Can the revolution in the music industry tell us anything about the future of capitalism?
Christmas is coming. The John Lewis ad is out. Consumerist-bonkers-day Black Friday is around the corner, and as I write, hundreds of container ships are slowly inching their way across the seas from China to the West, bringing a cargo of all the things we are told we need this year. Toys-wise, apparently this year’s must-have presents include an “interactive Thunderbirds Tracy Island” and a “‘skate and sing’ remote control Elsa” (apparently she’s out of Frozen but, being childless, I wouldn’t know). For ‘grown-ups’, I’m told that drones will be a massive Christmas seller too. Joy.
So far, so predictable. Rich consumers want to buy stuff, China sell it to us. “We export what you need. It’s a win-win.” said the Chinese UK ambassador to the BBC last month during the visit of Xi Jinping to the UK. But are technological changes afoot which might change the nature of consumption forever, with profound consequences for manufacturing and the economic model which has fuelled global trade for decades? Perhaps.
I was drawn to this thinking from a rather unexpected source: a BBC documentary podcast enticingly titled “The popstar and the prophet”. I was expecting a discussion of showbiz, current trends of downloading and streaming music and the now-familiar story of musicians struggling to make an income. I did get all that, but a whole lot more as well.
The podcast, which you can listen to here, follows musician Sam York, a UK-based singer-songwriter who like so many others, is struggling to make ends meet with his own music. We know this story. The complete and extremely rapid collapse in physical record sales, the rise of online piracy, and the industry’s painfully slow adaptation to the internet has meant a torrid time for artists. Even musicians such as Sam, who has performed with the likes of Tom Jones, Ed Sheeran and Dave Gilmour, is finding it tough in a marketplace where Spotify pays a paltry $0.001 per play.
So Sam, our aspirant ‘popstar’ goes to meet Jacques Attali, our ‘prophet’ in Paris. Attali is a French economist, philosopher and political adviser, and author of more than 60 books. One of his books “Noise: The Political Economy of Music”, published in 1976, predicted the crisis in the music industry with startling, almost clairvoyant accuracy. Attali predicted a crisis of proliferation in the music industry, with so much music becoming available to consumers that it would lose its value, and that the traditional gatekeepers – record label bosses, the media etc – would lose their positions of power.
Writing in the seventies, Attali was completely ignorant of the impending rise of the internet, yet somehow he was right. Since the nineties, record industry giants like EMI have been asset-stripped and sold off, music magazines like Melody Maker and the NME have either gone bust or had to completely change their business model to survive. The internet has meant that making money from recorded music is almost impossible for many artists. Even those who appear to be doing well, playing at festivals, appearing on the TV and having a decent media profile struggle. Al Doyle, multi-instrumentalist with Hot Chip tells Sam that “I find it quite strange that I’m struggling to buy a one-bedroom flat in London six albums into my career, 12 years down the line.” Hot Chip are a pretty well-known band with a string of hits who can headline stages at the likes of Glastonbury festival. If they can’t make music pay, who can? It appears to be a problem across the board. Even Prince recently told the Guardian “Tell me a musician who’s got rich off digital sales. Apple’s doing pretty good though, right?”
It is possible that music is just reverting back to a default mode, one where artists don’t make much money. Mick Jagger thinks that the ‘golden age’ of millionaire rockstars was quite exceptional, and is now finished. “There was a small period from 1970 to 1997 where people did get paid and they got paid very handsomely,” Jagger told BBC News in 2010. “They did make money but now that period’s done.”
But perhaps more interesting is the thought proposed by Attali, that the current crisis in the music industry is the beginning of a new stage, rather than a return to an older one. And this ‘new stage’ has implications beyond the world of music. He wrote that our current stage of music, which he called the stage of ‘Composition’ (with rather a specific meaning of the word) “thus appears as a negation of the division of roles and labor as constructed by the old codes. The listener is the operator. Composition, then, beyond the realm of music, calls into question the distinction between worker and consumer.”
If we map Attali’s 1976 vision onto the reality of music production and consumption in 2015, the fit is quite striking. Consider the massive growth in music being made by bedroom-studio musicians with virtually no equipment, or the ease with which songs and videos can be posted onto platforms like soundcloud, bandcamp or youtube (where a staggering 300 hours of footage is uploaded every minute) we can see how consumers can, very easily, become producers too. The same may also be true of photography and, to an extent, journalism too. Anyone can do it (look at me).
Even people who aren’t musicians themselves can curate and distil their musical consumption in ways which used to be the preserve of the producers. Who needs gatekeepers, journalists and DJs when we can create and share Spotify playlists? With our tastes and desires being augmented by the algorithms used by the likes of Pandora or Youtube, the listener can indeed be the operator.
Attali takes this further. As a Marxist he sees history progressing through particular stages. Unlike most Marxists however, he sees music having a special role in foreshadowing wider historical changes. For example, when musicians in the 18th Century – like the composer Handel – started selling tickets for concerts, rather than seeking royal patronage, they were breaking new economic ground, signalling the end of feudalism and the beginning of a new order of capitalism. In such ways music, Attali argues, can predict the future.
This is quite a hard-sell, I’ll admit. But there are other things happening to suggest that the traditional mass production/consumption model is being eroded, and the “negation of the division of roles and labor”, as Attali put it, may be happening already thanks to the rise of 3D printing. Tobias Andersson, founder of the Pirate Bay, says that the number of 3D print codes is growing on his platform, and it’s only the beginning. “There are only a few hundred prints on The Pirate Bay right now, offering everything from car parts, to guns and toys, but in a few years it will be a quick process to print something, and scan something. By then we’ll see prints of pretty much every object you can visualise, out there on the internet.” Just like music fans don’t really need record shops or record companies any more, is it possible that in the not-too-distant-future, the average consumer won’t need manufacturers and retailers in a world where we can download blueprints and 3D-print whatever we want at home?Just as the internet completely undermined the music industry’s business model in just a matter of years, Attali argues that 3D printing may do the same to manufacturing. In a sense, that would be a continuation of the logic of neo-liberalism: the creation of autonomous, self-reliant, resilient individuals who not only consume independently in a free market, but produce independently too. This shift would have dramatic implications for many aspects of contemporary life, not least world trade. What would China do if we didn’t need to import from them anymore? And what would the West do if China’s vast sovereign wealth funds (accumulated from years of healthy trade surpluses) suddenly dried up? Who’ll pay for our power stations then?
I’m not at all sure if Attali’s predictions will come true again. But I’m putting a 3D printer at the top of my Christmas list, just in case.