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Giant Sucking Sounds

Amazon’s quest to bleed music dry

A swarm of little lights filled the Las Vegas sky. They scattered and then seemed to vanish. All at once, they returned, spelling out The Expanse. After fluttering through a series of pointillist shapes—a medallion, a rocket ship—they concluded, prophetically, with the words December 13. Prime Video. On the ground, a small sea of onlookers watched through their phones. Billed as a “drone space opera,” it turned out to be nothing more than an anticlimactic advertisement for the latest scripted content from Amazon. Still, some began to applaud.

Moments later, across the festival grounds, the Foo Fighters took the stage for the final headlining set of Intersect by AWS, the first music festival sponsored by the corporate leviathan, or more specifically, its web services division. The largest cloud computing provider in the world, Amazon Web Services powers much of the internet as we know it, providing the tech backbone for, among other nefarious customers, United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It regularly accounts for more than half of Amazon’s total operating profit. Strangely, in December 2019, AWS seemed poised to take on the boutique music festival market.

But Intersect wasn’t just a music festival, Amazon said. It was “where music, art, and technology converge.” Hence the corporate-branded art installations, the pyrotechnics and games of dodgeball, the profusion of “immersive experiences” and inane slogans like “I AM THEREFORE I AM” and “MOVEMENT IN THE ALGO-RHYTHM.” The $169 two-day event at times felt like an attempt to sugarcoat the grim truth of what AWS represents in the world. Other times it felt like a glimpse into a moneyed techie’s hollow vision of fun. Mostly, it was just really, really boring.

When the lineup was initially announced in October 2019, controversy ensued. Corporate-sponsored music industry bullshit gets announced every day, but many seemed to agree that this was not just another goofy gathering funded by the likes of Anheuser-Busch. This was an event bankrolled and branded by one of the world’s biggest and most exploitative employers, one unrepentant in its willingness to put corporate profit over human life. As such, a wide range of musicians took to their Twitter feeds to say: hard no. Within a week, hundreds of artists—including Deerhoof, Guy Picciotto of Fugazi, Xenia Rubinos, and Speedy Ortiz—signed onto the campaign No Music For ICE, vowing to boycott any and all Amazon-sponsored events until the company terminated its relationships with military, law enforcement, and government agencies that commit human rights abuses. Some artists claimed they’d been bamboozled and had agreed to perform without being told Amazon was involved. (The Baffler reviewed one Intersect offer, which in fact did not mention AWS.) Two acts, the rapper and producer JPEGMAFIA and the DJ the Blessed Madonna, dropped off Intersect’s lineup. But the show went on.

In its grim combination of calculated deception and mundanity, Intersect proved emblematic of Amazon’s broader campaign to dominate the music industry. In its nearly thirty-year history, as Amazon has pillaged the planet in its quest for world domination, music has not been spared; it has been exploited to sell Alexa devices and in-home surveillance more broadly, and along the way, to help soften the image of a multinational that’s emerged in the twenty-first century as what some activists call less of an e-commerce conglomerate and more of a shadow government. Amazon has undertaken this relentless campaign for control at great expense and with little regard for the mess left in its wake—including its own failed products. It cares only for how many users it can enclose in its expanding universe.

Siren Songs

When Amazon began expanding from predatory bookseller to “the everything store,” music was among its first additions. The three-year-old site started selling CDs in 1997, the same year of its IPO. CD sales began their decline four years later, but even as it launched an MP3 store in 2007, Amazon didn’t abandon physical media. From 2008 to 2013, sales of vinyl records on Amazon increased a staggering 745 percent, and by the following year, a Billboard analysis found the company to be the largest vinyl retailer in the United States, with 12.3 percent market share. While updated research is needed, multiple independent label operators interviewed spoke of Amazon’s continued, outsize impact on selling physical music media online. “No one can compete with them,” said Kevin Duquette, label manager of Topshelf Records. He estimated that, when it comes to records sold online through his distributor, 40–60 percent of each release goes through Amazon. As it did with books, Amazon can undercut brick-and-mortar shops and online independent retailers alike on price, not to mention with the free shipping it offers to Prime customers.

This was an event bankrolled and branded by one of the world’s biggest and most exploitative employers.

What’s worse, Amazon refuses to stock physical products unless it gets the lowest wholesale price of all retailers. Several label operators drew attention to this “mandatory discount” that Amazon demands from distributors. In its 2023 contract with Amped, a company many distributors partner with to get records into stores, Amazon commanded 14.5 percent off on wholesale orders. “Pretty much any time somebody buys something from Amazon, we make $1 or $2 less per unit, which adds up,” said Ben Parrish, label manager for Joyful Noise and publicist at Sahel Sounds. “If we’re spending $8 or $9 manufacturing a record, and the wholesale price is $14, and Amazon wants 14.5 percent off, we make considerably less.” Each time a contract is renewed, Amazon squeezes the discount further, and without the leverage of a well-known distributor, other labels are likely getting hit even worse.

Amazon’s streaming efforts haven’t worked out any better for artists. Amazon made a relatively late entrance into streaming with Prime Music in 2014, six years after Spotify’s debut popularized the model. The company pitched a service for the most casual of casual listeners: an initial catalog of one million songs as an added benefit of, and enticement to, Prime subscribers. “It’s just another add-on to bolster what you get for your Prime membership,” Duquette affirmed. “It becomes a line item, rather than like this thing that should exist as a standalone product and service on its own.”

Two years later, they tried a version of that with Amazon Music Unlimited, where, for an extra fee, users could access a catalog of a hundred million songs—and queue them up on their Alexa speakers. Amazon aggressively sold record labels on the impending rise of home-surveillance gadgets; Duquette recalled a music industry conference where Amazon execs distributed a bounty of free Alexa devices to indie label operators. Artists, meanwhile, were urged to optimize releases for voice-activated listening. (Amazon, for its part, is happy to help: Amazon Music for Artists offers a “Daily Voice Index,” rounding up artists’ latest Alexa stats, and a scale comparing them to similar artists, spanning from Cool to Warm to On Fire.) This May, Amazon celebrated having sold its five-hundred millionth Alexa-enabled device, but initial declarations that Alexa would revolutionize domestic life haven’t come to fruition. According to internal documents reviewed by Bloomberg, consumers primarily use Alexa to play music and set kitchen timers: “Alexa, play . . .” is reportedly one of the most common requests. Amazon knows that music is among the main reasons people keep these otherwise useless gadgets around, yet the artists get the same old penny fractions.

In 2020, Amazon Music relocated to a massive headquarters on Kent Avenue in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. The public does not know a lot about what happens within those walls. Like the streaming services owned by Apple and Google, Amazon does not publish annual reports on subscribers or revenue, save for the occasional press release, as in 2020 when they boasted that Amazon Music had surpassed 55 million paying users globally (for comparison, Spotify claims 210 million). In an industry defined by lack of transparency, the streaming services backed by major tech conglomerates are particularly opaque. “They’re considered sub-products, so they’re not reported out separately in a lot of cases,” said researcher Meredith Rose, who, with the nonprofit group Public Knowledge, recently published a paper about the flow of money into and out of streaming services, “Streaming in the Dark.” “It’s very difficult to get actual financial numbers that are specific to these particular products.” The major record labels are not displeased by an industry increasingly dominated by a small handful of tech conglomerates. “They prefer to deal with the deep-pocketed tech companies,” Rose said. “Amazon, Google, Apple, these companies all have what I like to call a Scrooge McDuck pool of money. They can just continue to fling more money into this product.”

So what music-related gimmicks has Amazon been flinging money at? Earlier this year, the company celebrated its entry into overhyped AI-generated recordings when it partnered with the VC-backed “soothing sound” app Endel for its flagship sleep playlist, “Sleep Science.” An email from Endel’s publicist boasted that this was the first time a major streaming company had “signed a wellness content deal with a generative AI company.” (Endel has claimed to adapt sounds to user heart rates in order to create “personalized soundscapes to reduce stress, improve sleep, and boost productivity”—in other words, to make tracks adapted to a listener’s biometric data.) Like other streaming services, Amazon has also gotten into the podcast business, in search of new intellectual property and advertising revenue. In late 2020, they acquired the studio Wondery for a reported $300 million, and earlier this year they bought the company Snackable AI, which scans longform audio and creates shorter “highlights.”

It’s clear what Amazon sees in the services offered by the likes of Endel, Wondery, Snackable and other audio-industry investments: a means to getting more audio content for less. Amazon wants everything as low-cost as possible to fortify its dirt-cheap aggregate offerings. Companies like Amazon Music, however, do not look to music as a moneymaker. “They treat this as a loss leader,” said Rose. “It becomes a question of, what is the value that they see out of shifting people in their ecosystem? And the answer, at least for Amazon, is usually data.” Like free two-day shipping, music just serves as costly bait, luring users into the extended Amazon multiverse, where they can buy just about anything, including groceries (Whole Foods); watch television and films (Amazon Prime Originals); visit a doctor (One Medical); and get prescriptions delivered (Amazon Pharmacy). “Streaming is not the product for Amazon,” concluded Rose. “The product is everything else that they offer, and this is an entry point to get people into that ecosystem.”

The Monolith

Amazon likely didn’t make much, if any, money off of Intersect. The Las Vegas Festival Grounds were eerily empty that weekend in December. There were no lines for the bars or bathrooms, which is unusual for a music festival. The only line I encountered all weekend was the half hour I waited to stumble around a bouncy castle with a ball pit, the event’s most coveted Instagram fodder. The numbers back this up: Intersect only sold about fifteen thousand tickets. And while the festival’s communication with artists listed the venue capacity at twenty-five thousand, the grounds could host up to eighty thousand people; other festivals held at the same venue, like 2022’s When We Were Young and 2019’s Day N Vegas, reported sold-out crowds of sixty thousand attendees. Either way, attendance fell short of Amazon’s expectations.

Why get into the music festival business in the first place? The obvious answer would be that Amazon would like to be involved in every business. But between sets by Brandi Carlile and Anderson.Paak, I searched for further clues, certain there must be something more disturbing going on. Was Amazon collecting data on festivalgoers? Were the interactive “art installations” actually training facial recognition data? Were they testing out tech that would later be sold to governments and police forces?

Intersect grew out of re:Invent, an annual AWS developer conference for “the global cloud computing community” that also promised a totally epic after-party, dubbed re:Play. AWS approached it like a music festival, booking superstar DJs and hiring the Skrillex-affiliated company Production Club—a “multidisciplinary creative studio”—to make it all happen. It was Production Club who came up with the idea to turn the annual techies-only party into something public-facing: “[AWS] is known as a cloud computing platform, but connecting people with music is a part of their DNA,” the studio writes on its website. “We had the idea to leverage the infrastructure that was already being used from the AWS re:Play party we have been doing since 2014.”

As it turned out, what makes for a good after-party for surveillance capitalists doesn’t exactly make for a good music festival. While wandering the festival grounds in search of “The Monolith,” a six-story video tower displaying visual art, I stumbled upon a photoshoot happening for some sort of beverage company. And as I looked around, I realized there seemed to be an influencer photoshoot happening in every direction. Even the influencers looked bored. At the food tent, I met one of them: a local Instagrammer who had been recruited to make posts promoting the festival in exchange for a free ticket. When I explained the No Music for ICE campaign, she recoiled: “If I knew about that, I definitely would not have agreed to influence for them.”

No Music for ICE didn’t stop Intersect’s 2019 edition, but it was a powerful act of collective refusal nonetheless, especially at a time when merchants of surveillance hardware have sought to normalize invasive tech in music: look, for example, to how facial recognition has recently proliferated at concert venues. While the campaign’s key demands have gone ignored by Amazon, it has not been without other successes: some of these artists have kept up their boycott of the company, and many of its organizers went on to form the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, which has launched campaigns around South by Southwest, streaming, and venue transparency. Plus, it appears that the protests may have played a role in discouraging Amazon from continuing its experiment in the music festival business. In 2021, AWS went back to just programming an after-party for re:Invent conference attendees, and Amazon hasn’t attempted another music festival since. AWS hoped to use music to build goodwill around its brand; in this respect Intersect was an unqualified failure.

Twitch and Shout

Still, the digital music wars churn on, as Amazon claims we’re entering the era of “streaming 2.0.” “We need to think about a streaming service as not just being a catalog of recorded music, but being a host of services that connect artists and fans together,” Amazon Music’s vice president Steve Boom told The Verge last year. While the pool of recorded music continues to grow, Boom went on, the amount of money that a user pays to access it is relatively fixed (lest these companies consider raising prices or trying a more artist-friendly, user-centric model), “but when you get into areas like merch, there are unlimited amounts that people are willing to spend to connect with their favorite artist and to represent their fandom.” With streaming 2.0, it’s not just about monetizing the music anymore. Amazon intends to get a cut of every part of a fan’s relationship to a musician.

Amazon’s approach is to see how far artists, workers, and users alike can be squeezed.

On the “under-innovated” (in Boom’s words) merch front, Amazon has not only launched something called the Artist Merch Shop, a page for official pop star junk, but also a ruthless print-on-demand service, Amazon Merch on Demand. Since the start of the pandemic, fans have come to realize the importance of buying merchandise in order to support their favorite artists. Amazon realized this too: “It’s impossible to get merch,” Boom said in the same interview. “Which is one of the reasons why Amazon is interested in the merch business.” If you thought venue merch table cuts were bad (the #MyMerch campaign launched last year highlights the all-too-routine practice of venues collecting as much as 35 percent of merchandise sales at the end of a show), how about Amazon’s digital merch table cuts? In Amazon’s model, a “revenue split” is actually a royalty paid to the artist when an item is sold: for example, on a sale of a $15.99 T-shirt, the artist will get a measly $1.93.

But streaming 2.0 is about more than just merchandising. Enter Twitch, the live video streaming platform that draws some thirty million daily users. Launched in 2011 and purchased three years later by Amazon for $970 million, Twitch was first popularized as a place to watch people play video games, but as the pandemic shut down live gigs, it was aggressively hyped to struggling musicians as a way to engage with fans and earn money. Musicians were encouraged to digitally busk for pocket change, while pursuing subscriptions, e-commerce integrations, and sponsorships (all of which Amazon takes its cut of, save for donations).

But as many musicians learned, this requires a lot of time and work. In a free “Twitch masterclass” produced by Amazon Music and the website Music Ally, the company encourages artists to not just perform their music for hours at a time, multiple times per week, but to regularly chat up their fans and document their “real” lives. “Don’t approach it like a regular performance,” advises Amazon. “Think of it more like turning on the camera for things you’re already doing in your life.” Artists are encouraged to connect their Twitch channels with their Amazon Music profiles, further integrating these platforms into one optimized Amazon environment. All this work rarely pays off. Though Amazon declared that Twitch streamers had earned over $1 billion in 2022 across revenue streams, just the year before, the music research network Water & Music reported that only 5 percent of Twitch users made over $1,000, numbers only available thanks to a massive Twitch data breach.

Another component of Amazon’s streaming 2.0 scheme is Amp, a free Clubhouse-style live-audio app for hosting so-called radio shows. I became aware of the app through its curious targeted Instagram ads, urging me to reject the algorithmic status quo and “listen to custom playlists MaDe By AcTuAL HuMaNs.” This, of course, was coming from a company that runs on data-driven recommendations and endeavors to eliminate humans wherever possible. When it launched in March of last year, it seemed also to co-opt the aesthetic and language of more community-based online radio stations.

Shocker: not that many people want their community radio coming from Amazon. To attract users, Amp hired celebrities like Nicki Minaj and Nick Cannon to host shows. For other DJs, in lieu of ways to monetize shows, Amp launched a “Creator Fund,” with payment based on “listener engagement” and “show performance metrics,” according to their FAQ. But less than a year later, amid a broader tech downturn, Amp laid off 150 employees, about half of its staff. “No one was using this app,” one DJ hired to host a show for a year told me. “It was really sort of deserted. You’re doing this broadcast, and you can see how many people are listening to it, and it’s really not many at all.” Amp provides a library of licensed songs but also imposes rules around what can be played: “You can’t play music if no one’s listening to your broadcasts,” the DJ added. “Somebody has to be listening. I would have times when I would just be talking to no one.” Amazon claims the layoffs were part of a restructuring to “focus on the growth and scaling of Amp.” But the app appears moribund.

Amazon may have failed (for now) to get its sterile versions of a music festival and “community” radio off the ground, but this much is apparent: Amazon clearly wants to keep looking for new ways to expand its walled garden of music offerings and make it all so convenient, so seamless, that consumers would never have any reason to go anywhere else. So what if the music itself is cheapened, and artists shortchanged, in the process? Amazon’s approach is to see how far artists, workers, and users alike can be squeezed. And it knows that the logic of platform capitalism means one day one mega corporation may just win Music—all of it.

Clean Sweep

On my last morning in Vegas, after the Intersect festival had concluded, I woke up at the Sahara casino-hotel where I’d been staying. With nothing else to do, I decided to walk back to the perimeter of the festival grounds. I peeked in through the wire fences and saw a couple of men picking up trash. They saw me and asked if I needed help. I told them I was a journalist covering the festival, just trying to get what details I could.

Were they working for Intersect, I asked? Sort of, not really, they said. They’d been hired to pick up the trash left by the techies and influencers. But they weren’t getting paid. As it turns out, none of the cleanup crew was. They were with a church-affiliated organization for people “trying to straighten up their lives,” one of them said. The organization would be getting a donation in exchange for the labor of folks bused out from across state lines for the weekend.

“How was the experience working the festival?” I asked one worker.

He did not pull any punches: “My experience? Look at me. It sucks. . . . There’s eighty people working twelve hours a day picking up trash, and no one’s getting a check.”

Were these workers hired by Amazon? It wasn’t clear. It seems plausible they let someone else take care of contracting the cleanup crew. Amazon never has been one to even consider the messes it leaves behind, let alone pick up after itself. But at the same time, maybe the company did hire them. It would certainly be in line with Amazon’s amply documented strategy of exploiting everyone and everything they come into contact with—to whatever extent they can, for however long they can get away with it.