Informal Labor in the Sharing Economy: Everyone Can Be a Record Producer

The following is an excerpt from an article I published in Fast Capitalism volume 13.1. To read the entire article, please visit here.

The availability of Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) – digital software that allows musicians and producers to record music on a computer – changes the social relations of production in the studio. Much as digital music stores helped to close bricks-and-mortar music stores (Arditi 2014c), cheap DAWs have made large record studios increasingly obsolete. The informality of digital media does not end with distribution and consumption, but extends to labor in the production of digital culture. With digital technology, everyone can be a record producer, but even fewer people can make a living from record production.

Sharing is fundamental to rhetorical discussions of the Internet. Jonas Andersson Schwarz claims “‘Sharing’ has become one of the most telling pastimes of our digital, networked age” (Andersson Schwarz 2013:1). There are four uses of the term “sharing” as relates to the Internet. First, we can talk about file sharing and the gift economy. Matthew David claims that file sharing has “the potential to circulate [informational] goods freely through the Internet,” which he contends could lead to the end of scarcity of informational goods (2010:2). Proponents of file sharing claim “information wants to be free.” Of course, the Culture Industry sees file sharing as a threat to their monopoly on cultural commodities. Second, there is the idea of sharing one’s ideas, thoughts, pictures, and daily routines with others through social media. Ben Agger labels this narcissistic tendency “oversharing” as we begin to put our every detail on the Internet for everyone to see (2011). What was once private has become public as we share likes, dislikes, secrets, and obsessions to everyone on the Internet. Third, sharing is a code word for Internet corporations with regard to what they do with our data. In this case “sharing” is a substitute for “selling” that intentionally obscures our understanding of sharing in the first two senses (Fuchs 2013).

Fourth, a sharing economy implies an informal economy where people sell the use of things they own. As Juliet Schor defines “the new sharing economy as economic activity that is Peer-to-Peer, or person-to-person, facilitated by digital platforms” (2015). Platforms place people in contact with each other to “share” goods and time. Advocates of the sharing economy claim that these platforms make under-utilized goods productive. In effect, “sharing” is selling the usage rights to an owned commodity. However, sharing could be viewed as unending labor—a type of labor power dependent on the constant work of individuals under precarious circumstances. These workers “have no protections—not even minimum wage guarantees—when payment is by the job, rather than by time” (Schor 2015). From Uber and Airbnb to Favor and Rent Like a Champion, mobile devices have become tools for the informalization of labor – a process where companies describe themselves as web-platforms instead of cab companies, delivery services or hotels. In effect, the workers own their means of production, but the tech companies use their brand power to connect workers to customers. It is in the fourth sense that I am exploring the way record producers become “sharing” entrepreneurs whereby they sell access to their studios.

The social relations of production in recording studios changes as musicians and labels stop using large recording studios. Record production has been scattered through a number of smaller craft studios, which fundamentally changes the work environment for people working in studios. The prospect of full time employment in large studios has always been a challenge, and studio workers are known to labor precariously to earn a living; however, DAWs have rapidly increased this precariousness over the last several decades. Many of these workers live job-to-job or toil in part-time positions in other industries hoping to catch a break with their music production career. This new form of production gives corporations a means to increase capital by cutting production budgets.

The digital transition of recording studios is not the logical outcome of the progress of technology, but rather a product of the logic of capitalism. A raw technological determinism assumes that technology is devoid of ideology and that the creation of new technology can only mark progress that advances society and humanity. However, it is important to remember that technological development is embedded within a particular set of social relations. In Noise: The Political Economy of Music (1985), Jacques Attali proposes that the political economy of music predicts or foreshadows shifts in the economic system. For instance, workers in the sharing economy have been described a “turn toward precarious employment and the privatization of risk . . . more accurately understood as the ‘1099 economy,’ since their workers are not employees receiving IRS W-2 forms, but 1099-MISC forms. That is they are temporary contractors” (Walker 2015). Musicians have worked as temporary contractors filing 1099 tax forms for decades whether they are gigging musicians, session musicians, or signed to a record contract. The sharing economy models itself on the informal labor structure under which musicians have been oppressed. With regard to record production, there is a remarkable similarity between the displacement of studio production from large label studios to small project (typically home) studios and the overall shift from large corporate owned services to the sharing economy.

While the informalization of labor in the production of music is not necessarily linked to an online platform that operates under the guise of sharing, there are distinct similarities to the precarity of labor that occurs with digitization. This essay outlines the changes to the recording studio, then critiques these changes in terms of their influence on the conditions of labor. I conclude by discussing the website platform, SoundBetter—a site designed to connect musicians and music production workers to record music. I use a Cultural Studies methodology that interrogates a cultural object (music studios) with the goal of illuminating the situatedness of that object within a broader social discourse. To do this, I employ the method of immanent critique as “a means of detecting the societal contradictions which offer the most determinate possibilities for emancipatory social change” (Antonio 1981:330). What follows is a theorization of the effects of digital music production on the social relations of production in new studio spaces.

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