September 09, 2008

One way or another

Official proclamations of the competitive ways of small entrepreneurs now labor under an enormous burden of fact which demonstrates in detail the accuracy of Thorstein Veblen's analysis. Competition, he held, is by no means dead, but it is chiefly 'competition between the business concerns that control production, on the one side, and the consuming public on the other side; the chief expedients in this businesslike competition being salesmanship and sabotage.' Competition has been curtailed by larger corporations; it has also been sabotaged by groups of smaller entrepreneurs acting collectively. Both groups have made clear the locus of the big competition and have revealed the mask-like character of liberalism's rhetoric of small business and family farm.

—C. Wright Mills, White Collar (1951)

One of the interesting things about the music industry is how the sins and virtues of production in other industries often accrue to distribution when it comes to music. Take the Veblen passage Mills quotes (which is from the book Absentee Ownership) and switch out the terms—
competition between the business concerns that control distribution, on the one side, and the consuming public on the other side
—and you have a pretty succinct description of the recording industry over the past 10-15 years.

Mills, writing just after World War II, is bringing this up as part of his analysis of the alienated position of middle-class white-collar employees. Such employees are disenfranchised on the corporate level—working for somebody else, they make wages, not profits—but also, as Mills is demonstrating, on the political level: political power is still attained by appealing to the ideals of free competition and individual entrepreneurship, both of which have become nostalgic illusions.

It's tempting to regard the rise of the Internet as somehow rendering Mills' concerns moot, that the global reach and (in theory) universal access of the Web have resurrected the truly competitive and truly independent entrepreneur. This is an especially appealing idea for musicians, who have come to regard the Internet as direct access to a flexible distribution channel—which would explain the seemingly self-destructive response of the RIAA and its ilk: the whole system is in jeopardy if, to do another terminological switcheroo, the workers control the means of distribution. But then again, we're all paying for Internet access, either directly (the cable to the house) or indirectly (via higher-ed tuition, taxpayer-financed public Wi-Fi, or a jacked-up price at the coffee shop). We're, in effect, renting the distribution channel, which, in the long run, is a more stable form of revenue for the collective corporate world than if they had to pay themselves to distribute product that may or may not make back the overhead. Record companies may be losing revenue, but eventually, the capital flows away from physical distribution and towards telecommunicative access.

So I sometimes wonder if descriptions of the revolutionary nature of the Internet, as reasonable as they seem, aren't just rhetorical cover for another generation of corporate consolidation into a government-enabled collusive cartel (*cough*Net neutrality*cough*). And while arts organizations have traditionally enjoyed a much smaller version of the sorts of government subsidies that have kept small businesses and family farms afloat for decades, it's entirely plausible that such brave-new-world Internet descriptions could create the perception that the playing field has leveled in favor of musicians, even as increasingly monopolistic gatekeeping makes access to that playing field more and more expensive. Small businesses and family farms have the advantage of conforming to a Jeffersonian image of the American ideal; if musicians are the next ones to get caught in a rhetorical squeeze between corporation and competition, how sentimental do you think government is likely to get?


Sator Arepo said...

One could say the same about the corporatization of academia. Good post.

tiajones said...

Hi Matthew,

My name is Tia and I'm an editor at, the debate website. Since we both cover technology issues, I thought I'd drop you a note. I would've e-mailed you but I couldn't find an address.
See, we're currently having a discussion about whether or not the Internet should be free. You can see it here:
Although vetted experts are the ones doing the debating, anyone can contribute by choosing a side and posting comments about the experts' arguments.
Check it out and, if you have the time, let me know what you think at Thanks!