The Labor Beat

Music scenes were once DIY or “indie” until those were co-opted. Will the emerging idea of artistic “interdependence” fare any better?

Designed to protect gig economy workers, California’s newly implemented Assembly Bill 5 makes it illegal for a firm to rely on independent contractors for work within the “usual course of the hiring entity’s business.” It forces companies like Lyft, TaskRabbit, and dog-walking app Rover to treat the workers who actually perform the services they sell as employees, with all the benefits and protections (like minimum wage) to which they are legally entitled. Uber and Postmates have pushed back hard against this law because it prohibits these companies’ basic business model, which depends on disowning employees and the responsibilities that come with them, at least until their work can be fully automated and human workers are replaced with machines. But for gig workers, “independence” isn’t a matter of freedom from subjection to bosses so much as it is a requirement to assume personal responsibility for both the risks that come with not having a steady paycheck or workplace protections, as well as the things traditionally paid for by private employers in the U.S., like health care and pensions. In this context, independence hurts workers more than it helps them.

The independent musician is now an inspirational figure for hegemonic institutions — no longer a countercultural rebel but the gig economy’s ideal worker

Perhaps because musicians were among the first gig workers, they have been at the forefront of efforts to reimagine more fair and sustainable work models. One recent idea is “interdependence,” which has been increasingly trendy in writing about underground electronic dance music. It’s hard to pin down a precise meaning for the term, but writers have used it for a range of overlapping ideas, from the grassroots, cooperative networks of artists and small businesses that allow musicians to create on their own terms, as Mat Dryhurst defined it in an April 2019 piece in The Guardian, to riffs on feminist philosophers’ theories of care and social reproduction. Event producer and musician Jon Davies published a few pieces on the topic, describing interdependence as a concerted effort to “depart from the indie label model,” which now looks more like the conventional record industry than a rejection of it. It made perhaps its most conspicuous appearance in the recent controversy about Grimes’s claims (on the physics podcast Mindscape, later cited by Stereogum, Pitchfork, and NME, among others) that “we’re in the end of art, human art” because AI will “be so much better at making art than us.” After musician Zola Jesus, in a now-deleted tweet, denounced Grimes’s comments as “the voice of silicon fascist privilege,” Holly Herndon, a musician and collaborator of Dryhurst’s who recently got her doctorate in AI-assisted composition from Stanford, weighed in with the suggestion that “interdependence” could ground a more fair and just model for industry practices and scene politics, much as independent (i.e. “indie”) music tried to in the late 20th century.

Though it may be hazy from these definitions what interdependence is, it’s very clear what it is not: It is not the sort of corporatized independence discussed above, in which individuals bear risks and are incentivized by personalized rewards. “Interdependence” aims to update and reconfigure the DIY ethic that emerged in the 1970s among white underground artists who rebelled against the corporatized music industry, an ethos exemplified in the punk zine Sniffin’ Glue’s famous “This is a chord. This is another chord. This is a third. Now form a band” cover art. DIY was about valuing average people above huge corporations and professional musicians. The original “indie” labels, such as Rough Trade and Factory, were founded to release music that was too niche for the major labels and give a coherence and sustainability to emerging scenes.

Neoliberalization, however, has since shifted the stakes of DIY: It demands that everyone “do it themselves” as independent entrepreneurs, such as gig economy contract workers. By 2013, it was clear that DIY had been fully co-opted not just by the culture industry (e.g., in what the brand consultancy K-Hole dubbed “mass indie”) but by capitalism generally. As such scholars as Dale Chapman, Andrea Moore, and Lester Spence have shown, the independent musician has come to be a model for both the market and the ideal market actor (and vice versa). From hip-hop’s idealization of “the hustle” (Spence) to management gurus’ (mis)use of jazz improvisation as a metaphor for entrepreneurship (Chapman) to the institutionalization of freelance gig work into entrepreneurship programs in music conservatories (Moore), the independent musician is now an aspirational and inspirational figure for hegemonic institutions rather than a thorn in their side — no longer a countercultural rebel but the gig economy’s ideal worker. Their purported independence exempts them from the protections and obligations granted to regular members of a community. This is why Dryhurst, in his Guardian piece, calls “for left-of-center musicians to jettison our romantic association with independence.”

Advocates of interdependence laudably hope to make electronic music — and perhaps working conditions more generally — more economically and racially just, but the idea is often romanticized in ways that undermine their aims. Much of the musicians’ recent writing about it tends to assume that interdependence is inherently non-exploitative. For example, Davies draws on Judith Butler’s take on Simone de Beauvoir in Precarious Life to argue for interdependence’s inclusivity:

Precarity calls upon a broadening interdependence and the call for creating coalitions between people, a direct contrast to the neoliberal world of individualised and competitive bodies. By noticing each other’s vulnerabilities, we may find room for each other in music-making and scenebuilding to ensure everyone is not only included, but given time and space to find one’s own solid foundations.

Here, Davies makes two moves that are also found in Herndon’s and Dryhurst’s writing. First, interdependence is framed as new and mutually exclusive from independence, and second, he claims that recognizing interdependence — a.k.a. “precarity” — leads automatically to inclusive practices. Similarly, when Dryhurst points to pre-existing interdependencies, he assumes these relations are intrinsically ethical and just — hence “the networks of small labels, promoters, publications and production services” that “facilitate [artists’] vision” are only ever supportive and never involve unfair compensation, sexual harassment or assault, or cultural appropriation.

Both of these claims allow “interdependence” to appear more wholesome or novel than it actually is. Dependence is a material fact of existence on earth, but in a world structured by systemic and institutionalized domination, interdependence more often than not takes the form of exploitation. As X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene noted in 1978, “the cat eats the rat while the pimp beats the whore,” but while cats are carnivores that depend on other animals for food, the relation of “pimp” and “whore” is mediated by patriarchy and racial capitalism. The whole point of patriarchal racial capitalism is to transform inescapable dependencies into exploitative relations that advantage elites at the expense of everyone else. All work (including sex work) is dependence restructured as exploitation by and for elites.

As Simone de Beauvoir argues in The Ethics of Ambiguity (the text Butler’s Precarious Life echoes), “it is this interdependence which explains why oppression is possible and why it is hateful.” According to Beauvoir, each person’s individual freedom to shape the world is underwritten by everyone else’s ability to do the same. For Beauvoir, humans can and must reshape their material conditions in ways that make formerly impossible things possible, but crucially, these material conditions are shared. We depend on other people to set up the contexts in which we act, and we depend on others to recognize our actions’ contributions to the mutual shaping of the world.

All work is dependence restructured as exploitation by and for elites

But noticing or prioritizing such interdependence isn’t enough to guarantee that these dependencies are organized justly. The music industry has always been interdependent, and those relations have been far from ethical and just. For example, even though black women guitarists such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe were crucial to the invention of rock and roll, their contributions are only now, a century later, gaining anything resembling mainstream recognition. Similarly, the appropriation that Herndon refers to in noting “the history of sampling and the kind of meme cultural extraction that happened with Vine” stems from how patriarchal racial capitalism recasts the interdependencies inherent in artistic creation — influence, inspiration, and intertextuality — as forms of exploitation. As Herndon mentions, Gregory Coleman, the drummer of the most important breakbeat in history (the “Amen Break”) died in poverty. Far from overlooking interdependence, the music industry structures relations of dependence to systematically advantage the beneficiaries of patriarchal racial capitalism: things that count as “white (cis) men” — which, as Sara Ahmed points out, include but aren’t limited to actual people.

In these conversations, “interdependence” functions as what philosopher Charles Mills calls an “ideal-as-idealized-model,” which imagines how things ought to work in perfect circumstances but which, in white supremacist societies, reflect and naturalize white people’s experiences of the benefits that accrue to them. For example, though advocates for gun control want to reduce violence, “there is an unresolved tension,” Brentin Mock writes in CityLab, “among some African Americans that outlawing guns could leave them more vulnerable to both racist and state-sanctioned violence while giving police yet another pretext for arresting and locking up young black people.” Seemingly well-intentioned “ideal” gun control proposals presuppose the white experience of relations with police and could thereby contribute to perpetuating the sort of injustice they are meant to reverse.

The conversations about musical interdependence work along similar lines. They tend to reflect and naturalize white people’s experiences of neoliberalism, which frame (inter)dependence as an overlooked phenomenon that we only benefit from paying more attention to. For Herndon and other advocates of “interdependent music,” the neoliberal co-optation of independence has misrepresented artistic creation, suppressing its inherent dependencies behind the vaunted image of the lone individual entrepreneur. It has made interdependencies appear as costs that must be privatized and disentangled to properly incentivize entrepreneurial behavior. Everyone needs to know what they are individually responsible for, and what assets they can capitalize upon to meet those obligations. In this context, collaborations are little more than the sum of their parts.

In general, neoliberalism aims to reward individuals who don’t rely on public support and punish those who do. In this context, a dependency (or a collective good) like education or airport security is ideally converted into a cost borne by private individuals, such as college students selling shares in themselves to fund their schooling or users of TSA Precheck paying out of pocket for a security screening otherwise funded by the federal government. The mainstreaming of neoliberal practices like this means that dependencies that don’t take the form of private market relationships are already “noticed” and heavily policed, often recast as a kind of freeloading, especially if you aren’t white and/or wealthy.

So to counter the negative effects of neoliberalism’s co-optation of “independence,” it’s not enough to recognize interdependence; we need to find ways to structure dependencies as something that can’t be devolved into private-property relations. The idea of interdependence circulating in the music press doesn’t do that: It’s still a model for distributing private property, only without the mask of “independence.” To achieve the sorts of racial and economic justice that advocates of interdependence aspire to, we need practices that don’t rearticulate capitalist terms.

In an interview with Artnews, Herndon admits that she’s stumped by this problem: “ ‘What is an individual’s voice?’ and ‘how do you copyright it?’ are very sticky questions. I don’t have the answers, but … our society isn’t structured to give everyone credit, let alone pay them.” I think she’s stumped because she’s imagining “credit” — or equitable relations of dependence — in terms of private-property relations. In the interview she repeatedly refers to the legal concept of “vocal sovereignty,” which treats the voice as a type of private property that belongs to someone and cannot be used without the owner’s consent. This is a textbook example of traditional employment-contract logic, which treats individuals as bundles of divisible capabilities that can be broken off like the squares of a chocolate bar and traded for wages. The principle of “vocal sovereignty” is analogous to the ideas of intellectual property behind plagiarism lawsuits in the music business, which treat musical influence — a form of interdependence — as a private-property relation.

If “interdependent music” is going to be anything besides a neoliberal upgrade on “independent music,” it has to understand relationships as something besides privatizable property. Doreen St. Felix’s essay “The Prosperity Gospel of Rihanna” suggests an alternative. There, she interprets Rihanna’s 2015 single “BBHMM” (Bitch Better Have My Money) as a song about “black women recouping historical debts” owed by “the interlocking machines of mainstream pop, rap music, and America” — such as our debts to Sister Rosetta Tharpe — and develops a concept of credit that isn’t reducible to private property.

According to St. Felix, the demand in Rihanna’s song isn’t for “wealth” but for “cash.” In her reading, “wealth” is bourgeois white patriarchal respectability, produced in part through the policing of gender and sexuality. “Cash,” by contrast, is for the relationships we can have when dependence isn’t reduced to private property, when it’s not leveraged into the gendered, raced, sexual, and classed forms of exploitation that create wealth. Highlighting Rihanna’s bad girl persona and performances of “ratchetness,” St. Felix’s account of “cash” invites us to act, think, and feel outside such identities as “respectable” heterosexual womanhood that patriarchal racial capitalism uses to normalize private property relations.

“Cash” transactions can feel illegitimate within a neoliberal order because they neither privatize dependencies nor dehumanize the people upon which we disproportionately depend. In pop music, such transactions would take the form of artistic dependencies that don’t look or feel like work because they don’t transform sounds or performances into things individual people own, be they songwriters or record companies. For example, Rihanna’s 2011 “S&M” recalls Poly Styrene’s music and fashion in several ways, as I discuss in this blog post, but doesn’t treat Styrene’s work as intellectual property. Instead, Rihanna recalls Styrene’s work in a way that makes it newly enjoyable and renews the audience’s awareness of her contributions. “S&M” fulfils both of Beauvoir’s criteria for “just” dependencies: It recognizes Styrene’s contributions to popular music and uses them as the foundation for further contributions.

AI is just another way of organizing human collaboration

This sort of approach isn’t going to be useful for projects focused on paying musicians — or anyone else — fairly for their work. While projects seeking fairer compensation for musicians are necessary bandages that alleviate symptoms while we try to get rid of the underlying problems of capitalism, white supremacy, and the like, they are nevertheless part of that problem. In capitalist societies, work transforms dependence into exploitation.

But the idea of “cash” as an alternative can help us imagine ways of forming communities of all sorts that organize dependencies more justly. This idea expresses something similar to what Angela Davis argues in her critique of the “Wages for Housework” movement: fairly compensating individuals for care work still organizes dependencies as work performed by private individuals. Instead, Davis claims, we should collectivize responsibility for these dependencies — which means treating them as something other than private-property relations.

As a case study in what not to do, the sonic features of AI voice assistants — an extremely popular method of automating information-based housework — can help connect Davis’s idea of collectivized responsibility for dependencies to St. Felix’s concept of “cash” aesthetics. Sound artist AO Roberts argues that the white, bourgeois, cisnormative femininity of digital assistants’ voices is crucial to their role in “cisheteronormative domestic knowledge production”: the normativity and perceived respectability of their vocal performance (the timbre, diction, accent, etc.) reassures users that these assistants do traditional domestic labor in support of the (white, bourgeois) patriarchal nuclear family and masks their role in surveillance capitalism. Their hypernormative voices double-down on the same old private-property relations traditionally maintained through women’s unwaged domestic labor, turning private homes into data farms for Amazon and Apple.

While giving AI voice assistants less gender-normative voices (such as Q, the genderless AI voice assistant) would change things only superficially, this idea can be a jumping-off point for speculating how other ways of organizing dependencies might sound and feel. As Herndon mentions in her response to Grimes and Zola Jesus, AI is just another way of organizing human collaboration. Presently, AI depends on “ghost workers”; for automated systems and devices to run smoothly, low-wage, often independently contracted human laborers do behind-the-scenes data cleanup and maintenance work. As the BBC’s Ed Ghent explains, “next time you ask Alexa a question, your voice might fly halfway round the world to Chennai, India, where human workers toil away to fine tune her artificial intelligence- (AI-) powered responses.” Perhaps AI could organize human cooperation more justly if we let things sound less perfectly “tuned”? As pop-music scholar Elliott Powell argues, “unmastered” recordings such as demo tracks that haven’t been fine-tuned in post-production “deviate from the normativity of finality and propriety.” In other words, because unmastered tracks conform to neither capitalist ideals of audio quality nor cisheteropatriarchal norms about voice, they evoke relations that aren’t governed by either the “propriety” of respectability politics or the logics of private property (such as the data “mastering” performed by ghost workers).

The challenge is to organize collaboration without reducing dependence to a form of private property. We might know we’ve done this when our literal and metaphorical voices sound less like the work of a private individual and more like something we’ve hardly heard before, a component in the mutual production of our musical, political, and technological realities.

Robin James is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She writes about music, politics, gender, race, and sexuality at its-her-factory.blogspot.com.