Chokepoint Capitalism review – art for sale | Books

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Chokepoint Capitalism review – art for sale | Books

IIn the early 1990s, Prince began appearing in public with the word “slave” scrawled across his cheek. The face paint 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 and to own the rights to it. Prince managed to escape his original contract – in part by changing his recording name to an unpronounceable curlicue – but remained distrustful of the industry that “enslaved” him until his death, and the master recordings of his songs in a secret vault hidden under his Minnesota mansion, Paisley Park.

In this provocative book, Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow argue that every working artist today is a servant. Culture is the bait advertising that is sold around, but artists see almost nothing of the billions of Google, Facebook and Apple and make off their backs. We’ve entered a new era of “chokepoint capitalism,” in which businesses weave their way between audiences and creatives to harvest money that rightfully belongs to the artist.

An early chapter outlines the growth of Amazon, a relatively simple example of the phenomenon. First, the company hooked publishers to its site by offering them good rates. Once it became clear they couldn’t survive without it, Amazon lowered their cover price cut. The image of the chokepoint that recurs throughout this book is an evocatively gruesome one. There is only one pipeline through which authors can access their readers, and Amazon clamps down on it, 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 induce apathy. The word itself is deployed in an unspecific, almost fatalistic 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 controlled the advertising market, we make vague references to the algorithm. There’s something strangely comforting about giving up your agency this way: if the workings of the algorithm are too complicated for you to understand, you’re off the hook. Why bother trying to fight it?

What makes this book so refreshing, on the other hand, is that it never lets its reader off the hook. The authors repeatedly remind us that our ignorance is weaponized against us. If we don’t understand how big business has established its stranglehold on us, how will we ever be able to break free from its grip? As such, the first half is devoted to explaining exactly how corporations gain the upper hand over artists in the main creative industries: publishing, screenwriting, news, radio and music. Giblin and Doctorow’s analysis of the creative labor markets is highly technical, but it is a deliberate choice. At the beginning of a particularly dense section on music licenses, the reader is expressly warned that the next few paragraphs will be “mind-numbingly” boring, but we must try to pay attention. Licensing laws are purposefully designed to confuse the average creative. “The people who get rich from it while artists starve don’t want you to know how it works.”

The level of detail in the book will hurt your eyeballs, but it pays off. By determining exactly how corporations make their money, the authors are able to uncover chinks in the enemy’s armor. In one of the most surprising chapters, Giblin and Doctorow argue that big tech’s habit of monitoring you isn’t even particularly effective. Google and Facebook make billions of advertisers the most intimate facts about your life – whether you’re depressed, or suffering from erectile dysfunction, or thinking about cheating on your partner – but it’s all a downside. There is no hard evidence to show that harvesting a customer’s private information makes it easier to sell to. There is something depressing about this (data mining may not actually work, but Google will keep selling your secrets as long as advertisers keep buying them). But it is 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 almost anything. One of the revelations of this book is that much of that power is illusory.

The second half of Chokepoint Capitalism is where we get to possible solutions: practical ways artists can get back a fair share of the money made from their work. In one chapter, the authors outlined a plan to reform the “devilishly” complicated copyright laws that allow Spotify to pay the average musician about $0.003 per song stream. I have to admit the solution itself was so terribly complicated that I couldn’t follow it. Giblin and Doctorow are at their most insightful, and most inspiring, when they write about the more tangible ways artists can band together to demand fair pay. One compelling section of the book tells the story of how a group of independent authors created a new author co-op platform after discovering how much of their audiobook sales Audible was taking.

Choir 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 other people’s labor (Uber is a classic example). What makes artists uniquely vulnerable to this kind of exploitation is that they tend to work for nothing. Corporations free ride away from the “human urge to create”.

When I read that line about the “urge to create,” I felt a twinge 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 will never 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 publishing that work on (or self-publishing) isn’t paying you your fair share. One really encouraging thing about this book is its insistence that no matter what your place in the cultural ecosystem, you are entitled to be paid decently for what you do. I see it as a kind of manual that will arm you with the technical knowledge (and the confidence) to demand more.

Chokepoint Capitalism by Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow is published by Scribe (£10.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, buy a copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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