Monopolies versus Musicians: 40 Years of Neglect

Musicians perform at The Third Eye, Tuatara Brewery. Source

The onslaught of the forces of capital unleashed by the neo-liberal reforms of the 1980s has had a huge impact on not only the economic lives of working people, but our musical lives too. Thousands of musicians have been navigating this huge change in the way music is created, distributed and engaged with. The stagnation and cuts in funding to institutions like NZ On Air have driven working musicians to increasingly precarious existences, more and more dependent on the whims of venue owners, promoters and US monopolies.

Since its founding in 1990, NZOA’s funding has barely risen, as the GDP of New Zealand has more than quadrupled from $74.6b to $314b and our population has grown from 3.5 to 5 million people. This ‘stagnation’ has actually resulted in a more than 55% decrease in spending on the public media company proportional to the value generated by the economy.

This has had a devastating effect on the lives of working musicians. Though the median salary of a New Zealand citizen is $52000, that of a musician is a measly $28300. And this is including income from secondary jobs. The median amount made by creative professionals from their creative work is only $15000, and they pay around $7500 each year on the expenses involved with their profession. With some quite crude maths, I have calculated that the approximate weekly median income of NZ musicians, after paying music-related expenses, is around $400.

Though the condition of musicians is precarious and worsening, they contribute increasingly vast sums to the NZ economy. In 2018, the value added to the economy by NZ-made content was $228m and the profession employed the equivalent of 1842 full-time workers. Firstly, this shows that increased music funding is not a question of ‘charity’ for an ‘unproductive’ industry. Musicians create vast amounts of value through their labour. Secondly, this demonstrates that the entire capitalist music industry relies on an incredible level of exploitation of music workers. Where does the vast majority of the value these musicians produce go? Into the pockets of a handful of monopolies. In the realm of the production, distribution and exchange of recorded music, there is already a huge level of monopolisation, with transnational corporations like Apple, Spotify, Sony and Warner Music dominating both the market and our culture.

Particularly in the past couple of decades, and traditionally for many working musicians, the most certain way of earning a living is through performing. But even here, NZ venues are not only paying musicians less and less each year, but are being bought and closed by local and foreign monopolies. In Wellington for example, the Third Eye bar and brewery, despite having been a key venue for local music, is set to close next year. This is because in 2017 the craft brewery company that owns the Third Eye, Tuatara Brewing, was bought by DB Breweries, a NZ subsidiary of Heineken International – the massive transnational brewery corporation. In closing the Third Eye brewery, DB Breweries is simply destroying even the smallest competition within the New Zealand market, with callous disregard for the lives this building supported.

We must understand that the struggle for increased funding, better pay and conditions, and the development of a progressive musical culture in Aotearoa, is necessarily a struggle against the monopolies that dominate and distort the lives of musicians and the cultural lives of all people in this country.