On Music & Materialism

Last week musical platform Bandcamp waived fees on their site, allowing artists the entire profit of sales from downloads, physical music and merchandise. In the face of the worldwide collapse of the live music industry and the closure of record stores this was a way to directly support artists and contribute something to the economy of the music industry in a positive way – if you could afford it that is.

As I logged onto my social media feed and saw the infinite number of tweets asking people to buy music I felt more than a little overwhelmed. Consumerism and the demands to constantly buy, buy, buy is one aspect of the music industry which can be difficult to deal with at the best of times, let alone during a global pandemic.

I really struggle with the constant expectations on fans to buy physical products, concert and festival tickets, and then merchandise at shows that they’ve already paid money for. The more you like music then naturally the more musicians you like and want to support, so the more you spend.

Don’t get me wrong, I really sympathise with artists who have lost their income. I want to help. But I don’t want to bankrupt myself in the process or feel like I have to overspend to ease my fan conscience. People like me who routinely spent a huge chunk of their income on music should not be made to feel bad about using Spotify right now, or ever in my opinion.

I also started thinking about poor kids who stream their favourite artists or those who have paid for a streaming subscription in good faith – would these fans feel lesser because they couldn’t support the industry on Bandcamp day? Or, like me, maybe you overspend buying music, concert tickets, festival trips etc and were therefore hoping that during this crisis you might get a chance to think about how to make more sensible financial choices in the future?

When I started this blog I really wanted to share recommendations that anyone could listen to on a free streaming platform because I think it’s a beautiful thing to be able to have absolute equality of opportunity as music listeners. Being a fan no longer had to be about how much money you had to spend. A rich old man who owned every Dylan album and bootleg now had the same access to the music as the kid who had just got started listening to him.

All these considerations are why I can never join the ‘buy don’t Spotify’ bandwagon. I understand the platform is not equal or fair in terms of payments to artists, and that’s a real shame. However the technology exists and is popular because it offers the music fan infinite possibilities. You can’t stop the power of the digital revolution. Musicians made a living long before recorded music and will continue to do so long after Spotify is replaced with something worse.

The older I get the more I believe in simplicity and minimalism. I’m not suggesting we get rid of our record collections or anything insane like that but I do think what we own should, ahem, spark joy rather than be about some kind of cool status symbol or some way to measure how big a music fan you are.

For example the music community on Instagram often promotes a kind of rampant materialism which can be toxic. Sometimes it seems to only matters that you own the physical product or be seen to go to as many shows as possible and can take a good pictures of them rather than actually just liking the music itself.

And I confess I’m not immune to this. I have felt pressure to buy things thinking that they would be good to share on Instagram – this seems ridiculous to admit but there you go. My record collection is important to me but I know I already own way too much. Before this pandemic I had been trying to limit purchases and trying to only go to concerts at the weekend, as I was getting exhausted trying to keep up with all the shows I felt I should be at. Sometimes as consumers we need to remind ourselves why we are buying something and whether it is really necessary to spend so much or do so much in the first place. Another concern I have is that my page might make people feel bad that they’ve not got as many records as me or can’t go to as many concerts. Sharing our own joy should be balanced with an understanding of how that impacts on others.

I know many will read this and be screaming about how art shouldn’t be free, how we have to pay musicians, how we have to support record stores, how the more we buy the better art we get in the long run etc and I totally accept all those points. However there’s also a harsh reality to face in all of this: in the future a full time career in music might not be possible for more than the elite few and record stores are probably not a viable business model for much longer either. In a way the music industry has been lucky that it had such a great run of success for a century thanks to recording technology, as in comparison writers and poets have always had to strive just to get their voices heard let alone make a living. It’s depressing but it is not the average person’s responsibility to buy things just because we feel guilt if we don’t.

I see some hope in the direct funding schemes because then we can offer something to artists we really care about at a level that is within our means and out with the big machine of the capitalist economy. While I am glad Patreon exists I would prefer a simple pay what you can without any rewards system, as then funding art doesn’t have to be about owning anything or anyone.

Having less and spending less can be done without becoming miserable or missing out on the joys of being a music fan. Like everything in life, we just have to keep striving to find that balance.

4 thoughts on “On Music & Materialism

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  1. I love this piece! I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these very same points and you articulated them not only well, but balanced and from both sides. I myself have admittedly spent a bit more than I should have on records during this quarantine out of guilt (and boredom at times haha). But then I realized like you that I can’t put all this weight on my shoulders to support these artists. I mean it’s great to help, but at the end of the day it’s going to take a large group of people to support artists and developing an overall collectivist mindset to course correct the economics of music. And quite frankly there’s just too much music being made for things to continue on the current pace (as you mention too). Individuals only have so much time and money to spend. My hope is that this virus situation could help “reset” things in the music industry and this may lead to painful cuts being made and some artists fading. But it’s clear to me that the current system is busted for all sides and things need to change.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have issues with Spotify as well as other streaming platforms because of one, the amount of money smaller and independent artists receive from streams, and two, the environmental consequences of streaming over downloading or buying a CD.

    I feel that if artists were properly compensated for streams they wouldn’t be as reliant as they are on touring, and therefore wouldn’t be suffering like they are now.. This pandemic has put the spotlight on all things wrong with the current world we are living in, which includes not paying artists for the music they make.

    On top of that, there is evidence to show that if you stream the same song or album over and over, the environmental impact is substantially higher than if you download or buy the song or album.

    I do understand however, that regardless of income, you should be able to access and enjoy the arts. Not everyone can afford to buy a vinyl record from each of their favourite artists. I hope this time gives us all a chance to re-evaluate our relationship with the arts and how much we value them and the people that make them.


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