Is Capitalism Stifling Creativity In The Music Industry?

It will not come as news to any of us that the music industry is changing rapidly, and that there seem to be some very obvious losers and winners from these changes. The big changes, of course, are all largely the consequence of the development of the internet and of digital media formats which can be reproduced and distributed by anyone, effectively cost-free. The losers are those musicians and corporations who have traditionally made their living through selling various types of musical commodity: most obviously recordings in physical formats such as vinyl records, cassettes, CDs, etc.

The winners, it would seem, are those at the extreme ends of the distribution chain: consumers or users at the bottom, and the large-scale aggregators and distributors of media content – such as the Apple iTunes store, Google (through youtube), etc – at the top. What I’m going to do for the next few minutes is to think about the implications of some of these changes and how we can conceptualize them.

One of the central features of this transformation in the music industry is the effective de-commodification of music. In the 19th century, with the development of a market for sheet music, and the spread of public concerts, music became something which could be bought and sold for profit. This situation was obviously given a huge boost by the invention of sound recording at the end of the nineteenth century and the consequent growth of a world market for musical recordings. One of the key effects of the technological changes which I have already mentioned has been severely to weaken the commodity status of these recordings.

Music Industry Problems
Music Industry Problems

A commodity always depends for its status and its value on its relative scarcity; once the reproduction and distribution of that commodity become effectively free, then it necessarily loses that value and that status. This is great news for consumers of music, but for producers, it means, quite simply, that they suddenly have nothing of value to sell. I think the question which then emerges for 21st century societies is: if we want to have professional musicians at all (and of course there are those who say we don’t need them), then how are we going to pay for them? How will their work be compensated, if not through selling their wares in an open marketplace?

Now, before coming back to this particular issue, I want to elucidate some of the conceptual issues raised by these questions. Firstly, I want to make a distinction between the two sets of ‘losers’ from this process whom I have already mentioned: musicians, and traditional record companies. In the terms that I’ve described them, both of these sets of actors are trying, ultimately, to sell musical commodities at a relative profit.

However, there is a fundamental difference between them in terms of what the aim of generating those profits is. In the case of musicians, apart from a handful of very greedy and ambitious individuals, the aim is generally to generate enough income for a decent standard of living which will enable them to keep making their music. We might say the same about those independent record companies which have never generated large profits above those which are reinvested in support for new music. In the case of large record companies, however, the aim is not simply the generation of acceptable income for their employees, but the long-term, uninhibited, and unlimited accumulation of capital. The difference I am positing here, is therefore a fundamental, but surprisingly unusual one: between commerce on the one hand, and capitalism on the other. This Digital Music News article describes additional problems in the U.S. music industry.

The normal understanding of the term ‘capitalism’ at least in English (I imagine that Germans are much less imprecise about these things, but perhaps this is just my fantasy) is that it is a term which covers almost all forms of commercial activity. What I’m proposing here is that we can only really understand what is at stake in the current transformations of the music industry, by getting away from any such lazy elision, and understanding that commerce – the peaceful trading of commodities for profit – is not necessarily the same thing at all as capitalism – the relentless pursuit capital accumulation through the sale of such commodities produced through the exploitation of labor.

This is an important distinction for us here, because I am going to argue that the effective disappearance of a real market for musical commodities poses no threat to the smooth functioning of the process of capital accumulation (although it may slightly alter its institutional locations), even while it does pose a threat to the key sites and agents of the creativity which makes music culture possible.

This observation suggests that it might be possible to see a degree of compatibility between the kinds of creative, collaborative relations which characterize vibrant music scenes, and a certain kind of entrepreneurial spirit which might not be motivated by political or ethical or even artistic concerns, but would nonetheless be driven to seek out novelty and creative innovation in many spheres (I’m thinking here, perhaps, of some of the great cultural entrepreneurs of British independent music – Malcolm McLaren, Tony Wilson, etc), and to counterpose both of these tendencies to the tendency of capitalism proper to want to contain all such creativity in easily manageable forms. This suggestion raises some important questions about what we might mean by ‘creativity’, which I will try to address briefly now.

This raises an important question: what exactly is the relationship between music scenes, understood as sites of inherently collective and collaborative creativity, and capitalism, understood as the endless quest for private profit? For while scenes themselves might not seem to be oriented directly towards the process of capital accumulation, members of music scenes are invariably involved in various forms of labor which arguably contribute to the overall production of value both by the music industry and capitalism more generally.

Maurizio Lazzarato famously refers to this kind of work as ‘immaterial labor’ in his essay of that name, while the American and Italian political theorists Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri refer to is as biopolitical labor. Just think of the huge amount of work done by bloggers, youtube uploaders, itunes critics, etc. Could contemporary music culture function without them at all? And think about the ways in which this work is not experienced directly as labor, in a separate sphere of life from the rest, but is instead invested with all of the passion and energy which we attach to the business of making ourselves who we are and telling those around us all about it. This is precisely what these theorists mean by ‘immaterial’ and ‘biopolitical’ labor, and the cycles of capital accumulation in which music plays a role could not carry on without it.