Chokepoint Capitalism Review – Art for Sale | Books

IIn the early 1990s, Prince began to appear in public with the word “slave” scrawled across his cheek. The face painting is a protest against Warner Music, which signed Prince when he was 18, and he has the right to set his own rhythm and own the rights to create. Prince managed to get out of his original contract—in part by changing his record title to an unpronounceable swash—but remained distrustful of the industry that “slaved” him until his death, turning his song’s The master recording is hidden in a secret vault beneath his Minnesota mansion, Paisley Park.

In this thought-provoking book, Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow argue that today, every working artist is a servant. Culture is a bait ad peddling around, but artists barely see the multibillion-dollar Googles, Facebooks and Apples, so they fight. We’ve entered a new era of “throat capitalism,” where corporations meander between audiences and creatives for money that should go to artists.

The growth of Amazon, outlined in the previous chapter, is a relatively simple example of this phenomenon. First, the company hooked publishers to its site by offering great prices. Once they figured out they couldn’t live without it, Amazon lowered their cover prices. The recurring image of chokepoints throughout the book is eerie. There’s only one conduit for authors to reach their readers, and Amazon is squeezing it, dictating exactly which books get to the other end, and at what price.

The problem with most books with “capitalism” in the title is that reading them tends to elicit apathy. The word itself is used in an unspecific, almost fatalistic way, as a catch-all explanation for all manner of modern ills: inequality, the housing crisis, cookies that track your search history on the internet. Instead of trying to understand the details of how Google controls the ad market, we refer vaguely to algorithms. There is a strange comfort in giving up your agency in this way: If the workings of an algorithm are too complex for you to understand, you’re off the hook. Why bother fighting it?

What makes this book so refreshing in comparison is that it never lets the reader off the hook. The author repeatedly reminds us that our ignorance is being weaponized against us. If we don’t understand how big business controls us, how are we going to break free from its grip? Thus, the first half is dedicated to explaining how corporations gain control over artists in the main creative industries: publishing, scriptwriting, journalism, broadcasting and music. Giblin and Doctorow’s analysis of creative labor markets is highly technical, but it is a deliberate choice. At the beginning of a particularly dense section on music licensing, readers are explicitly warned that the next few paragraphs will be “mind-numbingly” boring, but we should pay attention anyway. Licensing laws are intentionally designed to confuse ordinary ideas. “When artists starve, people get rich off of it and don’t want you to know how it works.”

The level of detail in the book will make your eyeballs hurt, but it will bear fruit. By uncovering exactly how the company makes its money, the authors are able to expose holes in the enemy’s armor. In one of the most surprising chapters, Giblin and Doctorow argue that Big Tech’s habit of spying on you isn’t even particularly effective. Google and Facebook make billions selling advertisers the most intimate facts about your life — whether you’re depressed, erectile dysfunction, or trying to cheat on your partner — but it’s all a scam. There’s no hard evidence that collecting customers’ private information makes it easier to sell them products. It’s frustrating (data mining might not actually work, but Google will keep selling your secrets as long as advertisers keep buying). But it’s also liberating. We tend to think of big tech as an outsized, almost supernatural force capable of setting up mind control systems that can trick us into buying just about anything. One of the revelations of this book is that a lot of power is illusory.

The second half of Chokepoint Capitalism is where we find possible solutions: practical ways for artists to reclaim their fair share of what their work earns. In one chapter, the authors lay out a plan to reform the “incredibly complex” copyright laws that allow Spotify to pay ordinary musicians around $0.003 per song stream. I must admit that the solution itself is very complicated and I can’t follow it. Giblin and Doctorow are most accessible, and most inspiring, when they write about the more concrete ways artists can band together to demand fair pay. A fascinating passage in the book tells the story of how a group of independent authors created a new author collaboration platform after discovering that Audible was taking their audiobook sales.

Bottlenecks are not unique to the creative industries. Many companies try to create conditions that allow them to share disproportionately in the value of the labor of others (Uber is a prime example). What makes artists especially vulnerable to this kind of exploitation is the ease with which they work for nothing. Businesses escape the “human impulse to create.”

I felt a twinge of embarrassment when I read that verse about the “urge to create.” If you work in a creative industry, it can be difficult to justify why you should keep trying. If you’re not Prince, never going to achieve anything close to that kind of commercial success, then part of you might think what you’re doing is self-indulgent. If you’re not getting paid enough, it’s because you’re not doing well enough, not because the platforms you publish (or self-publish) your work on aren’t paying you your fair share. One of the really heartening things about this book is its insistence that no matter where you are in the cultural ecosystem, you have the right to be paid decently for what you do. I see it as a kind of manual that gives you the know-how (and confidence) to ask for 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 Shipping charges may apply.

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