If the Song has No Price, is it Still a Commodity? : Rethinking the Commodification of Digital Music


  • Rasmus Fleischer Stockholm University




Capital, commodification, commodity-form, digital distribution, media industries, music, political economy, reification, Spotify, streaming, subscriptions


In music streaming services like Spotify, discrete pieces of music no longer has a price, as has traditionally been the case in music retailing, both analog and digital. This article discusses the theoretical and practical implications of this shift towards subscriptions, starting from a critical review of recent literature dealing with the commodification of music. The findings have a relevance that is not limited to music or digital media, but also apply more broadly on the study of commodification. At the theoretical level, the article compares two ways of defining the commodity, one structural (Marx), one situational (Appadurai, Kopytoff), arguing for the necessity of a theory that can distinguish commodities from all that which is not (yet) commodified. This is demonstrated by taking Spotify as a case, arguing that it does not sell millions of different commodities to its users, but only one: the subscription itself. This has broad economic and cultural implications, of which four are highlighted: (1) The user of Spotify has no economic incentive to limit music listening, because the price of a subscription is the same regardless of the quantity of music consumed. (2) For the same reason, Spotify as a company cannot raise its revenues by making existing customers consume more of the product, but only by raising the number of subscribers, or by raising the price of a subscription. (3) Within platforms like Spotify, it is not possible to use differential pricing of musical recordings, as has traditionally been the case in music retail. Accordingly, record companies or independent artists hence can no longer compete for listeners by offering their music at a discount. (4) Within the circuit of capital. Spotify may actually be better understood as a commodity producer than as a distributor, implying a less symbiotic relationship to the recorded music industry.

Author Biography

Rasmus Fleischer, Stockholm University

Rasmus Fleischer is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Economic History. His main research interests are located in the intersections of cultural economy, media history, and history of consumption. So far, an area of special interest has been the commodification of music. But he has also published work on critical theory, crisis theory, nationalism in popular culture, and radical right-wing ideology.


Akst, Daniel (2005): “Unbundles of Joy”, The New York Times, Dec. 11.

Appadurai, Arjun (1986): “Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value”, Ar­jun Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspec­tive, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 3–64. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511819582.003

Attali, Jacques (1985): Noise. The Political Economy of Music, Minneapolis: Univer­sity of Minnesota Press.

Beech, Dave (2015): Art and Value. Art’s Economic Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics, Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Carr, Nicholas (2008): The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, New York: Norton.

Clarke, Simon (1982): Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology: from Adam Smith to Max Weber, London: Macmillan.

Elberse, Anita (2010): “Bye Bye Bundles: The Unbundling of Music in Digital Chan­nels”, Journal of Marketing 74:3. https://doi.org/10.1509/jmkg.74.3.107

Fleischer, Rasmus (2012): Musikens politiska ekonomi. Lagstiftningen, ljudmedierna och försvaret av den levande musiken, 1925–2000, Stockholm: Ink bokförlag.

Fleischer, Rasmus (2015): “Towards a Postdigital Sensibility: How to get Moved by too Much Music”, Culture Unbound 7, 255–269. https://doi.org/10.3384/cu.2000.1525.1572255

Fleischer, Rasmus & Pelle Snickars (2017): “Discovering Spotify – A Thematic Intro­duction”, Culture Unbound, 9:1, 1–16. https://doi.org/10.3384/cu.2000.1525.1792130

Galuszka, Patryk (2015): “Music Aggregators and Intermediation of the Digital Mu­sic Market”, International Journal of Communication 9.

Graeber, David (2001): Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value. The False Coin of our own dreams, New York: Palgrave. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780312299064

Haug, Wolfgang Fritz (2010): “Kommodifizierung”, in Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Frigga Haug und Peter Jehle (eds.), Historisch-kritisches Wörterbuch des Marxismus, Bd 7/2, Knechtschaft bis Krise des Marxismus, columns 1243–1255, Hamburg: Argu­ment.

Heinrich, Michael (2012): An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capi­tal, New York: Monthly Review Press.

IFPI (2007): “Digital Music Report 2007”, available at: http://www.ifpi.org/content/ library/digital-music-report-2007.pdf (accessed 09/09/16).

Jameson, Fredric (2009): Valences of the Dialectic, London: Verso.

Johansson, Daniel (2013): “From Products to Consumption. Changes on the Swedish Music Market as a Result of Streaming Technologies”, Working Paper, Linnaeus University, Sweden.

Kopytoff, Igor (1986): “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commodization as Pro­cess”, Arjun Appadurai (ed): The Social Life of Things. Commodities in a Cultural Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 64–91. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511819582.004

Kurz, Robert (2012) Geld ohne Wert: Grundrisse zu einer Transformation der Kritik der politischen ökonomie, Berlin: Horlemann.

Lukács, Georg (1923/1971): “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat”, in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, London: Merlin Press.

Martin, Stewart (2007): ”The Absolute Artwork Meets the Absolute Commodity”, Radical Philosophy 146, 15–25.

Marx, Karl (1867/1962): Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Erster Band: Der Produktionsprozeß des Kapitals, reprinted as Marx-Engels-Werke (MEW), volume 23, Berlin: Dietz Verlag.

Marx, Karl (1885/1963): Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Zweiter Band: Der Zirkulationsprozeß des Kapitals, reprinted as Marx-Engels-Werke (MEW), volume 24, Berlin: Dietz Verlag.

Manzerolle, Vincent R. & Atle Mikkola Kjøsen (2012): “The Communication of Ca­pital: Digital Media and the Logic of Acceleration”, Triple C 10 (2), 214-229.

Morris, Jeremy Wade (2015): Selling Digital Music, Formatting Culture, Oakland: University of California Press. https://doi.org/10.1080/17510694.2015.1090222

Morris, Jeremy Wade & Devon Powers (2015): “Control, Curation and Musical Experience in Streaming Music Services”, Creative Industries Journal 8 (2), pp. 106–122.

Pakman, David (2011): “The Unbundling of Media”, blog post available at: http:// www.pakman.com/2011/04/15/the-unbundling-of-media/ (accessed 16/03/17).

Postone, Moishe (1993) Time, Labor, and Social Domination. A reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511570926

Reitman, Rainey (2016) “The Kafkaesque Battle of Soulseek and PayPal, and Why Free Speech Defenders Should be Worried About Payment Networks”, Electronic Frontier Foundation, February 25, available at: http://www.ifpi.org/content/libra­ry/digital-music-report-2007.pdf (accessed 16/03/17).

Rose, Carol (2005): “Afterword: Wither Commodification”, Martha M. Ertman & Joan C. Williams (eds.): Rethinking Commodification: Cases and Readings in Law and Culture, New York: New York University Press, 402–428. https://doi.org/10.3366/nfs.2005-3.008

Seabrook, John (2014): “Revenue Streams. Is Spotify the Music Industry’s Friend or its Foe?”, The New Yorker, November 24, 2014.

Sterne, Jonathan (2012): MP3. The Meaning of a Format, Durham: Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822395522

Styvén, Maria (2007): Exploring the Online Music Market. Consumer Characteristics and Value Perceptions, diss. Luleå tekniska universitet.

Söderberg, Johan (2008): Hacking Capitalism. The Free and Open Source Software Movement, New York: Routledge.

Taylor, Timothy D. (2006): “Music + Digital Culture: New Forms of Consumption and Commodification”, Paul Messaris & Lee Humphreys (eds.): Digital Media: Transformations in Human Communication, New York: Lang, 87–96.

Taylor, Timothy D. (2007): “The Commodification of Music at the Dawn of the Era of ‘Mechanical Music’”, Ethnomusicology 51 (2), 281–305.

Taylor, Timothy D. (2015): Music and Capitalism. A History of the Present, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Waelbroeck, Patrick (2013): “Digital Music: Economic Perspectives”. Availa­ble at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2249690 or https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2249690

Wikström, Patrik (2009): The Music Industry: Music in the Cloud, Cambridge: Polity.

Williams, Raymond (1973) “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory”, New Left Review I (82).




How to Cite

Fleischer, R. (2017) “ If the Song has No Price, is it Still a Commodity? : Rethinking the Commodification of Digital Music”, Culture Unbound, 9(2), pp. 146–162. doi: 10.3384/cu.2000.1525.1792146.



Discovering Spotify