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"It can't be that music is a commodity, or content to use to sell advertising or a subscription plan. Artists have to come firs."
Ethan Diamond, CEO of Bandcamp
"With all of us, a little bit of injection of cash at the right time in your life can have outsize gains in productivity and what's possible in our careers and future, the same is true to these artists."
Matt Smith, CEO of The Royalty Exchange
On the morning of Wednesday, March 2, music marketplace and publishing platform Bandcamp announced that it had been purchased by American video game and software developer Epic Games. The sale, following Bandcamp’s most successful financial period since its launch in 2008, was met with widespread confusion and condemnation on the part of the independent artists, record labels and fans that make up both its producer and consumer base. Epic Games, home of massively popular assets like Fortnite and Unreal Engine, has previously faced a number of criticisms, including brutal labor practices implemented in the runup to game releases and speculative, casino-like features built into Fortnite. Despite widespread awareness of the ‘partnership’ between Bandcamp and Epic, neither is publicly traded, meaning that details regarding the organizational and financial status of the two firms remains sealed.
In the midst of the outrage, a lesser-commented upon detail emerged regarding Bandcamp’s own financial provenance. The sale, widely presumed to be a divestment on the part of Bandcamp’s original founders and shareholders, was, in fact, a likely transfer of shares from a venture capital and private equity firm to the aforementioned video game developer. Initially pointed out by Twitter-user @myemuisemo, the sale of Bandcamp entailed a transfer of shares previously owned by True Ventures, a Bay Area-based fund, to Epic Games. True Ventures, whose portfolio includes urban professional class- and consumption-oriented companies like Blue Bottle Coffee, Fitbit, Goodreads and Sweetgreen, purchased a stake in Bandcamp two years after the latter's founding (2010). Clearly known to some, the revelation of Bandcamp’s venture capital-funded roots was nonetheless a surprise to myself among many others active in independent music contexts.
Bandcamp’s founders, led by Ethan Diamond, previously ran pay-for-webmail service Oddpost, which was sold to Yahoo! for nearly $30 million in 2004. Firmly situated in Silicon Valley start-up culture, Diamond and his Bandcamp co-founders have carefully constructed a self-made narrative premised on cultural authenticity and ethical responsibility over the past decade and a half. The disclosure of early stage Silicon Valley-funding – not to mention the present sale to a global media conglomerate itself underpinned by a range of firms and capital funds – prompts a number of questions regarding both the incorporation of finance capital into the music industry and the manner in which individual action is molded by both economy-wide and personal financial logics.
What, then, does Bandcamp’s sale to Epic Games indicate for independent music ecosystems structured around haphazardly compensated cultural labor, uneasy partnerships with venture capital-funded platforms and a set of assumed, but hardly nailed down ethical and cultural values? How is music production and consumption restructured when a platform is sold or when venture capital demands more efficient surplus value-production? How is cultural production itself affected when artists are obliged to conceive of themselves as self-regulating financial actors in a marketplace of assets premised on potential future earnings? Lastly, how does the performance of the money form and the accumulation imperative – represented on Bandcamp’s front page through an earnings ticker (surpassing $895 million at the time of writing) and on the backend through VC funding – impact the present and future of collective cultural forms? This text is a sketch-like attempt to address these questions and to outline the concrete processes by which finance has come to play a central role in cultural production and the music industry.
Mapping Finance and Music
Following the devastation of the 2008 Financial Crisis, financialization has become a buzzword for a set of processes that include the liberalization, internationalization, abstraction, assetization and privatization of (itself a relativistic term) the economy. In this essay, I follow historical sociologist Greta R. Krippner, who argues that finance operates through temporal (future-oriented) and spatial (necessarily expansive) aspects, thus coordinating and producing particular productive, cultural and consumptive geographies. In real terms, this involves the often violent expansion, intensification and control of money, liquidity and debt at a global scale. Financialization then represents capital’s dual logics of exploitation (homogenized through the wage relation) and expropriation (differentiated along racial, gendered and spatial lines). Put differently, the cyclical liberalization of finance is one of several mechanisms by which capital produces space in its own image and structures time to the dictates of accumulation.
Many critics have noted processes of financialization in the higher levels of the music economy; the term has been put into play in analyses of Spotify and other streaming platforms, the rent and platform logics of the plug-in industry, and as a means of theorizing the impossible-to-parody alliances between the financial sector and electronic dance music (EDM). The former, emphasized in critiques by Liz Pelly and Patrick Vonderau, points to the manner in which streaming platforms interpose advertising into the relationship between artist and listener, as well as the shadowy mechanisms by which users’ emotional and affective data is harvested, packaged and sold. In the Autonomy issue of Bellona, Michael Terren brilliantly details the proliferation of financial logics operating within the music plug-in industry. Premised on a rentier, software-as-service model (one that will surely be familiar to users of the Adobe Suite), digital instruments have been rendered into financial assets with their own set of utilitarian, homogenizing qualities. Meanwhile, the parallels between the euphoric heights and crisis-ridden lows of EDM and Wall Street, perhaps a natural fit, has taken on cartoonish qualities with DJs ringing in the opening bell at the NASDAQ exchange and a Goldman Sachs CEO playing DJ himself. Despite appearing as individual instances or nodes of finance’s intrusion into music, these events can better be considered as indicative of a fundamental reorganization of the music industry to the requirements of a post-2008 cycle of accumulation, itself facilitated by the rise of Silicon Valley as a financial hub rivaling Wall Street.
This motion towards liquid money, speculation and rent-seeking – not to mention the cozy relationship between commercial dance music and the dual Silicon Valley-Wall Street poles of finance – is to be understood through, first, broader developments in the structure of capitalist political economy and, second, articulations internal to the culture industries. The former can be briefly outlined with the help of Giovanni Arrighi’s classic The Long Twentieth Century. Looking over the longue durée of globalized value production, Arrighi poses a three-part schema by which historical spatial and temporal loci of capital – the Genoese, Dutch, English and American empires – have been capitalized and, eventually, faced crises that resulted in the emergence of new sites of accumulation. The first stage is defined by mercantile trade and enclosures imposed upon land and labor (financial expansion). The second stage sees the money accumulated in the first invested in industrial production–widely recognized as the ‘golden age’ of each respective empire (material expansion). The third stage is what we find ourselves mired in today. Taking up Fernand Braudel’s argument that financial expansion signifies a “sign of autumn,” this final stage is characterized by a withdrawal of profits from domestic production, the emergence of free-floating capital and the abstraction of money (a second period of financial expansion).
Arrighi's macro-historical presentation of capital’s spiral-form accumulation demonstrates the integral role of finance in translating capital across various territorial, state and imperial forms. Finance initially facilitates the emergence of a particular site of accumulation, allocating capital to productive industries and ensuring infrastructural development. Then, in times of crisis, finance ensures the emergence of subsequent sites of accumulation through the liquidation of formerly productive industries and the transference of infrastructure into new geographies. This unity, between deterritorialized finance and territorially-specific sites of accumulation, has been explored by countless thinkers, including many in the Marxian tradition that Arrighi’s conception of the long twentieth century is in conversation with. These macro-critiques held massive sway for anti-imperialist, worker-led and revolutionary movements throughout the twentieth-century yet, their presentation of the world – still marred by Cold War-era political schisms – often takes on the quality of a ‘sentimental political assertion’ in the face of far less mappable contemporary capital formations. Thus, their analytic acuity must be met with an equal sensitivity to the everyday oscillations of the state, finance and the cultural forms which, following Ian Baucom, “dialectically encode and make possible these reorientations of capital.” Accordingly, Arrighi’s schema must be met with a second cut into the quotidian conditions of possibility for contemporary finance.
As the spatio-temporal coordinating logic of capital, finance extends its reach from Wall Street and City of London boardrooms into the stuff of daily life. The extent to which capital can attenuate its own crisis tendencies, after all, is reliant on its ability to produce cultural forms that lend pliability to the labor process, individual consumption patterns and the complex logistics of commodity circulation. Put differently, underneath the surface world of insurance contracts, bills of exchange and joint-stock chartered companies that formed the historical presentation of early finance capital was trade in human chattel, the violences of countless colonial administrations and the razing of local cultures, languages and ways of life, replaced by the rhythms of capital accumulation. Today, collateralized debt obligations, petrodollars and commodity futures markets, similarly, operate as promissory and regulative demonstrations of a world system premised on global labor arbitrage, the blood soaked control of energy production and a surplus population in the billions left to their own devices (and survival). This is not to argue that finance merely obscures the regularized brutality of capital accumulation, but rather that it is the axiomatic mechanism by which these disparate modes of exploitation, enclosure and cultural production are enmeshed into a singular mode of production. Yet, another level of scalar specificity is necessary to express the full account of finance and the capitalist world system: a world of workers and commodities, of people and things, of practical consciousness and the dominant, residual and emergent valences of culture.
Our understanding of finance, and its dialectical relationship with the violences of capital, is thus distinctly cultural, meaning attuned to the rhythms of everyday life. But that cultural viscera is, it must be remembered, embedded in Marx’s fundamental analysis of the capitalist mode of production. Accordingly, we begin our examination of specifically capitalist cultural production with a discussion of the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of the music commodity. As a political economic and cultural value that emerged in the midst of the trans-Atlantic supplanting of British by American empire, the music commodity is distinctly embroiled in the coterminous processes of financialization and violent imperial expansion detailed so far. Our discussion of the contemporary music industry, consequently, begins in Arrighi’s third stage of American empire which, despite ongoing invocations of a newly multipolar geopolitical order, provides a generative framework through which to understand the interpellations of finance in cultural production today.
Accordingly, we can recognize each of this third stage’s internal logics – indebtedness, a rise in finance’s share of overall profits, wealth inequality and slowing growth rates – at multiple levels of the music economy. But, despite internal and external attempts to more wholly integrate, the culture industries have historically retained a semi-autonomous position in relation to the wider mode of production. This ‘exceptional’ relationship, between the artist, artistic commodity and the capitalist mode of production, follows from the fact that cultural production is embedded in the marketplace, but operates largely outside of the particular relations of production that define the many dubbed capitalisms (post-Fordist, cognitive, semiotic, vectoral) of the latter 20th and early 21st centuries. ‘Art’ and ‘music’, as we know them, are social categories specific to capitalism, but that does not mean that each stage in their production, distribution and consumption is mediated by the most developed form of the capital relation.
If we are to unravel this ‘exceptional’ relationship, and ascertain how finance capital has reshaped it, an emphasis on the fundamental correspondences between non-financial enterprises, financial enterprises and workers is necessary. This approach facilitates critique of financial technologies and their imbrication in culture, but also gestures to a notion of finance as an objectified perception, and idealized projection, of capitalist relations. Crucially, the social form which binds these various actors is money. Marx himself evokes the figure of the musician as a means of articulating the mediation of social action by money:
A singer who sings like a bird is an unproductive worker. If she sells her singing for money, she is to that extent a wage labourer or a commodity dealer. But the same singer, when engaged by an entrepreneur who has her sing in order to make money, is a productive worker, for she directly produces capital.
It is not merely the output of the singer, whether in live concert or recorded form, as sold on the marketplace that determines their commodity-status, but rather the mediation of the action of singing itself by the social relations that form money. In turn, it is not the substance of any particular type of labor, nor its measure in concrete time, but the social determination of its exchangeability that produces the commodity. We can therefore move away from a notion of music as ‘exceptional’ due to an embodied, ahistorical and asocial, substance and towards one underpinned by its historically-specific mediation under capitalism. But music as a product of abstract labor, and a commodity realized in consumption, complicates the normative process by which a product of labour is confirmed as a commodity possessing value and exchangeability.
This is due to three internal conditions that produce, and impose limitations on, the music commodity. First, music is neither destroyed in consumption nor is it a rival good, which is to say that consumption by one person does not restrict or detract from consumption by another. Outside of the contractual restrictions imposed through master and publishing rights, scarcity can only be produced culturally and socially: I can enjoy and consume aya’s im hole LP without obstructing anyone else’s joyful consumption. It follows that “in order to be standardized…cultural products must continue to be marked by the stamp of the unique, of genius.” ‘Creative’ labor is necessitated at both the point of production and, perhaps more importantly, at the level of publicity. Towards this, Bandcamp publishes music ‘criticism’ on its Daily vertical, while Apple Music and Spotify host an array of genre, mood and thematic playlists. Boomkat, a much smaller operation, publishes artful, mischievous blurbs as a support structure for differentiation in a crowded independent music landscape. Lastly, as a general rule, the costs of reproduction and distribution are less than those of production. The abstract labor time accreted in musical instruments, digital audio workstations and musical training, by and large, outstrips that of even the most tedious, resource-heavy production of physical music media, let alone its digital counterpart. The music commodity, thus, requires a superstructure of educational, promotional and critical institutions to ascertain its unique thing-ness. This is paired with a more conventional distributive apparatus made up of pressing plants, server farms and brick-and-mortar businesses.
By appending the idiosyncrasies of music production to the aforementioned understanding of finance as expansive and future-oriented, we can sketch out a historical appraisal of the contemporary music industry that divides it into two discrete stages. The first stage, which spans roughly from the late 1980s through the 2008 Financial Crisis, was defined by attempts to extract profit from a sector of the culture industry that had previously been haphazardly subsumed into capitalist accumulation. This was largely facilitated by the wholesale purchase of major record labels on the part of finance capital and private equity – epitomized by the 2004 sale of Warner Music Group (WMG) to a consortium led by Bain Capital. As detailed by Andrew deWaard, the year following the acquisition of WMG saw the elimination of 2,000 members of a 6,500 person workforce, a $250 million reduction of the label’s operating budget and a dividend of $350 million of Warner’s cash paid out to the investment group. This process of asset stripping led to super profits for the consortium who went on to sell WMG for $3.3 billion in 2011.
These processes of investment and asset stripping only produced an incipient, parasitic relationship wherein finance feasted on a haltering music industry. A far more systemic transformation has ensued since. As David Turner has noted, the mid-2000s saw a strategic shift on the part of private equity from the outright purchasing of major labels to acquisitions involving master and publishing rights to individual artists’ catalogs and even individual songs. Notably, private equity firm Blackstone – last seen investing $6 billion into the American rental housing market – recently entered into a $1 billion partnership with Hipgnosis Songs Fund, owner of catalog rights for artists like Beyoncé, Rihanna, Shakira and Neil Young. Meanwhile, fellow private equity megalith KKR purchased Kobalt Capital's music rights portfolio for $1.1 billion in October 2021, bringing future revenue from 25,000 songwriters and 600 publishers (including Diplo, Paul McCartney and The Weeknd) under their control.
This practice of wholesale catalog purchases has been abetted by the marketization and assetization of royalties and individual song rights. Led by exchanges like Anote Music, The Royalty Exchange and Songvest, artists and rights holders can now auction off future claims on their music to the highest bidder. Rather than an estimation of an artist’s ability to sell records, MP3s, streams or concert tickets, this second stage of financial encroachment has introduced a matrix of future valuations premised on abstract metrics like ‘Dollar Age’. Lyric Financial has, additionally, coupled a logic of debt to the assetization of royalties. The Nashville-based firm offers cash loans in exchange for a fixed period of future royalty rights. Their tagline: “Get tomorrow’s royalties today.”
Today, the major record labels and publishers – now winnowed down to a ‘big three' of Universal Music Group (UMG), Sony Music Entertainment (SME) and WMG – both receive financial investment and operate as financiers themselves. In 2020, WMG offered 77,000,000 shares of its Class A common stock at an initial public offering (IPO), yielding nearly $15 billion in early trading. SME, as part of the Sony Group Corporation, is already publicly traded, while UMG went public in September 2021 to the tune of a $53 billion valuation. Each of the major labels, in turn, received stakes in Spotify upon signing licensing deals with the streaming platform amounting to 6% for SME, 5% for UMG, 4% for WMG, 2% for EMI Music and 1% for Merlin. These entanglements of interest and ownership reflect broader monopoly-trends typical of financialization. They are met, further, with the feeding of existing catalogs through a maelstrom of financial instruments owned increasingly by firms in Silicon Valley, Wall Street, the City of London and China’s sunbelt. As for the financialization of music fandom, Spotify’s collection of ‘mood’ data augurs intensified speculation on the audience commodity itself.
The Weight of Dead Music
To this point, we have sketched out the contours of finance-driven music industry reorganization. Yet, two further cuts, mapped onto Krippner’s assertion that finance is both future-oriented and geographically expansive, are necessary to fully explicate its sonic-cultural valences. The first encompasses the manner in which catalog music is capitalized and new music is produced. Writing in January of this year, Ted Giola argued that new music markets are shrinking, replaced by growth in the market for old songs. This bifurcation of the old from the new is represented in recent, high dollar investment acquisitions of catalog rights for artists like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Like the fine art market, generally determined by the past with value accruing due to the endurance of an artist or artwork’s presence in the market, these acquisitions point to a financial emphasis on the sedimented value of ‘old’ releases. Consequently, if profit can be accrued from the catalogs of retired and deceased artists, then what reason is there to invest in new music? Is this, as Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, the tradition of all dead generations weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living?
We would argue that finance capital’s involvement in catalog music signifies a reorganization of productive capacities and responsibilities onto individual artists, record labels and studios, as well as to new geographic frontiers. Demonstrably, catalogs of old, popular music are a site of considerable capitalization and valorization at present. Yet, as demonstrated above, this merely represents an acceleration of dynamics inherent in the music commodity. It is easier, after all, to reproduce and distribute music than it is to produce it anew. When new music is required, either to tap into new markets or to take advantage of emergent genres and forms, its production is delegated onto a casualized mass of amateur artists, tiny record labels and home studios. The instinct on the part of many artists and workers that major labels, as well as the “major” indies, reap the benefits of hard work done by small-scale labels, distributors, promoters and press agencies is born out in a new division of labor facilitated by the apportionment of risk down the music industry hierarchy. The rise of a new ‘world’ music, made up of highly capitalized and highly popular genres like Afrobeats and K-pop, has similarly ‘switched’ capital and infrastructure from lagging profitability centers in the traditional core to cities like Lagos and Seoul.
At the scale of the world market, then, the intensification of finance’s influence has been concomitant with the capitalization of domestic music industries and the incorporation of non-Western musics into North American and European markets. The former process has produced an uneven development of domestic music industries with varying levels of autonomy in relation to the major record labels and finance capital. The latter can be understood as the latest in a series of cycles, dating back to the introduction of electric recording in the 1920s, that have seen ‘world’ musics integrated into metropolitan consumer markets. These processes do not necessarily represent the globalization of music capital, but we can map a decisive outflow of infrastructure, investment and publicity from the Los Angeles-New York-London nexus.
Like the vexed relationship between old and new musics, the spatial displacement of sonic productive capacities does not flow in a straight line from Western metropoles to a developing periphery. Rather, it is important to distinguish between cases like that of South Korea (ROK) and recent attempts to cash in on the umbrella of sounds classified under Afrobeats.The former was initially capitalized, with backing from a series of International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, through hundreds of billions of won invested by the ROK’s Ministry of Culture. Culminating in big money IPOs on the Korea Exchange (KRX) for DearU, a fan engagement platform, and Big Hit Entertainment, the record label behind global phenomenon BTS, K-pop’s prominence is explicitly implicated in what former president Moon Jae-in referred to as the ROK’s development of “national character and diplomacy.” As K-pop has exploded in North American and European consumer markets, the domestic record labels that organize production and own the song rights for the most popular acts–firms like SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment and the aforementioned Big Hit Entertainment–have entered into partnerships with US-based major record labels, touring and ticketing operations and social media platforms. Despite occasional disturbances, like a 2021 licensing kerfuffle between Kakao Entertainment and Spotify, these licensing, touring and branding partnerships have left ownership in the hands of ROK-based firms.
In contrast, the relationship between Anglo-American music capital and the Afrobeats scene is pockmarked with takeovers and encroachments on domestic infrastructure. Lagos-based record labels like Chocolate City Entertainment, Starboy Entertainment and Mavin Records have retained a foothold, in part through international licensing agreements with WMG, RCA Records and UMG respectively, but the genre’s biggest artists–including the likes of Burna Boy, CKay and WizKid–tend to be represented in part or in whole by one of SME, UMG or WMG. Perhaps more consequential was the 2020 launch of Def Jam Africa (under the UMG umbrella) and the purchase of Africori, an independent distribution and rights company, by WMG in 2021. Whereas the growth of K-pop has been facilitated by state-sponsored investment, retaining of song rights and vertically integrated recording, publishing and branding infrastructures, the development, distribution and production of Afrobeats is maintained under a haphazard framework of domestic recording infrastructure, continental distribution and international capital.
It should come as no surprise that this allocation of capital and productive capacities reflects the global labor arbitrage that dispenses the production of commodities to a series of subcontracted hubs around the world. In the same way that the logistics industry attempts to smooth out time and space to facilitate flows of raw materials and commodities, evading sites of class struggle in the process, so too does finance redistribute and manage risk for flows of capital. And like the uneven development of contemporary capitalism at large, geographies of music industry capital and production infrastructure tend to be structured by often conflicting desires for flexible infrastructure, unfettered capital flows and cheap labor. No longer does capital and culture flow uninterrupted from the metropole to the colonies. Rather, a series of semi-autonomous, semi-subsumed music production nodes, often connected to sites of consumption in the heart of empire, have been consolidated around the world.
To be sure, producing cultural commodities and constructing markets for their consumption is a far more convoluted task, as we have noted, than buying in the cheapest market and selling in the dearest. That said, the flows of liquidity provided by finance allow both major record labels and investment firms to park money in stable, long term assets, while recording and consumptive infrastructures are reorganized at a global scale. Furthermore, the risk involved in producing music and constructing markets for it is not apportioned evenly across the surface of the earth: structuring factors include geopolitics, ideology and the strength or weakness of domestic labor. Like dead labor accreted in industrial machinery, catalog music is not merely a risk management tool for the owners of capital, but also a material embodiment of the exploitative social relations that composed it in the first place. We can safely say then that the old has not overtaken the new, but has been posed as a disciplinary mechanism for those working in the present, allowing for the reapportionment of productive responsibility and risk from the holders of capital to a cultural workforce increasingly located in the Global South.
It follows that we can understand finance, in both its world market- and culture industry-specific appearances, as a necessary component of the reproduction of capital. Whether it manifests as stable, state-provided bonds or explicitly risk-laden junk securities, finance operates as a structural regulating instance, that is, the means by which capital reproduces itself at both a macro and granular level. Of course, history shows that finance’s expanded and intensified dominance at both national and global scales produces inevitable, and increasingly violent, crises. This is as true for the political economy of music as it is any other industry. Accordingly, the crises of the 2000s–often attributed to a haphazard combination of piracy, declining physical media sales and lackluster take-up of digital consumption–followed the first wave of music industry financialization noted above. This period, indicated by a range of measures including overall profitability, mass layoffs, record store closures and artist-roster cuts, culminated in the 2008 financial crisis. And instead of reversing course, finance capital and its music industry lackeys predictably doubled down with a second wave of financialization.
It is impossible to anatomize the rise of streaming, and the attendant uproar over meager payout rates, outside of the crisis-driven, multi stage process of financialization. How far the political economy of music will be further subsumed by finance capital is up for discussion. In lieu of definite predictions, we can instead posit a second query: what is to be said about a culture, and specifically an independent music culture, thoroughly enmeshed with finance capital and financial logics? And, to return to our initial subject matter, what does the purchase of Bandcamp by Epic Games entail for artists and artistic production? Speculations on the latter question, particularly regarding the solidity of Bandcamp’s present artist-friendly disposition, can overwhelm but a more productive line of thought entails an analysis of existing artistic practices (the labor process) in relation to the historical, political economic and social dynamics that have produced categories like ‘art’ and ‘music’ under capitalist modernity.
Towards a Critique of Music’s Political Economy
The sale of Bandcamp resulted in mass consternation, not because it was another domino felled by finance capital, but because it has been experienced as the potential first domino to fall in a new cycle of financialization. After all, in spite of the addition of artist and label catalogs including Björk, Radiohead and Sub Pop, the average Bandcamp artist is framed by the platform (a position arguably reflected among artists) as decidedly amateurish and unattuned, if not unfriendly, to commercial success. It is unclear what influence True Ventures imposed on the platform prior to the sale, but despite some vaguely financial features–the aforementioned sales ticker, artist subscriptions and vinyl crowdfunding options–Bandcamp largely operated as a straightforward music file marketplace and publishing platform. In fact, the immediacy by which artists can upload and sell their music, in contrast to the weeks and months necessitated by partnership with a distributor or record label, may even be considered a hedge against the inherently future-oriented qualities of the music commodity.
Perhaps the most significant deviation from this idealized framing arrived with the introduction of Bandcamp Fridays – monthly events wherein the platform waives its revenue share:15% initially, 10% after an artist has surpassed $5,000 in revenue. Bandcamp Fridays proffered a heavily incentivized invitation to regularize the production and release of music. Prior to Bandcamp’s rise to near-hegemonic status in the independent music industry, the artists that currently sell their wares on the platform likely participated in an array of marketplaces ranging from tables at basement gigs to smaller digital stores. Today, it can be assumed that an independent artist has a Bandcamp page and, following Bandcamp Fridays, conceivably releases music on a monthly basis. Thus, a previously amorphous, nearly impossible to subsume independent music sphere, which today spans the globe, can be found on a single platform. Has Bandcamp, then, effectively consolidated independent music as a productive and consumer base to be sold off to Epic Games (or the proverbial highest bidder)? And is finance’s interest in Bandcamp, from the initial True Ventures stake to Tencent’s present investment via Epic, indicative of an attempt to corral independent music into more efficient cycles of accumulation?
Regardless of one's feelings regarding intent, what we may be witnessing with the purchase of Bandcamp is something resembling Arrighi’s first cycle of accumulation: trade with external entities and discipline of, for our purposes, artistic labor and audience attention. To this point, the production of music, despite fluctuating moves towards industrial regulation in the Motown mold, still largely exists at the margins of capital’s relations of production. Artists produce music on their own or with collaborators; use tools that they own, rent or steal; and decide which marketplace they prefer to sell or rent their output on. That Apple, Spotify and other platforms have monopolized those markets, and gone to alarming lengths to commodify and speculate upon the listener-artist relationship, has not necessarily resulted in consistent discipline of the labor process itself. The music commodity, likewise, necessitates a costly publicity infrastructure and constant organization of labor peripheral to the actual production of music. In this context, finance has become the de facto technology of power to ensure the generation of constant surplus value, implemented time and time again to iron out tempestuous boom-bust cycles deemed previously inescapable in the music industry.
In the midst of the derivative-making and rent-seeking schemes outlined so far, the processes by which individual artists are made over into financial subjects has proven to be one of the most muscular technologies of power available to capital. Accordingly, we can situate Bandcamp’s regularization of the production process within broader innovations that have engendered new forms of what Max Weber referred to as the ‘calculating attitude’ central to the spirit of capitalism. Artists are not only compelled to pose themselves as small businesses, producing, distributing and advertising their cultural products as a monad–but also as investors in themselves and others. Music production courses, artist insurance, micro-finance schemes, royalties advances and debt incurred to software-as-service models are a handful of the means by which artists ‘invest’ in themselves. That this literal and metaphorical investment rarely produces intended results is largely irrelevant. As a technology of the self, investment is thoroughly embedded in the social body as a self-sustaining moral imperative. Like risk, failure to invest in oneself falls exclusively on the individual.
The converse of our individualized and financialized discursive moment are narratives of economic sustainability and security in independent music. Behind a patina of idealism centered on socializing streaming platforms or building worker owned co-ops is an ideological shift that poses artists as ‘two-legged cost-and profit centres’, foregrounding balance sheet economics and the language of investment. Within this framework, a romanticized past wherein artists were able to make a middle-class living is posed against the contemporary ‘devaluing’ of artistic labor and output at the hands of the major labels and streaming giants. These evocations of ‘community’, ‘support’ and ‘interdependence’ culminate in typological stories of financial success facilitated by a flavor-of-the-month platform (Bandcamp in our moment). Meanwhile, the international reorganization of production continues apace while capital’s capacity to adhere economic movement to the passage of time increases with the financialization of everyday life.
Forms of Defeat, Forms of Opportunity
We find ourselves in a stage of simultaneous enclosure and opening, one riven with contradictions that follow from the antinomies between the music commodity and finance capital’s desire to discipline labor to the infinite flow of value production. Bandcamp has, to this point, been an exemplar of this contradictory disposition, facilitating both real artistic autonomy and integration of artists into a financial habitus. A Bandcamp profile is, on the one hand, a direct-to-consumer alternative to the venality of major streaming platforms. On the other hand, it is an analog of the financial portfolio, signifying the traits, skills, experiences, competencies and risk willingness an artist has developed to be rented or sold. Within Bandcamp’s homogenized aesthetic parameters, the profile functions as a barometer of an individual artist’s ‘creativity’, quantified in sales numbers and qualified by fan testimonials. At its center, though, is the music commodity, easily forgotten among layers of risk, speculation and the deterritorialization of geographically and culturally embedded activity. A final question then emerges: if our financial moment is signified by an attempt to negate the spatial, temporal and institutional limitations of the music commodity–it is wholly unclear what metaverse-driven schemes Epic will fold Bandcamp into over the coming years–then what will become of the song, album or concert?
Despite the absurdities of derivative-like measures such as ‘Dollar Age’, the legal rights to songs and albums remain the object of speculation on exchanges like Anote Music, The Royalty Exchange and Songvest. The value relations that form the social content of the commodity still readily pertain to the music commodity, not despite of but because of its haphazard subsumption into capitalist production. As Arrighi demonstrates, periods of financial expansion are defined by the transformation of commodities into money without the latter returning to the former. But financialization as such refers to the conjuring of money from money itself without the commodity as mediator. Selling Neil Young derivatives nods in this direction, but Harvest is still at the center of the endeavor, even if only as a ghost of cultural capital. That finance is currently feasting on the very stuff of music culture, rather than on a derivative of a derivative, does not paint a rosy picture, but it does have implications for how we as artists and workers struggle against its cultural and political economic hold.
What Epic Games does with its newest asset will likely transform the relationship between many, if not all, independent artists and the upper reaches of finance capital. Financialization mediates power through both top-down enclosure and bottom-up subjectivation and the artist represents a new frontier for valorization. That said, despite the monopolization of music distribution and financial incursions into artistic subjectivity, relations of music production still remain semi-autonomous to control and discipline imposed by capital. This inability on the part of music capital to regulate the labor process, a struggle accelerated by-way-of partnership with both Silicon Valley and Wall Street firms, has produced precarious results for artists of modest means. But it also points to a set of limits, at this conjuncture, of finance capital’s ability to more wholly transform the way music is made and the results of that process.
In closing, we can emphasize the limitations of the financialization thesis and simultaneous endurance of the commodity-form. Despite claims of mass cultural inertia, the profundity of musics that have migrated to Bandcamp points instead to a flowering at the margins of artistic production. That this currently exists at a precipice of the latest cycle of violent, top down class war is worrying, but the subsumption of the music we love into the financial sector is not an inevitability and should not be faced with the glum acceptance usually evoked in discussions of music’s political economy. Instead, renewed attention to the form of music’s commodification–rather than to the potential redistribution of value produced within already financialized sectors of the music economy–is of the utmost importance for those seeking a future outside of the senescent vulturisms of a Blackrock and Hipgnosis-led culture industry. Neither music on its own nor reform of the markets it is sold and borrowed on can save the artist. But a struggle that emphasizes, and takes advantage of, the inconsistencies and semi-autonomies of music’s commodification may present an opening. After all, the conditions for increase in class domination on the part of capital appear simultaneously as conditions undermining that domination. The potential for class consciousness in the culture industries is ripe. How artists and culture workers apprehend the social forms of their exploitation and expropriation will determine the terrain of struggle in the years to come.
Gabriel Meier is an archivist, writer, editor and radio host.
- ‘Bandcamp Is Joining Epic Games’, Bandcamp, 2022 March 2 <https://blog.bandcamp.com/2022/03/02/bandcamp-is-joining-epic/>. ↑
- Jaelani Turner-Williams, ‘Bandcamp Artists and Fans Are Spiraling in Response to Epic Games Acquisition’, Okayplayer, 2022 March 4 <https://www.okayplayer.com/culture/bandcamp-just-got-acquired-by-epic-games-sending-artists-and-fans-spiraling.html>. ↑
- Charlie Hall, ‘The Fury over the Epic Games Store, Explained’, Polygon, 2019 April 5 <https://www.polygon.com/2019/4/5/18295833/epic-games-store-controversy-explained>; Alex Matthews-King, ‘Games like Fortnite Use “predatory” Gambling Techniques to Make Children Spend, Experts Warn’, Independent, 2018 June 28 <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/fornite-loot-llamas-payments-upgrades-items-gambling-addiction-a8421201.html>. ↑
- Toni Schneider, ‘Bandcamp 1.0’, True Ventures, 2009 March 3 <https://trueventures.com/blog/bandcamp-10>. ↑
- Steven Messner, ‘Every Game Company That Tencent Has Invested In’, PC Gamer, 2020 August 9 <https://www.pcgamer.com/every-game-company-that-tencent-has-invested-in/>. It is understood that Chinese firm Tencent controls 40% of Epic’s shares. The gaming company rocketed to a $29 billion valuation in April of 2021 and was privately valued at $31.5 billion in April of 2022. ↑
- G. R. Krippner, ‘The Financialization of the American Economy’, Socio-Economic Review, 3.2 (2005), pp. 174–5. Krippner describes financialization as “activities relating to the provision (or transfer) of liquid capital in expectation of future interest, dividends or capital gains.” ↑ _
- Explorations of the latter have risen to prominence in recent years. See Jackie Wang’s ‘financial states of exception’ and Christian Marazzi’s emphasis on the violence of finance–referencing both the violence of financial outcomes, as well as the violent magnitude of financial crises. David Harvey's notion of 'accumulation by dispossession' specifically points to the music industry as an example of this novel phenomenon. David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 148.↑
- Newsletters written by David Turner (Penny Fractions) and Cherie Hu (Water & Music), as well as the Money 4 Nothing podcast hosted by Sam Backer and Saxon Baird, offer unique perspectives on both the history and present of the political economy of the music industry. ↑
- Liz Pelly, ‘Big Mood Machine: Spotify Pursues Emotional Surveillance for Global Profit’, The Baffler, 2019 June 10 <https://thebaffler.com/downstream/big-mood-machine-pelly>; Patrick Vonderau, ‘The Spotify Effect: Digital Distribution and Financial Growth’, Television & New Media, 20.1 (2019), pp. 3–19. ↑
- Michael Terren, ‘Plug-in Capitalism’, Bellona Magazine, 1 (2022) <https://bellonamag.com/plug-in-capitalism>. ↑
- Alexander Iadarola, ‘Paradise: On EDM, Speculation, and Finance’, Rhizome, 2020 January 16 <https://rhizome.org/editorial/2020/jan/16/paradise-on-edm-speculation-and-finance/>. Alexander Iadarola extensively drew out the political economic, affective and aesthetic relationships between finance and EDM in a Rhizome essay from early 2020. ↑
- Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times (London ; New York: Verso, 1994). ↑
- Fredric Jameson describes Arrighi’s schema as a ‘spiral’: “Capitalism's movement must be seen as discontinuous but expansive. With each crisis, it mutates into a larger sphere of activity and a wider field of penetration, of control, investment, and transformation.” Fredric Jameson, ‘Culture and Finance Capital’, Critical Inquiry, 24.1 (1997), pp. 246–65. ↑
- Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992). ↑
- Critiques of the financialization thesis, and Giovanni Arrighi’s influential schema in particular, have come from thinkers as varied as Robert Brenner and Moishe Postone. Brenner has questioned the notion of financial sector dynamism, pointing to increased competition between firms and repeated state bailouts as examples of a fundamental instability at the heart of so-called financialization. Postone, on the other hand, has critiqued Arrighi directly, arguing that the category of capital is fundamentally undertheorized in The Long Twentieth Century. By conflating capital’s boom-and-bust cycles with the rise and fall of hegemons, Arrighi overemphasizes the role of the state, while simultaneously overlooking the categories essential to Marx’s critique–value, commodity, capital–a critique that Postone, curiously, also makes of Brenner. Robert Brenner and S J Jeong, ‘Overproduction Not Financial Collapse Is the Heart of the Crisis: The US, East Asia, and the World’, The Asia-Pacific Journal, 7.6 (2009) <https://apjjf.org/-Robert-Brenner/3043/article.html>; Moishe Postone, ‘Theorizing the Contemporary World: Robert Brenner, Giovanni Arrighi, David Harvey’, in Political Economy of the Present and Possible Global Future(s) (Anthem Press, 2009). ↑
- These include finance capital, monopoly capital, dependency and world-systems theory. See Stuart Hall, ‘Race, Articulation and Societies Structured in Dominance’ (Duke University Press, 2021) for a survey of theoretical articulations. ↑
- Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Abolition Geography: Essays towards Liberation (London ; New York: Verso, 2022). ↑
- “Militarily, the US army got into ever more serious troubles in Vietnam; financially, the US Federal Reserve found it difficult and then impossible to preserve the mode of production and regulation of world money established at Bretton Woods; and ideologically, the US government’s anti-communist crusade began losing legitimacy both at home and abroad. The crisis deteriorated quickly, and by 1973 the US government had retreated on all fronts.” Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century, p. 309. ↑
- Cédric Durand, Fictitious Capital: How Finance Is Appropriating Our Future (London ; New York: Verso, 2017). ↑
- Bellona Editorial Collective, ‘A Secret Betrayed: An Art and Value Reading List’, Bellona Magazine, 2022 January 5 <https://bellonamag.com/a-secret-betrayed-an-art-and-value-reading-list>; Dave Beech, Art and Value: Art’s Economic Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics, Historical Materialism Book Series, volume 94 (Boston: Brill, 2015). ↑
- Costas Lapavitsas, ‘The Financialization of Capitalism: “Profiting without Producing”’, City, 17.6 (2013), pp. 792–805. ↑
- Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, V. 1: Penguin Classics (London ; New York, N.Y: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review, 1981), p. 1044. ↑
- Bernard Miège, The Capitalization of Cultural Production (New York, N.Y.: International General, 1989) quoted in Brett Christophers, ‘Cultural Industries and the (Geographical) Political Economy of the Media’, in Mediated Geographies and Geographies of Media, ed. by Susan P. Mains, Julie Cupples, and Chris Lukinbeal (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 2015), pp. 65–80. ↑
- Christophers, ‘Cultural Industries and the (Geographical) Political Economy of the Media’. ↑
- Andrew deWaard, ‘Wall Street’s Content Wars: Financing Media Consolidation’, 2021 <https://escholarship.org/content/qt4kg2h4gk/qt4kg2h4gk.pdf?t=q9vegd>. ↑
- Yinka Adegoke and Megan Davies, ‘Blavatnik’s Access Wins Warner Music for $3.3 Billion’, Reuters, 2011 May 6 <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-warnermusic/blavatniks-access-wins-warner-music-for-3-3-billion-idUSTRE74407920110506>. ↑
- David Turner, ‘How Private Equity Drained the Record Industry’, Penny Fractions, 2020 May 13 <https://www.getrevue.co/profile/pennyfractions/issues/penny-fractions-how-private-equity-drained-the-record-industry-244785?utm_campaign=Issue&utm_content=view_in_browser&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Penny+Fractions>. ↑
- Cathy Applefeld Olson, ‘Blackstone Invests $1 Billion In Music Copyrights Via Hipgnosis Partnership’, Forbes, 2021 October 21 <https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathyolson/2021/10/12/blackstone-invests-1-billion-in-music-copyrights-via-hipgnosis-partnership/?sh=ac30e7f3b24b>. ↑
- Melissa Karsh, ‘KKR Buys Music Rights Portfolio for $1.1 Billion From Kobalt’, Bloomberg, 2021 October 19 <https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-10-19/kkr-buys-music-rights-portfolio-for-1-1-billion-from-kobalt>. ↑
- ‘What Is Dollar Age?’, Royalty Exchange, 2019 <https://www.royaltyexchange.com/blog/what-is-dollar-age>. ‘Dollar Age’ is a “time-weighted measurement of a catalog’s likely stability of earnings based on the revenue produced in the last year factored against the age of the songs included.” ↑
- Wendy Lee and Stacy Perman, ‘Warner Music Group Launches IPO, Sets Price at $25 a Share’, Los Angeles Times, 2020 June 3 <https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/business/story/2020-06-03/warner-music-group-launches-ipo-sets-price-at-25-a-share>. ↑
- Geoff Mayfield, ‘Universal Music’s Shares Soar 36.5% at First Day of Trading’s Close’, Variety, 2021 September 21 <https://variety.com/2021/music/news/universal-music-shares-ipo-1235070391/>. ↑
- Tim Ingham, ‘If Universal Music Sells Its Spotify Stock Right Now, Artists Get $500 Million’, Rolling Stone, 2021 February 11 <https://www.rollingstone.com/pro/features/universal-music-spotify-ownership-artists-1126893/>. ↑
- Ted Giola, ‘Is Old Music Killing New Music?’, The Honest Broker, 2022 January 19 <https://tedgioia.substack.com/p/is-old-music-killing-new-music>. ↑
- Karl Marx, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, Die Revolution, 1852 <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/>. ↑
- Billboard now publishes ‘Latin’, ‘Afrobeats’ and ‘K-Pop’ charts. ↑
- Shain Shapiro, ‘Want Proof Investing In Music Works? Look At South Korea’, Forbes, 2021 July 6 <https://www.forbes.com/sites/shainshapiro/2021/07/06/want-proof-investing-in-music-works-look-at-south-korea/?sh=2078edadcb4b>. ↑
- Patrick Frater, ‘For Big Hit Entertainment Stock, BTS Is (Still) the Ticket’, Variety, 2021 January 22 <https://variety.com/2021/biz/asia/big-hit-entertainment-bts-stock-ipo-1234890254/>; Jin-seong Kim, ‘K-Pop Fan Engagement Platform DearU Prices IPO above Range’, The Korea Economic Daily, 2021 October 28 <https://www.kedglobal.com/music-entertainment/newsView/ked202110280013>; ‘The South Korean President Tweets a Congratulatory Message to BTS after Their Historic Win at the AMAs’, All KPop, 2021 November 23 <https://www.allkpop.com/article/2021/11/the-south-korean-president-tweets-a-congratulatory-message-to-bts-after-their-historic-win-at-the-amas>. ↑
- Daniel Peters, ‘Spotify Resolves Dispute with Kakao, Will Restore Removed K-Pop Songs’, NME, 2021 March 11 <https://www.nme.com/news/music/spotify-kakao-k-pop-licensing-dispute-agreement-2898099>. ↑
- Dylan Smith, ‘Warner Music Group Acquires Majority Stake In African Music Company Africori’, Digital Music News, 2022 January 12 <https://www.digitalmusicnews.com/2022/01/12/warner-music-group-acquires-africori/>; Robert Levine, ‘Universal Launches Def Jam Africa as Its Latest Big Bet on the Continent’, Billboard, 2020 May 26 <https://www.billboard.com/pro/universal-music-def-jam-africa-launch-expansion/>. ↑
- Charmaine Chua et al., ‘Introduction: Turbulent Circulation: Building a Critical Engagement with Logistics’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 36.4 (2018), pp. 617–29; Jasper Bernes, ‘Logistics, Counterlogistics and the Communist Prospect’, Endnotes, 3, 2013 <https://endnotes.org.uk/issues/3/en/jasper-bernes-logistics-counterlogistics-and-the-communist-prospect#:~:text=We%20might%20imagine%2C%20then%2C%20a,within%20the%20flows%20of%20capital.>. ↑
- Michael Heinrich, An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012), p. 167. Alternately, Max Haiven refers to finance as a disciplinary mechanism of capitalist power, one whose primary purpose is to mobilize debt (of individuals, of firms, of governments) as a means to better extort and exploit labour, generate and circulate surplus value, and shape the reproduction of social and economic life.” Max Haiven, Cultures of Financialization: Fictitious Capital in Popular Culture and Everyday Life (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p. 12. ↑
- ‘2008 Year-End Shipment Statistics’ (RIAA, 2008) <https://swap.stanford.edu/20090621140006/http://22.214.171.124/1D212C0E-408B-F730-65A0-C0F5871C369D.pdf>; Nikolaus T. Butz and others, ‘Technological and Consumer Shifts in the Music Industry’, Journal of Case Studies, 35 (2017), pp. 73–90. ↑
- Simon Frith, “The Industrialization of Popular Music” in Taking Popular Music Seriously: Selected Essays, (Routledge, 2017) <https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315087467>, pp. 93-118. ↑
- To this point, I have avoided discussion of blockchain- and web3-based financialization. This is due, in part, to the length at which I have addressed the subject elsewhere. It is also because, despite claims to the contrary, web3 can only be understood as an extension of the financial logics explored so far, arising as it does from the libertarian ideologies and finance-fuelled social relations of Silicon Valley. Gabriel Meier, ‘The General Intellect and its Discontents’, Bellona Magazine, 1 (2021) <https://bellonamag.com/the-general-intellect-and-its-discontents.> ↑
- Robin Blackburn, ‘Finance and the Fourth Dimension’, New Left Review, 39 (2006), pp. 39–70 <https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii39/articles/robin-blackburn-finance-and-the-fourth-dimension>. ↑
- Marc Hogan, ‘This Is How Much More Money Artists Earn From Bandcamp Compared to Streaming Services’, Pitchfork, 2020 June 4 <https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/how-much-more-money-artists-earn-from-bandcamp-compared-to-spotify-apple-music-youtube/>; Matt McDermott, ‘Anti-Algorithmic Music: How Bandcamp Is Helping Artists Beat The Odds’, Resident Advisor, 2020 July 2 <https://ra.co/features/3703>. ↑
- Randy Martin, Financialization of Daily Life (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002), p. 10. ↑
- Haiven, Cultures of Financialization, p. 144. ↑
- In order for value to be universalized through general commodity production, the use value of concrete labor is made subsidiary to the exchange value of abstract labor. Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, (London: Penguin books, 1993), pp. 104-105. ↑
- John Milios and Dimitris Sotiropoulos, Rethinking Imperialism: A Study of Capitalist Rule (Basingstoke [England] ; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 173. ↑