Saturday, July 14, 2007

Music and the Meaning of Money

The role of money in our world is bizarre. Even within its own narrow parameters it makes little sense; for example I am still doing pretty much the same kind of work at pretty much the same level of competency as I have been for several years - yet now I find myself earning literally double what I was just a short time ago.

This is great news for my family, of course, but I know it doesn't actually mean anything. I have not now somehow doubled my 'social worth' or whatever it is your earnings are meant to reflect.

I can't deny, though, that it's a nice feeling being able to buy toys for my kids, to feed ourselves healthy food, to upgrade my computer when I need to, without fretting. I have been taken aback, though, by my sudden desire to buy a massive pile of CDs, accompanied by a twinge of guilt when firing up μtorrent.

Me, mister information-not-only-wants-to-be-free-but-already-is-so-ner, suffering from p2p guilt?! What's that about? Actually it's not completely unexpected, and doesn't shatter my previous worldview; I have always maintained that the main benefit of filesharing is as a social leveller: to be against filesharing is to be against equal access to culture. (Which I suppose is equivalent to saying that you're against equal access to culture if you're in favour of capitalism.) The 'iTunes sum' says it all: full iPod = cost of player + song capacity x iTunes-price-per-unit. For an 80GB player, that comes out at £200 + 20,000 x 79p or a round £16,000. Very few have that kind of disposable income to spend on music.

But those that do should probably pay it. Although the cost of producing music has fallen dramatically in the past couple of decades, it is still appreciable: even home recording equipment costs money, and musicians have to keep themselves alive somehow while they create and rehearse. The social benefit of music is actually quite high, but due to the strange nature of the modern economy, the price point of recorded music is now practically nil. How could this be; and how should moneyed individuals (or perhaps everyone, at a price they can afford) support new music?

Some still reckon the old way is best: let record labels front the money for production, promotion and artists' wages, which they recoup through sales. Trouble is, this indirect method of (let's be kind for a minute) artist support is no longer viable because recorded music has lost its exchange-value. For the first time in history there is a commodity with utility but no price. A win, I'd say, for Marx's Labour Theory of Value, which sees a commodity's price as a function of how much work has gone into producing it and bringing it to market, only tangentially related to how useful it is.

Labels banked on barriers to distribution (the cost of creating and transporting physical products) keeping prices up, but the arrival of CD burners followed by mass internet penetration has vapourized these barriers. They cannot be re-erected. The plastic disk in a case is a wasteful, inefficient delivery system, out-competed and undercut by transmission wire. As a result, labels' uneasy pact with artists is at an end because labels can’t keep their side of it: their efforts no longer actually add any value to what’s created. (It was amusing to read some prat industry spokesman criticising Prince's decision to give away his new album as if the Artist owes retailers a living!)

Maybe rich labels should turn themselves into actual banks?

Meantime I am left with a moral dilemma about my CD itch. There's a ton of music that I've sampled at its new, low distribution price, for whose life-enhancing qualities I'm extremely grateful. I want to have it on my shelf, even though I know it'll mainly just sit there. It may be the socially-accepted 'right' thing to do, but there's perhaps more guilt there than the p2p option. I also want its creators to flourish. Since I started reading the music press at around age eleven, long before I became a socialist, I have understood that the music industry as it exists is bad for musicians and listeners alike. Buying CDs from labels just prolongs the agony, to artists and the environment; it’s become an unnecessary evil. Similarly iTunes just feels wrong. One solution is to make donations directly to bands, and I will be doing this, but that's a bit haphazard.

Once it becomes impossible to ignore the Marxian logic of what's happening, society will have to find music-makers a way to get paid for the actual creative work they do, rather than for a byproduct that's lost its value. This seems to point the way towards some kind of progressive Culture Tax, maybe like the downloading licence I suggested a while back, but I don't want to elaborate on that idea now - it feels like papering over the cracks. If we want real equality we have to do away with that strange immoral glue we currently use to hold our world together: money.