It’s no big secret that the past two decades of technological innovation have changed our social and economic systems. The changes have been deep and far-reaching, disrupting most everything, from how we communicate and transact, to the nature and methods of work, to what actually has value. And the forces of technological change are not done with us yet. In fact, they are accelerating in pace, but they’re also working at such a deep structural level that sometimes it’s hard to see what’s really going on.
I think the music industry is a great example of what’s happened, as well as what’s going to keep happening. First of all, the historical music industry is a typical old-school industrial capitalistic enterprise, with the typical innovations and exploitations of its type. Simplistically, labor was organized to create a product (embedded materially in the old black phonograph discs) which was promoted and sold through mass media and retail distribution channels. But the music industry has always been also an industry with a lot of information-age capitalist characteristics, so when digital and information technology eventually allowed subtle shifts in the industry’s business model, the old-school industrial-age edifice crumbled.
The transition from vinyl LPs to CDs as the product was not a big deal at first, as the existence of a material object of value remained in place, as did the physical channels of promotion and distribution. But what happened in the move from LP to CD was the liberation of the value through the digitization of the intellectual property, i.e., the music. Once the music became digitized, and disembodied from a material object with obvious industrial-age qualities of value, property, and exchange, the model fell apart rapidly through mp3 file sharing, online distribution networks, and more.
Here’s a financial look at what happened to the once-lucrative music industry when the model crumbled:
And the future doesn’t look any better, of course. In so many ways, it shouldn’t make sense, because there are more people listening to more music than ever before. It’s not that we’re all thieves. It’s just that music is no longer embedded in old-school capitalistic material objects of exchange. It’s about access now, and it’s mostly free. It’s pure information now existing in a global digital ecosystem of free distribution. The scarcity imposed by the old model is done and over with, replaced by abundance.
This new reality is great for music fans, because all music ever created is more or less now at the fingertips of anyone with an internet connection, most of it free to listen to. It’s not so much that you can own it all; it’s that you don’t have to own anything to get the value. The transformation of music from product to information has had its painful side-effects, as it’s now more difficult for some musicians to receive compensation for and protect their intellectual property. But the reality is that the world has changed, and those are old-school capitalist concerns. Musicians are now information workers (like youtube video artists, free game designers, and bloggers) and have to find new ways to get returns. And they are indeed figuring it out.
The big thing here is not the music industry, though. The big thing is that everything is following this path. Through a vast array of emerging technologies, from 3D printing to the sharing economy, everything is moving from object to information, and thus becoming free of the capitalist productization involved in the manufacture of scarcity. In other words, everything is becoming information; information has close to a zero marginal cost, and so is close to free; and thus we are heading toward a world of abundant free stuff.
On Friday, July 17, economics journalist Paul Mason wrote an excellent piece in the Guardian called The End of Capitalism Has Begun. His point wasn’t that somehow the working class would rise up and the socialist revolution would start soon; no, that’s all old-school industrial capitalist era thinking. His point: all this technological change is eroding the bases of the capitalism we know, and we should all be prepared for post-capitalism, the thing that comes next. It’s worth quoting Mason’s explanation of the hows and whys of post-capitalism here:
“Post-capitalism is possible because of three major changes information technology has brought about in the past 25 years. First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences, will hugely diminish the amount of work needed – not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all.
“Second, information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant. The system’s defense mechanism is to form monopolies – the giant tech companies – on a scale not seen in the past 200 years, yet they cannot last. By building business models and share valuations based on the capture and privatization of all socially produced information, such firms are constructing a fragile corporate edifice at odds with the most basic need of humanity, which is to use ideas freely.
“Third, we’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organizations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy. The biggest information product in the world — Wikipedia — is made by volunteers for free, abolishing the encyclopedia business and depriving the advertising industry of an estimated $3bn a year in revenue.”
Mason is right, and these three points above are the key ones.
So, if music leads us forward, consider this story from George Howard, appearing also on Friday, July 17, in Forbes magazine, about musician Imogene Heap’s new vision for a blockchain-inspired, artist-centered model for the music industry of the future. Heap calls her vision Mycelia, after the huge, branching ancient fungal creatures, and it’s worth quoting an extract (you can read her full vision here):
“It dawned on me a few months ago that the mechanism to create and sustain a place like Mycelia exists now with the help of blockchain technology and crypto-currencies … its success will come from the adoption of millions of music lovers. A grand scale ongoing, collective project like no-other. To document, protect and share that which we love and build a place for it to grow, enabling future generations of artists to blossom as well as honouring those of the past …
“Open source, a living, breathing, smart, decentralised, transparent, adaptable, useful, shining home for our love of music. A home which allows creativity to flow, connect and facilitate collaboration on so many levels, many of which just haven’t been possible. With this grand library of all music forming the basis upon which all music businesses from digital radio to tour bookings can then grow and thrive from …
“Each artist acting like its own Mycelium, in full animated dialogue with others on the global network … Mycelia is huge, as it holds all music related information ever recorded anywhere ever ever ever but this organism stretches across our planet between hundreds of thousands of personal computers. It is the world’s greatest and most treasured library and it belongs to the two collective parties who solely make music complete. The music makers and their audience.”
Mycelia is a grand vision, and who knows whether Heap will be able to realize it exactly as she imagines, but it’s where everything seems to be going, not just music. Everything. Mycelia-like post-capitalist systems are forming or will soon form for every human endeavor imaginable. And it’s the disruptive open-source, peer-to-peer sharing, blockchain models being invented right now that are making it all possible. We may encounter some bumps along this road, sure, but it feels reasonable and possible, not just far-fetched and idealistic.
As a postscript, if you’re not familiar with how cool Imogen Heap is, watch this wonderful video, where she talks about her tech and performs. If you want to get to the music, skip ahead to about 12:30 for her performance of Me the Machine, a haunting song in which she reflects on what it might be like to be a machine wanting to be human; it’s as sublime a performance as the fictional Diva Plava Laguna in my opinion. Check it out: