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Catalytic Sound and the fight for musical self determination

by Levi Dayan


Chicago composer and improviser Ken Vandermark

[originally published March 25, 2022]


A few weeks ago, Bandcamp co-founder and CEO Ethan Diamond announced the sale of Bandcamp to Fortnite creators Epic Games for an undisclosed fee. The decision aggravated the many musicians and music fans who over the years had championed the streaming platform as a crucial network of support for independent music, one which had become a lifeline for musicians cut off from touring during the pandemic. The announcement of the merger stressed that Bandcamp would continue to operate as it has for the past few years, and that being sold to a corporation such as Epic would allow Bandcamp to expand its operations in ways that would not have been previously possible. Maybe this is true, and maybe an expanded Bandcamp could even be a net positive for the fight for pay equity - all of this will become more clear as things pan out. But if the past 15 years have taught us anything, it’s that corporations branching out into several different facets of art, culture, and day-to-day life has not exactly been a positive thing.

The big takeaway from this merger is something that many musicians have been saying for ages: a more fair and equitable world for working musicians will have to be created and shaped by the musicians themselves. No corporation, no matter how benevolent, will be able to give self-determination to musicians, because, of course, that’s not how self-determination works. Luke Stewart, a bassist, improviser and organizer based in my hometown of Washington, DC, told me “when an independent label puts something out on Bandcamp, logistically they’re still a Bandcamp label, or at best a Bandcamp distribution service, because you’re using their platform to make your music available. Now, that’s not to say that Bandcamp has been completely a bad thing, or a bad thing at all, necessarily. But at the end of the day, it is a corporate distribution service, especially now that they’ve been bought by Fortnite. If you look at it for what it is, it makes total sense that they would do that.” Part of the solution to these issues, in Stewart’s words, is “just coming to the realization that to be a truly independent music effort, at this point, in the streaming ecosystem, you have to take it as far as - yes - creating your own streaming service. Then you’re truly independent.” As a member of Catalytic Sound, Stewart, alongside 29 other independent musicians in the creative / improvised music fields, has taken part in doing just that.

Catalytic Sound is a musical collective that functions as a co-op - a system that Oberlin students are surely familiar with. Of the monthly revenue generated from subscriptions, which include access to the Catalytic Soundstream, subscription to a zine called Catalytic Quarterly, and two free downloads per month from the Catalytic Bandcamp page, one third goes towards the overhead of the co-op itself, while the remaining two thirds go directly to the musicians themselves. The 30 members of the co-op each agree to release one record per year that is exclusive to the streaming platform, and are given $450 for each of these exclusive records. With one member waiving their share of revenue each month, the remaining monthly revenue is split evenly between those 29 members - crucially, how many streams an artist gets or however much name recognition they may have plays no role in how they are compensated for their labor.

Ken Vandermark, legendary Chicago-based composer and improviser, described the initial idea for Catalytic as an online record store meant to consolidate the catalogs of a handful of musicians into one place. Vandermark credited a 2018 Instagram post from the late rapper Nipsey Hussle, which listed the pay rate for 1 million streams on various different streaming platforms, with shaping his interest in creating a streaming service. “What Nipsey Hussle pointed to in his discussion about how most streaming services, and in particular Spotify, were ripping off artists, is that the music industry is crushing musicians at a level that is unprecedented,” Vandermark told me. “If they all have to have like six day jobs to pay their rent and bills and put food on the table, they have less and less and less time to make music. So we started thinking more like a co-op, where the listeners and the audience were members paying to support the musicians. It’s like a food co-op, but instead of food that they were creating, they were creating music.” In turn, by amassing a collective of 30 musicians, most of whom are fairly prolific, through their consolidated online record store format, Catalytic now had a large catalog of music that could stand alone as a streaming platform.

The creation of the streaming service itself was a result of both a do-it-yourself mentality, and wide-spanning collective support from people in different fields who were willing to contribute and make the project work. When I asked Vandermark, who recognizes streaming’s omnipresence in the market but doesn’t use streaming services himself, and has no interest in doing so, how he followed through on the initial idea to start a streaming service, he bluntly responded “you kind of just do it.” But he also pointed to the support of designers who helped put together the streaming service, and music lawyers who helped come up with a straightforward, easily readable contracting license for the musicians in Catalytic, all of whom did so because they were excited about the idea. “Building that kind of community and building something around it that helps generate economic stability for those people is what I’m hoping catches on and spreads more and more,” he told me. “And then ideally, the ultimate thing would be that these communities share this information together so people don’t have to keep so-called ‘reinventing the wheel.’ We figured out a way to do a streaming service, but maybe there’s a better way to do it, so let’s share the information, because this is better for music period.

The plan originally was to distribute revenue in a manner similar to Tidal. Unlike streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, Tidal pays musicians on a per-stream basis, meaning that they are paid based on each stream they get rather than the number of streams they get. “This turned out to be well beyond the financial capabilities of the organization,” Vandermark told me, “but what ended up happening, which in retrospect was extremely positive, was that we decided to split everything evenly.” This, in turn, creates a system meant to nourish artists regardless of the size of their discography, showing equal preference for lifers and up-and-comers alike. “All of the people in the co-op are there because they’re amazing artists, and they contribute at a high level, whether they make lots of records or not,” said Vandermark. “Also, some of the artists have been doing the work longer, so when you have younger people in the group, like Brandon Lopez and claire rousay, who might have less recordings than someone like Paul Nilssen-Love and Mats Gustaffsson, who have been doing the work for more years, should they be penalized just because they don’t have as much material for listeners to go to? That’s ridiculous.” This is a stark contrast of Spotify’s modus operandi, as CEO Daniel Ek stated that musicians simply need to release music more often if they want to make a living. “The thing about music and art is that you can’t perpetually generate materials that, in turn, are going to perpetually generate income,” Vandermark told me. “Spotify doesn’t even talk about the fact that they’re using music to generate their income. It’s just a product. They don’t even use the word music most of the time. It just happens to be music, and it happens to now be podcasts, and it happens to be audio content that they want to own and then create algorithms that guide people to listen to whoever is paying them off to run the way they are. They have a new form of payola.”

Indeed, despite streaming services such as Spotify championing themselves as hubs of musical discovery that are free from the gatekeepers that had previously determined what was played on the radio or stocked in record stores, the streaming era has brought about plenty of gatekeepers of its own. As Luke Stewart told me, exposure and access are not the same thing, and though defenders of Spotify will say they “pay musicians in exposure,” listeners have no way of knowing who determines what music gets put on playlists and what is and isn’t favored by algorithms, to say the least of where all the money Spotify rakes in year after year is going towards. Referencing the research of people such as DeForrest Brown Jr., a rhythmanalyst and media theorist who also makes music under the name Speaker Music, Stewart criticized “this concept of putting a dollar sign or a monetary value to an abstract idea so it can be consumed in a capitalist, manufactured sort of way. In music we’re dealing with this conundrum that, yes, we live in this system where we have to make money, we also live in an environment where we can make that declaration of ‘yes, I am an artist, and that is my job.’ The opportunity to be a musician at all, and make money off of it, is a high honor and a high privilege. On the other hand, this is indeed a money making industry that reflects the same issues as any other capitalistic endeavor, in that there are the people that exploit, and the people that are exploited. And a lot of times in the music industry, the artists are the final consideration. You’re just out there. And looking at the music ecosystem in that way suggests that artists need to take agency and get that money, and take back those resources that have been allocated to the executives at Spotify. “

The issue of how to maintain a streaming service, or any kind of collective platform in music, that is free from any form of gatekeeping is more difficult than, say, whether or not musicians should be paid. “We’re trying to survive within the capitalist framework to make a living,” said Bhutan-born free improv guitarist Tashi Dorji. “If we lived in a society where large-scale mutual aid and communal living was possible, I would only give away music for free. I think people should also give away music all the time. If people write to me and ask me to give them music, I’ll give it to them. I would love to not sell any music to be honest. I would love to sustain by giving and not selling.” Adding on these questions of access, Dorji added, “if Catalytic was just an open upload community based thing, that would be a whole other approach. Because then, we’d need way more people in order for it to work. There’s some level of curatorial process that goes into it. But I don’t see it as gatekeeping because I knew about Catalytic before I was a member, and I knew friends that were in it, and I saw it as more of a model. And I remember, even before I was invited to join, thinking it was such a cool project, and thinking ‘I could probably do this with a bunch of friends, and maybe in a different approach.’ I mean, it’s membership based, and that’s increased exclusivity, so it is a capitalist model, in a sense. But Catalytic is creating the cooperative to provide a framework that can be used by a larger community of creative people.”

This community-driven framework is crucial to Catalytic’s mission, much more so than the simple idea of a creative/improvised music-driven streaming platform. Though Catalytic may, for the time being, consist of 30 musicians, it’s meant to be an experiment in finding ways for musicians to reclaim their independence from a music industry that has increasingly commodified their work. “Catalytic is a model for other things like it to happen,” said Stewart. “Obviously it's not comprehensive in terms of representing the entire community, but it does a really good job in the sense that there are 30 people in the collective, and each and every member of that collective represents dozens of other musicians and artists. So, there’s a lot of expanded and overlapping communities within the entire Catalytic collective. In actuality, I like to think about Catalytic as being spearheaded by the 30, but it’s representing hundreds, potentially.” Rather than putting up barriers - as Spotify has done by keeping musicians from being able to easily contact their listeners - Catalytic aims to share its resources with as many people as possible. “The way that the corporate and music industry works is that it wants to break people apart,” Vandermark told me. “It’s like what Starbucks wants to do to its employees, they want to prevent that power that comes from unionization from happening. It’s a lot harder to get up every day as an individual and a musician and face all of these challenges without having people to go to directly, who are supporting the work equally together, right?”

Though Catalytic is, in many ways, a reaction to the ways in which making a living in music has recently become even more unsustainable than in the past, the hardships that musicians working within experimental and improvised fields have faced from a hegemonized music industry - one that has no room for music that can’t easily fit into a box - have been around much longer. In tandem, experimental musicians and improvisers have always responded to such hardships by forming communities and then devising their own ways to sustain themselves within said communities. For me, Catalytic calls to mind the Jazz Composers Guild, spearheaded by composer and improviser Bill Dixon following a series of free music concerts billed as “The October Revolution in Jazz.” Formed during a time in which Jazz musicians, particularly within the avant-garde, were subject to low pay and harsh treatment from audiences, the Guild was, in essence, a form of collective action meant to fight exploitation of working musicians and provide a proper platform for musical forms that were shut out from more mainstream Jazz spaces. In retrospect, Dixon stated “I had a point that I had to prove to people. All these writers... were telling me that this music I saw wasn't worth anything, that no one could be interested in it. I knew people could be interested in anything if it was presented to them in the proper way. I knew that.”

Similarly, Catalytic not only demands self-determination on behalf of musicians, but also encourages self-determination for the listeners themselves. Though the music may occupy a more peripheral space than more mainstream musical forms, myself and the musicians I spoke with could all agree that this music has a power to it, and is more than capable of reaching people. Vandermark referenced a quote from Minutemen bassist Mike Watt, saying “the only thing you had to do to belong to the scene was contribute.” When I brought up the connection between Catalytic and groups just as the Jazz Composers Guild and the AACM, Dorji, who came into free improvisation through punk music, immediately responded “but that also goes towards punk rock, right?”, making a particular connection to the scene in DC. “For me, at least, improvised music is the most anarchistic, in a sense, because it’s very liberating, the horizontal nature of it really breaks the sense of hierarchy, at least the way I approach it.” He connected the nature of improvised music with Catalytic itself, telling me “It’s this process of rhizomatic creation, planes of possibilities. I mean, if, like, ten more cooperatives came up this year of other improvisers, or rock bands, or whatever, imagine how we could create a network and share all of our resources? That’s how I think organizing is, or activist movements. You create networks of all these resources that you can share, and create mobility and all of these different ways to navigate outside of the system.” Stewart, in particular, described free music as the progenitor to punk culture, stating “it’s the culture of independent, so-called underground music that was mined and created and fomented by musicians playing Jazz and other forms of improvised music. And, you know, people lost their lives doing this. It’s the same energy because it comes from the same place.” The thread connecting all of these things together - Free Jazz, punk rock, and co-ops themselves - is that sense of collectivism and autonomy working in tandem, of communities building their own models of self-sustainment rather than depending on the same institutions that exploit them. “That’s kind of a testament to the history and the tenacity of the tradition of improvised music,” Stewart told me. “The experimental/improvised music community, that is the pioneer for this approach. It happened here first.”

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