stage VMAs

Music and the Decline of Capitalism

 “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” — Hunter S. Thompson

“Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion.” — Leon Trotsky

Capitalism’s protracted global crisis, now closing in on a decade, is at root a structural crisis of the productive forces. This in turn finds expression in society’s core political and ideological institutions, culture, roles, and rituals, all of which are being significantly affected.

The IMT has documented multiple aspects of this phenomenon in our epoch. With respect to music, our 2013 article outlined the rise of private streaming models and the danger they pose to musicians’ livelihoods. Since then, the situation for musicians has further degenerated in increasingly distorted ways.

There are signs that even the once seemingly impenetrable fortress of corporate-backed rock and pop is suffering from serious cracks in the foundation. Ted Gioia, critic, historian and founder of Stanford University’s jazz studies program recently penned an extremely interesting piece entitled, “Does the Music Business Need Musicianship?”

According to the article (which is worth reading in its entirety for its insights), ratings for MTV’s Video Music Awards dropped 34% between 2015 and 2016, following a comparable decline the previous year. “In an industry that agonizes over shifts of a fraction of a percent, this kind of free-fall is unprecedented,” Gioia wrote. “The music business brought out its biggest guns for the MTV event—Beyoncé, Kanye, Rihanna, and Britney, among other one-name phenoms—and the show was broadcast on 11 different networks, including VH1, BET, CMT, and Spike. Even Comedy Central gave the event wall-to-wall coverage . . . more people watched The Great British Bake Off the previous week.”

While some have sought to “look on the bright side,” in terms of the greater control artists have over their destinies, the cruel truth of the matter is that for more and more artists, the “choice” they have is between finding an alienating day job or languishing in poverty.

More recently The Washington Post published a long form epitaph article entitled “Why my guitar gently weeps: The slow, secret death of the six-string electric. And why you should care.” The numbers are beyond grim: “In the past decade, electric guitar sales have plummeted, from about 1.5 million sold annually to just over 1 million. The two biggest companies, Gibson and Fender, are in debt, and a third, PRS Guitars, had to cut staff and expand production of cheaper guitars. In April, Moody’s downgraded Guitar Center, the largest chain retailer, as it faces $1.6 billion in debt.”

The very instrument that was largely synonymous with 20th century popular music may be on its deathbed. In a cruel personification of the situation, Allan Holdsworth, arguably the most iconoclastic electric guitarist of the century, recently passed away in a financial situation so dire that his family had to crowdfund his funeral costs. If this is the situation facing the “legends” of the industry, one can only imagine what things look like for those just beginning to explore their musical interests.

Streaming continues its downward spiral

streaming servicesThe rise of the .mp3 ushered in a new era in music experience. For the first time ever, millions of people were able to access thousands of hours of music just by pressing a button. With streaming, that capability was further multiplied, although artificially restricted bandwidth impeded listener’s ability to stream high-quality audio. As Marx correctly predicted in his writings on the use of machinery under capitalism, the rise of this new technology, far from freeing artists from exploitation, only drove them further into dire straits, making it all but impossible for most artists to benefit from the sale of their music.

When we last wrote about streaming technology, Spotify was in its ascendency and Apple music didn’t yet exist, let alone Tidal. Firms like Rhapsody and Napster that were battling for second place have now been rendered all but obsolete. Apple was also rumored to be considering the acquisition of Tidal, the “artist owned,” streaming service that has some of its most prominent artists jumping ship due to its lack of profitability and inability to compete against the two major titans.

Lately, the competition between the two giants has become even more heated. On the verge of Spotify’s impending IPO, Apple has sought to offer a streaming model that will put pressure on Spotify, according to the Bay Area News Group. The move will make Apple Music a loss leader to put pressure on Spotify as the company’s net losses doubled from $258 million in 2016 to $581 million in 2017, according to its annual financial statement.

This is just the tip of the iceberg in the jockeying over surplus value, skinning musicians alive, leaving them with pennies on the dollar for their artistic labor. Frank Ocean’s recent release Blond saw a war between Def Jam records, its corporate parent, Universal Music Group, the artist, fans and tech companies. According to the New York Times, “In the streaming age, the complex series of relationships that the music business relies on to function have become anything but harmonious…representative of a wider shift in the power dynamics between artists, record labels and technology companies.”

Amidst all this acrimony, a new phenomenon appears to be on the rise: stream ripping. The practice, which converts a stream into a downloadable file is “particularly troubling because the music industry—which has lost 60% of its value since its peak in 2000 and has barely expanded over the past five years—is banking on paid streaming services to fuel its growth,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

In summary, we have a situation in which corporate music labels seek to rip off artists the old fashioned way, tech companies carry out legal piracy against artists, and fans are compelled to commit illegal piracy in order to access music services they can’t afford. Make sense? Welcome to capitalism in the Year of Our Lord 2017.

Spotify is just one of nearly 200 venture-backed startups with a valuation of $1 billion or more. When it does come forward with its IPO, a handful of speculators are sure to walk away with a big chunk of change. But given its performance, it seems more likely it will enter the market as a flop, joining venture capital-backed darlings like Grubhub, Fitbit, Twitter, GoPro and others. Regardless of what happens in this speculative ball-and-cup game of voodoo economics, you can be sure there will be guaranteed losers: the artists, upon whose labor this entire monstrous machine is based. Against this backdrop, Hunter S. Thompson’s words, quoted above, have never rung truer.

A fair streaming model under capitalism?

There have been a number of different proposed “solutions” for artists who find themselves in this blind alley. The most interesting, however, came in 2015 in the form of Anil Prasad’s article, “A Fair Music Streaming Model is Possible: Why Artists and Indie Labels Must Emancipate Themselves from Big Music,” which was read by tens of thousands. Prasad, who started the first online music periodical, is widely read and one of the most respected music journalists in the world. While Prasad has since distanced himself from this model, stating that the window has closed for such a possibility, we would contend such a model wouldn’t have sustainably worked even under the most favorable of conditions.

According to this model, in an attempt to liberate artists from corporate control, or “Big Music,” as he termed it, the solution would be “an entirely new, fair streaming service” be become an “alternate streaming environment focused on music of meaning for listeners of value, [for] artists and indie labels to work within an entirely new construct designed to benefit them, run by someone that has their best interests at heart.” His proposed model breaks down thusly:

  • One free listen of all tracks
  • Future listens can be rented at $.10 per instance or bought and added to your personal library for $1
  • Streaming subscriptions would cost $40 to $60 a month (as compared to Spotify’s $10)
  • It would operate as a B-corporation (intended to positively impact society) with a “small” and “agile” operations to be run by “true” music lovers

There are two final requirements, according to this schema: “It needs to be the single go-to place for music of meaning … [and] exclusive commitment of respected labels.”

Sound too good to be true? Under capitalism it most certainly is. Mr. Prasad merely proposed another form of Proudhonist mutualism. Not only did he not explain what “music of meaning” is, but he skipped over the small detail of how this service would emerge as the “single go-to place” in a market dominated by Spotify and Apple. Such a startup would have to operate in the aforementioned cut-throat world of mega-conglomerates, buyouts, IPOs, etc.—in a word, capitalism. Depending on the capital required to launch this fantasy service, it might theoretically be possible for a handful of known artists to eke out a profit for a time. But the moment said enterprise gets on the radar of big capital, it can expect to end up as all things do under capitalism. As Lenin put it, it would be controlled and dominated “via a thousand threads—caught as in a spider’s web.”

While we applaud the spirit of what was clearly a well-intended proposal to benefit artists, we must be frank and clear that no such panacea exists within the ever-deepening storm of capitalism’s deepest crisis to date. Mondragón provides several stark examples for those who wish to understand the challenges the market poses to even the most resilient worker cooperatives.

Is touring the answer?

musicianSome people assert that artists should instead support themselves by touring endlessly. However, there are several aspects to this argument that expose its utopian nature, even if one wanted to spend a lifetime on the road. For one, the price of an average concert ticket increased by 400% between 1981 and 2012, as compared to a 150% rise in overall consumer prices. In other words, average people can’t afford to attend as many concerts as in the past.

Furthermore, the top 5% of concert performers take home nearly 90% of concert revenues. The lengths to which those in this strata go to remain successful is increasingly humiliating and absurd. As an example, Prasad has chronicled the rise of music cruise liners and “VIP packages”:

“The profit margins are just spectacular. The band fees are triple, quadruple, even quintuple that of a regular gig. Every artist I’ve spoken to, I’d say 11-12 *major* artists, all say they wish it didn’t have to be this way, and that they wish they didn’t have to do cruises. None of these artists, some who used to sell 50 million records, ever thought their career would be relegated to entertainment between Jell-O parfait and orange-flavored drink servings… Now, they are trying to rope in the ‘journalists’ to assign these events credibility. The artists, during the interviews, will say these cruises are a wonderful gathering of true fans, as spokespeople for the event, who don’t want to bite the hands that feed them. The ‘journalists’ in turn, not wanting to bite the hand that feeds them this experience, and wanting to go to more of them, will also say something similar. Several artists have said to me they wish they didn’t have to do them or wish they could defy management and say no to the idea. But the rest of things have dropped off so sharply that they are being forced to do these things simply to survive.”

But even these “successful” artists are a dying breed. They’re backed by a fan base that came of age during the postwar boom—a generation with more disposable income than any other audience, according to Ted Gloria. “Too bad their core fans are dying off. If you go to a Stones concert, the audience is still using drugs, but they have substituted blood pressure medication for the LSD. I love those gray-haired old-timers, but they can’t help solve the industry’s problems, even if they still can sell albums.”

Another problem is that more and more live music venues (as well as recording studios) are closing due to rising property prices. Even the remaining members of the biggest band of all time—The Beatles—recently bemoaned the state of affairs when the London venue Fabric closed. Its shuttering represents the continuation of a staggering trend in the city: the folding of over 40% of its music venues over the last decade. “They’re a lot less places to play, it’s just how it is. It’s a pity because new bands need new places, they need a venue to play, and they’re getting closed down,” Ringo Starr said. “And the other side of that coin is that well-known bands are giving new bands a break, but they have to pay them to go on stage.” To the above, we must now add the widespread concerns over how Brexit will affect touring bands in London and beyond in the UK.

Those courageous souls who decide to become road warriors face a very difficult life, in which insomnia, anxiety, and strain on relationships are the norm. In 2015, The Guardian reported on a recent study conducted by Help Musicians UK indicating that more than 60% of touring musicians have suffered from psychological ailments. The situation is even more difficult for DJs, due to touring speeds, given the relatively low overhead. “To pretend otherwise,” Moby points out in the newspaper’s follow up, “is why so many touring musicians become alcoholics and addicts and eventually die. If you look at the mortality rates of people who tour, it is an incredibly dangerous profession—people die really young.” In the US, at least, this risk is also taken by artists performing in a country with the most disgusting health care system in the developed world. Last November, master bassist, former Berklee professor, and Weather Report alumnus Victor Bailey died in hospice care, another artistic casualty of a for-profit health care system that fails to provide medical aid to those in need. His death followed that of Bernie Worrell, the synth pioneer whose lines played an integral part in Parliament Funkadelic, The Talking Heads, and the gangsta rap explosion of the 1990s, after losing a battle with cancer in June of 2016 amidst a torrential floodtide of medical bills.

For a socialist solution

The Renaissance produced artists of unparalleled caliber. These titans, many of whom are still regarded as among the finest of all time were able to develop themselves to an unprecedented degree. Frederick Engels was effusive in his admiration: “The heroes of that time were not yet in thrall to the division of labor, the restricting effects of which, with its production of one-sidedness, we so often notice in their successors.” These artistic geniuses belonged to or were patronized by the established and ascendant upper classes, providing them with massive resources to develop themselves and their crafts to towering heights. But the prerequisite for their access to the resources necessary to refine their mastery was the toiling of millions under tottering feudalism and rising capitalism.

Aristotle once expressed the profound insight that man begins to philosophize when the means of life are provided. Without food, shelter, and safety, how can one be expected to turn one’s attention to understanding the world and making it beautiful? For a brief window in the 20th century, it appeared as though a taste of this life might be possible, that is, for a layer of the working class in the developed imperialist countries. But the convergence of factors that made that possible, which we have analyzed in detail elsewhere, is gone and buried forever.

In his chronicle, White Bicycles, legendary producer Joe Boyd put forward his views on what made the artistic contributions of the 1960s so vibrant: “The atmosphere in which music flourished had a lot to do with economics. It was a time of unprecedented prosperity … In the 60s, we had surpluses of both money and time. Friends of mine lived comfortably in Greenwich Village, Harvard Square, Bayswater, Santa Monica, and on the Left Bank and were, by current standards, broke. Yet they survived easily on occasional coffee-house gigs or part-time work. The economy of the sixties cut us a lot of slack, leaving time to travel, take drugs, write songs and rethink the universe. There was a feeling that nothing was nailed down, that an assumption held was one worth challenging. Debt-free students with time on their hands forced the Pentagon to stop using drafted American kids as cannon fodder and altered the political landscape of France.”

Along with the unprecedented postwar boom, there was a flourishing of the arts. We, however, are living in a fundamentally different period. To be sure, there are many brilliant flowers pushing against the concrete, some of which manage to fleetingly break through. But compared to the possibilities that exist to unleash humanity’s full potential, we are passing through a cultural desert. The yearning to return to the culture of the postwar boom is as utopian as the idea that Donald Trump can snap his fingers and magically “Make America Great Again.” With the crisis of overproduction approaching unprecedented levels, the only way out is implacable struggle to fundamentally transform the system.

Following his departure from the legendary rock band, Cream, bassist Jack Bruce was asked what kind of society he and like-minded artists wanted. “What kind of society do we want? Well, we don’t want what we’ve been given by successive generations of politicians, that’s for sure. We want our own poetry, our own organizations, and our own music, like [the music in] this old band I used to be in called The Cream. At the moment, we’re just used as an excuse for everyone else’s mistakes … they want to impose upon us values and standards of their own so they can turn us into good consumers.”

Bruce’s words could just as well be uttered by millions of youth and workers in the present epoch, faced with the wretched impasse of this system and the vile commodified broth masquerading as “art” that is served to them daily. For those who limit themselves to this system, there appears to be no way out. But fewer and fewer people are willing to accept the status quo, its values, and culture. For Ted Gioia, change is inevitable.

“As always, a new group of outsiders will force the issue. Outsiders always create the biggest upheavals in music—that was true with the slave singers of ancient Rome, the goliards of the late Medieval period, the blues and jazz artists of the 1920s, and the rockers and rappers of more recent years. The establishment never brings about the revolution. The power brokers in music simply wither away, until someone else with a stronger vision steps in to fill the void…Where will the next revolution come from? Those with a nostalgic attachment to the past will inevitably be disappointed. The next wave might embrace musicianship, but it won’t signal a return to the past. It will deliver something new and fresh, although growing out of elements already present on the current-day scene.”

Ultimately, the contradictions artists express are a reflection of the society out of which they arise. However, they cannot resolve the contradictions in isolation. A resolution can only be found in the arena of revolutionary struggle. As Trotsky pointed out in 1938, “Art can become a strong ally of revolution only in so far as it remains faithful to itself. Poets, painters, sculptors and musicians will themselves find their own approach and methods if the struggle for freedom of oppressed classes and peoples scatters the clouds of skepticism and of pessimism which cover the horizon of mankind.”

The future of art is linked inextricably to the future of humanity as a whole and the political struggle against capitalism must necessarily find an expression in art. As artists join the broader working class as it moves into struggle, art itself will be revolutionized. On the basis of a nationalized, democratically planned economy, the incredible power of technology will be freed from the for-profit system and available to all. On this basis, the arts, communications, and innovation will reach heights we can only dream of today. It is toward this realm of freedom, starkly contrasted against today’s realm of increasingly dire necessity, that the Marxists confidently and boldly march.

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