Chokepoint Capitalism review – art for sale | Books

In the early 1990s, Prince started appearing in public with the word “slave” scrawled across his cheek. The facepaint was a protest against Warner Music, who had signed Prince when he was just 18, and had the power to dictate the pace of his creative output as well as owning the rights to it. Prince managed to escape his original contract – partly by changing his recording name to an unpronounceable squiggle – but remained distrustful of the industry that had “enslaved” him until his death, hiding the master recordings of his songs in a secret vault beneath his Minnesota mansion, Paisley Park.

In this provocative book, Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow argue that, today, every working artist is a bond servant. Culture is the bait adverts are sold around, but artists see almost nothing of the billions Google, Facebook and Apple and make off their backs. We have entered a new era of “chokepoint capitalism”, in which businesses snake their way between audiences and creatives to harvest money that should rightfully belong to the artist.

An early chapter sketches the growth of Amazon, a relatively straightforward example of the phenomenon. First the company got publishers hooked on its site by offering them great rates. Once it became apparent they couldn’t survive without it, Amazon reduced their cut of the cover price. The image of the chokepoint that recurs throughout this book is an evocatively gruesome one. There is just one pipeline through which authors can access their readers, and Amazon is squeezing it, dictating exactly which books make it to the other side, and at what price.

The problem with most books that have “capitalism” in the title is that reading them tends to induce apathy. The word itself is deployed in an unspecific, almost fatalistic way, used as a catch-all explanation for a variety of modern ills: inequality, the housing crisis, cookies that track your search history on the internet. Instead of trying to comprehend the details of how Google came to control the ad market we make vague references to the algorithm. There is something strangely comforting about relinquishing your agency in this way: if the workings of the algorithm are too complicated for you to understand, you’re off the hook. Why bother trying to fight it?

What makes this book so refreshing, by contrast, is that it never lets its reader off the hook. The authors remind us, repeatedly, that our ignorance is being weaponised against us. If we don’t understand how big business established its chokehold over us, how will we ever be able to wriggle free of its grip? As such, the first half is devoted to explaining precisely how corporations gain the whip hand over artists in the main creative industries: publishing, screenwriting, news, radio and music. Giblin and Doctorow’s analysis of the creative labour markets is highly technical, but that’s a deliberate choice. At the beginning of a particularly dense section about music licensing, the reader is explicitly warned that the next few paragraphs will be “mind-numbingly” boring, but we should try to pay attention anyway. Licensing laws have been purposefully designed to confuse the average creative. “The people getting rich from it while artists starve don’t want you to know how it works.”

The level of detail in the book will make your eyeballs hurt, but it bears fruit. By unpicking precisely how corporations make their money, the authors are able to expose chinks in the enemy’s armour. In one of the most surprising chapters Giblin and Doctorow argue that big tech’s habit of surveilling you isn’t even particularly effective. Google and Facebook make billions selling advertisers the most intimate facts about your life – whether you’re depressed, or suffering erectile dysfunction, or thinking about cheating on your partner – but it is all a con. There is no hard evidence to show that harvesting a customer’s private information makes them any easier to sell to. There is something depressing about this (data-mining might not actually work, but Google will continue to sell your secrets for as long as advertisers keep buying them). But it’s liberating, too. We tend to think of big tech as an outsize, almost supernatural force, capable of building mind-control systems that can trick us into buying almost anything. One of the revelations of this book is that much of that power is illusory.

The second half of Chokepoint Capitalism is where we get possible solutions: practical ways artists can get back a fair share of the money that is made from their work. In one chapter, the authors lay out a plan to reform the “fiendishly” complicated copyright laws that make it possible for Spotify to pay the average musician around just $0.003 a song stream. I must admit the solution itself was so fiendishly complicated I could not follow it. Giblin and Doctorow are at their most intelligible, and most inspiring, when they write about the more tangible ways artists can band together to demand fair pay. One engrossing passage of the book tells the story of how a group of independent writers created a new author co-op platform after discovering how much of their audiobook sales Audible was taking.

Chokepoints are not unique to the creative industries. Lots of companies try to create the conditions that will allow them to take a disproportionate share of the value of other people’s labour (Uber is a classic example). What makes artists uniquely vulnerable to this kind of exploitation is that they are liable to work for nothing. Corporations free ride off of the “human urge to create”.

Reading that line about the “urge to create”, I felt a prickle of embarrassment. If you work in a creative industry it can be difficult to justify why you keep trying. If you are not Prince, and will never achieve anything close to that kind of commercial success, there is probably a part of you that thinks that what you do is self-indulgent. If you’re not earning enough, that’s because you’re not doing well enough, not because the platform on which you publish (or self-publish) that work isn’t paying you your fair share. One really heartening thing about this book is its insistence that no matter what your place is in the cultural ecosystem, you are entitled to get paid decently for what you do. I see it as a kind of manual that will arm you with the technical knowhow (and the confidence) to demand 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 Delivery charges may apply.

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