The Sonic Exchange: An Argument for Crafting a More Just and Sustainable Market for Music

Politics Features Musical Economy
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The Sonic Exchange: An Argument for Crafting a More Just and Sustainable Market for Music

The American music industry does not frequently garner great recognition as a player in the overall economy, but it has firmly made its stake as a capitalist entity and exemplified its adaptability to the rapidly changing technology of recent decades. It seems as though the halcyon days of music exist in a haze of hardworking, self-sufficient artists, but the truth reveals that the recording industry at large has been one of exploitation and unfair treatment of musicians since its genesis. The nature of the music industry and its generation of popular music and artists parallels the trend of the “throwaway economy,” marked by cheap goods that are not built to last. Suited for the current fashion, their obsolescence in the music scene is planned.

Major music labels such as Universal, Sony, and Warner dominate the industry, but as we progress further into the digital age, small, independent labels have gained traction—cornering a part of the market that caters towards musicians that have yet to be “discovered” on a larger scale. This notion presents an interesting aspect of the musical economy that corresponds to the overall economy: stagnation means failure, growth means success. From the smallest of independent artists, to the most well known, frequently touring acts, the song remains the same; the end-goal is large success and a multi-million dollar record deal. Perhaps this trend could be blamed on culture, pop-icon idolatry, or a deep-seated quest for personal fulfillment – perhaps the blame better falls on the teachings of capitalism and a growth based-economy. The commodification of music and artists’ work is indicative of the exploitive practices of capitalist ventures, the current nature of the musical economy is simply not working for the majority of those who are operating within it. However, in many circles within the musical economy, artists are beginning to take back their space, their music, and their creative means.

In the past decade and a half, the popularity of digital music has skyrocketed. Since the introduction of the Apple iPod in 2001, the entire perception of music buying, selling, and sharing has experienced a great shift. With the introduction of the online music economy, singles released by artists and record labels could be sold individually on a large scale with no need for physical media. Spotify, Apple Music, and online radio such as Sirius and Pandora now dominate the non-physical music marketplace. While fans widely appreciate the free or low price streaming services, artists and labels both big and small are experiencing an economic slump. Many artists are beginning to rally against free music streaming, and some are going so far as to create their own, more ethical method of music streaming. Free online streaming is largely an answer to the growing problem of music piracy. Adapting to the changing culture of music consumption was a critical move for the music industry. Artists who feel cheated by online streaming services are still operating within capitalist values – perhaps if the musical economy were to shift into a more community oriented, sharing-style economy, there would be more contentedness among artists.

In the age of digital music, it would seem that physical media would no longer be a point of attention for record labels. However, Record Store Day (RSD) is a national biannual event that arose in response to failing record stores and decreasing physical media sales in the mid-2000s, when many record stores began to shut down. The event garnered huge success, grabbing nationwide attention and gathering larger numbers of RSD customers each year. In 2014, vinyl record sales reached an all time for the past two decades. However, the twice-yearly event began to receive more criticism as it gained success, its decriers are owners and patrons of small, independent record stores. The popularity of RSD has created a difficult situation for many independent record store owners who may not be able to afford the venture capital it takes to purchase special RSD releases, especially when they are not sure if they will sell out their stock or be fated to keep boxes of it in their storerooms, accumulating dust as they depreciate in value.

In 2008, seven independent Swedish music labels formed an alliance intended to transform the musical economy. The premise of their restructuring model was to encourage the sharing of free music, rather than fighting the losing battle against it. The valuation of musical creations as sellable units detracts from what many consider to be the purpose of the creation of art.. The intersection between art and money often results in frustration, disillusionment, and feelings of betrayal and exploitation. Artists become trapped in contractual obligations to record labels that capitalize on their creativity, selling their music for profit while the artists are left without a feeling of satisfaction.

The practice of selling creative “goods” intrinsically diminishes the meaning of the work – by putting a price on a song, album, or discography, the artists’ work becomes subjectively capitalized and commoditized. The meaning behind the work becomes abstracted by the price that is placed upon it. By refraining from the pricing of musically creative goods, the focus is shifted away from the monetary success of the artist unto the creative and community impact of the artist. It focuses on the influence that they may have on the overall well-being of the community and its members. Within the Swedish Model, a key component is the ease of which fans can find and listen to bands, which generates positive feedback for the artists, labels, and producers. When the songs are given away for free – as gifts – their value becomes entirely determined by the listeners, how much that song gets shared thenceforth reflects the intrinsic value of the song.

The shift to a gift economy may be exactly what the music industry needs to create a more just and sustainable place for artists and producers – as well as listeners. Of course, for this style of economy to work in a practical manner, the overall economy would have to shift towards something more akin to a community-style economy – but perhaps within the artisanal sector a balance could be struck. Valuing artists based on their talent and ambition will make their work more rewarding to both them and their fans. The goal of gaining prestige and adoration and foregoing the quest for large monetary success is reflective of the romanticized struggle of the artist. The switch to a gift economy will certainly require a change in values of success and gratification.

The shift that is required on an overall industry level will have to begin at a grassroots level and take a bottom-up approach – many independent artists already partake in a musical gift economy, emphasizing the importance of community support and inter-band alliances. Independent artists have been crafting their own niche place within the music industry since the ability to record at home became a possibility. At this time, the production of music was almost entirely reliant upon the industry producers who were in control of the recording equipment and distribution of the physical goods of vinyl records.

However, advances in technology allowed for a new space in the musical economy to be opened. Further technological advances have made it increasingly easy for independent artists to record on their own and now easily distribute their music to anyone with an Internet connection. The MP3 allows for music to be shared and reproduced endlessly. The MP3 is allowing artists to take back production of their music (or rather, take control of it for the first time). Additionally, because the MP3 is a nonphysical good, it requires no capital investment to reproduce and therefore more easily contributes to a gift economy. The construction of this gift economy through digital music allows for widespread sharing of creative goods that inevitably undermine (if only slightly) the music industry at-large. Independent artists have been and will continue to be an integral part of the crafting of a more just and sustainable space for musicians.

The notion that the music industry is a corrupt, monolithic empire holds true in many circles of musical consumers. When independent artists sign on with a major record label and become part of the music industry, fans often label them as “sell-outs” and renounce their adoration for the band, reminiscing about the idyllic days prior to their participation in the big-label music scene. This anger that results from artists signing onto major labels exemplifies the devaluation of meaning when money is introduced to art. LCD Soundsystem, fronted by James Murphy, is often heralded as an example of how to reject the corruption of corporatized music. The group disbanded in 2011, citing that they could no longer ethically sustain playing such large shows with expensive tickets. (Though they have since reunited.)


The growth oriented goal of the capitalist music industry alienates fans and artists alike—the establishment of a gift economy would mitigate the issue of alienation by shifting the focus of music production to be more about the intrinsic value of art.

Perhaps the language in this argument thus far has been too generalizing – the “music industry” at large as I have referred to it is in reality a collection of articulated groups with a common interest. Additionally, the music industry and the recording industry have been discussed as one unit whereas they are actually separate entities operating in a similar space – this generalization is made by most on the large scale. The generalization of the music industry as a homogenized unit is arguably unfair. Recognizing the diversity within the music industry is an important step to realizing its potential in converting to a gift economy – when the veneer of the music industry as a monolith is stripped away, one can view the independent players that operate within its intricacies. The Swedish Model should be analyzed and critiqued, but also considered as a model for the American music industry. Viewing the actors within the industry as separate entities allows for dialogue about an economic shift to be opened more easily. Operating within the music industry is comparable to operating within the overall economy; there are independent persons, big and small, that culminate into something larger than themselves. The systems that are in place are both created and perpetuated by its participants.

Changing the overarching dialogue about how the music industry operates and interacts with the community and with itself will require a shift in the economic conventions used to trade music. Recognizing the music industry as a cultural institution, not simply as a monolithic empire, is an imperative acknowledgement required prior to shifting to a gift economy within the musical exchange. Articulating the music industry as a collection of individuals acting within a set of conventions reframes it in a way that gives musicians more agency to determine how they want their music shared and distributed.

The digital age has brought with it an ability to create a new space for musicians that is more just and sustainable than ever before – crafting this space will require deliberate effort on the part of both the creators and consumers of music. This new sustainable space for artists and consumers will reinforce community bonds and strengthen the interconnectivity potential for musicians. Building a new musical economy that focuses on the music and artistic potential of musicians’ work, rather than the monetary prospects, will create a more genuine piece of work. When a song is valued for its individuality and artistic agency, it transcends conventional worth – there is no ceiling for how valuable it is to individuals or communities. This new method of valuation, along with the creation of a gift economy for musical exchange will create an intentional, deliberate community that appreciates music for its intrinsic, artistic value.

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