A Discourse On The Commodification Of Music
A Call To Arms
by Demosthenes / FCI


Music: an expression of humanity, escape, a soundtrack to life, deep passion....
Purpose: to share ideas, stories, and create a common bond between peoples and groups of people....

In the year 2002, the practices of the music industry have gone astray from developing artists and supporting a musical community. Instead, priorities have shifted to create easy-to-swallow compositions and commodify trends in order to simply reach the capitalist ultimatum of creating wealth most completely and efficiently. Music is commodified under the rules of large media companies, and as many have heard before, "an album as a complete body of work by an artist" isn't as important as its internal reference as a "unit." Note that a unit is also what cereal companies consider a box of cereal in your grocery store: simply units to consume, defecate, and throw away.

Now, this revelation didn't come to me without experience. I, for one, had the thought that perhaps things truly were different, that an artist can truly function within the framework of the culture-machines that we have today. My experience had me existing for a short while in the media Babylon of Los Angeles. Surrounded by many other souls attempting to live their dreams, achieve their creative nirvana, and, yes, make boatloads of money. The actual climate coupled with the mental landscape created a virtual world of escapism where people could expose their eccentricities for all to see. This insular city had its own way of thinking and perceiving the world. Seeing that the general populace of Earth consumes what is created out of this area like starving wolves, it is unavoidable not to be under the influence of its haze of grandiosity. I didn't realize it at the time, but even I got caught up in the currents of achieving "success" along with the myriad masses around me, drunk on visions and possibilities as if the gods slipped ethereal ambrosia into my water.

I was whisked away to a magnificent studio with a larger budget than anything I have ever been a part of musically, simply to create a three-song demonstration for the higher-ups to decide whether the music I was a part of was a viable investment. Our "demo" was a well-produced masterpiece of rock n' roll with Pro-Tooled vocals and spliced choruses; we were the perfect versions of our selves, humans that make no flaws.

We flew to New York City and were put up in a fancy designer hotel in Times Square to showcase ourselves for the important decision makers and strategically meet with others in the "industry." I experienced the ego-stroking that you only hear about but never really believe is reality: for example, a man, sitting across from me, looking me straight into the eyes with fervor in his voice, braying, "I am going to take you to the top ... because I WIN." This and many other catch phrases were some of the shameless mental foreplay tactics I experienced. We played games with A&R types and others like a game of courtship with a woman, where you can let your thoughts of fondness remain hidden. They moved deftly to avoid commitments yet brought us flowers and lusty chocolates.

The moment of truth while in the den of wolves came when one particular shiny-headed higher-up, who referred to pop icon Brittney Spears by first-name basis "Brittney" (the following quote is enhanced if read with a tenor smoker's voice and a slight New York accent), said to us, "Give us the song ... then do your art." In that moment, I silently thanked him for his honesty and understood the game and its formula for success. No matter who you are and how passionate you are, you must first provide what the culture-sellers want in the form of their current formula of composition and a sound loaded with sonic MSG. To make a long story short, things deteriorated after that and we weren't the next investment for whatever reason. I split from this musical group and went back happily to working with the independent community.

With all this in account, I came to understand that within the structure of major labels that artists are never truly themselves. Perhaps they are parodies of themselves, dumbed down initially and then perhaps at a later point allowed to make their Kid A (see footnote 1). The decision of being an ARTIST or an ENTERTAINER is what must be considered at the point of possible acceptance within the halls of the culture-sellers. True artists express the invisible currents of human unconsciousness with all their souls intuitively, even expressing similar ideas with other artists unknowingly in synchronicity. Entertainers, like clowns, parody themselves and make large movements to be seen from the cheap seats. The entertainer/artist may still be passionate but they also walk both paths and in the end can only be taken as seriously as an anthropologist in a clown suit selling hamburgers. Yes, he may have some poignant things to say, but how seriously can we take him? Some may be able to see past his decorum, but to many he will still be a clown.

Ultimately, the problem we have is with the way these media companies work and the way the A&R people (culture-farmers) handle their product of music, artists, and entertainers. What must be understood by the people in the "industry" is that by being someone who is a culture-farmer, there is a social responsibility to what you are unleashing upon the world. In reality, the style and message is secondary since constant advertising can cause anything to be accepted. As a culture-farmer, shouldn't the goal be to truly spread new ideas through the media world and to expand the minds of the listeners? Shouldn't compositions cause listeners to think? Would you ask Bach, who wrote symphonies to glorify God's grandeur, to write something dumbed down so "more people can understand"? Selling culture carries with it a heavy responsibility, especially at the scale of large media giants (culture-machines). They influence the minds and development of people.

As we can all see ... something has gone terribly wrong.

The culture-machine uses a safety net of easy-to-swallow compositions and a keen awareness of social trends in order to make profit. The concern is not of what is being put out there, but what the financial return is.
Now with all this, we start to link up to many more social issues and discourses. In literature, several authors made such predictions:

* Jules Verne, in his 19th-century "Paris in the 20th Century," predicted a society gone awry and obsessed with economics and successes of industry. Music and art become commodities that uplift the progress of the economy/industry and swoon the listener with the perfectly calculated combination of notes that tickle the cerebrum. Artists are a lost race, existing in the fringes.

* Aldous Huxley, in A Brave New World, foresaw a disconnected society that falls prey to calculated pleasures of the senses and doesn't question the system except in small pockets.

* H.G. Wells, in Tono-Bungay, weaved a tale of the rise of unethical capitalism and the obsession of commerce and product.
These are just a few, but the predictions are everywhere in literature and art as to the society that is being cultivated around us right now.


The Internet has become a powerful tool to spread ideas and expression in sound and vision. A result of this has been the creation of file-sharing networks such as Napster and Gnutella, where people trade music and software freely. There has been much debate in the past few years as to copyright infringement with the phenomenon of file sharing. However, what was seen throughout the time of Napster was an increase in independent music sales. What obviously is damaged by file-swapping (in particular, music files) is mega-giant pop acts, such as Brittney Spears, who either flame out brilliantly or exist forever if strategic planners play their cards right. But either way, music has always been pushed through the means of radio and television with the "single." The result of the file-sharing universe is that the instant gratification of downloading the ear-candy single is done instantaneously without thought. There is no loyalty. The single and media icon are hyperexposed in society through cross-promotions, and when the desire to have "that catchy tune" comes through one's mind, it is a mere click away. After it is consumed, those misled by the culture-machines just await the next wave. Media culture becomes disposable and accelerates through trends and attention spans at an uncanny pace.

Now, why this lack of loyalty doesn't exist within the independent realm is that the idolatry that is built upon by large media giants for ultimate sales efficiency doesn't exist nearly as strongly. A large body of independent music consumers are apt to understand that independent artists need to survive, and these consumers purchase the music, purchase the t-shirt, go to a concert, etc., etc., as support. They become a thinking body of smart consumers. The existence of file sharing is positive as it spreads ideas, and wealth is shared among a larger body of artists and lovers of art. This, of course, is not what large media corporations desire. It will essentially force them to scale down into smaller companies and destroy the capitalist model it is built upon and thus incur less mass revenue. Everything is gradually pushing towards the free spread of wealth and knowledge. It is inevitable that the nature of the Internet leans toward socializing a society of connected peoples.

This problem connects to a grander social issue of the current practice of "unethical capitalism," of political systems, and the society we live in. In order to keep people in check, do we dumb down to them? The idea that it may be even slightly so instills fear in me for the future. However, the ways the Internet is connecting people and spreading ideas on a more or less equal level can be formidable tools for change. Change never comes quickly, but it can come with patience over time.

Carl Sagan, in Demon-Haunted World, stressed the idea that critical thinking is of utmost importance in the development and learning of people. If we do not question and critically think what we are being taught and exposed to, then we are apt to be controlled and regulated.

Events are unfolding, and media giants are attempting to tame the Internet and its flow of information. A recent bill in the United States, if passed, will allow major labels to employ hacking tactics to crash file-sharing networks. This legalization is an obvious act of fear and is downright unethical, as it attempts to stop flows of information which are vital for social expansion. The fear is that they are losing grasp upon the society and the consumers they helped mold. Their argument is based upon the stealing of copyrighted music files. In the grand scheme of things, the damage upon the culture-machines is small and as it may increase, the question is posited of allowing popular culture to become more mentally challenging in and of itself.

I urge the music and arts community to unite in discourse and action, to question and to promote the idea of the smart consumer, to shift the thoughts of the musician/record label/fan relationship away from the current idolatry to something of equality existing in a symbiotic relationship. I urge the technologically inclined, if and when the bill is passed that allows hacking tactics to crash file-sharing networks, to fight back with even more fervor to hack into major label websites and put up phrases or links to discussions that will make people think. This is a call to arms, a seedling so things don't have as good of a chance to go the twisted paths that authors and thinkers of the past have predicted.

- Demosthenes / FCI
- August 2002, Prague

(If you arrived here by an outside link you may visit FRODUS at www.frodus.com)

Relevant sites to investigate (updated: 08.08.03)

http://anti-dmca.org/take_back/ - Anti-DMCA
http://magnetbox.com/riaa/ - RIAA Radar

1 - Kid A: A breakthrough album by popular music group Radiohead (released in 2001) that, while receiving much radio airplay and visibility, displayed interesting composition and an experimental approach to creating songs with unconventional sounds in the current context of popular music.