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