By 2023, the scale of music production is at its greatest in human history. 120,000 songs are uploaded on streaming services every day. This historic level of bottom-up creativity, paradoxically coexists with a cultural void. A world of technology that is interconnected and communal, and a reality of detachment and atomisation. The social singularity prophesised by advent of the internet, denied.
Spotify, the largest music streaming service, symbolises an impasse in the struggle between socialisation and profit. Before user-friendly social media sites like Facebook ushered in the carefully corralled internet we know and despise, primarily Scandinavian tech wizards recognised that some of humanities greatest treasures– art, intellectual property, and scholarship– had been reduced to their most basic essence, forms of exchangeable communication. Reduced to ones and zeroes and clear of the fog of monetary worth, they were just how we had advanced beyond language, to express ideas, influence each other and co-operate.
While the music moguls worshiped the CD, the wizards set about a struggle, albeit oblivious to its proletarian character. They used skills honed to a razor edge in social isolation to stake their claim to the internet, building organic infrastructure that promised to de-commodify information forever. Using digital technology to collectively distribute the products of mass ingenuity, faces baring the ruddy glow of insular warez sites and IRC channels, they opened a Pandora’s box that no power could close.
They stood in a tradition stemming back to Mozart illegally transcribing Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere from memory, when only a few in the inner chambers of power were allowed to possess it. Legend holds this act of early piracy was responsible for the piece enjoying enduring popularity in the public domain. Recognised in his time and today as one of music’s revolutionary icons, he attained a popular notoriety that compelled the establishment to embrace him, receiving a papal knighthood and establishing the theoretical basis of a once-progressive bourgeois tradition.
As an unlikely pioneer of the Pirate Bay and master of his time, Mozart bares a lineage, as an instigator of the classical period and as the antagonist of the 20th century’s disruptions. During the latter, ordinary people crossed racial lines and synthesised their own mass forms in opposition to the 18th century traditions, long held onto by music departments.
At the advent of Napster, the power of art and the masses combined again, undermining the profit-making model the music industry followed since the rise of consumerism. Most people would no longer accept paying for individual units of art, no matter how portable and compact the form they took. They grew accustomed to a broader range of music as well as an ever-simpler means of enjoying and sharing it. Such a challenge to the cultural logic of capitalism, demanded an answer.
In the wake of Napster’s death at the hands of the courts, two alternatives remained that could replace the site’s accessibility relative to more subcultural corners of the internet, that pioneered file sharing. Both emerging from Sweden’s geek scene– Spotify and the Pirate Bay, represented competing alternative visions for the future. The former possessed commercial appeal in prioritising innovation in user-friendliness and engaged positively with the industry as it existed. The latter waged war on the very concept of intellectual property, motivated by the naïve libertarianism of the early internet. Compared to Spotify’s businessmen, the Pirate Bay’s founders held lofty ideals, coming out of Piratbyrån, a Swedish pro-piracy group.
As the pirates undermined the laws of nations, the innovators at first lost millions on a gamble that paid off. Big business eventually came to understand, that most people had become used to accessing and sharing music for free. From the popularity of illegal downloads on Napster, on to ever more accessible ways of consuming creative content like YouTube and Spotify itself, the survival of the Pirate Bay and torrent sites like it has pushed the Overton window and made for a rare 21st century example of raised working-class expectations.
The Pirate Bay survived for the same reason it existed. Like the forms of communication it liberated, the site was a simple set of ones and zeroes that could be downloaded or hosted by anyone. An endless string of mirror sites ensures the site’s survival to this day, in the face of massive legal challenges, police raids and shutdowns of the main site. Today, it is arguably the pirate’s view of intellectual property that is under threat.
Spotify dominates the way we consume music and for good reason. It is easier to pay a monthly subscription for instant access to most of the music you want to listen to. Certainly, compared to the now arduous process of downloading a torrent file, only to upload it to your torrent client and maybe even transfer it to the device you are streaming it on. Can you blame most people for sacrificing the war on intellectual property, at the altar of convenience? Everybody wins, surely?
All that is solid melts into air, as the old Marxist cliché dictates. The powerful get their way as always, at the expense of everyone else. A product of a new generation of upwardly mobile geeks, the Spotify project has survived and achieved dominance in collaboration with big business. The music monopolies certainly win, as they dominate streaming income in one way or another. The vast majority of streaming income is generated by Spotify, but dozens of similar streaming services have bloomed since its rise, competing for their slice of the gristly pie. In theory, artists should win as it becomes possible for just about anyone to upload music on the same platforms as the major labels. What is described here is exactly what is purported as the “democratisation” of music.
While the term “democratisation” sounds progressive in a marketing boardroom, the platforms dependence on the major labels’ power and influence, clearly undermines its serious consideration. The reality is that under 10% of artists who upload to Spotify even make it past 100 monthly listeners. At under a third of a pence per stream and an estimated 366,000 streams per month to make minimum wage, the compromise between technology and capital it offers, presents a threat to creativity.
Under the conditions of neoliberalism, few have the free time to pursue what it takes to make meaningful creative contributions. Is it any wonder then, that the music fed to us by Spotify’s Discover Weekly so closely resembles, at best, the greats of the past and at worst, fruitless post-modern experimentation that satisfies only the most insufferable of chin-strokers?
Under capitalism, where the artist necessarily sacrifices their time to make art, it makes sense to demand payment. Time spent creating, is time not spent selling labour power to an employer. In a different system, where the bulk of a worker’s life is not spent making money for someone else, art can be better understood, in terms of its actual value or lack thereof. In this concept, we are haunted by a vision of a better world where a user-friendly tool like Spotify, could provide true democratisation of music.
In The German Ideology, Karl Marx paints a very 19th century vision of democratised society that guides communists: “in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” So long as we can work without oppression and exploitation, and the rest of our time is our own, the distinction between full time worker and artist patronised by wealth truly melts into air.
However constraining Spotify feels today, it is merely the need to satisfy the profit demands of the few people who own shares in just three organisations, that stands between us and a 21st century application of Marx’s sentiment. If an industry with such massive reach into our psyche, is controlled by such few individuals, not much stands between us and control of our own.
As Spotify Wrapped drops and we emotionally invest ourselves in this invasion of our privacy, consider a world where music belongs to us.
Michael Roch is a member of the Young Communist League’s Lancashire branch