Once Again, the Political Economy of Communication People Had It Right

Yesterday’s New York Times caught up with a story that’s been making the rounds of the internet music circles since Zoe Keating published her finances about a year ago: in many cases, Spotify pays so little they might as well not be paying artists at all.  Sure, artists get fractions of cents in royalties, but very few, if any, will be able to make a living off streaming audio.  This should surprise nobody.  The commodity status of recordings has been in question since the file-sharing boom.  But getting people un-used to the idea of buying recordings does not automatically mean that the recordings will lose their commodity status.  In the spotify example, recordings have moved from physical commodity to service.  Of course, radio–and practices like middle music before it–already employed a service model for music.  But middle music was performed by living musicians who were paid; radio had a royalties system tied to a commodity system of recordings.  Spotify is what you get when you subtract recordings from radio.

In their 2006 book Digital Music Wars, Patrick Burkart and Tom McCourt predicted this outcome.  They argue that the utility model–they adopt the term “celestial jukebox” from industry publications–is actually preferable to the sales-of-goods model for large segments of digital media and music industries, and that the result will be diminished returns for both musicians and for audiences:

The Jukebox may promise more innovative music, more communities of interest for consumer, and lower prices for music; in fact, however, it gives us less (music in partial or damaged or disappearing files) and takes from us more (our privacy and our fair-use rights) than the old system. . . . Rather than a garden of abundance, the Celestial Jukebox offers a metered rationing of access to tiered levels of information, knowledge and culture, based on the ability to pay repeatedly for goods that formerly could be purchased outright or copied for free (136-137).

Real reform of the music industry has to start with social questions about music, not new business models.  How do we want to support musicians and music-making?  What kinds of musical culture do we want to develop?  Those questions should animate social thought about music, music criticism, and music policy.  If you’ve never heard of music policy as a current thing, that’s because we need it right now.

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