Lars Miller

Lars Miller lives and writes in West Virginia.

The Disintegration of the Music Industry and the Road to Distributism

 

It is the late 1990s. Moms roll down suburban streets in their imposing SUVs to pick children up from soccer practice. Their husbands constantly check their stocks while the market rises like a fever. Their teenage children infest shopping malls, swarming around displays of the latest cell phones and video games. Amidst conspicuous consumption, irrational exuberance, and unbridled materialism, the rise of the Internet and the dawn of the MP3 begin to change the shape of the music industry.

During this technological and economic boom, little known D.C.-based post-hardcore band Frodus recorded the subversive And We Washed Our Weapons in the Sea. Frodus shrieked out denunciations against corporate America over a volatile mixture of punk, indie, and math rock. Frodus’s crisp, fragmented lyrics were eyeball kicks against economic excesses. And We Washed Our Weapons in the Sea remains prescient in the face of the corporate corruption that lead to the current recession.

After breaking up in August of 2002, Frodus released a written charge to their fan base entitled “A Call to Arms.” This discourse, posted on the Internet, concerned the commoditization of music in contemporary society. According to them, music was no longer about sharing ideas, creating community, and expanding the minds of listeners. Frodus manifests their stance towards piracy by listing the Pirate Bay, a popular source of pirated media, as one of their record labels on their Facebook page.

In the “Call to Arms,” Frodus argued that by promoting the single, the music industry had devalued the artist and produced its own demise. The fragmentation of the music industry through file sharing will result in the proliferation of an artistic community, instead of an industry run by a wealthy few. A mixture of capitalist tactics with technological advances is destroying the capitalist model in the music industry. Although not using the exact term, Frodus’s arguments support the view that distributism will replace capitalism in the music industry.

An interviewer of Frodus, David Thair, sums up the “Call to Arms,” claiming the capitalist music industry “is being eaten by its children.” The capitalist model created the single to sell more records, but now one can download the single without buying the entire record. The catchy single, a tactic to sell more records, has turned against the industry with the advent of the internet. The music industry’s greed has contributed to its own decline.

In distributism, the ownership of the means of production is spread as widely as possible throughout the population. Distributism is an alternative to centralized power, whether the source of power is the state (socialism) or wealthy private individuals (capitalism). Capitalism allows only a few to own productive property. Distributists seek to ensure that most people will become owners of productive property. Technological advances, the Internet, and file sharing are destroying large record companies, while simultaneously empowering individuals to produce and market music independently.

In the past, a few large corporations controlled the music industry and dictated who is awarded a record deal. Record companies controlled the means of production. But today, file sharing spreads ideas and shares wealth. It provides a larger body of artists with the ability to produce their art: distributism in action. Wikipedia’s page on the music industry states that “many newer artists no longer see any kind of ‘record deal’ as an integral part of their business plan at all.

Not only does file sharing create accessibility to music, but inexpensive recording hardware and software has made it possible to create high quality music in a bedroom and distribute it over the Internet to a worldwide audience. Today, it is entirely possible to cut an album and give it worldwide distribution independently.

Technological advances are rendering large record companies and their record deals superfluous. They cannot sustain themselves, and will break into smaller entities. G.K. Chesterton, an early proponent of distributism, said, “Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.” Breaking apart the large record companies into several smaller units means more capitalists. Unchecked capitalism in the music industry has lead to homogenized radio airplay and a few large record company monopolies. Strong distributist strains in a capitalist society can be an effective counter for power accumulating in too few hands.

Shelby Cinca of Frodus complains America is still “an example of capitalism gone wild – without ethics and obsessed with money.” Ironically, the technology developed by capitalism is putting a damper on “capitalism gone wild,” at least in the media world. The Internet is fulfilling the aspiration of distributism by replacing a money-obsessed industry with more personal passion and expression.

Record executives beware: when Frodus snarls, “rock and roll is war” in “Red Bull of Juarez,” they sound like they mean it.