In the past, in the pre-historic and pre-modern past, music served to foster social cohesion. From the Javanese gamelan of 9th-Century Indonesia to the Klezmer of the Ashkenazi Jews or the jingoistic anthems of 20th-Century nation states, structured sounds have accompanied social gatherings for millennia, creating the shared emotional focus around which groups unified themselves. Today, however, rather than cultivating warm feelings of unity and togetherness, music's primary function is to sell consumer goods and create the demographics who will buy them.

This is quite some turnaround. Fuelled by the technological revolutions of the past few decades and the continuing decline in record sales, it has transformed music into a glorified manufacturer and identifier of target markets. In this new role, music is still tasked with 'communicating' vital information, but only between producers and consumers. Its proliferating subgenres and divisions work as tags which participate in the construction of the consumer's 'identity', although for 21st-Century purposes this term is more honestly translated as 'marketing profile', since the producers use such 'identities/profiles' to shape their brands, advertisements and messages accordingly. They contrive to have people attach themselves to 'identities/profiles' via the consumption of music (and culture in general), because once these same people have partitioned themselves into marketing classes and communicated 'who they are', they will be so much more receptive to the lie that advertising and branding is speaking to them directly.

But how exactly did music descend to this point? How did it lose its inherent value and become little more than a promotional accessory to big business? This is the question the present essay will explore, setting out the context of the dwindling profitability of music and the industry's resulting shift to alternative revenue streams. While it will acknowledge that streaming, branded digital radio stations and playlists, sponsorships, advertising, and production music have done much to support artists and help music survive in a new commercial environment, it will nonetheless argue that the art form's new, co-opted function as an elaborate marketing device ultimately risks stifling creativity and freedom of expression.

The Vacuum Forms, The Suits Enter

The beginning of all this is already mighty familiar, but for the sake of completeness and clarity it's worth retreading once more. That is, the music industry hit a peak in its global revenues in 1998, around the time radio was being mercilessly terrorized by Celene Dion's ‘My Heart Will Go On’ and proto-nu metal bands like Faith No More, Helmet and Refused were calling it quits in protest. However, the industry wasn't able to bask in its $27.8bn haul for long, since as the story goes, Napster was launched the following year.

Set up by Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker (as well as Shawn's uncle, John), the original Napster was a peer-to-peer file-sharing service that basically allowed your friends to make copies of your albums, except that "your friends" in this case meant everyone on the planet with an internet connection. Needless (yet enjoyable) to say, the industry weren't too hot for it, because it unceremoniously and instantaneously stripped them of their monopoly over the reproduction and distribution of recorded music. While they scratched their heads in the vain hope of coaxing out at least one viable response to this sudden disempowerment, the income they received for rendering services that a growing number of people could perform for themselves proceeded to plummet year-on-year, so that by 2009 US takings for music dropped to $6.3bn from a high in 1999 of $14.6bn.

"Napster's initial run had begun contemplating how they might monetize the new listening platforms people were using and thereby make money out of music when people were no longer willing to pay for it."

For whatever reason, and whether positive or detrimental in the long run, swathes of people had chosen to spend less on CDs, vinyl and cassettes. Responding to an explosion of music made freely (and often illegally) available by Napster and the internet, their demand for records crashed in a strictly economic sense. They no longer had much or any demand for paying £15 for Mariah Carey's latest album (e.g. 2001's Glitter, which bombed), opting instead for one of the abundantly available (and superior) substitutes they could access for nothing. As rosy and as liberating as this new state of affairs was for them, a wide range of musicians joined the industry in fervently denouncing the P2P file-sharing networks plying the globe with free tunes, with Metallica infamously filing a lawsuit against Napster in April 2000.

Even though the resulting court case was judged in the Californian band's favour, and even though Napster was shut down the following year, file sharing and free downloading continued largely unabated, since not even Lars Ulrich himself could shut down the internet. Hence, industry revenues persisted with their free-fall, eventually ushering us to a situation where the average Briton now spends only $20 on music each year.

However, the seeming inevitability of this trend eventually dawned on the Big Five, Four, Three... record labels, who from the end of Napster's initial run had begun contemplating how they might monetize the new listening platforms people were using and thereby make money out of music when people were no longer willing to pay for it. They were confronted by the question of how to fill the vacuum created by the public's abrupt withdrawal of demand, and eventually, after many experiments, missteps and further lawsuits, they realized that it would be filled by demand from corporations and brands.

When Music Can't Sell Itself, It Sells Everything Else

But how, exactly? Well, chief among the points of entry used by traditionally 'non-musical' companies to infiltrate music and expropriate it for their own commercial ends are all the legit streaming and digital download services that have cropped up since the demise of Napster, Kazaa and Audiogalaxy. These services have been the saving grace of the industry since the near-apocalypse it faced during the first years of the 21st Century, what with streaming comprising 32% of the US music industry's proceeds in the first half of this year alone and downloads comprising 40%. Both of these percentages cast the 24% of hard-copy sales in a somewhat unimpressive light, yet it's streaming rather than downloads that's set to become the biggest cash cow for labels, given its superior growth in recent years. In fact, it's already the most lucrative source of income for Warner Music Group, whose Chief Executive Stephen Cooper recently declared that, "streaming’s ongoing expansion will return the industry to sustainable, long-term growth."

This is no doubt good news for the industry, yet it's not so good for music itself. This is because streaming services like Spotify, Rdio, Pandora and Deezer are heavily dependent on advertising and sponsorship deals. Spotfiy, for example, has approximately 60m 'freemium' users and 15m subscribers to its premium package, while Pandora enjoys 80m non-paying users and 3.5m paying customers. Given that there's no such thing as a free lunch, these 'free' services have to be funded by the selling of ad space, with Pandora reportedly extracting 80% of its receipts from commercials. By extension, if labels are receiving a 70% cut from the likes of Spotify, this means that they're earning a substantial portion of their bread, not from selling music per se, but from helping to sell cars, movie tickets and shampoo.

This represents nothing less than a fundamental transition in the economics of music and its wider social significance. Because labels are now becoming rapidly more invested in producing music with the bottom line of attracting advertising dollars, it's no exaggeration to say that the industry's customers are now corporations as much as men and women on the street. Accordingly, its aim now is to produce music that frames brands and consumer products in a positive light, and it aims to please us listeners with 'good music' only insofar as this helps it to secure more profitable advertising deals.

"Through these marketing strategies and gimmicks musicians are essentially being reduced to salespeople, with the music they bleed and sweat out of themselves being harnessed to imbue tacos and sneakers with an artificial glow of saintliness."

A pessimistic view, perhaps, but almost every available sign indicates that this process is only going to accelerate and deepen. To take another example, one of these signs comes from the June launch of Apple Music, another streaming service which, even though it doesn't offer a freemium option like Spotify, has already begun assiduously transforming music into a prop for brands and businesses. Just a couple of weeks ago, Apple announced that it would be partnering with fashion house Burberry to deliver a branded music channel on its new streaming service, in addition to the branded channels its already gifted to the public expressly for the purposes of aggrandizing GQ, Vogue, Rolling Stone, Wired and Pitchfork.

Neither do such curated channels stop with Apple Music, which itself is arguably one ceaseless advert to the wonders of being able to take a photo of yourself on the toilet. Pandora has its own branded radio stations, ditto Songza, while Spotify has a vast array of sponsored playlists, in addition to all the other 'solutions' it offers to brands desperate to endear themselves to people with bad acne. Through these marketing strategies and gimmicks musicians are essentially being reduced to salespeople, with the music they bleed and sweat out of themselves being harnessed to imbue tacos and sneakers with an artificial glow of saintliness.

Not only is this hawking of consumer items now the final target or endpoint of music-making, in that the sale of such items is what (barely) pays a musician's bills. It's also highly effective to boot, at least according to Spotify's own estimations and studies, which claim that streamers "are twice as likely as non-streamers to advocate for and feel emotionally connected to brands." Even if these users regard themselves as too sophisticated and savvy to be consciously swayed by intrusive advertising, the statistics strongly imply that they're being favourably disposed on a more subconscious level towards paying "more for brands", recommending "brands to a friend" and describing a brand as the only "brand for me."

Music as a Generator of Marketable Data

And things get worse, because the future of music as a catalyst for consumption doesn't simply end with shoehorning ads for McDonald's between Rage Against The Machine songs and indiscreetly stamping road-trip playlists with BMW logos. Perhaps the starkest warning as to where music will be sinking in the 21st Century is once again provided by Spotify, who in August updated their privacy agreement so as to indemnify themselves against hoarding your private data. With this update and the insurance it brings them, they will now be harvesting the information you've "stored on your mobile device, such as contacts, photos, or media files", and they'll be 'sharing your information with' (i.e. selling it to) "advertising partners in order to send you promotional communications about Spotify or to show you more tailored content, including relevant advertising for products and services that may be of interest to you."

In other words, they are now analyzing the listening patterns of their users and transforming such patterns into profiles they sell to companies ever hungrier for market research. They refer to such profiles as "audience segments", since they segment the audience into demographics brands can then "target" with advertising, playlists and general voodoo. How much profit Spotify actually reaps from this peddling of their users' activities and personal info isn't particularly hefty at this moment in time, with the Swedish firm's most recent financial statement declaring that subscriptions were responsible for 91% of its $1.22bn inflow in 2014. However, the fact that it has changed its privacy policy betrays its intention to significantly grow this facet of its enterprise, to expand its ability to reduce individual music fans to demographic "segments" and then to auction these segments off to corporations. Indeed, the company's EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) Vice President, Jonathan Forster, hinted at such a strategy recently, complementing the announcement of another survey with the confession, "We believe that there is enormous growth potential in the audio advertising industry."

"They will put their money behind the acts, playlists and festivals which best reinforce the image they want to present to the world, and the bands or scenes that don't quite conform to Burberry's ethic or BMW's principles will be left more and more by the wayside."

Unsurprisingly, it's not only Spotify who are cashing in on their users and reinventing music as a disguised exercise in the forging of target markets. Pandora is in on it too, what with their boast of "allowing advertisers to engage with the most relevant, high-value consumers", and there's good reason to believe that Google Play, YouTube and Rdio are also embroiled in such shenanigans, considering Google's unimpeachable reputation for data gathering and Rdio's new line in Promoted Music Experiences. Aside from the unsettling privacy implications of these exploits, they reveal once again that music makes money, not because people are willing to pay for it directly, but because companies are willing to pay for the data its consumption generates. Such a role empties music of intrinsic value, and implies that it continues to exist and survive, less because it makes the public happy, and more because it enables companies to manipulate this same public more effectively.

Of course, music does continue to make people happy (or sad, or whatever the fashion might be), yet it now appears as though history is nearing a stage where music will have more value for corporations than for listeners, inasmuch they will increasingly be the ones paying for it. Because music will be attuned to their needs and interests at least as much as to ours, they will come to 'own' it in an important symbolic sense. They will put their money behind the acts, playlists and festivals which best reinforce the image they want to present to the world, and the bands or scenes that don't quite conform to Burberry's ethics or BMW's principles will be left more and more by the wayside. What's more, as this sea-change only becomes more pronounced, as big business infiltrates the music industry to a greater extent and becomes its primary driver, music itself will assume a new role as the official cheerleader of consumerism and capitalism.


As depressing as this already sounds, streaming ads, branded playlists and channels, and the monetizing of listening data aren't the only ways the consumer-demand vacuum will be padded out by corporations. No, there are also other testaments to how the listening public's unwillingness to pay for music has created a golden opportunity for companies to shoot their street cred and stock valuations through the roof. There's Taco Bell's interesting if potentially unhealthy Feed the Beet campaign, which capitalizes on our disinterest in financing starving musicians by supplying them with gift cards that can be redeemed for $500-worth of tacos, burritos and quesadillas. There's the Red Bull Music Academy, a "global institution" which organizes a whole gamut of events and now even has its own record label dedicated to giving you wings. There's also the 12 Rubber Tracks recording studios Converse have established in various locations worldwide, helping to bestow 'free' studio time on the talent record labels are too impoverished to nurture themselves.

Then there are the wildly proliferating sponsors of music festivals, brands like H&M, Sephora, Absolut Vodka, Garnier, Heineken, Vita Coco, and Mercedes-Benz. In multiplying numbers, these companies are inundating the festival circuit like a swarm of locusts, profiting from a wounded industry's escalating desperation to compensate for the enduring slump in record sales. Their support of live concerts may help to inject extra cash into the drying coffers of many a label who've signed their naiver artists up to 360 deals, yet their ubiquitous presence contributes to the emergence of a world where full-time musicians exist only to the extent that they help motivate the purchasing of beer, hair gel and jeans.

In light of all these sponsorships and brand placements, it's almost as if popular music has been subsumed into the formerly distinct category of 'production' or 'library' music. In the past, such "production music" encompassed any songs or albums recorded expressly for the purpose of being used in commercials, films or television, and in response to sagging CD receipts such music has in fact become more prized by labels as an alternative source of revenue. However, just as with production music itself, pop is increasingly being stocked in large 'libraries' (i.e. streaming and other digital music services) through which it's then being enlisted to help other commercial ventures turn a profit. Thus, the distinction between the two kinds of music is no longer tenable.

"... the current direction of the 'music' industry (now something of a misnomer) implies that the musician's role as the handmaiden of capitalism is going to acquire unprecedented proportions and unfold at an unprecedented scale."

Yet the pre-existence of library music demonstrates that, even before Spotify, Apple Music and the Red Bull Music Academy, musicians had always been the willing or unwilling floggers of cheap tat. Since at least the Industrial Revolution, they've been recruited to sell drinks in the bars they've toured, to entice diners into hotel restaurants, and to glamorize pints of Guinness. Before the advent of mass-produced records and the necessary complement to these records of the 'pop star' who would disguise their otherwise glaring homogeneity, such a modest role was all artists could realistically hope for as working musicians. Moreover, despite the historical singularity or anomalousness of a period where a sizeable number were paid decently for their exertions, there's little reason to imagine that this arrangement will ever change.

However, the current direction of the 'music' industry (now something of a misnomer) implies that the musician's role as the handmaiden of capitalism is going to acquire unprecedented proportions and unfold at an unprecedented scale. Even more uniquely, music's traditional role as a lowerer of the consumer's inhibitions will now operate using the monolithic framework the industry erected when it could actually move records. This framework — its studios, its venues, its media outlets — will be incrementally commandeered by corporations and their shills, who will use producers, festivals and zines to hustle far more than a few beers on a Friday night.

The Choice Between Paying More For Bands or Paying More For Brands

The unfortunate upshot of this is that musicians, too, will become shills on a far greater scale than at any other point in their history. Maybe this isn't such a bad thing if they continue to play the music they love and develop their art along the trajectories they envision, yet even without commercial selection pressures and constraints on their artistry, they will find themselves increasingly bankrolled by unsavoury types whose ethics are less-than commendable.

For instance, punk imprint Collect Records very recently terminated all involvement with Martin Shkreli, a financial backer of the label who, during his day job as Chief Satanist at Turing Pharmaceuticals, notoriously and cynically jacked up the price for a life-saving drug by 5,455%. Yet, as salutary and laudable as such a move from Collect boss Geoff Rickly surely was, it rested on him having first-hand knowledge of his investors. With the transition to a model where financing does not come directly to a label, but through the intermediaries of Spotify, the Red Bull Music Academy, Coachella and their assorted sponsors, this ability to know who exactly is pumping money into your label or band will, however, be severely weakened. Because it will be attenuated, the likes of Collect Records will end up being much less able to react appropriately in the likely event that they benefit from Shkreli-esque dirty money.

And so, it seems, will us music fans, who will unknowingly nourish shady firms and their shady investors simply by 'engaging' with the various music services and events these firms now subsidize. We will nourish them because we don't want to pay for music ourselves, so we permit them to foot such a bill for us, even though their penetration into the music industry risks transforming our culture into one giant advertisement for their disposable wares.

Maybe culture has always been used like this to 'sell' one thing or another, yet it doesn't necessarily have to preserve its current form as an engineer of youth markets and glorifier of brands, since if we cared enough we could start buying LPs again and do away with the middlemen who are effectively demoting musicians to the role of corporate advertisers. That's a big if, however, since at this very moment in time we're colluding with these middlemen while they rob music of its essential value, which once inhered in its potential for solidifying communities and endowing individual lives with meaning. Maybe one day we'll wake up and help music to regain this wider social value, but for now, whatever little worth it has left inheres only in its potential for selling things. It goes without saying, of course, that such things rarely include records themselves.