Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about massive companies changing the way in which they compensate artists. There was the news of Apple’s new streaming music service, where the plan (up until recently) involved not paying musicians or labels for the first three months of its existence, despite the fact that Apple is, well, not exactly a plucky upstart run out of a home office. And there was the announcement that Amazon would be changing the way that it pays authors enrolled in the Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library programs, shifting to a model that would reward authors based on the number of pages read.

The argument in much of this seems to be “What benefits the customer?” In the case of Amazon, the argument seems to be that paying based on how much of a book someone reads rewards, well, writers who can better hold a reader’s attention–which benefits readers down the line. In the case of Apple’s royalties argument, it’s the same thing: the more music people can hear for free for the trial period, the more the customer (theoretically) benefits.

Admittedly, there are self-serving aspects to both of these plans as well. Apple running the streaming service for a trial period means, assumably, that they’d be losing less money in the process. And in the case of Amazon, being able to understand which authors are more widely read is the sort of thing that may have ripple effects, especially given that Amazon also publishes books. Finding self-published writers who can hold an audience’s attention isn’t a terrible way to scout authors who could then be signed to an Amazon Publishing deal, say. But to someone on the outside, it looks a lot more like a system that will become less equitable. I have a whole lot of books I’ve bought but haven’t yet read around my apartment; I don’t believe that publishers or authors should only be paid when I make my way to page one.

As I wrote that last paragraph, I first typed “self-published readers,” and then corrected myself. But that’s not necessarily wrong, either. What I find increasingly worrisome is the distinction between customers, whether on the Apple side or on Amazon’s, and those who are actually making creative work. I cannot imagine that some of the same musicians whose music will be featured on Apple’s streaming service will not themselves be customers of that service. And I’m also reasonably sure that there are a number of writers out there whose books are for sale through Amazon–maybe even through the Kindle programs mentioned above–who also buy things via Amazon, whether it’s books or office supplies or shoes.

If the argument here is that improving the lot of a company’s customers at the expense of artists is a viable and understandable option, the fact that, in more than a few cases, those are the same people throws something of a wrench into the works. Both Apple and Amazon are companies with a broad range of customers. That’s great. More problematic, to my mind, is the question of where this is all headed. The rumors that Amazon is looking to enlist its customers to make deliveries also factors into this: does it benefit one customer if the net result is a number of delivery drivers losing their jobs–and thus having less money to, you know, by stuff from Amazon?

In the last few years, it’s become easier for artists working outside of record labels or publishers to get their work out to an audience. Digital distribution options have played a huge part in this. And Amazon in particular has trumpeted this as a benefit they’ve offered–Neal Pollack’s 2014 defense of the company referred to the range of work that he had been able to do since being published through them. But moves like this (and Apple’s recently-altered one) seem like a nod in the direction of economic polarization: a corporate decision between rewarding some potential customers and leaving less cash in the hands of others.


Image via Creative Commons.

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