Once upon a time we paid for music.
We may have only wanted the title track, but we bought the whole album. And even if we decided that “Afternoon Delight” wasn’t so much a great song as a stupid one, and never listened to it again, the artist had our money.
Fast forward to today. Give Spotify $10 a month — less than the price of a single CD — and you can listen to whatever you want, whenever you want. That’s great for us.
When we get too busy to stream, or decide to spend a few weeks listening to every album we own in physical form, Spotify still gets paid. That’s great for them.
But the Starland Vocal Band gets diddly. And even if we do decide to give “Afternoon Delight” one last listen, SVB gets a few pennies — not the dollars they would have received back in 1976 when the song hit #1.
The same thing is happening with books. Kindle and other e-readers have saved a couple of rain forests, and eliminated the cost of printing and distributing great literature (such as the well-reviewed Inspector McLean Mysteries). More important, e-books have de-risked the publishing business, as there is no more inventory of unsold paper books that have to be pulped. Yet instead of being a boon for authors, this new world is a nightmare. Advances are dwindling or disappearing, replaced by a royalties-as-you-go model.
Journalism is also experiencing hard times. The huge costs of printing and distributing physical newspapers are being taken away, but instead of that leading to a Golden Age for content creators, staffs are shrinking.
Then there’s Uber. It’s terrific for passengers, and great for the company’s valuation. But a recent analysis found the vast majority of drivers make less than the minimum wage.
You probably think I’m lining up a pretty obvious rant about technology. But I’m not. Well, not exactly. Stay with me on the turn.
What all these examples have in common is a power imbalance. As Spotify’s user base grows and sales of physical music decline, artists have little choice but to take what Spotify is offering. Amazon dominates book selling, not least because they double the royalty rate on e-books if the author gives exlusivity to their platform. (I continue to be amazed that’s not a violation of anti-monopoly laws.)
While Uber has competition in ride-sharing, it is so dominant it effectively set wages and conditions for the entire industry. Competitors pay their drivers a little more, or charge customers a little less. But when the average Uber driver is making HALF the minimum wage, a slight improvement is still a terrible deal.
Technology obviously plays a part, but the problem isn’t so much human workers being replaced by machines as it is technology-enabled giants enjoying pricing power the robber barons of the Gilded Age could only dream of.
These new monopolists control access to the consumer. And as their infrastructure and databases continue to expand rapidly, they become increasingly entrenched and difficult to challenge. While that’s great news when you’re buying “Afternoon Delight”, it’s a depressing thought when you’re trying to pen the lyrics for “Afternoon Delight II: Love As The Sun Sets.”
Don’t get me wrong: Spotify, Amazon and Uber have all been GREAT for consumers. But part of that success has come at the expense of the people who provide the “products” they sell.🔷
(This piece was first published on Medium.)