12 November 2014

On the Scarcity of Scarcity

I have a confession to make, again: contrary to what you might assume about someone having such a tough time "making it" as an artist (and being apt to write about it at such length), I find it awfully hard to get upset about the existence of Spotify. Certainly I am a consumer as well as a producer of content and have taken full advantage of the digital apocalypse to deepen and broaden my own listening; and certainly I am just young enough that I've never lived in a world where an income stream from record sales was ever a reasonable career expectation. Those are obvious points that you've heard before or thought yourself, and I hope this one is too: scarcity is not coming back, so we had better learn to live with abundance. Why should that be so hard to do?

As Cory Doctorow so aptly pointed out in Content, a big part of getting this particular genie back in the bottle would be to make computers less capable, and that simply is not going to happen. Then again, this twenty-first century problem is, I think, too often posited in place of a more basic, nineteenth century one: when we traded in cultural consensus for a modicum of freedom of expression, and similarly music-as-craft for the romanticized, singular, freelance artist, the wheels were set in motion, even as the technology remained over a century away. We remain miles away from a truly "free" society, but what freedom we do have in the aesthetic arena is gained at the direct expense of cultural consensus. The more we have of one the less there will be of the other. If you are one of those people who would draw the analogy between downloading a song and shoplifting a candy bar, I think you have not completely grasped this point. At the very least, with specific regard to Spotify, which is legal and market-driven, this old trope no longer fits at all.

And aah, the market. Since I'm on such a roll, shouldn't I have more mean stuff to say here about capitalism? Could I possibly have shot all of my bullets not yet halfway through Blog Month? Allow me to reload: the whole conceit of "American Ingenuity" and "competition driving innovation" is a fucking ruse. The roadmap is and for the most part always has been to gain near-monopolistic control, by hook or by crook, over essential resources and services that people need just to stay alive (e.g. health care), to artificially manipulate supply and pricing, and then profit off of our literal desperation. I don't doubt that capitalist competition has been great for spurring businesses onward towards ever more appealing non-essential consumables, and I as much as anyone else want to live in a world where we can enjoy them guilt-free and for what they are. Bona fide "innovation" is hard work, though, and consumers don't always behave in ways that would most obviously seem to represent their best interests; corporations know this, and hence also that the most reliable way to ensure handsome profitability will always be through exploiting the most basic necessities of life.

Simply put, music is not a basic necessity of life, no matter our widespread figurative insistence to the contrary. If it were, the capitalist streaming music industry would look a lot more like the capitalist health care industry and we would be having a very, very different discussion right now. And so, with the music industry thus being a more truly American, capitalist endeavor in this way, are we to take more seriously the suggestion, per Marc Ribot and others, that if things don't improve for independent at-the-margins artists they will simply go out of business as it were? Extended to its logical conclusion, this is precisely the outcome my reasoning above would predict; again, however, we all know (or should) that the notion of "rational actors" is itself something of a ruse, and most especially in an area of inquiry where rationalism itself is at best a marginal player.

To wit, have we not been hearing precisely this fatalistic prediction for over a decade now? And at the current rate of cultural and technological evolution, is a decade not a pretty decent sample size from which to conclude that more people actually are making and distributing music than ever before? At the risk of invoking the ill-fated governorship of Jesse Ventura, it seems for whatever reason that people who are smart enough to play this kind of music also are smart and resourceful enough to find ways to fund their projects. (I hope I'm not the only musician-in-the-trenches to read the Ribot blurb and think to myself, "If you gave me $15,000 to spend on a trio record, I'd have trouble spending half of it." Clearly we're dealing with very different cultural, possibly generational expectations here.) The market is indeed a powerful force, but it is not and never has been quite as powerful as this camp would make it out to be, certainly not in the specific ways they are apt to enumerate. I for one would absolutely enjoy assuming a yet more overbearing degree of righteous indignation that I am working security instead of collecting fat royalty checks, but aesthetic plurality and ease of access are real things too. Worrying about that which you can control also has its upsides.

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