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The value of recorded music

03 Apr 2012 | ecadre

Below are some more of my thoughts on the continuing debate on recorded music and commodity value. I’m a traditional folk musician so I follow these debates with interest. Though I would say that we all should!

As many philosophers have noted, the only constant is change, and that includes human society.

With this post I’m sure that I’m not going to make myself popular with some people who will insist that I’m preaching “theft” and the destruction of civilisation as we know it. OK. They should probably be informed that I’m not particularly attached to the supposed greatness of much of our civilisation anyway :-P

It’s interesting that some people think that the lack of a commodity transaction devalues recorded music. That it means removing something of substance from it that devalues its state as music.

Geoff Taylor from the BPI (British Recorded Music Industry) would say that it does. He spent the whole of his speech to the 2008 BPI annual general meeting talking about the “role of the BPI in promoting the value of music”. If you read his speech you’ll see that he’s very worried about how to “monetise content streams”. At one point I thought that he was going to address the nature of innovation in art … it turned out that he just referred to (whined about) the lack of incentives to create “innovative income streams”. For him, value means income streams for the music industry.

Talk from the “music industry” is that this exchange value of digital music is something that is decent, honest and natural. It is such a natural thing that to reproduce the music yourself is a reprehensible act, an act of vandalism that destroys the true value of the music.

Except, that doesn’t quite work does it? What is the natural value of a commodity? What is value? Can you weigh it? Does it exist in any natural state? Well … no, it’s a human invention that is used to imbue things with special powers. An exchange value means that objects become measurable in terms of commerce and exchange. You can also speculate with them and have all sorts of emotional attachments to them that go way beyond their natural physical properties.

In Capital, Marx pointed out that there are essentially two things that make up the exchange value of a commodity. These are use value and the average amount of socially useful work power that is put into its manufacture … heck, am I going to try to rewrite Capital? No, sorry, read Capital. It’s brilliant and very useful in better understanding the world, and of course Marx explains all this better than I can.

The term “average amount of socially useful work power” is a long and strange phrase. As I say, looking at Capital is immensely illuminating, but in this instance we only need to realise that this element of the value of a commodity is related to the amount of work power used in its reproduction and distribution.

It was ever thus for music?

Well, no, not really. Before the 1880s there was no technology that congealed the playing of musicians into a musical rendition that could be placed upon a medium and then mass reproduced and listened to by consumers.

Music is ephemeral by nature. The note starts, exists for a while and then dies. Music only really existed in its enactment. It’s an interesting concept that advances in technology enabled the capture of that moment in time so that it can be reenacted (cheaply) at will by people who are not musicians.

It took some technological advances to do this, but, they did not invent the concept of the commodity and they were really doing nothing innovative economically. Recordings were mass manufactured on shelac, and later plastic, and sold. The unique supply source of the commodity was ensured by the technical difficulties around reproduction, but also concentrated by the development of copyright. However, the copyright issue did not really concern the consumer, it was a mechanism to protect markets in particular recordings (or any recording of particular peices of music) from other manufacturers.

Another complication and cost was in distribution. Round pieces of plastic needed to moved about and placed in the hands of consumers.

But, this is changing. For many consumers there is no need for plastic any more, and for them the distribution costs are disapearing too. What happens to the commodity value of digital files in an age when the cost of reproducing and distributing small chunks of digital information is so close to zero that it is utterly trivial? The commodity value has been lost.

Does this mean that the recorded music has become valuless? No. It still has use value. A commodity after all is a combination of use value and that phrase about socially useful work power.

Geoff Taylor from the BPI gave the opinion that music is as necessary to people as breathing. By that analogy he unwittingly and rather ironically made a valuable point. The air that we breath has no commodity value (as used in the ordinary, everyday act of breathing), but has an extremely high use value. Having no commodity value has not decreased its use value or its ubiquity.

So what happens when something loses its commodity value, but keeps its high use value and is ubiquitous? Surely markets collapse since they only operate on commodity exchange value.

We know that this has not happened yet with the recorded music market, and I think that is for various practical and cultural reasons. The practical reason being that not everybody uses computers and media playing devices to same extent. This is both in the industrialised world and considering the billions of people around the world who exist with very little computer technology. The cultural one is that there is an attachment to the ideology of the commodity. It is not surprising since commodity value is not a thing that can be measured in any natural way and is imbued by custom.

However, in the same way that rates of return on capital in different industries always move to the average, the reality of the disappearing commodity value of recorded music is making its mark and will increasingly do so.

The response from the music (and “media”) industry? We all know it. Lock em up, close it down, artificially restrict what people are allowed to do with their computers and watch them carefully.

On the internet there is a battle going on between different capitalist interests, the “music industry” and some civil rights groups. It, for instance, surfaces occasionally as part of the debate on network neutrality.

You see, companies like Google know that things have changed. They know that the commodity value of “content” has shifted and for its business interests it needs network neutrality. The likes of the music industry do not like this. They wish to clamp down on network neutrality, to be able to watch packets, reroute, prioritise or block certain types of traffic according to their business needs. They wish wide powers to monitor and close down parts of the net, to criminalise activities and more powers to control the activities of organisations like Google and ordinary internet users.

This is what it comes down to. To maintain the fictional exchange value of certain digital files over others, society needs to be reforged. Rights and privileges need to taken away from the population. This was essentially what the recent debate in the US over SOPA (Stop online piracy act) was about.

Do you really wish to live under constant surveillance in a police state so that the commodity value of digital music is maintained? Would that be a price worth paying?

My answer is no.

But, having been told that the commodity is the natural state of affairs. That it is the decent, honest and honourable state of affairs for decent, honest and honourable people; it becomes difficult to accept that it is illusory and shifting, a state of mind as much as an economic reality.

People look at these commodity transactions and imbue them with moral certitudes and some folk artists will now be cursing me. Sorry, but this changing economic reality cannot be held off by wishful thinking. You may be seeking economic security, but, honestly, do you really wish this to be enforced by a Police State? A type of enforcement that after many battles and much heartache I think will inevitably be lost in any case.

The existence of a commodity value is like Scotch mist. One moment its there and the next its gone, and it’s no use pining for it or waving your arms around wishing you could blow it back into existence.

You want to see artists being paid for their work? So do I. That is for the work that they do. However, as I wrote above, unless you really want a police surveillance state to enforce it, then you’d better come up with some other ideas.

We must realise that supporting artists and the arts has never really been the aim of the “music industry”. Its aim has always been return on capital, and the whole music recording as commodity game has merely been a means to this end. Yes, I know that there are the small labels and folk labels. But lets be honest, these are tiny, and again, do we really wish to see them throw in their lot with an industry that has never given a stuff about art over money?

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