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How the Music Industry’s War on Sharing Destroys Markets and Erodes Civil Liberties

Music and the Marketplace

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 At what point did music cease to be merely an aspect of human life akin to speaking, dancing and dreaming, and become something that can be bought and sold, shared and stolen, stockpiled and monopolized? When, and how, did music become a commodity?

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 Despite its historical status as a public good, music has never been completely free. Powerful social institutions have always played a role in regulating musical aesthetics, practices and technologies. From dynastic Egypt and China to present-day America, music’s capacity to influence people’s behavior, opinion, and collective action has always been recognized as a vital tool – and a dangerous weapon – by those holding the reins of power.[1] Yet throughout most of history, this power has been exercised politically, militarily, religiously and ideologically; only with the dawn of modern capitalism did music enter the marketplace, and thereby become regulated through economic measures as well.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 French economist Jacques Attali has argued persuasively that, in the Western world, this shift began in the 14th Century, at the birth of the Renaissance. At this time, he writes, the age of minstrels and jongleurs began to wane, and musicians “became professionals bound to a single master, domestics, producers of spectacles exclusively reserved for a minority.”[2] This was part of a broader trend; throughout the Renaissance, all of the cultural behaviors we now consider “fine arts” were professionalized and separated from more common, craft-oriented, and unmarketable ones, and professional artists were distinguished from mere amateurs and audiences.[3] In that cultural moment, the music industry was born.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 2 It is no coincidence that, at the very time when control over music and the arts shifted from religious to market mechanisms, the political power of the Church was diminishing and that of the bourgeoisie was rising. Not only did the professionalization of music turn musicians themselves into commodities, requiring that people pay for access to something which had hitherto been free, but the new musical modes of production actually served to validate the underlying logic of the market system itself. If access to music could be bought and sold, then what other aspect of the human experience could legitimately be excluded from the marketplace?

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Over time, the new focus on professionalization within music crystallized into an emerging set of aesthetics that didn’t just reward professional skills, but demanded them. By the turn of the 19th Century, the shift was complete; as music historian Joel Sachs argues, the “modern” music of the time emphasized virtuosity as a way to exclude both amateur musicians and uneducated audiences.[4] These new aesthetics, in turn, paved the way for an even greater set of social transformations, centered around industrialization and massification. As musicologist Christopher Small writes, the professionalization of music, and the resulting “exclusion of the consumer” from the musical process, can be linked directly to the “homogenization of human relationships brought about by the industrial society of today.”[5]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Even as musicians were becoming a commodity through the process of professionalization, musical expression itself was undergoing a simultaneous and parallel transformation. Although systems of musical notation have existed for millennia, it was only with the dawn of moveable type in the 15th Century that the concept of an intrinsically valuable musical score began to take hold. Unlike mere notation, scores can be understood as something logistically prior to, and of equivalent commercial value to, musical performance. In other words, they stand on their own as independent musical commodities, whether they’re used by amateurs or professionals, or merely sit gathering dust on a bookshelf. Also with the increasing capacity for large-scale print reproduction came the standardization of notation, which in the 16th Century crystallized into the five-line staff system we know today. And with standardized notation and cost-effective mechanical reproduction came the growth of an international music community, and a marketplace for the scores that bound that community together.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Though most homes and offices in the industrialized world now have at least one printer sitting on a desk somewhere, mechanical printing presses were nowhere near as affordable, easy to operate, or ubiquitous. Although they represented a major step forward in the democratization of power over production and the capacity for high-volume reproduction, their cost and technical complexity, in combination with the growth of the market system, contributed to the development of a printing industry and a professional publishing field. And nearly from the beginning, this field has been organized around the mechanism of copyright.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan, in his research on the historical origins of intellectual property, demonstrates that copyright serves a threefold function.[6] Its first purpose, exemplified in the British Stationers’ Company charter of 1557, was state control over the content of the public sphere, and by extension, a monarchical check on the rising power of the bourgeoisie. Given the central role that political pamphleteers and publishers like Tom Paine and Ben Franklin would play in the American Revolution two centuries later, the British crown’s concern was well warranted.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The second purpose of copyright, somewhat in conflict with the first purpose, was to give publishers a degree of power to protect their investments and ward off competition. While initially only state-sanctioned publishers enjoyed this privilege (in exchange for policing the public sphere on behalf of the government), this mechanism also contributed to the growth of large, powerful publishing houses, which, in addition to squelching competitors, would increasingly come to challenge outside authority of any kind, including that of the monarchies.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The third purpose of copyright, and the last to be enshrined in law (in the late 18th Century in Europe), was to provide a basis for authors and composers to recognize revenues from the reproduction of their work, and to cement their claims to authorship. An optimistic and oft-invoked view of this function would be to say that it provides an incentive for skilled individuals to produce and share innovative concepts, thus contributing to the “marketplace of ideas” and enriching our cultural environment.[7] A more economically-oriented, “neoclassical” view would be to say that copyright enables culture to enter the marketplace because that’s where the true “value” of a work is established, and this valuation guides future investment in similar work.[8] A more critical approach would hold that the propertization of culture makes authors and composers beholden to the dictates of the marketplace (undermining their independence and resistant capacity) and masks the inherently collective nature of cultural production by ascribing ownership over ideas to discrete individuals. These are not mutually exclusive viewpoints, and either way, the effect of this function has been the same: namely, providing a legal basis for the professionalization of music and the commodification of musical expression. In other words, copyright is the glue that binds music to the marketplace.


11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 [1] Sinnreich, A. (2010). Mashed up: Music, technology and the rise of configurable culture.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 [2] Attali, Noise, p. 15.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 [3] Kempers, B. Painting, power and patronage: the rise of the professional artist in the Italian Renaissance; Gross, L. (1995). Art and artists on the margins. In L. Gross, ed., On the Margins of Art Worlds.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 [4] Sachs, London: The Professionalization of Music.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 [5] Small, C. (1987). Music of the common tongue: survival and celebration in African American music; pp 62, 346.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 [6] Vaidhyanathan, S. Copyrights and Copywrongs.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 [7] See, for instance, the US Copyright Office’s claim that “Copyright law encourages cultural innovation by securing exclusive rights to . . . authors.” Retrieved from http://www.copyright.gov/docs/wipo2011.html, April 16, 2012.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 [8] Copyright and a Democratic Civil Society. Neil Weinstock Netanel. 106 Yale Law Journal 283 (1996)

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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/piracycrusade/chap1/music-and-the-marketplace/