Interview: Evan Greer on Upcoming LP, “Spotify Is Surveillance”


Photo of Evan by Kayana Szymczak for The New York Times

What seems most remarkable about streaming services’ rise in popularity is the way their malicious natures remain almost completely unbeknownst to (and cleverly hidden from) the general public. While companies like Spotify and Apple Music maintain facades of hip people-focused altruism, those same corporations steal massive amounts of money from artists and reap similar amounts in profits.

What rhymes in all the trendy streaming platforms’ next-big-thing mentalities is the sinister phenomenon of surveillance capitalism: Services like Spotify and Apple Music—as the saying goes—know more about us than we know about us. And in their endlessly (mal)adaptive natures they only exacerbate structural inequalities like white supremacy, transphobia, ableism, and much more.

This two-faced inequity is exactly the late-capitalist dystopian exploitation that local trans activist, queerpunk musician, and occasional Dig contributor Evan Greer rails against on her upcoming LP, Spotify Is Surveillance. Central to her messaging on the album is a push against the ways the sleazy activity of Spotify and Apple Music is all too often downplayed, okayed, or all-around ignored.

To Greer, the fight against the exploitation of musicians is only one puzzle piece in the larger fight against late capitalist hegemony; solidarity, in this way, is key to that fight, and pushing beyond the mainstream critiques of companies like Facebook and Google is an important step toward liberation.

I interviewed Greer—who is also the deputy director of digital rights nonprofit Fight for the Future—about her upcoming album, the exploitative nature of streaming platforms, the fight against surveillance capitalism, and the currents of hope that run through those struggles.

The lead single from Spotify Is Surveillance, “Back Row,” is out now on Bandcamp and YouTube. The album is out April 9.

Tell me about your upcoming album. What motivated you to address such topics right now?

Music and activism have always been inextricably linked for me. Whether it’s a song to sing on picket lines to lift up the spirits of striking workers or a song about grappling with isolation and depression, my goal is to use music as a tool, a weapon, and a medicine to support social movements for justice and liberation.

That said, Spotify is Surveillance is also a deeply personal album. When COVID hit and all the shows were cancelled, the first thing I did was order a condenser mic. This was my first attempt at really recording a full studio album at home, and it’s been an essential creative outlet for me—a form of self care that I can share with others. My kid, who I’ve been quarantined with, has been part of the process too and laid down some of the backing vocals. There are certainly a few protest anthems on the album, including a scathing open letter to transphobes, but there’s also a few love songs and songs about missing live music and nostalgic songs about simpler times. But I gave it the title of Spotify is Surveillance because that’s a way to raise these issues every time someone clicks play, regardless of what the song is about.

Surveillance capitalism is killing us. Big Tech’s business model of harvesting, manipulating, and abusing our personal data is incompatible with democracy and basic human rights. While a lot of attention has focused on companies like Facebook and Google, I thought it was important to highlight the ways that surveillance capitalism is also poisoning the music industry. Spotify’s profit model is basically the same as Facebook. They use our music listening habits to build a profile of us to target advertisements, and algorithmically manipulate what we listen to. They’ve even filed a patent for a product that would listen to our conversations and recommend music based on what we’re saying.

Spotify’s growing monopoly power within music streaming exacerbates existing forms of injustice in the industry. They’ve rebranded old scams like payola into a package they claim is artist friendly, but their entire model benefits big corporate record labels at the expense of independent musicians. Their data harvesting and algorithmic recommendation system is changing not just the way we listen to music, but it’s directly altering the type of music that artists are creating. No one wants to live in a world where music is created to please a cold-blooded algorithm rather than to foster human connection, emotion and creativity. But that’s the world we’re headed for if we don’t organize to demand something better.

The Internet has the potential to profoundly transform our society for the better. As a trans artist playing way outside the mainstream, I’ve seen how technology has the power to lift up marginalized voices and foster community and solidarity amongst musicians, like we’ve seen with organizing efforts like the newly formed Union of Musicians and Allied Workers and their “Justice at Spotify” campaign, which is demanding one penny per stream, an end to Payola, and a more fair method of paying artists. But if we allow a parasitic business model based on surveillance and manipulation to dominate the music industry, it’s clear that this will serve to simply reinforce and exacerbate existing forms of injustice in an industry that has long been plagued by systemic white supremacy, patriarchy, and heterosexism.

What, to you, is the importance of the relation of music to activism, transness, anti-capitalism, politics, and etc.? (Not necessarily in that order!)

All music is inherently political. If you choose to never write songs about social issues, that’s a political choice. That doesn’t mean that every artist needs to write scathing political diatribes, it just means that we can’t pretend that art exists in a vacuum. We are creating art in the real world. The art we create is changed by society and it changes society. For me as a trans artist, my songs are politicized whether I like it or not. The way my voice sounds is politicized. The way I look is politicized. My name is politicized. Music is a powerful way for marginalized people to tell our stories, share parts of ourselves, and express our creativity. It’s also a way to find and build community.

What was your motivation behind the Prine cover?

I’ve always loved John Prine. I sang “Angel from Montgomery” to my kid every night for years as a bedtime song. My dad and I got to see him perform in 2018 and it was a really special bonding experience for us. My kid and I recorded a version of “Paradise” for his birthday. I feel like I learned a lot about songwriting craft from John Prine. You could tell just how much care he put into every single word of every song. Every word was exactly the right word. He wrote songs that were profoundly political while also being incredibly universal and accessible.

When I heard that he had passed away from COVID-19 early in the pandemic, it hit hard. That night I sat down and recorded a few of his songs, mostly just for myself as a way to mark his passing and pay tribute. The version of “Angel from Montgomery” on the album is from that session. I kept the original guitar and vocal take that I laid down in that immediate moment of mourning, and then layered a few things on top of it, to try to create sort of a “live from quarantine” feel and capture that feeling. John will live forever through his songs. I decided to make it kind of a pop-punk version because that was always how I had covered it when I played it live, but also because John Prine was unquestionably punk rock. Most of his songs were four chords, direct, simple, humble, and raw. I hope it’s one fitting tribute among many.

This recording of Angel from Montgomery took on new meaning for me after my dear friend and longtime mentor Anne Feeney also passed away from COVID last month. She performed with John Prine years ago and we used to sing his songs together in the car sometimes. She was the person who convinced me to drop out of college to do music and activism full time, and had an enormous influence on my life. She taught me the true meaning of solidarity, and I miss her so much. There’s a lovely obituary about her in the New York Times if you want to learn more about her life and legacy.

More generally: What has your music output/creative process looked like since the pandemic hit? Do you think your album has responded/reacted to the confines of quarantine?

This is unquestionably a quarantine album. I recorded the whole thing with one mic directly into Garageband on an old Macbook Air. The “R” key has now fallen off my keyboard from hitting it so many times to start a recording. I basically had no experience with home recording and honestly I’ve never been much of a studio musician. I spent so many years touring constantly, playing 200 to 300 shows a year, and then later working full time helping run Fight for the Future, that I never really gave myself time to experiment in the studio. My last album, She/her/they/them, which was produced by my good friend Taina Asili, was my first real attempt in a decade.

I’ve always been kind of intimidated by audio engineering. It always seemed like something that was kind of beyond me and that I had to rely on cis dudes for. But when I had no other options but to figure it out myself, I actually kind of fell in love with the process. Recording at home on my own gave me time and space to experiment and play around and give myself the time to figure out how I wanted the songs to sound, rather than rushing to just get the best take while on the clock in a studio. It also really allowed me to experiment with my voice, and specifically to allow myself the space to sing quietly and sweetly. That’s kind of something I had never done since I’m used to shouting over a crowd at a protest or in a noisy bar or a basement punk show. As a trans woman artist, it was really meaningful to me to have the space and time and to give my permission to sing in a way that felt more true to the way I want to present myself.

Overall, the limitations of quarantine kind of forced me to quickly learn some basic recording skills, and it ended up being a really empowering experience. Knowing that I have the capability to record music at home and make it sound the way I want it to makes me feel like the possibilities are endless. I’m honestly not sure I’ll ever go back into a studio again.

Anything else you want to mention?

I am lucky to have a “day” job helping run a digital rights nonprofit called Fight for the Future. That’s part of why I was able to give my album such a provocative title, because my ability to pay rent is not determined by some playlist curator at Spotify. But many independent musicians are really struggling right now, with live shows shut down and companies like Spotify and Apple Music utterly failing to pay artists fairly. But the good news is that musicians are coming together in this moment to organize, like with the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers’ “Justice at Spotify” campaign. Everyone should support their work, and artists should join and get involved!

I also think it’s crucial that we reject the talking point pushed by big corporate record labels that the internet is inherently bad for music. That’s just bullshit. The free and open internet is the single best thing to ever happen to me as an artist, and it’s given so many marginalized artists the ability to find an audience and a community. The problem is not the internet. It’s surveillance capitalism, and the exploitative business model of companies like Spotify. It doesn’t have to be this way. We have to fight for something better.

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