May 20, 2024

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By its very nature, capitalism seeks to make as much profit as possible. This profit-seeking entails monetizing anything and everything, to the point of monetizing one’s mere existence on this planet. Ever since the birth of recorded sound, there has been a motive to profit from it. It is almost a cliché to mention the extreme greed and criminality of the music industry, yet glossing over that would deem this essay inadequate. A surface-level reading of the history of recorded sound could lead one to think that technology is what leads to the commodification of music, but this is not quite the case. As long as there has been a music industry (itself made up of record labels, publishing companies, recording studios, etc.), there has also been an underground society of independent bands and artists recording and releasing music themselves on a variety of formats, purely for the sake of the music itself. Music in the Soviet Union and other socialist nations continued to thrive and develop without the profiteering and crime of the capitalist music industry. Thus, it is capitalism, not technology, which commodifies music.

Dating back to when the music industry began to grow into what it is today, there was a very explicit campaign to commodify music, starting with the seven-inch 45rpm record. This format consisted of a double-sided disc with an A-side and B-side, the A-side usually being the hit song with the B-side as the album cut or instrumental mix of the A-side. Popularized in the 1950s and coinciding with the rise of the “teenagers,” record labels began advertising 45s to teens with allowance money—not enough to buy a full twelve-inch record, but just enough to buy the singles. Thus began music as a commodity sold by companies to consumers.

However, there is a difference between selling records, cassettes, or CDs and simply streaming a song online. The sale of physical media has always resulted in higher royalties for artists. Hence, though music remains commodified, buying physical releases at least means more money goes to the artist than just streaming their music. There is also something to say about only having access to what is in your library. Each piece of media retains more value when you only have a limited selection, revaluing those albums in your mind. Streaming services have turned what should be considered a piece of art, no different from what we see in museums, into a product that is interacted with hardly any differently than a TikTok video. How one interacts with media plays a significant role in how much society values that media. Since the primary way that music is interacted with and consumed these days is on streaming services, we see clearly that our society is far down the road of devaluing music into merely another form of instant, empty dopamine.

Artists have long been speaking to the problems that exist today. James Blake recently tweeted about the commodification of music and the issues with streaming services. His bewildering response to these issues would become the impetus for this essay, for his solution was to create yet another new subscription service that no one asked for or wanted: “Vault,” a Patreon knock-off for musicians and their most dedicated fans, whereby they can subscribe to an artist and get exclusive releases and so on. There is nothing inherently wrong, of course, with bands and artists directly being paid by their fans. The problem is that this new app hardly addresses the elephant in the room—capitalism.

To be sure, keeping people more online than they already are does no one any good, and asking people to sign up for another subscription service does even less. But the main problem is that this new service will not even dent the profits of the music industry and its record labels. Vault does not address the interaction between capitalism and the art form of music but only serves to make a music-centered version of Patreon, though Patreon is already full of bands and artists. While it is good that some artists are speaking publicly about their qualms with the music industry, as shedding any amount of light on the commodification of music is a good thing, James, unfortunately, missed the point. If, instead, he had proposed a massive unionization campaign involving top artists and bands and a mass exodus of bands from the leading streaming services—Spotify, Apple Music, etc.—he would have been much closer to the solutions truly needed to begin tackling this problem. (Note that such a proposal should not lend credence to a boycott of streaming in general, in the Luddite sense, as such measures should target specific companies and not the technology. The problem is with the owners of the technology. Under capitalism, the commodification of music also entails that companies front-load music with bourgeois ideology, a capitalist outlook of the world expressing the decay of society. Under socialism, music would draw upon all that can inspire working people from their achievements.)

As long as capitalism continues to exist in our society, music will continue to be commodified and devalued. As previously stated, the nature of capitalists is to pin a dollar sign onto anything and everything. Regardless, though, there are ways in which we, the audience, can revalue and de-commodify the music we enjoy.

The first and perhaps most important step anyone can take is to delete or unsubscribe from their music streaming services and begin building a music library with physical media. Not only does physical media get bands and artists better pay, but it also changes how one interacts with and consumes music. A physical library, be that of books or music, is limited to what you can find, giving each article far more value and importance than an intangible file only existing on a phone or computer. In line with the goal of socialism-communism, these libraries should also be built and maintained collectively rather than individually as much as possible. Such an approach promotes the advancement of socialist consciousness, contrasting with the individualistic and bourgeois tendency to accumulate art for private use.

As a second step, discuss the problems detailed in this essay with your friends and family. Shed light on the fact that Spotify has a payout of $0.0032 per stream, according to Headphonesty [1]. For comparison, an artist would need to have their song streamed over 200 times on Spotify to earn the same amount as one record sale. Further, according to Midwest Retro Audio [2], “Typically, an artist can expect to make between $1 and $5 per record sold. However, this can vary depending on the artist’s contract with their record label or distributor.” Streaming is choking music in the womb, plain and simple. It is purposefully robbing bands and artists blind, profiting immensely off their work. The CEO of Spotify, Daniel Ek, is worth $4,200,000,000. The average band on his platform can probably barely afford a tank of gas. The more people understand the reality we face, the more they will act to change it.

Third, understand that, as with workers in any other industry, mainstream media outlets will never fully reflect the exploitation and suffering experienced by artists and bands in the music industry. Companies pay mega-rich pop stars to play a specific role in maintaining the façade of Hollywood and front-loading their songs with bourgeois ideology. There is a good reason why the likes of Taylor Swift are not out there advocating for the socialist movement and the liberation of the working class. They would be ostracized from society in half a millisecond and instantly labeled as traitorous lunatics by the industry. Swift would still have a lot of wealth and likely get by perfectly fine, but she would lose all her incredible power and social status, and who would want to lose that?

To have a physical library of the music you enjoy is one thing, as long as that sale goes to the band or artists themselves, but given the current state of streaming, we can see that this is not what is going on. The global capitalist class remains invested in keeping things going as they are. They are finding all sorts of new ways to profit off more and more things that we would usually take for granted as simply part of the human experience, but not to the capitalists! The capitalist seeks to commodify our expressions of humanity. It is our job as proud Communists to fight back against this plot. We must value the art and music our fellow workers create and enjoy it for what it is: not products to commodify but expressions of our humanity. Unite the working-class musicians! The only solution for art, expressing the interests of the workers and people without bourgeois corruption and decay, is the socialist revolution!

Citations

  1. Yonata, Jefri. “How Much Does Spotify Pay per Stream: Everything You Need to Know.” Headphonesty, 9 Nov. 2023, https://www.headphonesty.com/2021/11/how-much-does-spotify-pay-per-stream/
  2. Johnson, Jeff. “How Much Does an Artist Make from a Vinyl Record?” Midwest Retro Audio, 20 Mar. 2023, https://www.midwestretroaudio.com/how-much-does-an-artist-make-from-a-vinyl-record/