Photo: Groupmuse house concert in New York, USA that I performed in (Credits: Erin Pearlman).
I am a cellist and worker-owner of a cooperative. As an ICDE fellow, I hop out of my usual action-oriented work to reflect on why cooperativism is an alternative to the status quo for freelancing musicians. As a professional cellist, I witnessed the infrastructural fractures that musicians in the United States have to navigate. In 2020, I returned to the U.S. from a year of studying in France, after contemplating during quarantine about the economics of working as an artist. One important question I wanted to solve: Rather than competing with my colleagues for limited paid gigs, how can I generate new opportunities and resources with them?
I first learned about Groupmuse when I began freelancing as a cellist and I did not have any connections yet among the tight knit musician community. I could not afford to wait for other local musicians to invite me for gigs. Groupmuse was founded in 2013 as a platform that organizes house concerts in the United States, and converted to a worker-owned cooperative in 2020. I always tried to meet as many people as I could before I had to take out my cello and perform, so that I could understand the audience I was performing for. I took my role seriously as a “musical tour guide” for anyone in the audience who was not familiar with the cello or the music I was performing. After performing 100 house concerts since 2014, I joined Groupmuse as a worker-owner in 2020.
How does Groupmuse work? Musicians can contact hosts, schedule house concerts, receive payments from the audience, send invitations, and track guest lists – all directly on the Groupmuse platform. The platform therefore encourages autonomy and independence (principles of cooperativism) among musicians, because musicians do not have to depend on managers or venues to be hired for gigs. When I am not performing, I prefer listening to music in house concerts because in large concert halls, musicians are brightly lit and on an elevated stage far from the audience, while the audience is faceless and in the dark. At a Groupmuse house concert, musicians can see the audience’s reactions, and the audience are sitting so close to the musicians that everyone has a front seat. House concerts are truly unique in their intimate and welcoming spaces – made possible because of the hospitality and generosity shown by the hosts, and the musicians’ dedication to sharing their craft to a small group of curious individuals.
When COVID-19 hit in 2020, while artists waited whether they qualified for federal unemployment programs, Groupmuse quickly pivoted the platform to present virtual concerts. Overnight, freelancing musicians whose contracts contained the “force majeure” clause lost thousands of dollars for canceled concerts. 77% of musicians surveyed by Groupmuse experienced financial stress and 21% experienced rent or housing insecurity (Here Is What A Year Of COVID-19 Looked Like For Musicians). However, for the rest of 2020, Groupmuse generated more than $200,000 for musicians through virtual concerts, 100% of this in the form of contributions directly from audiences to musicians.
This grassroots model creates a bottom-up flow of financial support, where individual artists are directly supported by their local communities. In the United States, the arts is primarily funded in a top-down flow of funding, disbursed and administered through nonprofits and government agencies. Museums, libraries, concert halls, and universities receive federal and municipal grants to support their operations and programs. Federal support of the arts is tremendously important – but access to this funding is filtered through curators, panelists, and administrators. Groupmuse is an interesting example of a grassroots flow of funding, for audiences to support individual artists on a hyperlocal level. Audiences are directly moved by a musician’s performance, and when they contribute $20 at a Groupmuse house concert, all of that goes directly into the musician’s pocket.
Another top-down model that diverts funding away from its cultural workers is streaming. Streaming captured more than 67% of the global music revenue, rising to 13.4 billion in 2020; Spotify reported $801MM in gross revenue at the end of 2022, while artists receive $0.0038 per stream on average. “Artists see none of the immense profit created through data collection, stock sales, and investments, but artists provide all of the labor that creates that wealth.” (WIPO 2021 report) Spotify has made streaming accessible and affordable for audiences, but are there alternatives where artists are compensated for the revenue they generated?
Platform co-ops that depend on artists – and bring in artists as a stakeholder group – can address the current issue of artists being left out of top-down decision-making, distribution of funds, and profit-sharing. Groupmuse and Resonate are examples of cooperatives that seek to prioritize economic independence for artists. With 25 musician-owners and 10 worker-owners, Groupmuse is a multistakeholder cooperative that organizes house concerts where musicians receive 90-100% of the audience’s contributions. In 2019, Groupmuse generated $309K in house concert income for 1,100 musicians in the United States. In 2022, after a gradual return to in-person house concerts, Groupmuse generated $96K in income for 600 musicians who performed 400 house concerts. Resonate is a streaming platform owned by its workers, artists, and listeners. Artists receive at least a penny per stream, a 70% cut. Can these cooperatives provide a path for others to follow? A path where artists are supported financially, instead of invisible contributors to the global music industry that is worth more than 20 billion?
Platform co-ops may be an alternative to build new models that bolster artists’ economic independence, financial resilience, and solidarity. Infrastructural issues that are traced to traditional globalization, nonprofit, and streaming service models prevent artists from participating and contributing to a society that is resilient, generative, and reciprocal. Platform co-ops such as Groupmuse and Resonate may be able to provide lessons on how local communities and artists can support each other.