Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Money (That's What I Want): The Commodification of Music

"Music trapped in the commodity is no longer ritualistic. Its code and original usage have been destroyed; with money, another code emerges, a simulacrum of the first and a foundation for new powers."
Jacques Attali, Noise, 24.

As touched upon with the NCCh example, when the government owns commercial music, it standardizes it and ideologically influences the people to favor those in control. When music is turned into labor and aims for money, it no longer is created to celebrate life’s love and beauty. Attali declares, “Today, wherever there is music, there is money…Music, an immaterial pleasure turned commodity” (1). This also contributed to the definition of boundaries between the artists and the audience. Karl Marx, in “The Values of Commodities,” explains a characteristic of the commodity as “An object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another” (51). Subsequently, Marx states, “The value of a commodity represents human labor in the abstract, the expenditure of human labor in general” (56). When music became something ‘outside us’ and started generating human want, musicians began to work creating music as a product to be sold. Musicians therefore labor to entertain the public. Sound Theorist, Jonathan Sterne, during an NYU presentation describes “music as a thing.” He explains that the “Relations that once existed between musicians and audiences are transformed into relations among cash and records” (2009: 296).

As the demand for music was calling, concert halls then emerged in the eighteenth century. Performers began working in concert venues and/or other performing sites playing for money, and concert promoters/owners sold tickets. Sinnreich explains, “Today, vast bulk of venues increased this by incorporating amplification and transmission technology—such as microphones, sound systems, video cameras, and screens—into the concert experience” (Ch. 2, pp. 28). Technology then became a major catalyst for changing the way we perceive sound. Before such ‘fetishism of commodities,’ Mark Katz in Capturing Sound analyses the first devices to record music, like the phonograph and its effects. Its initial intents were to “simulate a live performance, to approach reality as closely as possible” (26). Today, many musicians during their concerts must live up to their recordings.

Since the emergence of recording devices, record players, headphone sets and other technology, the way we listen to sounds, noise, and music changed and became commoditized. Sterne notes, “We are so deep into this system of objects and objectification that we have forgotten how to think about music as a vital force in life” (297). Consequently, Sterne explains, “The commodity form of music has undergone a massive transformation. Twenty to twenty-five years ago, it was dominated by recordings on physical media: compact discs, tapes, and LP records…Today, the world’s largest music store sells digital files” (292). The trajectory of portable music devices, software programs, file-sharing, and other advances in technology have not only changed the way we listen to music, but how we experience it. Sinnreich describes, “Recent advances in communication technology, such as the personal computer, internet connectivity, accessible media editing software (e.g., GarageBand), peer-to-peer file-sharing software, time-shifting devices (e.g., TiVo), portable media devices (e.g., iPods), portable communication devices, and writable high-capacity media (e.g., DVD-RWs), have enabled a paradigmatic shift in the way people and organizations communicate. Such advances were only possible with the digitization of music and the MP3” (Ch. 3, pp. 2). Because of such shifts within technology intertwined with music, he goes on to explain the emergence of the remix and configurability culture; only possible with digitization.

Even though today’s world largest retailers all sell digital files, something very interesting occurred in the music industry: vast numbers of audiences stopped paying for music. Sterne notes, “The MP3 is thus a case that breaks some of the conceptual machinery of both classical and Marxist explanations of capitalist markets. To use the language of the former, music has become de-monetized. To use the language of the latter, recorded music has lost its exchange value while retaining its use value” (316). Music, however, still functions as a commodity in the respect that it is still being used, possibly more now than ever before since it is more accessible and obtained immediately. However, the revenue has decreased tremendously. Because music had become a mega market, laws against piracy began to be enforced. It is because of piracy that the MP3 raised to high latitudes. “In MP3 form music behaves just like a commodity even though its buying and selling represents only a minority of the transactions in which it is involved” ( Sterne 319). Continuing, Stern states that “Digitization does not, however, automatically mean that recordings have been dematerialized” (299). Because of music’s tangibility, and its ‘thingness,’ Sterne points out that even though pirating increased with such music formats therefore unpaid for, music continued being a commodity because of the way it was being consumed. Importantly, “The MP3 story is thus an important turning point in the history of music as a thing. Although less tangible than recordings on LP or CD, MP3s continued to act like commodities even when they weren’t exchanged like them” (Sterne 320).

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