The New Economics of the Music Industry

Attali’s Noise needs a new chapter. This new chapter ought to think through today’s political economy of music. Music, it seems, is distributed, produced and disseminated in ways quite different from when Attali was writing in 1978. Changes in the technological means of the production of recording, the production of listening publics and the means of listening mean that the musical commodity has undergone a dramatic shift. Internet-based forms of distribution have changed the musical commodity in kind; tracing out what this means for how value is extracted from music-as-commodity is something I’m keenly interested in and just beginning to think through.

The article below has some interesting research on the mechanics of how this process now takes place; if anyone has any resources on the contemporary political economy of music (specifically on Spotify, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Youtube, etc), to share, that would be great!


9 thoughts on “The New Economics of the Music Industry

  1. Hey KP, I made this comment over at S_Z, which I think ties in (albeit tangentially) to what you’re saying here (and apologies for its rambling nature!)

    [Regarding the relationship between Attali’s music theories and statistical forecasting in macroeconomics]: ““In other words, Noise’s method is itself neoliberal.” Reading Noise, I’ve often wondered to what extent his method of analysis can be interpreted in regards to his own position in regards to capitalist governance – or, more directly, is Noise less a reflection of militancy and more a reflection to particular strain of post-socialist leftist capitalism? We can note that Attali finds himself as part of the Eurozone’s technocratic class, given his position as first president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (oriented towards the utilization of public funds to foster market competition via infrastructure development), his influence on Sarkozy’s deregulatory policies, and his role as an economic adviser to Mitterand, himself a socialist-turned-neoliberal. Attali, like Mitterand, is best described as belonging to the “Third Way” tendency, which attempted to reconfigure leftism to market imperatives through social responsibility, environmental protectionism, and the promotion of technological development. The Third Way, in one sense, is rather Promethean, putting its faith in technocratic sciences as bringing society to its highest stage of development, and in another its the idealistic face of Western society by seeking to position the market as the proper, egalitarian alternative to socialism.

    Towards the end of Noise, Attali tells us that music projects a time in which “there will be no more society without lack”. It all appears rather utopian, in which the Marxist contradictions of use value and exchange value cure themselves through technology – and in good Third Way fashion, Attali mentions state policies helping foster this evolution. Musicians will be liberated from the demands of the industrialization of music, and the consumers will no longer have to sacrifice time and labor to experience the sonic as bodily pleasure. No more music without alienation. The “jongleurs” of the Middle Ages return, and musical expression becomes an affair of nomadism and adventurism. “Music is no longer made to be represented or stockpiled, but for participation in collective play, in an ongoing quest for new, immediate communication, without ritual and always unstable. It becomes nonreproducible, irreversible.”

    It’s easy to read through this an anticipation of the current crisis of capitalist cultural production – namely, the difficulty of the profit motive to adjust to interact with communication-information technologies that allow the sharing of musical, literature, and film outside the “culture industry”. Any person with a computer and an internet connection can experience culture without recourse to exchanging money (a container of time sacrifice); at the same time, how truly emancipatory is this? Even we’re evading cultural expression’s monopolization, to what degree as we still circulating this culture by transmitting the capitalist codes present in?

    This points to one of the other tensions presents in Attali’s writings (though this may stem from my own confusion with the text, but given his pedigree I think not) – just whose music is being analyzed here? More specifically, whose cultural expressions anticipates the future? It seems to me that Attali is written an extremely Western-centric interpretation of development, right up to his return of figures from the European Middle Ages.

    Globalization and the proliferation of information technologies was billed as something that would usher in a brave new world of hybridity and cultural transmutation (see,for example, that Third Way bible written by Alvin Toffler, “The Third Wave”. More critical approaches, such as Hardt and Negri’s “Empire”, take this as truism and assert it as a new means of control (globalized capitalism utilizes hybridity as its motor). Neither seems accurate – instead of producing radical hybridity, and opposed to the notion of non-Western cultural forms ‘contaminating’ Western culture to the point of its much-needed transformation, what we get is the Westernization of all cultures. Western music does not change, it simply overcodes non-Western music with its own stipulations. Far from dispensing with sacrifice it compounds it, Insofar as difference exists, from the perspective of the culture industry it becomes a simulation of difference, a simulacrum of hybridity. And even if its harder to ensure the traditional modes of growth, the culture industry is able to insert itself well into what McKenzie Wark calls the “vectoral class”, profiting directly from the flows of information and vectors of communication.

    Even still, we see the disciplinary arm of the state apparatus being leveraged in full. Even as things like Spotify worm their ways around the contradictions, torrent sites like the Pirate Bay find themselves the subject of immense repression. Music blogs are shot down by the FBI. This seems to me to be a continuation of Western overcoding. For example, Spotify’s algorithms tend to prioritize the ‘mainstream’ of cultural expression, and only venture into the borderlands to a certain extent (very much akin to the Googlization of internet traffic into commerce). Also, consider some of the more infamous music blog take-downs – Holy Warbles, for instance, specialized in music that could only be described as radical alterity to Western ears: forgotten sounds from ages gone by, stuff that existed outside copyright, sonic artifacts of cultures non-coded to Westernized standards. If circulation of Holy Warbles-type platforms were compounded instead of dismantled, what possible future cultures could we anticipate? Seeking to preserve industry practices, as we all know, is as much about foreclosing possible futures as it is about extracting profit.

    All in all, this is a lot of rambling, but these are things I would like to approach Attali’s “Noise” in relation to – ultimately, is music-as-statistical forecasting (and the supposition of an age of ‘composition’) a case of confirmation bias for the ‘superiority’ of Western developmental processes?”


    • EB,
      ‘Any person with a computer and an internet connection can experience culture without recourse to exchanging money (a container of time sacrifice); at the same time, how truly emancipatory is this? Even we’re evading cultural expression’s monopolization, to what degree as we still circulating this culture by transmitting the capitalist codes present in?’

      I agree. I don’t think that the capacity to access cultural objects without recourse to money was ever emancipatory in a strong sense. Why? Precisely because the material infrastructure of the Internet that allows for information to be exchanged is hierarchical and exploitative of laborers and the environment. The material conditions that allow for the ‘free’ transmission of information are fundamentally unfree. The people freely accessing musical objects via the Net are still laborers in a capitalist society; even if there is no monetary exchange required for the music itself, money, sacrificing time and selling yr labor power are still required to have the time to listen to the music you can now freely access. That doesn’t sound like freedom; that sounds like the slick bullshit of the techies that run SF.

      The discourse of freedom and emancipation through the free exchange of information serves to obfuscate the exploitative social relations necessary to create and keep functioning the material base upon which information depends. There can be no emancipation without a shift in who owns the means (servers, electrical power grids, power lines, website addresses).

      I do think that the ability to freely exchange music opens up the possibility in thought and practice of culture without commodification. It is a powerful, practical demonstration that the commodification of culture is not necessary in the slightest. So I see things like Pirate Bay and music blogs as thought-experiments for the potential of cultural life without the commodity-form, rather than a utopian realization of culture without ownership.

      Another point you bring up in relation to this is that the Internet is already hierarchically structured in the way information is made accessible and organized. Not all information is placed on equal footing; certain flows are heavily emphasized over others (‘Googlization and so on). ‘This seems to me to be a continuation of Western overcoding. ‘ The Internet allows for the free access of musical objects, but the flows are overcoded to the point where the same kinds of music (i.e. music with Western concepts of harmony, melody, rhythm) are continually emphasized and made dominant. Obviously there is a strong Eurocentric, colonial bias in what gets to count as music and what gets heard. Discourses of ‘hybridity’ in many ways seem to obscure just how hierarchically structured the flow of information is.

      Also, ya, ‘Noise’ is Eurocentric in the extreme. I found his concluding section and his vision of emancipation to be reactionary in several senses. Placing his vision in the context of his role in governance makes the reactionary character of the ‘Composition’ chapter more understandable.


      • Are you familiar with Tiqqun? Some of their stuff can take a reactionary sheen to it (albeit in a way different from Attali: instead of managerial discourses and cultural Eurocentrism, their praxis tends to exhibit a rather machismo tendency). Their “Cybernetic Hypothesis”, however, is very spot on and serves as a good antidote to the Third Way ‘socialism’ of which Attali is an excellent figure (they also take Negri to task for his flirtations with this perspective). What is interesting to me is what happens in the end of the text, when they seize upon “noise” as a concept particularly germane to insurrectionary politics – yet acknowledge, much like Deleuze and Guattari in “A Thousand Plateaus”, the futility of noise for noises sake. It must be “profoundly dis-integrating” and articulated in terms of a rhythm.

        Tiqqun takes Hardt and Negri’s Empire hypothesis as valid, but instead of analyzing it at the level of restructured global governance they articulate in terms of what Deleuze and Guattari called a “haeccity” and Timothy Morton a “hyperobject”. This Empire is a cybernetic environment (a quite accurate depiction, given the role of information technology and feedback systems at play in the stock market, global supply chain, and instantaneous, digitized ‘market research’!) that operates through imposing a particular sort of rhythm on the bodies in motion that are trapped within it, moving forward at an accelerating pace. “Speed upholds institutions. Slowness cuts off flows. The kinetic problem, properly speaking, in politics, thus isn’t about choosing between two kinds of revolt but about abandoning oneself to a pulsation, of exploring other intensifications besides those that are commanded by the temporality of urgency. The cyberneticians’ power has been their ability to give rhythm to the social body, which tends to prevent all respiration.” Revolt becomes a matter of generating counter-rhythms, autonomous movements of bodies that aim to separate themselves and redefine the conditions imposed by Empire.

        Ultimately Tiqqun’s counter-rhythmic space ends up being rather akin to Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone, albeit a little more militant and less mystical. I think the way that you present counterpublics in the Microblocks essay is a far better means of understanding counter-rhythms: “resistance against the dominant sphere of heteropatriarchal white supremacy as an aesthetic and political question… concerned with constructing social and sonic networks that subvert from within economic and political relations of dominance and exploitation.” And for what it’s worth, this is precisely how I view as what a post-nihilist praxis would look like: the loss of faith in large-scale, world-building schemes, Promethean impulses, acts of social engineering for good and for bad, and the turn to the immediacy of the ruins as building blocks; theory-tool boxes as much as ‘real’ toolboxes, DIY communities and salvage tactics, actually carried out bodily experimentation instead of just talking about it, trying on rhythms that are different, taking care of people and jamming up Empire’s codes n’ flows as much as possible. But I digress…

        If the distributed networks of these types of things already happening were capable of utilizing communication networks in the way that the anarchist, mail art, ‘zine culture, cassette culture, whatever culture were able to leverage the postal system and feed off one another, we could already feel the counter-rhythm throbbing. That it’s not palpable is not their fault; it’s a testament to the ferocity of capital/Empire/dominant system’s rhythms. Capitalism has been on a counteroffensive for a long time now; Googleization is only one it’s most readily apparent faces. It’s a polyrhythm more than anything: bureaucratic and anarchist, judge and libertine, capitalism can be these things and make them at once be divergent and yet the same. Everything that could be considered a tracing of community, friendship, public, is reconfigured in accordance with market protocols. The pervasive application of cybernetic technology makes that old mainstay of capitalist accumulation – the mass – obsolete; it wants the solitary individual, and a fragmented one at that.

        We were talking about the new political economy of music, but we’re at a stage where things and forces cannot be taken as discrete any longer – it’s impossible to talk about one thing and not talk about the other. Spotify sells access to music, while those accessing the music become quantifiable information; the platform announced in August that it would be harnessing data not only from listening habits themselves, but will also “collect information stored on your mobile device, such as contacts, photos, or media files”, “collect information about your location based on, for example, your phone’s GPS location or other forms of locating mobile devices”, and “collect sensor data (e.g., data about the speed of your movements, such as whether you are running, walking, or in transit).” It’s for the usual reasons, of course: “personalise your Spotify experience, to measure ad quality and responses to ads, and to display ads that are more likely to be relevant to you”, “show you more tailored content, including relevant advertising for products and services that may be of interest to you, and to understand how users interact with advertisements”, “SHARE WITH OTHER COMPANIES IN THE SPOTIFY GROUP, AS WELL AS CERTAIN TRUSTED BUSINESS PARTNERS AND SERVICE PROVIDERS… THE INFORMATION PROVIDED BY YOU TO SPOTIFY.” (Spotify’s caps, not mine)

        Spotify’s algorithms already prioritize popular musical tendencies, mass-produced codes tailored for capitalist accumulation; on the back-end, what happens when pervasive advertising, targeting the individual, begins to extract from our lives the experiences of spontaneity and discovery? Can the delivery of a piece of music, a film, a book through predictive mechanisms hold a candle to that sudden blast of otherness that we get in those moments? Can movement forward, be it an avant-garde or a counterpublic, exist without encountering otherness? These things have always had a certain spontaneous nature about them (even if they arise from socio-environment assemblages, cyborg mangle, intra-agency, etc.) – mass production cannot truly cope with spontaneity, for the massive infusion of capital through investments requires planning and the shaping of consumer demand on behalf of the firm. There are no price signals and self-organizing markets anywhere near free market – only the rhythm of capitalist relays. This system eliminates the ability for fair compensation for musical creation: when something cannot be assimilated into “consumer demand” on the mass scale that capitalism requires, it will simply vanish from sight.


    • Eb,
      ‘We were talking about the new political economy of music, but we’re at a stage where things and forces cannot be taken as discrete any longer – it’s impossible to talk about one thing and not talk about the other.’

      What’s interesting here is that the new political economy of music no longer treats music as an isolated, purely aesthetic field of production; it treats ‘music’ as information. Sure, it still extracts value from music circulating as a cultural commodity, but this was put into crisis through new ways of distributing music online. What’s new here is how it extracts value from the circulation of music by turning consumption into labor. Things like Spotify and Soundcloud monetize user-browsing by collecting information on those who use the interface and selling this data (both personal and as aggregate data) to third parties. in ‘New Economy, Financialization and Social Production in the Web 2.0,’ Tiziana Terranova talks about this strategy as a way ‘to harness and valorize user browsing’ and making browsing (and other actions like liking, sharing, re-posting, etc) a site of value extraction. Platforms like Spotify and Soundcloud (and yes they are both different models slightly, being sloppy here by running them together, etc) seem to treat ‘music’ not as a category in itself, but as attached to a wide variety of activities involving the consumption of cultural goods. ‘Music’ is thought of as a social and cultural network and a site of identity-formation; they work to monetize this observation in a new way. Clearly, these techniques are not unique to music. it seems necessary to connect the new ways value is extracted from music’s circulation to the other fields these techniques are operative in.

      It seems like Spotify is a new model of how to treat music-as-commodity after the crisis of value introduced by Internet-based distribution. It extracts value from music in two ways: first, by treating it as a commodity in a relatively novel way (the digital stream which one pays to access, but does not own, vs. the ownership model of previous eras based in physical distribution or even things like iTunes); second, by turning consumption into labor through the collecting of information on its users (whereabouts, preferences, gender identity, and so on) and selling it to third parties.

      There is certainly something here about monetizing social relations/ monetizing identity-formation/ monetizing cultural production in a new way/ speculative finance here….

      The question of subversion here becomes tricky. On a personal level, I am not sure what to do about any of this yet/ how i should proceed as a sound-organizer looking for ways to distribute building materials and compositions. I second yr emphasis here on DIY toolkits n social n sonic experimentation as a path towards constructing counter-rhythms against capital’s hegemony; how to do this in a time when the main ways ppl connect n foster solidarity in communities of resistance work to monetize this exact activity is a puzzle to me. Be curious to hear yr thoughts on that one, because, as you say here, ‘Everything that could be considered a tracing of community, friendship, public, is reconfigured in accordance with market protocols.’

      I haven’t read any of Tiqqun’s stuff, nor have i read ‘Empire.’ ‘Empire’ is on my list tho (i just started reading the Italian post-workerist operaismo type shit at the beginning of the summer n am working my way towards that long, long text). The Tiqqun piece sounds p interesting, hopefully i can get to once i finish up ‘Anti-Oedipus.’


      • Ah, after AO and all the Autonomist stuff, Empire will be a breeze! It’s thick but pretty straightforward. Empire is one of those books that I admire immensely – one that I keep returning to time and time again, even though I’m always beating up on it and disputing what they say. I always read theorists in conjunction in order to bounce them off one another – Hardt and Negri together with Tiqqun, AO with Baudrillard’s Forget Foucault, etc. Maybe it’s too dialectical, but the most productive/constructive emergences, in my opinion, come from the tension between and not necessarily within the texts themselves. Anyways, back to music.

        Clearly these new means of value extraction mark a radically new turn in capitalism itself, equal to the transition from Fordism to post-Fordism during the 1970s. It is both the culmination of just-in-time production and its surpassing, taking the technologies that enabled JIT (sensors, data monitoring, communication networks and feedback systems, etc) to their logical extent. Not to say that we’ve seen in the end of it, of course: we’re only seeing the infrastructures and prototypes being deployed for what they’re so innocuously calling “the internet of things”. Informatic capitalism, true to its monetization of all things leisure and playful, operates the way a video gamer player his game: feedback between the physical actions and the displayed information, line up target, point and shoot. This is the fundamental realization that the cyberneticians in World War 2 had when they realized the unification of man and machine through information exchange.

        How to subvert these processes is the very question transformation in our time, no? As you point out, the introduction of information exchange platforms created a value of crisis for capitalism – yet not so much anymore, even if those platforms persist. This in turn creates a crisis of militant political organization. Not so long ago, the plugging-in of society was thought to embody a grand cosmopolitan solution to neoliberalism, captured best in Hardt and Negri’s idea of the “multitude”. “Immaterial labor” (what a silly idea!) and “affective labor” (people who work in creative industries, artists, care givers, etc) were understood to be the realization of the communist ideal, if only Empire was pushed through to its “other side”. Clearly not the case. As the so-called “jobs recovery” from the financial crisis has shown, there is no breaking point in capitalism’s flexibility – and one can only imagine what will happen in the acceleration of automation technologies in the coming years. I think ‘old Deleuze’ might be instructive at this stage, the Deleuze who wrote “Postscript on the Societies of Control” and that Negri interviewed (I’ll have to dig up a link). Far from the glorification of the rhizome, Deleuze attacks communication because of its presupposition of monetization. Esoterically, he calls for “vacuoles of noncommunication” and alludes to material practices of piracy and sabotage.

        Without following the idea of noncommunication to its conclusion, this seems to me to be a call for a tactical turn, to think critically less about philosophy, but to start coming up with ways to evade communicative capitalism while simultaneously attacking it. Instead of affirmationism, we need a politics in negative – a Great Refusal, as Marcuse called it.

        Of course, this can’t be done with any ease, and calls in a whole host of questions. For example, how does one organize refusal through corrupted communication networks? How are human needs met? How to distribute, share, and give in such a state? How to create? In other words, a great refusal implicitly entails thinking about a world after capitalism from a tactical vantage point. This raises too the question of labor and its compensation. As a non-musician (though I played saxophone in a pretty shitty noise band, but it never got very far), I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the questions of artistic-creation as labor, and how this ties into the ways in which artists are/should compensated for their works? Would you be wary of engaging with our current distribution systems, or are they to be worked with in the void of alternatives? I know that what you do differs a great deal from much of music, particularly that it comes from a militant perspective and intent, but I imagine these questions still linger.


  2. Eb,
    ‘I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the questions of artistic-creation as labor, and how this ties into the ways in which artists are/should compensated for their works?’

    Musicians are increasingly encouraged to think of their labour not as labour, but as play. A musician is motivated to compose not for the desire for compensation, so this line of thinking goes, but rather for the value of the activity of composing in-itself (the line Attali thinks of as liberatory). dmf reminded me of this Jacobin article that talks about the new discourse of work as ‘doing what you love’ which encourages the laborer to ‘believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.’ Music is not ‘work’ but rather an activity one engages because one believes it to be intrinsically invaluable.

    This line of thinking is particularly beneficial to sites like Soundcloud. Musicians (myself included) share their work without compensation from the site (this is changing now due to major labels’ participation in the platform… i’ll get to that in a second). The platform itself is marketed as a way for musicians to distribute their music on a platform with a wide, global consumer base. Narratives about anonymous musicians finding fame from the site become key components in marketing campaigns for musicians who were signed to a label based on the work they shared on Soundcloud (off the top of my head Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Toro y Moi, the Weeknd, Odd Future, Frank Ocean, Lana del Rey are some folks who use this narrative).

    Of course, this line of thinking of creating ‘art for art’s sake’ elides the fact that surplus-value is produced for Soundcloud partially through musicians uploading their compositions for free. Content-creating users, who are not compensated for their labour financially, become a source of profit for the company. Soundcloud has externalized production to the users of the platform. Attali’s narrative of composing-for-the-sake-of-composing has become the dominant ideological narrative. As Terre Thaemlitz says, ‘The impassioned artist’s stance, “art for art’s sake,” obfuscates a labor issue. The iconic struggling artist who volunteers her work is a scab, but does not know it.’

    Composing is labor, but a labor we are encouraged to not think of as labor, precisely because sites like Soundcloud are viable financially as a result of this way of thinking through music-as-labor. I mean, people pay them to have a profile where they can distribute their music for free. And then the issue of consumption/user browsing as labor comes up here as well…

    The question of how musicians ought to be compensated for their labor is something I’ll have to say ‘idk’ to at the moment :). Working through this particular problem right now.

    I’ve taken a pragmatic approach to online distribution. I have chosen to make the sample-pack freely accessible. Most of the sonic material I’ve organized is available to stream for free, with the option of purchasing a physical copy.

    The difficulty with non communication or becoming-imperceptible here is that most listening now takes place through these channels. I’ll play a show at an anarchist house, have tapes available for purchase, and people will want to know where they can find my compositions online. I certainly am a proponent of creating n sustaining communities of resistance in a purposefully DIY fashion (i record, mix, n master things by myself or with my collaborators; play shows at houses or illegal venues that showcase experimental music n emphasize radical politics, etc) but even these spaces utilize these particular channels (Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Beatport, Spotify etc) to consume music. The question for me at least then becomes how to subvert these routes of communication from within…

    Do you have any recommendations on stuff to read on ‘Informatic capitalism’? The Bifo books I’ve read mention it but do not delve very deeply into the mechanisms of it, or what he calls semiocapitalism. The collection I’m reading right now has some things on it too, but I’d be curious to know of any other stuff.

    Lots to think about eb, thanks for the provocation.


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