How Big Tech and Big Content Hold Creators Hostage
‘Chokepoint Capitalism’ is a clarifying look at how some of the world’s biggest companies shake down artists—and why it matters for all of us.
On Tuesday, The Atlantic published my latest story, “The Companies That Are Killing Creativity,” a review of the new book Chokepoint Capitalism: How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Creative Labor Markets and How We’ll Win Them Back.
Rebecca Giblin, a professor at Melbourne Law School, and Cory Doctorow, a technology activist and best-selling science-fiction novelist, portray creative markets not as two-way freeways but instead as hourglasses, with authors, musicians, and other artists at one end and consumers at the other. Lodged in the middle of the hourglass are the chokepoint capitalists: the Amazons (and Spotifys and YouTubes and Apples and Googles […]). These companies are different from the standard middlemen that exist in many capitalistic relationships between buyers and sellers, because they have seized complete control of the channels by which culture reaches its audiences.
From the consumer’s perspective, the problem might not seem so immediately obvious. Books on Amazon are cheap and arrive quickly. Spotify offers tens of millions of songs and podcasts for less per month than what we pay for a single CD. But for creators, chokepoint capitalists—the firms that control access to their work—are an exploitative nightmare. Chokepoint capitalists don’t just offer a means for creators and audiences to exchange art for money; they provide one of the only means by which that exchange can happen—while shortchanging creators by setting unsustainably low prices for their art, and skimming off most of whatever profit that art manages to generate.
How do these chokepoints work? Everyone knows YouTube dominates video streaming, but the site also happens to be one of the most popular music services in the world. Like Spotify, YouTube’s scale and deep pockets allow it to drive a hard licensing bargain with record labels, who in turn pass on even more meager royalties to their artists. Meanwhile, YouTube’s algorithms are unpredictable, impenetrable, and constantly changing.
And as Giblin and Doctorow show in detail in the book, “content ID,” the automated system YouTube uses to detect copyright infringement, regularly triggers false positives, leaving all but the most powerful entities—representatives of a major label, say, who can resolve a dispute with a quick phone call to a YouTube executive—with little recourse.
Yet even though YouTube extracts most of the value from their labor and delivers it to the platform’s parent company (Alphabet), artists can’t simply leave YouTube. “For many creators,” Giblin and Doctorow write, “there is no alternative: their work has to be on the platform, or it might as well not exist.”
It’s not just creators who should worry about economic chokepoints. As I write in the piece, “every industry is vulnerable to the price-setting and power-concentrating characteristics of these firms. These struggles, in other words, are a warning for the rest of us.” Or, as Giblin and Doctorow put it, “everywhere you look, corporations are trying to create the conditions that will secure them a disproportionate share of the value of other people’s labor.”
You can read my full review of Chokepoint Capitalism in The Atlantic: “The Companies That Are Killing Creativity.” Many thanks to Maya Chung, Gal Beckerman, and the team at The Atlantic for editing and publishing it.