What's Next for Endarkenment?
Finally, an update! Including reflections on funding (and lack thereof) for creative labor, and news about updating the 2018 Ulf Söderberg interview.
Last September, I put Endarkenment into extended pause mode. After two years, I realized it had become unsustainable.
While I mentioned pandemic- and health-related reasons for taking a break, now I’d like to tell the rest of the story. In the interest of transparency, I’ll dive into a few things I’ve learned about the intersection of paid subscription models and creative labor.
When I launched Endarkenment in 2018, one of my goals was to help make inroads toward a publishing model that would enable all artists who contribute to this work to get paid fairly. In the cross-interview I did with Michael Barnett of This Is Darkness in early 2019, I wrote a bit about why I decided to carry out this experiment on Substack.
Toward that end, I developed my own customized variation on Substack’s paid subscription model. I wanted to do something in the spirit of Bandcamp - like a digital commons for music journalism, but with a sharing element that splits net income proportionally with my interviewees. This was my attempt to recognize that interviews are inherently a collaborative effort.
Later on, I tried a pay-what-you-want model. At the time I framed it as a “gift model,” but that was incorrect. Gift economics relies on specific relational contexts, and gift models can’t just be “grafted” onto Substack’s web2 model. My attempt was more like tipping or donations.
Neither of those models worked as I’d hoped. Now, after much gnashing of teeth, I’ve concluded that long-form interviews and contemplative music writing of the sort I do for Endarkenment aren’t the right fit for any of the established funding models/publishing formats for digital music journalism. Not even Substack’s.
Operating a paid subscription newsletter puts it into the “side hustle” category. That brings pressure to chase likes, comments, follower counts, shares, paid subscriptions, etc., just to keep it afloat. That path isn’t right for this project, because the income is mostly a means to an end for me: a way to buy more time to write.
My original hope was to buy enough hours away from my day job to focus more attention on the intrinsically motivated music writing itself. When writers have more time to write, their whole communities can benefit. But with Substack, the opposite happened: I ended up with less time to write, because I had to spend more time running a newsletter business on top of my existing solo business.
Worse still, making it into a side hustle drained much of the joy from the creative process, and that joy is an essential element of my music writing. Without it, the work loses its luster, and I ultimately end up with work I don’t feel comfortable releasing.
Let me say a bit about my lofty ambitions here. I aspire to produce artful, in-depth masterworks of music journalism like the Detroit Escalator Co. interview with Neil Ollivierra. It was published in 2013 by Mike G of Ambient Music Guide, and it’s one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever read. I’d never even heard of The Detroit Escalator Co. when I first read this interview, but I loved it so much that I read it several times.
It’s memorable for many reasons. It’s a deep dive into fascinating music scene history. Neil goes into unusual depth for a musician interview, waxing philosophical about his creative process, early memories, perception of other musicians, and collaborative work. The photos are artfully placed and captioned to heighten interest.
An interview of that caliber could easily take me a year or more to produce. In any case, I’d rather have 200 readers for the highest-quality, most joyfully-driven work I can deliver - with release dates few and far between - than 200,000 readers for writing that feels rushed or otherwise compromised by low-level pressure to turn it into a side hustle.
If that makes me a perfectionist, so be it. I can live with that.
Substack’s business model tethers subscription income to an expectation of consistent creative output from the writer. That’s perfectly fine for many writers. But music journalism also needs more process-oriented funding models.
It needs widely available, accessible, sustainable funding options that free up time for writers to minimize public contact for a long time, hole up in the studio, and dive deep into the waters of the subtle realms from whence unexpected gifts emerge.
It needs funding that respects fallow periods as normal stages of the creative process.
It needs funding options to support work that slowly incubates and unfolds for as long as necessary before market forces are brought to bear upon it.
I’m hardly the first writer to struggle with this, which is one reason I’ve been an advocate of unconditional basic income (UBI) since the 1990s.
But since UBI for all is not yet a thing, and Endarkenment insists on being a community service project that honors and properly funds creative labor, I’ve decided to stop trying to shoehorn my work into Substack’s paid model. I’m dropping the paid tier entirely, so it will no longer be a business at all.
“Wait,” you might say. “You want the people who do creative labor to be better funded, yet you’re dropping the paid tier?”
Yes on both counts.
In a way it was unwise to introduce the paid tier in the first place, because that decision carried opportunity costs that have only become apparent to me with experience and hindsight. Ever the optimist, I spent a lot of time scheming about how I might tweak Substack’s business model to make it work for my music writing, but comparatively little time on business continuity planning.
As things currently stand, there’s a fundamental tension between
1) my desire to contribute all of my music writing into an open-access digital commons, and
2) the need for sustainable funding that leaves sufficient time free for slow-process writing.
By “sustainable funding,” in this case, I mean funding that includes automated ways to direct portions of income to the musicians, photographers, and other artists with whom I collaborate.
Web2 platforms like Substack don’t offer that functionality natively. When I tried to bootstrap it myself in 2018-2019, it quickly snowballed into an administrative nightmare.
It’s worth mentioning, in this context, that I buy all the music I write about out of my own pocket. I regularly turn down offers of promo albums from labels and musicians.
That policy helps to preserve my readers’ trust and my creative integrity as a music writer, and is aligned with my goal of helping artists get paid fairly. Yet the project is still unsustainable as a solo business overall, regardless of what I do or don’t spend on music.
At the same time, publishing models that rely on professional artists and writers providing free or poorly paid labor are also ultimately unsustainable without sacrifices and/or subsidies like day jobs, spousal support, etc. It’s a regrettable catch-22.
I believe good music journalism is inherently community-driven. At its best, it’s a type of public service labor. The work I do for Endarkenment should belong not to me alone, but to everyone who appreciates dark ambient music. Its rightful place is in the digital commons, where it can be freely accessible to all. That doesn’t negate the need for a solid base of sustainable funding if the service work is to continue, however.
So the tension I outlined above remains unresolved. That isn’t the fault of anyone who’s reading this, though. It’s an inherent design limitation of the existing web2 business models for supporting creative labor. The current paid subscription models make no provision for the kind of financial/material reciprocity necessary to sustain slow-process, intrinsically motivated, joyful creative service work.
Despite all the lip service paid to the concept of “doing what you love,” most of the extant business models for supporting creative labor seem to be influenced by an implicit assumption that work isn’t supposed to be enjoyable…and if it is enjoyable, then people shouldn’t expect to get paid for it.
It took me a long time to think through these layers of paid web2 subscription models, and longer still to identify the low-level, sneaky ways that optimizing for the paid newsletter model infiltrates and constrains my creative process. It took even more time for me to decide what to do about Endarkenment in the wake of that understanding. Especially in the midst of a pandemic. Hence the lengthy break.
Part of me hesitates as I write this, because I don’t want to give the impression that dropping the paid tier makes me “pure and artistically unsullied” or any of that lofty nonsense about money that often circulates in arts circles. While financial motives aren’t necessary to get me to do the work, and dropping the side hustle is a relief because it opens room for me to do the work at its own pace again, I still like receiving income for my work just as much as anyone else.
So let me be clear: I’m making this change only because the kind of music journalism I do best is incompatible with the existing funding models. It can’t coexist fruitfully with Substack’s model at all.
While there may be financial value in subscription models, letting go of the side hustle approach can also unlock creative process value and community value.
And at the end of the day, community is the means by which financial value is created anyway.
Giving up the business aspect removes internal and external pressures to be consistently productive with music writing. It enables me to write without worrying about the timing of releases or the marketability of my work. It frees me from the worry that I’m not delivering the type of value a paid newsletter subscriber could reasonably expect.
Those are the necessary conditions for me to produce my best music writing. Since I can’t do that work through Substack, I will stop accepting payment.
None of this is meant to imply that other music writers shouldn’t have paid tiers. Some writers manage to find ways to fund this kind of work long-term without compromising. And I originally set out to use this newsletter to help get everyone paid fairly: me, the musicians, the photographers, the designers, and anyone else who contributed. But that’s not how it worked out.
I’m not casting aspersions on Substack, either. Substack offers the least extractive business model currently available to many writers, which is one reason for the proliferation of Substacks. To their credit, Substack is clearly making sustained attempts to improve their support infrastructure for writers, including legal assistance, mentoring programs, etc.
But one company can only do so much to make a dent in the systemic factors that devalue creative labor.
Furthermore, even the most supportive readers can only manage to keep up a limited number of paid subscriptions. I don’t know about you, but I’m close to my limit. So many great writers, but so little time, and so much attention fatigue.
On the horizon I see hope for more sustainable funding possibilities for creative labor through Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) and community-owned protocols within the Ethereum ecosystem, such as Mirror. I recently became a DAO member myself and published my first piece about the DAO on Mirror. Overall, however, Ethereum-based publishing models are in their infancy.
So here’s what’s next for Endarkenment.
With this issue, the production pause ends. The paid tier also ends. (If you were a paid subscriber and would like a refund, please email me at endarkenment.dark.ambient AT gmail.com and I will handle it promptly.)
Henceforth, Endarkenment no longer operates as a paid subscription business.
All issues will remain on Substack as an open-access repository (with one temporary exception - see below).
Here’s what’s next on my roadmap. The release schedule will be determined by the time it takes to do my best work.
An interview with Boris Tyurin of Out of Hell, which had to be set aside last year as the pandemic hit.
An updated version of “Scandinavian Heritage: An Interview with Ulf Söderberg,” the first interview I published through Endarkenment. We’re planning a public release for the updated interview - stay tuned for details! In the meantime, I’ve taken the 2018 version offline temporarily.
After that, I’ll continue working on other interviews and my book manuscript Endarkenment: The Esoteric in Dark Ambient Music and Culture as time permits.
For those who follow my other projects, I’ve got more publishing news. My essay “Of Hearth and Shadow: A Contemplative Norse Polytheist and a Fledgling Animist Sanctuary,” written for my Black Stone Sanctuary project, was accepted for an upcoming Moon Books anthology coming out in March 2022.
And for my recently revived project The Anticareerist, I’m pulling together a special collection on Substack featuring highlights and reader favorites reconstructed from 20 years of my long-deleted blogs.
Stay tuned for more news on my music writing. Thanks for reading!
- Danica Swanson
Editor & Friendly Neighborhood Dark Ambient Music Nerd