The market of music

Music is a peculiar fusion of emotion and technicality. The coldest of cold sciences, mechanics, is integrated with the warmest of warm poetries, music, to produce something lukewarm: the market of music, a unity of technicality and artistry. But the market itself threatens the balance on which it rests. As value is transformed into prices, the music underneath is lost in the mass of marketing on top. But the market of music has an additional, more sinister, character. This character is a class character. Let me explain.

The St Thomas Church in Leipzig, where composer Johann Sebastian Bach played the organ.

In capitalism, the basic market exchange is one between the seller of labour, the worker, and the buyer of labour, the capitalist. The worker sells their labour to the capitalist at a price determined by a market which the worker has limited power in, as a smaller fraction of their class, compared with the capitalist, who has more power as a simple numerical result of their greater ownership of their class; and since workers outnumber capitalists, it is harder for them to find common agreement to unite, while capitalists more easily unite into price-controlling cartels (an argument first made by Adam Smith). Capitalism is, contrary to popular belief, an unfree market. Or, to be more precise, the freedom of the market produces the servitude of the class structure which arises from the market institution. The market of music is, I suggest, no different.

Musicians ‘sell’ their products, their songs, to listeners of music, who, while outnumbering the musicians, are able to determine the price through favouring only those musicians who sell cheaply. Music is not a scarce resource, especially in today’s electronic world in which music is produced and released on a secondly basis. This overabundance puts musicians at a disadvantage, as most music passes people by, and most music that catches listeners’ attention is either consumed for free or at too low a price to sustain the musician well into the future. As in capitalism as a whole, the market of music involves deep exploitation. Musicians are obviously exploited, except those few who rise to the top to join the ranks of the celebrities, who nonetheless lack the same ownership over capital as the oligarchs who run the largest companies (though some bridge the gap between cultural and economic power). But music listeners are exploited, too.

Music serves an important function in capitalism. Music reassures underpaid workers that their labour is worthwhile, by distracting them from meaningless drudgery through the superficially meaningful sphere of sonic booms and busts. Music makes the market seem OK, by distracting us from our fundamental problems through nice noises. Music, in this way, can serve as a weapon of narcissistic abuse; a way in which the prey are captured by predators but made to love their slavish condition, like in Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World. The market of music is just another layer on our own dystopia, a market economy in which everyone is both predator and prey, but no one can cure the fundamental ill which we all confront.

For music to be a path to freedom, rather than a road to serfdom, we must choose between the two values of the market of music: the moral value of music, and the market value of music. Which value matters more? And once we’ve decided, how do we ensure this value wins? The market of music, like all markets, derives its power from the state which gives it life and liberty. We are confronted once again with another face of the market state, which, through music, is being continuously born and reborn, even as music itself spirals out of control, in an infernal descent which never ends — until we rediscover the elixir of light in the grim darkness of the market of music. Perhaps then, we will find a way out, and make music a light of love, again.


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