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Music as Art vs Commodity Culture

Why Taylor Swift's reasoning is flawed even if the end result is good

We're all aware of Taylor Swift's decision to remove her 1989 album from Spotify's streaming music catalog. There are many reasons that as a student of media and media markets, and as a musician myself, that I agree with and understand why this is a good thing. Spotify and Pandora barely pay anything out to the artists they stream and once those miniscule royalties are split between publishers, songwriters, and performers, there's little return for anyone involved in that process beyond the infrastructure provider. Aloe Blacc has a well-written article on Wired right now explaining his own experiences with the new streaming realities.

This works, truthfully, much the same way any traditional major label deal has worked in the past, just with much smaller payouts. The artist signs, gets a payment upfront, and begins recouping the expenses the label put out. In the "traditional" sense, that money goes toward art direction, packaging, distribution, printing, and other fixed overhead costs. The labels still have some of that to contend with today, but digital streaming provides none of that overhead. The main difference is that streaming music services want to be treated like radio with the discounted royalty payment benefits radio has. The problem is that Spotify is not radio and doesn't work anything like radio. Instead, that "personal" music collection that someone has subscribed to on Spotify is producing radio-like royalty returns for on-demand access to every song ever made (okay, that's hyperbole; but the catalogs are enormous).

None of my issue is with these truths. I don't think what artists get paid from Spotify is necessarily fair. But I also don't think Taylor Swift's main vehicle of reasoning makes any sense. And I don't believe her pulling of her record from Spotify in any way affected whether or not 1989 would go platinum. She's a platinum-selling artist and has been for years. Some musicians are superstars, some aren't. That's how the industry has always worked. But I digress.

In case you haven't seen it, here is the statement Swift made in the Wall Street Journal that I take offense to:

"Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It's my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album's price point is. I hope they don't underestimate themselves or undervalue their art."

Now, there are parts of this statement that are fine, and she expresses her opinion in here and that's great too. I, too, believe that any creative should not undervalue their work (whether they consider that work art or otherwise). However, Swift, in this statement, shows a misunderstanding of art's process of valuation. Let's break it down.

Music is art, and art is important and rare.

I believe this is true. However, this statement completely forgets the forces of mechanical reproduction of art. In music, especially, reproduction is at the core of what music as business is all about. If we compare the process of making music to painting a masterpiece we can see where there is a mismatch of perceived value.

van Gogh paints Starry Night and it is a work of art. It is "valuable and rare" because there is only one. It does not stand to reason that you would pay $150 for, say, an office waste basket that has Starry Night printed on it. However, the original painting—the one true work of art—should, most certainly, sell for millions and millions of dollars.

A plastic disc with ones and zeros on it is not rare and valuable. The music on it that is played on the radio and at school dances and on The Voice is no longer rare and valuable once it is commoditized as something the common man can purchase.

The truth of art as a money-maker is that it is often worthless when first released and later gains value -- but it is the original work that becomes more costly. In general this is because of the commoditization and reproduction of the work. Walter Benjamin (1969) tells us:

Even the most perfect reproduction is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence.

The weight and value of the art has to be placed somewhere and many times that value is in the original piece. Modern day it might be shifted to the physical object: a vinyl record or CD or something else. But that item lacks the authenticity of the original art (Benjamin, 1969).

I would say that today, confronted with infinitely reproduceable audio files or photographs, the live presence or performance of that artwork is where the value finally rests. Benjamin (1969) goes on to explain what you lose when you take away that original form of art; what you lose when you remove the real painting from the wall, or the person singing the song in front of you, or even being in the studio with them. Without that authentic thing the "aura" is diminished. Over and over again.

We define the aura of [natural objects] as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be. [T]he social bases of the contemporary decay of the aura [...] rests on two circumstances, both of which are related to the increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life. Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things "closer" spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward ovecoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction.

Benjamin (1969)

Think about the atrocity of printing Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh on a waste basket. As that painting gets reproduced into oblivion it loses the affect of its aura. Consider the difference between pulling out a print of Nighthawks or American Gothic from the Hobby Lobby stacks and actually seeing them at the Art Institute of Chicago. The experience, the weight, the value is different.

Let's pick up Taylor Swift's statement again:

Valuable things should be paid for.

Indeed, they should, but when did the artist ever dictate the value the public places on their work? Value is not created or controlled by the maker. Art, as a subjective thing, has a subjective value.

It's my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album's price point is.

When art is commoditized into a market where free commerce happens, the price points will even out wherever the public decides they should. Consumers are the ones valuing your art. You can attribute a dollar amount or worth to it all you want, but that does not mean your customers are going to agree with you, nor do they have the obligation to.

I believe that an increase of value awareness by fans is what has brought back the resurgence of vinyl record sales. I believe that's why big name touring artists (like Taylor Swift) can still sell out stadiums. I believe that's why there have been so many reunion tours and even an "Emo Revival". Streaming music does not necessarily decrease the value of a work of art. Intrinsically there is not much value in the act of listening to an album. The value is in connecting with that artist in some way and many have figured out the strategy: Give your fans something they can find valuable and stop expecting to be comfortable all the time.

Just because rock stars in the past have not had to do much other than "be artists" does not mean the world cannot and will not change.

Yes, Spotify needs to pay out more money. But art is not intrinsically valuable or good just because it was made. Art, and specifically a work of art, gains value from those that attribute value to it.

I believe Taylor Swift is right in taking a stand against the terrible payout rates musicians receive. But I disagree in her line of reasoning in doing so. The moment you reproduce your artwork, its rarity is demolished and its value will decrease. It is important to recognize where that value gets placed after the fact and to shift your thinking and reasoning to that place.