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09 March 2018

A Social Critique of the New Music Business

I'm a fan of Rick Beato. Rick is a YouTuber, who does a wide range of music-related stuff, mostly music theory and music production. One of his recent live streams is titled Don't Believe What They Say about the Music Business. His main point is essentially that there is no better time to be a music creator because the internet has democratized the industry by removing the gatekeepers allowing the market to work more efficiently. As I have written before, I generally agree with him. Rick goes a step further, though, arguing that musicians should make their work freely available on the internet to garner attention so that they can make money later. He holds up Chance the Rapper as an exemplar. This is where I disagree with Rick. Let me elaborate.

There is a larger trend among "business people" (i.e. capitalists) to argue that temporarily giving one's labor away for free is necessary for later access to the labor market. At least with traditional capitalist exploitation, workers receive a wage, albeit one that is alienated from profits. In this new arrangement, workers receive only the unguaranteed chance at a future wage. Even worse, many workers receive college credit for their free labor (i.e. the internship), the opportunity for which they perversely pay. (Incidentally, we in higher ed should be ashamed at our complicity in this arrangement.)

Setting aside momentarily this inherently unjust relationship, we must acknowledge that being able to survive while laboring for free is itself a privilege not available to all. Most who are able to weather the temporary relationship can do so only because they were able to choose parents with enough economic capital to subsidize them through this period. Those who are too poor to afford the luxury of working for free clearly chose their parents poorly. (What?! You didn't get to choose your parents? How 'bout that!) Forgetting the inherent injustice of this arrangement as well, we must acknowledge that this is a major inefficiency: how many innately gifted individuals could not share their talents in the market because they had the misfortune of being born to the wrong parents?

Just because workers aren't being paid for their work doesn't mean that someone else isn't getting paid. Imagine a musician who follows Rick's advice and uploads her music to a site like YouTube unmonetized. Even if YouTube isn't running ads on top of the video, they are posting ads around it. In other words, YouTube is making money from the free labor of this musician. Even if she does monetize it, she will likely only make a pittance. For example, on YouTube, the most popular of all of the music streaming services, her song would need to be played 2.1 million times for her to make the equivalent of a minimum wage. (Granted, none of these streaming services are yet running a profit.)

Here is the bottom line:

  • No one should ever be compelled to work without compensation.
  • Markets that grant unequal access based on socioeconomic status and not the goodness of the product are both unjust and inefficient.
  • Simply removing gatekeepers does not guarantee democratization.
  • There is an undeniable problem if an industry with a product that is universally consumed and loved cannot provide adequate financial compensation to those who make the product.

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