Media @ McGill

Nick Maturo: Our Bandcamp Could Be Your Life: Precarious Labour in Contemporary Popular Music

Submitted by Media@McGill on


Labour under Post-Fordism presents itself as flexible, dynamic and generally advantageous to both employer and employee, creating a workforce of individualized “entrepreneurs of the self”; however, as the global economy stagnates, this flexibility is increasingly experienced by workers as precarity, with less guaranteed employment, fewer benefits and an overall deterioration of working
conditions. This is also true of creative industries, and indeed in the field of popular music. While conditions for working musicians outside of the classical or academic milieu have never been secure compared to standard industrial jobs, the decrease in resources available via traditional institutions such as record labels has had a widespread and appreciable effect, even impacting upon the way independent musicians function. Increasingly, their labour must move beyond their recordings: musicians are expected to provide cheap or free content-as-advertizing on blogs and sites such as Bandcamp or Soundcloud and recoup their costs by performing and selling merchandise.

This research project will begin by outlining the broad changes to conditions for working musicians that have occurred since the late 20th century before proceeding with a more in depth investigation into the nature of labour for those making their living in the field of contemporary popular music. I intend to consider such questions as: How have the methods employed by young and emerging musicians changed, and is this experienced positively, as more opportunities and control over their work, or negatively, in the difficulty to advance or sustain a liveable income? What role do platforms such as Bandcamp, Soundcloud et al. play for musicians and what advantages and disadvantages do they present compared with previous distribution methods? Is the two step promotion/touring process sustainable and does it cover the costs of the music being produced? Has this had any effect on the nature of music being made, and if so, how? Do precarious working conditions help more diverse forms of music gain exposure by placing everyone on an even playing field or does it create homogeneity? How does the precarity of available resources impact quality, either in the recording of the music or the production of a physical object (LP, CD, etc.)? What effect has this had on the ability of musicians to forge long-term careers?

Research will be conducted primarily through interviews with active musicians and individuals working in the industry, as well as examinations of sales figures and recording and performing costs. It will also be limited to examinations of musicians in Europe and North America due to the long-term existence of the music industry within these territories, thereby allowing for a before and after comparison. Furthermore, the term “musician” is defined here as a composer, producer, instrumentalist or artist working in sound (reflecting the fractured and diverse forms of music production in the age of the relatively inexpensive home recording studio); research will also be limited to musicians who were not independently wealthy prior to beginning their career and those who have not achieved this level of financial security through their music or any related endeavours.