Having a Ball

The Economist. What’s Working in Music – Having a Ball: In the supposedly benighted music business, a lot of things are making money

The problem I have with articles like this is that they begin with the now axiomatic premise “The Internet has changed everything” and then largely go on to show how little if anything has really changed at all. Here, the woes of the recorded music industry are put into perspective. Despite a decline in recorded music sales (which were really artificially enhanced by the phenomenon of replacing old LPs and Tapes with CDs in the 90s), other areas of the industry are thriving – touring revenues are up, merchandising is the new profitable thing along with tour sponsorships, while listeners who might be “worth nothing” to the industry as pirates are now “worth a little” if they respond to advertising on free streaming applications like Spotify. So, we have a here a shift of profit from one based around the sale of physical media, to one based on the proliferation of the symbolic: we pay more for concerts – the price of tickets has far outstripped inflation – which are evanescent, immaterial. We buy clothing (the elementary commodity form) and we pay for the privilege to be advertised to by the music’s sponsors. But, don’t worry, in all of this the raison d’être of the music industry as such remains: profit. Change indeed!

The problem in this article is that the change is superficial, and it betrays an ignorance of some of the fundamental alterations that have been made, outside of the narrow mainstream music industry scope. Of course, the Economist can only think in terms of the profit paradigm, because it is so dominant. (That said, the acknowledgment of age and the superstar factor are important, and I think under-recognized in the turmoils of the record industry.)

But, in other areas of music distribution online, i.e. “piracy,” with a shift in perspective we could see that a lot more is working in music than merely its function as a conduit for profit. It travels faster to a wider audience, unencumbered by the barriers and limits that are set in place by the industry infrastructure and the profit motive. It occupies a central position in the development of online musical discourse, and acts as a common ground for many online “communities.” A vibrant and self-regulating community of “pirates” has emerged that privileges obligation, reciprocity, and “sharing” over profit. Indeed, the power of autonomous music distribution online is acknowledged by the IFPI who say that “the pool of pirates is so huge at present (IFPI, an international trade group, reckons that 19 out of every 20 tracks downloaded are illegal) that it ought to be possible to make serious money from persuading people to make the switch.” This is just pure jealousy. People are out there doing things that the industry finds difficult to monetise, nothing gets the ire of a business up more than that – people doing things better without their help. (Of course doing these things helps the computing industry immensely…another topic).

The trick here is that people ought not to be persuaded. Real change that doesn’t just shift the profits from one sector to the other, with music still in the position of commodity, but one that recognises the full import of music and doesn’t diminish this in the commodity form could be hastened by the even further entrenchment and emulation of pirate practices not just in the distribution of music but in the wresting of control over the production and technological infrastructures that undergird it. Let’s look outside the mainstream adaptation of “flexibile specialisation” and “vertical integration” to alternative practices for inspiration here.

Posted in Media, Music, PhD Thesis, Rant and tagged , .