Raise your hand if you first heard Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks” in the Crazy Stupid Love trailer way back in 2011. Raise your hand if you have since saved the song on Spotify Premium. Raise your hand if you (now) deny the fact that you first heard it in an advertisement, because it’s an example of Grizzly Bear totally selling out, and music’s devolution into just another commodity in our consumerist, capitalist world!
The commodification of music is defined relatively simply as music made expressly for making money. The distinction between product and commodity (yes, I’m getting this straight from sociology notes, what’s it to you?) occurs when the product becomes scarce, competitive, and participates in capitalist exchange. Basically, when music stops being free. These days, it’s no longer very plausible for an artist to offer up their heart’s song for free, because of streaming mediums like Spotify.
I am a big user of Spotify Premium. I use Spotify for probably 70% of my waking hours. If I am walking from The Byte to the second floor bathrooms, I take that time to listen to a song. (And I’m not about to sit around waiting for some ad; if I want to be listening to “Time of My Life” for the minute and a half it takes me to walk to the bathroom, then I damn well am going to.) This new world of streaming music undoubtedly benefits obsessed listeners like me, but it also obscenely benefits the large-scale distributors of media like Spotify or YouTube, while materially cutting out those who are actually putting themselves out there: the artists. Spotify pays an artist $.00437 per stream of a song, requiring 1,144 streams for them to make $5. (For Tidal, it’s 400, iTunes is 685, and YouTube is 7,246 streams.)
Streaming services no doubt expose your music to a greater population, but to what extent? If people haven’t heard of you in the first place, they’re unlikely to seek you out on Spotify. An alternative presents itself in advertisements, which can often reach more consumers more efficiently, whether they can appreciate your music or not. It’s always a little jarring to hear your favorite indie track you thought you discovered in an advertisement for beer or something. However, even the ability to sneeringly call an artist’s decision to include their song in a car commercial as “selling out” reveals a level of privilege. Who are we to critique them for doing what they can to survive?
But then there are those like Taylor Swift, who took her entire discography off of Spotify (and much of her music off of YouTube), who is clearly not doing this to survive. Financially, she will be more than fine if she left her music on streaming services, and it would undoubtedly increase the circulation of her music, which should (?) be every musician’s true goal. Taylor Swift provides the perfect, ironic example, because despite her exclusion of her music from those who may not be able to afford paid streaming services, her name has become a commodity; a brand whose consumption is so effortless and normalized in the world we live in that you can still pass it off as being a “true fan.”
It’s very difficult to exempt anything in a capitalistic world from consumption, and, try as we might, music and art are no exception. It’s very difficult to find any truth in fandom when the extrinsic value of music (the value the listener hears) is prioritized over the intrinsic value (the value the artist voices). “Selling out” is defined when music loses intrinsic value, leaving us clueless listeners crossing our fingers and hoping that our branding of ourselves has somehow added to our sense of self. What happens when your entire personality and way of being in the world is defined by the collection of brands you have surrounded yourself by, in an attempt to show your own creative, unique individuality? Creativity confuses, but does not inhibit, capitalism. Instead, the latter carefully channels the former into commodity spaces, through which it gladly and quietly receives profit. It achieves this by making you think you, too, are participating in creativity when consuming.
In the summer of 2011, no large music festival made a profit exceeding the corporate sponsorship it receives. Taylor Swift earned $170 million in 2016. I can’t see myself not coughing up my $4.99 Student Spotify Premium account once a month for the foreseeable future. Is copyright, then, the answer? It seems silly both to further the prevalence of money in the arts, but also too idealistic to dismiss its power to keep an artist afloat. Is the answer to the commodification of music the privatization of music?
I don’t think so, and I’m not just being naïve—I’m inspired by the exact opposite happening in a ton of spaces. Support DIY shows with a sliding scale admissions or donations. Support musicians with independent labels, or without a label at all. Download that super unknown band’s free album off of BandCamp if you’ve been listening to it a lot. Then, spread the word and make their impact on you public. Honestly, call me naïve all you want, but I’m tired of thinking of music’s evolution into commodity as inevitable, and I’m ready to imagine a world where the influence of word of mouth could replace the influence of a wallet.
ADRIENNE HOHENSEE | In my best dress, fearless | KXSU Music Reporter