In Bristol, I enjoyed a frenzied series of conversations with Kate Rich, artist/trader and Anton, wine merchant. Both are strongly interested in the way that businesses and trade are built and expand, social connections emerge, individuals and groups create niches, build relationships and carry on doing interesting things.
There was much discussion of the middleman, the person between, the maker of connections. Anton related the anecdote of a Sail Cargo Alliance meeting where one of those present called loudly to “eradicate the middle man” as a way to deal with some of the inequities of trade. “But that’s me!” replied Anton. He is taking on that role as the purchaser, the freight arranger, the distributor. As are, it must be seen, the freight carriers. The middleman, whilst possibly being the person who profits from trade in a strange way, being neither the producer nor the consumer, is nevertheless necessary. We conjectured that the middleman might be a necessary evil. Portugese wine will not be delivered by the producer to Bristol wine bars. If we remove the middleman, then we will only trade food with the crusty farmers at a local market and never see a book from further away than we can walk.
One possible counterexample to this claim are the Onion Johnies. French farmers, after the season, would load fishing boats with onions and bicycles, then head off to visit the harbour town of England, selling strings of onions directly to consumers. The trade has existed for well over a century, but became almost nonexistent in the 1970s until recently.
The discussion then turned to the type of middle man that is most common today: the supermarket, whose short suply chains made the long lived Roscoff onions from Britanny irrelevant. Many primary producers, whether it be carrots or wines, are approached by the supermarket purchasers in order to find new and interesting products for the supermarket shelves. Anton related this process, based upon his experiences, as follows. A producer develops a good product, selling enough to get by to some local markets. A supermarket or other large distributor finds out about it and develops a plan for much larger production, offering lower prices per unit but a much larger volume of sales, so that the deal is great for the producer. The producer needs to ramp up production, expanding their infrastructure in order to “make it big.” A few debts later, the supermarket starts pushing the price down further as well as introducing extra costs from the fine print, which the producer needs to accept in order to keep repaying their debt, and the spiral continues. Quality is probably not the result of this pressure.
The explanation reminded me strongly of an article written by Steve Albini, producer, engineer and musican, written at the height of the early 90s independent rock musioc boom. The article, originally entitled “Some of your friends are already this fucked” but renamed “The Problem with Music,” was a detailed description of the way that a “record deal” or “signing with a major” actually played out for most musicians. Moving from a small label, decent sales and a continuing live music career, the process was pretty much the same: expansion, debt and desperation. The functioning ecosystem of the small musicians was being plundered by the big players, burning people out, breaking trust, incentivising and capitalising until the system was broken. This used to be called “selling out” and was regarded as problematic. These days it has been retitled as having an “exit strategy” and is expected of all startups. This seems to ignore the idea that, perhaps, just perhaps, the reason you are doing something is because you like it, because you think it is valuable. It is something of value to people and society and really, it should be possible to keep on doing it.
The conclusion that Kate and Anton espoused was not the elimination of the middle man, but “befriending the middleman” – make them one of us. If you know the string of connections, if you know that they are all okay, then it is okay that they are all making a cut, living from the process. Feral transport lists every stage of the delivery chain, as well as the costs involved in the production of each bag of coffee, on the bag. You do not need to dominate the people in the chain, to exert price pressure on them, rather to exist with them. Instead of expanding, the process of emulation was again raised: ways of living and working can be copied, adpated and expanded, generating an ecosystem of multiple small enterprises, people doing things and living from it, developing a community of practice and working out more ways to do it better. As Kate comes from an arts context, she related it to arts practice. Rather than developing large works under one name, she was more in favour of the ecology of practitioners, each developing their own pieces, but engaged in a continual process of discussion and reflection, taking ideas, techniques, approaches and methods from one another and extending them to develop new pieces. This community is perhaps as large as the studio of a single name artist, producing as much work, but with so much more diversity and development than a monolothic studio will have. Studies have shown that cultural homogeneity produces bad decisions. We need diversity, not quantifiably optimal monolithic production.