“Cultural Capital” and the Radical Monetization of the Music Industry – CCA 2011

Paper presented by Brian Fauteux at the Canadian Communication Association Conference, 2011

The fundamental flaw with current attempts to monetize the digital music industry is that they insist on treating music as a commodity. A recent column by Dwayne Winseck from the Globe and Mail (May 17th) notes that overall music sales fell by around 30 percent from 2004 to 2009 worldwide, and in Canada, the figures are even worse, with recorded music sales dropping to a third of what they were in 2004. However, Winseck points out the important fact that “the music business appears to be in peril only if we focus on just one element of the business, the “recorded music” segment. Yet, doing so ignores the three fastest growing segments of the business: concerts, Internet and mobile phones and publishing rights.” The music industry, in actuality, has grown from roughly $1.26 billion in 1998 to just over $1.4 billion today.

Treating music primarily as a commodity is a very modern phenomenon made possible by technological developments, such as the various stages of mass produced recorded music that we have witnessed over the past decades. However, the digital revolution has reasserted music as shared culture, and successful monetization will require that music be treated as such. The days of selling music as product are over. Nevertheless, there is still money to be made, and a vibrant community of artists and fans require financial capital in order to foster and sustain creativity. What we propose through this project is a radical monetization of the music industry based on equity, transparency, and social sharing.

Unfortunately, many of the proposals and ideas put forth in terms of how the industry might be updated given the contemporary cultural and technological climate still take economic and legal dominant ideologies as the standard. Musicians, producers and industry “middle men” are still considered distinct or separate from users and listeners.

Emergent cultural and technological practices are very much in use by fans, artists, listeners and producers, but they have yet to replace the current economic or business model in place.  The so-called “celestial jukebox,” in which any cultural artefact is available to entertainment units and mobile devices via wireless delivery has been theorized for some time now, most prominently by Paul Goldstein, Patrick Burkart, and Tom McCourt. Recently, the technological apparatus is catching up to this fantasy: cloud computing is the latest tech trend, and both Google and Amazon have launched their limited but impressive “music in the cloud” services. Given the current possibilities for connection between artists and listeners, and the vibrant sharing cultures that are evidently and explicitly the norm for many users and listeners of music, a rethinking of the role of the user is absolutely necessary, where fan is ultimately a promoter, central to the distribution process. Alongside musicians and artists, producers, distributors, promoters, listeners, photographers and fans are all integral components of the music industry; now able to connect with each other like never before.

For these reasons and to facilitate this radical monetization, our goal is to establish a non-profit infrastructure called “Cultural Capital,” a patronage system between artists and fans that will operate as a social network and utilize an adaptable algorithm that allocates equitable compensation via micropayment. Redefining what it means to be a “creator” of music, the “Cultural Capital” platform aims to realize the capital in both a listener’s capacity for connection and desire to share music. No capital will be wasted on “middlemen,” no power will be granted to “gatekeepers.” Rather, generated profits will be redistributed to artists and the fans whose cultural labour propels them. By doing so, we will redefine the idea of what it means to be a “creator” of music, incorporating the multitude of individuals who contribute to the creative industries. The boundaries between listeners and bands will be diminished by this service, with the ultimate goal of taking full advantage of the capacity for connection, and the sharing of music.

“Cultural Capital” operates on two fronts. First, it is a network where social data is aggregated and users interact; profile pages for both artists and users are generated from public social media Application Programming Interfaces (or APIs), like Twitter, Flickr, Last.fm, Facebook, Songkick, etc. in order to create an aggregated user-driven portal that encourages active, legal sharing of music and content, including photography, video, fan art, concert reviews, and so forth.

Second, it is background software that tracks the musical consumption of users, then suggests equitable payment through a micropayment subscription fee, promoting ethical consumption by users and ethical production by artists. The subscription will not be to any one company in particular. Rather, cultural consumption is tracked and the pool of subscription funds is allocated based on each user’s preference. Subscribers control a dashboard of sliding scales, with visualized payment distribution, based on either the artists or songs they wish to support, or a chosen algorithm that allocates based on specific properties (such as “most listened,” “most in need,” “most local,” and “most shared”), or a combination.

We are still throwing around ideas about the actual operations of this system, and we will likely bring in some programmers soon to help with this aspect of the project. However, numerous models already in existence help to shed light on how something like this can function.

The value-added for users participating in this system includes: cultural sustainability (most listeners and music fans want to support artists directly, not just the outdated system that is currently in operation), status and distinction (a largely untapped motivating factor in the consumption of music), social connection (cultural consumption being a key medium in modern personal relationships and identity formation), and a credit system that rewards users for their cultural labour, such as access to exclusive material supplied by participating artists and record labels, and participatory status indicators on their user-profiles. Exceptional users, or “power users” will be monitored both by users, in a fashion similar to that popularized and (near) perfected by Wikipedia, as well as by algorithmic evaluation. But it is artists who have the most to gain from the “Cultural Capital” system. They will be compensated by receiving capital directly from users, circumventing the dominant industry model. The pressure to put up enough financial resources to produce and distribute a physical album will be lessened. Initially, the “Cultural Capital” system would actually be realizing surplus profit for the current record industry, but it would slowly shift the rules of the game; users and artists would become the distribution process – legitimizing an unacknowledged role which they already play.

The “Cultural Capital” system follows a number of theoretical and practical traditions and lines of thought that we are quite influenced by.

The first is Jacques Attali’s “Composing” or “composition” stage from Noise: The Political Economy of Music. His essential argument is that music, as a cultural form, is intimately tied up in the mode of production in any given society. For some critics, this idea is nothing new. The novelty of Attali’s work is that it reverses the traditional understandings about how revolutions in the mode of production take place, namely the predictive force of music.

Attali believes that music has gone through distinct cultural stages in its history: Sacrificing, Representing, and Repeating. He also anticipates a fourth cultural stage which is referred to as “Composing” or “Post-Repeating.” These stages are each linked to a certain “mode of production”; that is to say, each of these stages carries with it a certain set of technologies for producing, recording and disseminating music, and also concomitant cultural structures that allow for music’s transmission and reception.

The “repeating” stage is what we are most familiar with, as it is the current dominant musical stage and has been for some time, though this has not always been the case. Repeating refers to the era of recorded and broadcasted sound—roughly 1900 AD-present. During this period, notation (the written guide to how music should be sounded) was replaced by recording (music preserved on a medium such as vinyl or disc).

In this era, each musical work is contrasted to the other versions of itself—the question for musicians becomes: how can they reproduce the “original” recording? Attali argues that “for popular music, this has meant the gradual death of small bands, who have been reduced to faithful imitations of recording stars. For the classical repertory, it means the danger… of imposing all of the aesthetic criteria of repetition—made of rigor and cold calculation—upon representation” (Attali, 85). Of course, this era has inspired a multitude of critical work, such as the culture industry critiques put forth by The Frankfurt School and many others.

Attali, in his chapter on “Composing,” says that there is the potential for “the advent of a radically new form of the insertion of music into communication,” one overturning all concepts of political economy (134). He clearly lays out the fact that composition involves the making of music for the sake of it, or for one’s own pleasure, and not for the accumulation of value, and he emphasizes that composition also calls into question the distinction between “worker and consumer.” The idea here is to enable musicians and artists to sustain themselves, through the involvement of listeners – as funding patrons and as cultural intermediaries that are central to the circulation of music and culture. The idea is not to accumulate profits for an intermediary industry. As Attali writes, “Music is no longer made to be represented or stockpiled, but for participation in collective play, in an ongoing quest for new, immaculate communication, without ritual and always unstable.” (141). He begins to outline the technologies for which to facilitate this era, noting that devices like the tape recorder and photography will mutate the consumer to a producer (144). Nowadays, obviously, there are countless ways that listeners and music fans “produce” music and culture, and we need a model that recognizes and allows for this. “If representation is tied to printing,” says Attali, “and repetition to recording… composition is tied to the instrument.” (51)    Unbeknownst to Attali, this instrument would be the Internet, the ultimate musical instrument for collective production and collective play. The Round Dance – the culmination of twenty-five centuries of musical struggle Attali anticipates, signalling a post- capitalistic future – occurs in the electronic global village. Unfortunately, much of this collective music-making and sharing is illegal under current legal regimes.

Lawrence Lessig’s recent work on remixing and sharing and hybrid economies is also very central to this project. Lessig is quite critical of the legal restriction inhibiting sharing and creating from already existing culture. He asks, “Why should it be that just when technology is most encouraging of creativity, the law should be most restrictive?” (105). The result of the industry ignoring file sharing for so long, according to Lessig and other critics, is that an entire generation grew up with a different ethic of music and a different understanding of the commodity. To outlaw filesharing is to make 1/3 of the population a criminal, and that raises pretty substantive questions regarding justice, and for whom the law is meant to serve or protect. In short, we simply can’t go back to the way things were. Lessening or abandoning altogether the laws that restrict the sharing of music will best allow for a hybrid economy between music listeners and artists to flourish. Lessig argues that hybrid economies will dominate the architecture for commerce on the Web and it will change the way sharing economies function. He offers pointed suggestions for doing this, including “deregulating amateur creativity,” simplifying copyright laws, decriminalizing copies and, perhaps most importantly, file-sharing. A large component of the functioning and sustaining of hybrid cultures is that people need to feel a part of something important. Lessig lists a number of examples where this happens in community and collaboration spaces, such as last.fm.

We opted for the name “Cultural Capital,” inspired by Bourdieu’s use of the term, to emphasize the central role of individuals in sustaining this system. Bourdieu points out the various forms of capital in artistic production, whether through consecrating works of art with symbolic capital, or accumulating cultural capital by collecting, sharing, distributing and so forth. Bourdieu outlines deeply embedded systems of cultural distinction and symbolic exchange, and we’re simply making these codes transparent, and ultimately using it to finance and support artistic production and the sharing of cultural products. Individuals generate “cultural capital” through such things as status indicators or access to exclusive content, and this will generate interest in participating in the system, and ultimately it will sustain and become the system. This “radical monetization” is an intentional misnomer: radical in its scope of overhauling the infrastructure of the music industry perhaps, but almost banal in its effort to simply give musicians and listeners what they want.

We are currently working towards launching a website where we can vent ideas, generate feedback. Targeting advanced music-sharing communities to get feedback and ideas as well.

But, would absolutely love some feedback from academic experts in the field as well. Also, if you would like to get involved, or know of anyone who might, please let me know. We’re eventually going to start a blog centred around these ideas that is primarily theoretical and idea-based, as well as a wiki that is more practical for working through other aspects of the project, such as finding programmers and funding.

The cultural, legal, and technological flux in the music industry provides us a great opportunity to establish a more egalitarian system, and we simply wish to be part of that conversation. We believe academics should be more involved in the pragmatics of culture, rather than mere commentators. We really have a great opportunity to take advantage of the connectivity between users and producers, and the industry overall, so to speak, can really benefit from integrating all of the parties that contribute so much to the creation and sharing of music. “Cultural Capital” encourages and monetizes creativity through a cultural philosophy that takes full advantage of the contemporary musical, social, and technological environment. Listeners and fans should be recognized and compensated for their participation in the creative industries and cultural production. In turn, the music industry becomes economically viable by paying artists for their hard work and creative efforts. It is time to establish the infrastructure to fully embrace shared culture.

Works Cited

Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Field of Cultural Production. Ed. Randal Johnson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Lessig, Lawrence. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. New York: The Penguin Press, 2008.

Winseck, Dwayne. “Restrictive copyright plays into music industry myths.” Globe and Mail. 17 May 2011 <http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/technology/digital-culture/dwayne-winseck/restrictive-copyright-plays-into-music-industry-myths/article2023845/>.