Has music become a commodity?

Has music become a commodity?

The question of whether music is now just a commodity has been a topic of conversation around the web for a while now. It’s an interesting question, and a valid one. First of all, what, exactly, is a commodity? The word has several meanings. Two relevant definitions listed by Merriam-Webster are,

a good or service whose wide availability typically leads to smaller profit margins and diminishes the importance of factors (such as brand name) other than price


one [a good or service] that is subject to ready exchange or exploitation within a market

Music today certainly seems to fit both of those descriptions, at least in some aspects. The days of record stores full of the latest top 40 vinyl and even CDs has long since passed. There are still record stores around, but they’re really specialty shops–more of a novelty than anything, for those of us who are old enough to be nostalgic for the old days of owning a physical copy of our favorite band’s latest record. And the changes are accelerating. There was a long stretch where vinyl was king. First people bought 78rpm records, then 33rpm lps and 45 rpm singles. Some of you might not even know what the hell all those numbers mean, but us old guys look back on those days with fondness. There was something about sitting in your basement with an album spinning around the turntable as you held the cover in your hand and read the lyrics so you could sing along to every song. Getting up half way through to lovingly flip the record over was a joy to be revered, not a chore to be dreaded. And those vinyl days lasted for decades. 33rpm lps really kicked into high gear, I guess, in the ’50s, and vinyl was king from the ’20s up through most of the ’80s.

Record albums in a bin.
The good ol’ days of pawing through the record bins are long gone.

Then CDs began to take over, and they held their reign for a pretty good stretch, but much shorter than vinyl did. Maybe, what, two-and-a-half to three decades? Next came music downloads, and pretty soon, things changed drastically. The original Napster made it possible to download pretty much anything for free. People got used to that. Free music was pretty nice. Looking back though, downloads were almost a momentary blip. I almost missed that phase completely. And now, we’ve moved into the streaming era.

More and more these days, no one pays to download individual songs or albums, do they? Now we just tune into Spotify and listen for free. Many of us pay for the premium service so we can listen to exactly what we want to, when we want to, but many just stick to the free level. Seems like the days of owning music–as in, paying for it–are gone. Maybe not completely gone, but fading fast.

So that’s a pretty bleak outlook for aspiring musicians, isn’t it? How are you supposed to make a living if no one is buying singles or albums? The industry is still trying to figure out the whole streaming monetization model, and maybe it’ll sort itself out enough to benefit musicians. Sure, there are still pop stars who are somehow selling high volumes at the top end, but how long will that old model last. The record industry seems like it’s full of old dinosaurs that are just hanging on to the last vestiges of their territories by making the next golden boy or girl the latest big thing with the 13-year-old crowd.

So how do independent artists sell their music? Man, you can’t even really give your music away successfully these days. There’s so much music available that how do you even hope to cut through the clutter?

Yet, there are revenue models out there which help make the argument that music isn’t fully commoditized just yet. Artists are making money on Spotify. Bands still sell CDs from the merch table at their shows. Services like CD Baby still pay out for customers who sell through their systems. But the real action for music sales seems to be through licensing and song placement. Advertisers, TV producers, and film producers still pay for music.

I remember back in the old days when we used to disparage any artist or band that would stoop so low as to “sell out” by letting their song be used in a commercial. And back then I never even thought about what it meant to have a song placed in a movie or show. It was easy to act all indignant about an artist “selling out” like that because I wasn’t making my living with music. But it didn’t take long for me to start to realize that if these guys had a product that people were willing to pay for, they’d be fools not to sell it. Success is not guaranteed, so it makes sense to maximize your earnings while you can. Same with athletes leaving college to sign a fat pro contract. Why the hell wouldn’t you do that if you were that good? You can always go back to college, but you are only going to get so many million-dollar offers to play basketball, so why not take the money while it’s being offered?

Well, I digress. We seem to be entering a time where the only real way to make money on your music if you’re not a touring band–and maybe even if you are–is to get your music licensed everywhere you can while you’re hot. Getting hot in the first place, well that’s the trick. I haven’t figured how to do that yet myself. But back to the original question: is music a commodity? It seems to me like in some ways yes, in other ways, no. There is so much free or inexpensive music available that no one realistically has to pay a dime for another record or download ever. I personally own more music than I can probably listen to in the rest of my life. And the second-hand stores have tons of records and CDs just waiting to be bought. And let’s not even go down the garage-sale road and all the music available for next to nothing there. There is so much music in the world, no one needs more, and yet, more and more continues to be written and recorded. Because for the creators it’s art. Those of us who don’t get paid for their art still produce it. It’s in us and it has to come out. We’d like to get paid for it, but even if we don’t , we still keep producing it. Adding to the glut. Creating more commodity.

Yet in other ways, music is not yet fully commoditized. People are still getting paid to license and place music. There is still value in great music. Add to that the people who support musicians through their patronage either by buying CDs or downloads they don’t really need, or by out and out patronage on sites like Patreon. Come to think of it, that’s a pretty old model of supporting music. A model used since long before recorded music was ever a thing. Musicians may have to rely on that type of patronage once again into the future, because it doesn’t look like people are apt to start running out to record shops any time soon again.

So, I don’t really know whether I actually answered the original question. But it’s an interesting topic. What do you think? Has music become a commodity?

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