising imbalance between the market and the worker within the obfuscated digital world. End of article


About the authors

Saskia Mühlbach is Program Manager on Commercial Growth at PayPal, Berlin.
E-mail: s [dot] muehlbach [at] icloud [dot] com

Payal Arora is Professor and Chair in Technology, Values, and Global Media Cultures at Erasmus University Rotterdam.
E-mail: arora [at] esphil [dot] eur [dot] nl



1. Poell, et al., 2017, p. 1.

2. Arora and Vermeylen, 2013, p. 25.

3. Cockayne, 2016, p. 80.

4. Ibid.

5. GEMA, or Gesellschaft für musikalische Aufführungs- und mechanische Vervielfältigungsrechte, is the German society for musical performing and mechanical reproduction rights:

6. Negus, 2002, p. 509.

7. Ibid.



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Editorial history

Received 10 December 2019; accepted 23 March 2020.

Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Behind the music: How labor changed for musicians through the subscription economy
by Saskia Mühlbach and Payal Arora.
First Monday, Volume 25, Number 4 - 6 April 2020