Musicians have long known the benefits of music cooperatives. In 2013 in the United Kingdom, as streaming services were making musicians’ income increasingly precarious, “the Musicians’ Union joined Co-operatives UK, the national trade body that supports co-ops across the country.” Similar efforts have been underway in many other countries, including the United States. Particularly over the last year, in response to Covid-19, musicians scrambled to find new ways—often cooperatively—to maintain their income streams, consolidate expenses, take on accessible and meaningful projects, and wait the pandemic out. These efforts have shown that working together can achieve greater results than working apart. The same is true of all artist co-ops.
We need to go big on funding a new economy, because the old one truly is not working. The United States federal government should fund a variety of worker-owned (and other kinds of) cooperative initiatives. In a more rational world there would be a New Deal-style WPA of cooperatives, with streams of funding for converting entire sectors of the economy into cooperatives, from energy to agriculture to tech to the arts.
Let us focus on the last one, for a moment: the arts. Writing about the benefits of both worker and studio co-ops, Nina Berman at Fractured Atlas says that studio co-ops “let you own a space without taking on the entire financial burden or burden of upkeep.” Berman points out that the landlord model pervades even many shared studio spaces. Even if people share the space, the property itself is “still in the hands of a single organizer or a single landlord who is ultimately responsible for that space.” And while a landlord supposedly will take care of maintenance and repairs, it’s also true that “if the landlord decides that the rent will increase by $200 per month or that the space is all of a sudden going to shut down or change directions completely, studio members have no formal say or power to shape the future of the space.” Studio cooperatives on the other hand, just like housing cooperatives, provide artists the benefit of ownership with evenly distributed risk and financial burden.
In other words, co-ops don’t provide a financial and resource-sharing advantage in the market. They also create a cooperative atmosphere among co-workers that is competitive in the market but which, fundamentally, builds skills around cooperation. Why is that important? For artists it’s significant because art itself is always a collective endeavor, even in the case of artists who are very iconoclastic. Being in community and connection with other artists encourages collaborative work, but also makes non-collaborative work easier.
Furthermore, cooperatives, as Richard Wolff extensively discusses, provide a model of non-capitalist commerce and labor. They are one of a small handful of alternative business models and institutions (including public banks, which can lend to cooperatives) that “redirect the economic, political, and cultural behaviors of enterprises, individuals, and governments” away from extraction and exploitation. Such a less-damaging world would be good for the arts — another reason for artists to seek cooperative models of sustaining their trades.
Artists are also taking advantage of cooperative platforms as alternatives to Patreon, enabling them to keep more of their donations and encouraging a culture of sharing the wealth.
We may not be able to give every musician his own Abbey Road Studios-equivalent or arrange for her to display her paintings at the Louvre, but cooperative management of artistic enterprise is still the way of the future. I suspect it will not only solve many problems for artists on the financial edges, but also change the nature, content, form, and presentation of art itself.