[Plura-list] The Halloween Moon; The music monopolists

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Thu Sep 23 12:00:36 EDT 2021

Read today's issue online at: https://pluralistic.net/2021/09/23/remedies-beyond-antitrust/

Today's links

* The Halloween Moon: A YA novel from Nightvale creator Joseph Fink.

* The music monopolists: Thinking outside the antitrust box.

* This day in history: 2011, 2016

* Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming/recent appearances, current writing projects, current reading


🪗 The Halloween Moon

In "The Halloween Moon," Welcome to Nightvale co-creator Joseph Fink brings his superb, unmatchable gift for balancing the weird and  the real to a spooky middle-grades novel that echoes such classics as Neil Gaiman's Coraline.


If you're a stranger to Fink's work, the thing you need to know is that Nightvale and his other projects manage to walk the tightrope between weird, creepypasta-style humor and real pathos, in a gloriously disorienting, reeling storytelling style.


The Halloween Moon tells the sale of Esther Gold, a 13 year old who loves Halloween more than anything, and organizes her whole year around it. But this year, her parents have decreed that she is too old for trick-or-treating, a transition she is absolutely unwilling to make.

Rather than heed her parents, Esther hatches a plan to drag her reluctant, Halloween-hating best friend, Augustin, out on a rule-breaking trick-or-treat, engineering a ruse to fool all the adults in their life.

But something is wrong, this Halloween night. As the full moon rises and Esther and Augustin begin their rounds of the best trick-or-treat houses, they notice a distinct absence of kids, and no one is opening their doors. 

The world, it seems, has fallen asleep, and the familiar landscapes of their neighborhood now stretch and warp in nightmarish ways. Everywhere they go, they find slumbering kids and adults.

But not all the world is asleep. There's the two creepy gents - brothers? - who pilot a pair of shambling, converted ice-cream trucks: one filled with razor-studded apples, the other with pumpkins that explode into walls of flames.

And then there are the mysterious children (?) in rotting costumes, who make eerie, insectile clicking noises in place of speech.

There's Mr Gabler, the dentist-neighbor who earned Esther's undying mistrust by dispensing toothbrushes instead of candy at Halloween.

For a dentist, Mr Gabler's pretty combat-ready, performing extraordinary feats of home defense as they run from the monsters that stalk the night, periodically quipping, "I wasn't always a dentist."

Finally, there's Sasha, a cloistered girl with an overprotective mother who is also Esther's tormentor, bullying her with antisemitic tropes that she barely understands, even as Sasha herself is subjected to racist bullying by other kids.

This is the setup for a wild chase through the endless Hallowe'en night, a night that has been claimed by the haughty Queen of Halloween, who has managed to pinch off a bubble of our world to turn into her eternal domain. 

Our heroes must traverse dreamlands, do battle with monsters, confront their loved ones in their own slumbering fantasies and try to awaken them to reality, and confront their own failures and tensions in a fast-moving, surreal-but-consequential adventure.

If you love Nightvale (and you should), you know that dream-logic can be haunting, and sweet, and full of tension and meaning, despite its fuzzy edges and changing rules. 

Fink's middle-grades debut brings that same weird and glorious spookiness to a new kind of audience and a new kind of narrative - short, self-contained, punchy and very, very satisfying. It is certified, grade-A monster kid stuff.


🪗 The music monopolists

Writing in Wired, Institute for Local Self Reliance researcher and anti-monopolist Ron Knox gives a thorough, important account of how music industry monoplization resulted declining revenue for artists, even as the industry itself has reaped greater profits.


Importantly, Knox describes how concentration has come to every link in music's supply chain, from radio to recording, streaming to live performance. The monopolists who dominate these sectors fight fiercely between each other, but no matter who wins, artists lose.

Let's go segment by segment. Two thirds of all North American music comes from three labels. The labels grew through anticompetitive mergers: giant companies, awash in investor cash, bought out mid-sized, successful labels, turning them into subdivisions of the Big Three.

The more concentrated the labels got, the worse they were for everyone. They spent the nineties and naughties price-gouging record companies, pocketing hundreds of millions from an illegal price-fixing conspiracy. The fines they paid were smaller than the profits they reaped.

But at least they distributed music. Today, the struggling physical record store industry - a network of passionate music sellers who serve the most intense music fans - find themselves getting "record shipments" that turn out to be boxes of random stuff like cough syrup (!).

That happened when the Big Three all piled their distribution into a single company, the monopolist Direct Shot Distributing. As Direct Shot started to fail, its operations descended into chaos, and record stores started to receive boxes of random consumer packaged goods.

It was bad news for the non-monopolized, music-first record stores, but it barely registered for the Big Three labels - today, they buy an average of two new acts every day.

The labels don't make money from selling records, of course. They get their money from streaming.

Streaming is also massively concentrated, gathered into the hands of just a few companies: Spotify, Apple, Youtube, Amazon - with the notable exception of Spotify, the industry is dominated by companies that also monopolize other sectors.

Monopolies are good to these companies. Spotify's market-cap doubled during the pandemic - the market values its 150m subs (twice as many as subscribe with Apple) at $50b. The major labels get $1m/hour from streaming. 99% of their artists see $25/year in streaming royalties.

Spotify may be the biggest streaming service, but it's not the lowest-paying. Youtube - a Google division, whose unsuccessful attempt to launch an in-house video service convinced it that it had to buy someone else's success - drives the worst bargain.

Spotify uses its industry dominance to extract heavy fees from the labels - creaming 30% of the total revenue generated by a typical track. Big Three monopolists with fat margins can absorb this. Indies? Not so much.

Spotify's market cap growth is in part due to the new ways it's come up with to shake down the labels - a variety of tactics that all boil down to one thing: payola. Spotify will sell labels pop-up ads, placement in "radio" algorithms, and access to "Discovery mode."

Like all forms of payola, Spotify's rate-card is a way for monopolists to edge out indies, buying their way into your ear-holes. I'm sure that the Big Three would rather keep the bribes they pay to Spotiify, but the consolation prize is pretty sweet.

If the Big Three are the only ones who can afford to buy access to Spotify's audience, then creators are driven to sign with them, and have less bargaining leverage when they negotiate their deals. 

Spotify, meanwhile, can consolidate its gains by driving up those fees, pitting labels against each other in a bidding war for access to listeners. This effectively drives down the royalty rate Spotify pays, because every new track will have to buy in to get any reach.

Spotify talks a good game about how it uses big data and machine learning to pick the songs you hear, but increasingly, the algorithm is getting far less compute-intensive, a simple sort-by-highest-bidder system you could operate from a laptop running Windows 3.1 and Excel.

In theory, streaming losses can be made up with touring. Acts who attain digital popularity can charge access at  the door to clubs and other venues. The only problem is that live performance is also a monopoly business.

The 800lb gorilla there is Livenation, a division of the ticket monopolist and notorious arm-breakers Ticketmaster - spun out of Clear Channel, the monopolist that we now know as Iheartradio.

Livenation parlayed its access to the capital markets to buy out $1b worth of venues and promoters, before being acquired by Clear Channel for $4.4b in 2005. Today, it's a division of Liberty Media, consolidated with Ticketmaster, Pandora, and Siriusxm. 

What goes around, comes around: Liberty's private equity owners are in the process of buying up Iheartradio, re-merging all of Clear Channel's spinouts into one giga-monopolist. 

The conglomerate already coerces artists to book exclusively in its clubs and using its ticketing, starving independent venues. Add 850 terrestrial radio stations to the mix and it will choke off all the oxygen that independent venues, promoters and ticketers rely on.

Liberty didn't buy all these companies because it's passionate about music and wanted to ensure artists got a fair shake. By rolling up the entire live music/radio supply-chain, it bought the power to extract vast sums from musicians, and to keep rivals out of the market.

Well, not *all* competitors. Lollapalooza co-founder Marc Geiger raised tens of millions for "Savelive," a new would-be monopolist that offered to "rescue" live music venues in exchange for a 51% stake in them. 

Savelive illustrates an important point about the nature of monopolies: they beget more monopolies. Consolidation in the labels meant that only the largest streaming companies could negotiate a sustainable rate.

But consolidation in radio drives consolidation in labels - and many of the indie radio stations that survived the first wave of consolidation were picked up cheap by Iheartradio once monopolistic streamers ate their lunch.

This is a pattern across the whole entertainment industry: bookstore mergers and big box retailers drove consolidation in publishing; that was accelerated by consolidation in online ebook and physical book retail.

It's not limited to the entertainment sector either. As David Dayen describes in his essential book MONOPOLIZED, hospitals didn't start consolidating until the pharma industry underwent a wave of brutal mergers and started gouging for drugs.


Hospital consolidation led to gouging insurers, leading to a wave of insurance consolidation. Today, nearly every part of the health industry is monopolized, from pharmacy benefit managers to medical labs. 

The only parts of the supply chain that doesn't monopolize - that *can't* monopolize - are the ends of the chain: the people who work in the system, and the people who use it.

Monopoly punishes doctors and nurses and other health workers - and it punishes patients.

It punishes writers and publishing workers, and it punishes readers.

It punishes musicians and independent venue owners, and it punishes listeners.

When every part of the supply chain gets so monopolized that it can't easily be squeezed by any other part of the supply chain, these giants turn on us - the workers and users of the system. We, the atomized and fragmented, cannot resist the squeeze.

But as Knox writes, the tide is turning. After 40 years of waving through anticompetitive mergers in the name of "efficiency," the DoJ and FTC are under new management, with two-fisted trustbusters like Lina M Khan at the helm.


This new cohort of monopoly fighters reject the "consumer welfare" theory of antitrust (the idea that monopolies drive prices down and are therefore good for society), going to war against the hegemonic orthodoxy that began with Ronald Reagan.


The new antitrust is surging, with bills in the House and Senate, executive orders from the White House, regulatory proceedings at the DoJ and FTC, and an interagency-cabinet coordination committee that ties it all together.

This new antitrust promises workers and users of monopolized industries a better alternative than rooting for one giant to beat another in hopes that they will drop a few crumbs for the rest of us to enjoy. 

Creative workers don't have to choose between Big Tech and Big Content based on their assessment of which monopolist will abuse them the least. Instead, we can root for antimonopoly, for giant-slaying, and the right to self-determination.

The most important immediate step towards that future is blocking new anticompetitive mergers, like Sony's bid for AWAL, or Liberty Media's use of a $500m SPAC to go on a vertical monopoly shopping spree.

The agencies have the power to stop these. They should. When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

But ending anticompetitive mergers won't get us out of that hole: most industries (from beer to cheerleader uniforms to wresting to eyeglasses) are already monopolized.

The new trustbusters - and the ILSR - want to use antitrust law to break up these conglomerates. I think that's right: vertical monopolies will always engage in self-dealing to the detriment of independents, workers and customers. Break. Them. Up.

But breaking up is hard to do. When the DoJ tried to break up IBM, the company's lawyers outspent the *entire* DoJ antitrust division, every single year, for *twelve consecutive years*, and in the end, it escaped breakup.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't try. IBM escaped justice because Reagan was elected and neutered antitrust. And even though it remained intact, it was never the same - for one thing, it decided that it was too risky to make its own PC OS.

IBM knew that antitrust enforcers were very suspicious of tying software to hardware - so it tapped a couple of hacker kids, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, to sell it DOS, from their new company "Micro-Soft." 

Unfortunately for all of us, antitrust enforcement only declined after that, so IBM was able to return to its monopolistic ways, and Microsoft escaped from antitrust scrutiny after a mere seven years in regulatory hell.

Antitrust enforcement can sap monopolists of the will to power, as they become increasingly concerned that their actions will attract aggressive legal reprisals. 

Think of how Apple "lost" the Epic lawsuit but still "voluntarily" rescinded its heretofore hard rule against apps providing links to web-pages where you can use third-party payment processors to make purchases.

As monopolists lose their nerve, space opens up for all kinds of pro-worker, pro-user interventions, far beyond those afforded by traditional antitrust.

Next year, Beacon Press will publish THE SHAKEDOWN, a book I co-wrote with Rebecca Giblin about the monopolistic corruption of creative labor markets and how creative workers, regulators and fans can resist it.

The Shakedown catalogs the ways that monopolization of investment, distribution and sale of creative works allows entertainment companies, Big Tech, and major retailers to shift an ever-larger share of the creative industry's revenues from workers to themselves.

More importantly, we identify tools beyond breakups that we can use to de-monopolize the industry - things we can do right now, without having to wait for the conclusion of an antitrust suit that might run for decades.

Take reversion rights: many copyright systems allow creators to take back their rights after a set period (35 years in the US). This lets artists who signed bad deals - before they were proven successes - to resell their catalog or extract reparations by threatening to.

But reversion is *really* hard to do, and 35 years is *way* too long. Only an handful of creators - even those with valuable catalogs that could be renewed through reversion - ever manage it.


Congress (and other legislatures around the world, including Canada, where this is likely to come up in the new Parliament) could fix reversion: make it easier to do, and make it available after a shorter period - say, 14 years.

And what about those bad contracts? The "freedom to contract" has always been subject to limits, where some clauses are deemed unenforceable "as against public policy" or because they are "unconscionable."

With the entertainment sector consolidated into just a couple of states, state legislatures could act to void the most abusive clauses - for example, clauses that allow labels to claw back royalties indefinitely to recoup (often inflated or fictitious) "expenses."

Our book explores dozens of these kinds of ideas, from co-operatives to trade unions; better accounting practices and direct arts subsidies; radical interoperability and collective licensing; minimum wages for creative labor and collective bargaining.

None of these are replacement for reducing the size and power of conglomerates throughout the supply chain, but all of them are interventions we can make as the power and nerve of conglomerates declines, changes that will hasten that decline and open more space for breakups.

And all of them are applicable, to a greater or lesser extent, to helping workers and users of all the other consolidated industries, from health care to cheerleading. 

For example, expanding California's ban on noncompete clauses would help fast-food workers nationwide - because today, fast food employers are  the most aggressive abusers of noncompetes. 

That means that a fried chicken cashier earning the tipped minimum wage can't quit to work at a burger joint across the street for a $0.25/hour raise. Creative workers aren't the only ones suffering from monopolization - we're not even the worst off.

But by definition, creative workers have a platform. We reach people. We have the potential to help form the kind of unstoppable coalition that we'll need to reverse the generations of oligarchic, post-Reagan consolidation.

You may have heard about how Danish McDonald's workers earn $22/hour and get six weeks' paid vacation and sick leave. That didn't come about because McDonald's was required by law to pay it.

It was worker solidarity that did it. As Matt Bruenig writes, McDonald's initially refused to sign the voluntary "hotel and restaurant" collective agreement. So its workers went on strike.


Now, if McD's workers had struck alone, they'd probably have lost. But Danish law allows for sympathy strikes - that is, it allows workers in other parts of the supply chain to take industrial action to support their sisters and brothers who are striking.

When the McD's workers walked out in 1989, sixteen other sectoral unions joined them. They didn't just help picket at leaflet in front of McD's restaurants! 

Dockworkers wouldn't unload McD's shipments. Printers wouldn't print their cups and placemats.

Builders downed tools on McDonald's construction projects. Typesetters wouldn't set the McD's ads in the daily papers. Truckers wouldn't deliver to McD's restaurants. Food industry workers wouldn't produce the drink syrups, fries and other inputs to the McDonald's kitchens. 

McD's caved.

Now, as Bruenig points out, these kinds of sympathy strikes are illegal in the US, but it's a mistake to think that workers don't have power because sympathy strikes are illegal - rather, sympathy strikes are illegal because workers don't have power.

Workers across all sectors face the same kinds of monopolistic exploitation. Workers across all sectors have a common enemy (literally, thanks to "common ownership" where companies like Vanguard and Berkshire Hathaway hold significant stakes in almost every major company).

With a shared cause, shared tactics, solidarity and a renewed sense that we can do more than root for the giant we think will mistreat us the least, creative workers and their sisters and brothers in every sector can reverse generations of losses.

That's why the new antitrust matters - because it is an assault on the consolidation that gives all industries the power to shift money and other forms of value from workers and users to a small elite of investors.


🪗 This day in history

#10yrsago Elizabeth Warren explains why taxing the rich isn’t “class warfare” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=htX2usfqMEs

#10yrsago Big Data and privacy https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/external/venturebeat/2011/09/23/23venturebeat-cory-doctorow-tech-companies-exploit-the-way-58275.html

#5yrsago Psychology’s reproducibility crisis: why statisticians are publicly calling out social scientists https://statmodeling.stat.columbia.edu/2016/09/21/what-has-happened-down-here-is-the-winds-have-changed/


🪗 Colophon

Today's top sources: JWZ (https://www.jwz.org/blog/), Fipi Lele.

Currently writing: 

* Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Yesterday's progress: 265 words (19864 words total)

* A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation.  PLANNING

* A nonfiction book about excessive buyer-power in the arts, co-written with Rebecca Giblin, "The Shakedown."  FINAL EDITS

* A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause."  FINISHED

* A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues."  FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Disneyland at a stroll https://craphound.com/news/2021/08/22/disneyland-at-a-stroll/

Upcoming appearances:  

* From Wayback to Way Forward: The Internet Archive turns 25, Oct 21

* Keynote for SeaGL 2021, Nov 5-6

Recent appearances:

* Infosec Apocaylpse (We're In podcast)

* Walled Culture

* Poesy the Monster Slayer, Turn the Page

Latest book:

* "Attack Surface": The third Little Brother novel, a standalone technothriller for adults. The *Washington Post* called it "a political cyberthriller, vigorous, bold and savvy about the limits of revolution and resistance." Order signed, personalized copies from Dark Delicacies https://www.darkdel.com/store/p1840/Available_Now%3A_Attack_Surface.html

* "How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism": an anti-monopoly pamphlet analyzing the true harms of surveillance capitalism and proposing a solution. https://onezero.medium.com/how-to-destroy-surveillance-capitalism-8135e6744d59 (print edition: https://bookshop.org/books/how-to-destroy-surveillance-capitalism/9781736205907) (signed copies: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p2024/Available_Now%3A__How_to_Destroy_Surveillance_Capitalism.html)

* "Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new introduction by Edward Snowden: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250774583; personalized/signed copies here: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p1750/July%3A__Little_Brother_%26_Homeland.html

* "Poesy the Monster Slayer" a picture book about monsters, bedtime, gender, and kicking ass. Order here: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781626723627. Get a personalized, signed copy here: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p1562/_Poesy_the_Monster_Slayer.html.

Upcoming books:

* The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

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