Musicians vs. Capitalism

In the early 90s, famed record producer Steve Albini (Nirvana, Pixies, PJ Harvey) wrote “The Problem of Music,” for Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll magazine. He paints an outlandish, macabre, and visceral image of eager young musicians willing to swim through vats of excrement in order to get a seductive label contract—one that will inevitably turn them into pawns of capital.

Since then, Albini has not moderated his feelings on the matter. In an August 16 article published at, his rhetoric reaches the rafters as he says of record executives that, “ . . . all of those people [are] parasites . . . They want, somehow or another, to claim authorship of the creative output of these other people who are actually doing the heavy lifting for their career. I can’t have any respect for somebody like that, who’s not involved in the creative process but then decides that they wanna snipe at it from the outside and manipulate people into doing things to suit them. F*ck every one of those people.”

Albini’s diatribe rings true for many artists, although both he and his supporters may not be consciously aware of the science of why the industry is the way it is. So while we can enjoy his colorful condemnation of those who leech off of artists, it is also important to understand more precisely how capitalism exploits musicians and other artists—and how we can fight for them—for the working class and for the continued proliferation of inspired music and culture as a whole.

First and foremost, we must keep in firm view that record labels (as well as large music promotion companies like Live Nation) are in the business of generating profits. In practice, this means that they will buy the labor power or the commodities produced by the labor of musicians (recordings, copyright, publishing rights) with the intention of re-selling them to the general population and pocketing the difference. This is obviously a simplification of the overall process, but the final goal is the same: obtaining surplus value—profits.

In the 20th century, the overhead needed to distribute records and CDs as commodities was much higher. Because of technology, the distribution process has become simpler, and the exchange value of records has plummeted, for reasons we will investigate shortly. Because of this, and the inherent tendency for capital to accumulate into monopolies, we have seen a monstrous consolidation of media companies. What once was the “Big Six” has now become the “Big Three.” And it looks as though Universal Music Group will be the next to be absorbed.

As this process of concentration into fewer and fewer hands unfolds, record labels are spending millions of dollars tapping into formulas intended to cater to the lowest common denominator. The end goal is to market to the broadest possible demographic, targeting, above all, those with the most disposable income. This relentless commodification of artistic output has had a disquieting effect: studies indicate that music is becoming simpler and more formulaic. This obviously has far-reaching implications for musicians, listeners, and culture in general which goes far beyond the scope of this article.

As technology has advanced and this monstrous “refinement” of music-as-commodity unfolds, the internet has allowed listeners to download music more cheaply than ever, both legally and illegally. Anyone who was around in the late 1990s remembers the rise and fall of Napster, the first large-scale music piracy website. Instead of buying a record for $10 to $20, users could simply click and download music for free.

When confronted with this terrifying prospect of piracy, the music labels moved to shut down the service as soon as possible. In its wake arose Limewire, Kazaa, and eventually torrent and download sites such as Pirate Bay and Megaupload. But as soon as one service or site is shut down or falls out of vogue, several more take its place. There is no end in sight to this piracy “whack-a-mole,” and for good reason. As Niklas Albin Svensson pointed out in “War Against Online Piracy” articles:

“This problem has always existed for capitalism, which is why we have patents in the first place, but with modern technology and in particular the internet, the problem has multiplied . . . The new technology has rendered the business model of some huge multinational companies unworkable . . . A problem arises for the capitalists when the labor required to produce a particular material object is very low but the amount of labor required to produce the plan or schema of the object is very high. The original recording is very expensive to produce, but to replicate that nowadays is virtually free. All that is required is a computer and an internet connection, which today is present in most homes in the advanced capitalist countries.”

While the RIAA continues its grotesque and futile efforts to crack down on piracy, the record companies’ response has been simple: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” They have now moved to get in on the action, in what can only be described as legalized piracy. But from whom are they pirating? From the musicians, of course!

In recent years there has been a flurry of music downloading services. Even Napster came back from the grave in a legal form (until it was bought by Rhapsody). Spotify, Rhapsody, and now, Apple’s iRadio allow listeners to pay a flat rate for an unlimited stream of monthly music. Pandora is a free internet radio site that allows listeners to customize their radio stations based on taste. And if none of those appeal, people can move over to YouTube to convert videos to mp3s for free. These services now reign supreme as the new method of getting music, at least to the youngest demographics.

From a consumer point of view, this model sounds great. Unfortunately, the costs are borne by the working musicians and producers who create and record the music. While the executives at these companies are making millions, the musicians they stream make pennies.

In the recent period, several musicians and major publications have stepped forward, admonishing or clarifying the details of Spotify’s abysmal payment structure. Among the most well known of these polemics is Anil Prasad’s online Powerpoint presentation, “The Economic Reality of Streaming For Musicians.”

Most recently, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and his collaborator Nigel Godrich pulled their music from Spotify stating that, “The reason [for pulling our music] is that new artists get paid f*ck all with this model. It’s an equation that just doesn’t work. The music industry is being taken over by the back door, and if we don’t try and make it fair for new music producers and artists, then the art will suffer. Make no mistake, these are all the same old industry bods trying to get a stranglehold on the delivery system.”

Similarly, musicians are now denouncing Pandora. Pandora has proposed The Internet Radio Fairness Act, or IRFA, which would, “cut musicians’ pay by 85 percent—reducing Pandora’s royalty costs from 50 per cent to 10 per cent.” According to the Huffington Post: “In the third quarter of last year, Blake Morgan’s songs were played on Pandora some 27,900 times. But the New York-based recording artist and label owner said he made only $1.62 from the popular internet radio service.”

Pandora’s claim is that Internet Radio is a fragile industry in its infancy that needs all the help it can get, despite the fact that the bill states that there is “no desire to lower royalties dramatically.” Morgan’s response was clear: “There’s a problem with this argument. I couldn’t help notice—because it’s been so widely reported—that you yourself earned a reported $13.9 million last year from cashing in stock options in your very own company, Pandora.” Classic rock band Pink Floyd echoed the sentiment, stating that, “Internet radio companies are trying to trick artists into supporting their own pay cut.”

In September 2012, Jeremy Gilbert, Professor of Cultural and Political Theory at the University of East London, stated in an OurKingdom article that:

“Under such circumstances, we see a very dramatic change in the relationships of capital to musical creativity. On the one hand, the most influential sections of capital no longer have much interest in maintaining anti-market monopoly control over musical content: while the residual music industry may still rely on its Justin Biebers to generate profit, Apple really doesn’t care if you’re downloading Bieber or the Beatles or Ash Ra Tempel (although of course it will fight to the death to maintain its monopolies at the levels that it cares about, as Samsung were reminded just last week, when a Californian court effectively ruled that Apple own the rights to rounded rectangles).

“On the other hand, there isn’t much need for capital to invest heavily in creative infrastructure of any kind, with so many musicians out there willing to buy their hardware for themselves and a huge community of listeners willing to research and select the most popular acts for themselves. And there’s very little need for them to pay musicians much at all, with so much back catalogue to exploit, and so much music available for free.

“In fact, what we see happening to musicians under these circumstances is rather terrible. In the UK, in recent years, the conventional wisdom has been that although there was now clearly no money to be made from selling recorded music, audiences were still willing to pay a premium for live performances, which would now become the main source of income for musicians.

“The apparently exponential growth in demand for live music led to an explosion in the number of summer music festivals on offer to the public, and this boom seemed to be escaping even the worst effects of the post-2008 recession . . . until last year. In 2011 the bubble burst, and Music Week—the house publication of the UK music industry—reported a very interesting statistic: no large music festival that summer had made a profit in excess of the corporate sponsorship which it had received.”

While the issue of live music is another topic altogether, many fear that there is absolutely no viable way out of the current scenario for music recording and publishing. Some have argued for buying directly from the artist or from outlets like CDBaby, where the artist pockets a higher percentage of the proceeds.

However, this situation is shortsighted for two reasons: 1) It still leaves open the door to exploitation of musicians at the hands of distribution channels (albeit “kinder, gentler” ones); and 2) For those artists who are already on the Bataan Death March as all-in-one promoters, marketers, merchandise sellers, designers, etc., this provides no real solution.

Gilbert is correct when he states in the same article that, “Once international broadband speeds reach the point where distribution of high-quality 24-bit wav files is as easy as distribution of Mpegs already is, then [other distribution schemes] will largely disappear altogether . . . Under such circumstances, we may have to think much more radically about what kind of remunerative models will make it possible for us to have a music culture.”

As Niklas Albin Svensson of explained, there is no way out as long as we live under a profit-driven market model:

“The model of financing of art . . . is fundamentally flawed. It is not a model based on safeguarding the interests of the workers but the profits of the multinationals . . . The first step towards a new model must be to nationalize the media industry, under workers’ control. This would enable us to use the profits that are still made to invest in culture, both the quality and the conditions of the workers. The state should guarantee a decent wage and working conditions for all artists and other workers in the sector . . .

“Gradually, the whole industry must be geared towards providing arts and culture for free, funded instead by society as a whole. As part of a socialist society, we would thus free the industry from the shackles imposed on it by profit making. Yet we would also make culture and information accessible to everyone.”

Of course, we do not promise to be able to predict every aspect of how such a model would function—we are not utopians. But there is no justified reason to doubt its viability, and its prospects are extremely promising. As Leon Trotsky wrote in 1924:

“It is difficult to predict the extent of self-government which the man of the future may reach or the heights to which he may carry his technique. Social construction and psycho-physical self-education will become two aspects of one and the same process. All the arts—literature, drama, painting, music and architecture will lend this process beautiful form. More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point.

“Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.”

No to the commodification of art and the corporate stranglehold on creativity!

Bring the major recording and media production and distribution infrastructure under public ownership, to be run under democratic workers’ control!

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