Chokepoint Capitalism: How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Creative Labor Markets and How We'll Win Them Back

Image of Chokepoint Capitalism: How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Creative Labor Markets and How We'll Win Them Back
Release Date: 
September 20, 2022
Beacon Press

“deftly exposes the grip of monopolies over today’s creative labor markets, with well-written, detailed case studies . . .”

With the popular Christian TV series, The Chosen, Angel Studios has discovered a formula for circumventing the Hollywood machine. It crowdsources all funding and distributes the show free through its own app.

Like the amoeboid predator in the perennial indie, The Blob, will Hollywood find a way to devour this self-governing business model that dares to give them no cut?

If Chokepoint Capitalism is any indication, Hollywood will build an impenetrable moat around it and put any future competition out of existence.

When a “new player is somehow able to enter their kill zone,” write authors Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow, “these behemoths know exactly what to do.”

Big Tech and Big Content (think Amazon and Disney) have become overlords of culture, the authors argue, and their playbook is something of a civil religion formed around the Chicago School of antitrust law—transforming the U.S. from a country that breaks up monopolies to one that embraces them as long as they raise efficiency and lower prices.

The problem is, excessive price lowering and supply-chain squeezing can cause a significant loss of access to markets and profits for a whole segment of society: writers, musicians, filmmakers, actors, and app makers—and the ecosystem of businesses that support them.

What’s worse, letting monopolies increasingly nickel-and-dime creators turns adoring fans into accessories to the crime. We enjoy low prices while leaving our beloved artists adrift.

This book deftly exposes the grip of monopolies over today’s creative labor markets, with well-written, detailed case studies on everything from book publishing, news, and music to screenwriting, acting, and producing.

To build and protect their monopolies, companies employ “chokepoints,” which give the book its title. To explain chokepoints, the authors ask us to visualize an hourglass. On one end of the hourglass are millions of creators and the businesses that bring creative works to market. On the other is the market—a vast, global audience easily reachable over the internet and offering potential for profit.

But in the middle of the hourglass—the skinniest part—is a chokepoint. Its purpose: to restrict market access.

The book skillfully demonstrates how chokepoint capitalists follow a consistent set of tenets. One is to make chokepoints permanent. “Rather than trying to retain their dominance by making the best products,” write Giblin and Doctorow, “they do this by locking in suppliers and workers, killing off or merging with rivals, and making their markets maximally inhospitable to new entrants.”

Goliaths like Apple, Amazon, Google, Meta, Spotify, and Ticketmaster relentlessly mold the markets to incrementally squeeze creators and suppliers. As our grandparents used to say, “They get you coming and going.”

One result is that except for the lucky few, most performers and songwriters, even popular ones, on Spotify, turn no respectable profit.

Chokepoints are protected by a “whole bestiary of laws,” say Giblin and Doctorow, including inequitable music contracts (see the chapter, “Why Prince Changed His Name”).

Another tenet is to create walled gardens. Say you want to support your favorite app creator by downloading their app to your iPhone. But you’re immediately directed to the Apple Store, where Apple can exact a sizeable cut. Even when the app is free to download, creators have to give Apple big revenue cuts from in-app purchases and subscriptions. 

One tenet of chokepoint capitalists is particularly sneaky, but the authors shine a bright light on it: make customers outsource their decision making. Companies like Spotify actively promote a “playlist culture” in order to groom the public to consume canned playlists, whether compiled by algorithms or humans, rather than to make independent choices.

To understand playlist culture, think of streaming becoming a form of radio but with faceless artists and a single DJ for the whole world.

“By making people dependent on them for choices, monopolists can use playlists as a carrot and stick for greater control over terms of profit sharing, shaking down creators even more,” the authors point out.

The middle of the hourglass thins.

Giblin and Doctorow offer concrete suggestions for a more equitable creative labor market. Two examples are accounting transparency for the big platforms and “radical interoperability”—an end to walled gardens.

“Citizens are sounding the alarm about how the richest people and corporations are blocking responses to society’s most urgent problems,” they write.

The Biden administration shows promise for “a return to a more muscular, interventionist form of antitrust enforcement.” But we have to be careful not to simply install regulations that “make operating so expensive that only the biggest firms can afford to be in the game,” the authors warn, or “we’ll end up baking chokepoints in.”

That’s why real change, they suggest, will take a lot of collective action.

No doubt many of the change makers will be carrying this book.