By Gordon Hull
Over on Cyborgology, my colleague Robin James has a post up about Taylor Swift’s promotion of her new album. James focuses on two moments in that promotion: on the one hand, Swift has removed her music from the free streaming part of Spotify, on the grounds that it insufficiently compensates her (and others’) labor in producing it. On the other hand, she released a video, “Blank,” that watches more like an interactive video game. On James’ argument, both of these strategies amount to an effort on Swift’s part to control and otherwise dictate the terms of her affective labor. On the surface of it, that’s laudable enough, and certainly the Internet can readily be seen as an enormously complex vehicle for extracting surplus value from its users by getting them to work for free. As Terry Hart tirelessly points out on Copyhype, Silicon Valley makes a lot of money off of other people’s work, and shockingly little of that money finds its way back to the content industries: Silicon Valley obscures (and does not compensate) the enormous amount of affective labor on which it depends.
The problem here, as James points out (and that the Terranova piece linked to above is quite clear about), is that the metaphorics of Swift’s moves reinforce some difficult stereotypes, and they do so in a way that itself obscures a lot of affective labor. In the Spotify case, Swift all at once demands compensation for her labor and occludes the labor of the fans on Spotify. James: “What about the fan labor of training the streaming algorithms? Of liking and unliking, skipping and playlist building? Swift doesn’t mention the unfairness of this sort of free labor.” Not only that, she distinguishes between her labor and fan labor by promoting hers as “art,” and demoting the work of fans to mere “craft.” Again, James: the art/craft distinction has historically worked to “construct some people’s labor as important and valuable and other people’s labor as mundane, [and] Swift’s appeals to art and value distinguish between affective labor that deserves compensation, and affective labor that, by implication, ought to remain uncompensated.“ Then, just in case anybody had missed the odd politics at work, Swift proposes that some music – the sorts of things that get played at clubs – is like having flings or other putatively low-value relationships, where some (authentic) music is like finding “the one” and then marrying him/her, publicly codifying a commitment never to seek any other source of gratification, especially ones that doesn’t follow the right rules.
Things don’t seem quite right, even on the surface: Swift apparently has a new agreement with YouTube, and Billy Bragg smells a rat. Indeed, Spotify defends itself on the grounds that it is trying to turn users into paying customers; their strategy is one of Foucauldian subjectification. In their own words: “Spotify’s model aims to regenerate this lost value [due to illegal downloads and the perception that music should be free] by converting music fans from these poorly monetized formats to our paid streaming format, which produces far more value per listener.”
Below the surface, I agree with James that Swift needs to read Carole Pateman a few weeks ago; here I want to notice that Swift’s argument and its metaphorics exactly reproduce the dominant justificatory structure of copyright. In a unanimous, landmark ruling in 1991, the Supreme Court said that labor in itself was an insufficient condition for copyright; there had to be something recognizably original. The opinion repeatedly emphasized that the standard for copyright protection was originality, and emphatically distanced itself from any theory according to which mere “sweat of the brow” – no matter how much of this there was – qualified one for copyright protection (as an aside, given the marriage language and James’ reference to Pateman, I think you can get this argument structure – where creative activity but not activity in general is a necessary condition for conferring property rights – out of Locke).
Notice what has happened, however: Swift’s argument has just constructed a Platonic ideal of music, one according to which ideal music is art and eternal and the one, and most emphatically not the sort of thing that’s going on in clubs, where those people hang out. And so, like in Platonism, the real reason we have all the metaphysical apparatus is not to approach or aspire to The Good, or even to leave the cave, but to institute a police function, where we can distinguish good, legitimate copies of the ideal from bad ones. Here is Deleuze:
To impose a limit on this becoming, to order it according to the same, to render it similar – and, for that part which remains rebellious, to repress it as deeply as possible, to shut it up in a cavern at the bottom of the Ocean – such is the aim of Platonism in its will to bring about the triumph of icons over simulacra (258-9; note that later he talks about Pop Art as subversive of this dynamic).
Bad copies are the simulacra that care about the wrong things and don’t sincerely attempt to attain The Good: “the [good] copy is an image endowed with resemblance [to the good], the simulacrum is an image without resemblance” (257). Remix and club music lacks that resemblance; worse, it doesn’t seem to aspire to it! Free-streaming Spotify could, in principle get things right, but the free part doesn’t pay.
At one level, it’s not at all surprising that someone with the class privilege of a record contract would demote fan labor and club remixes as bad music: they threaten her income stream. But this doesn’t do justice to just how deeply embedded all these conceptual structures are. In particular, when juxtaposed with Swift’s marriage metaphor, Deleuze’s description of Platonism reminds us that marriage isn’t just about controlling desire; it’s about (maybe even primarily about) controlling reproduction. Further, as I’ve argued elsewhere, the copyright law on which the music industry is based is suffused with this sort of Platonism, and the primary anxiety is always about copying. It used to be the case that it was easy to tell illegitimate bad copies from legitimate good ones, since subsequent copies always degraded (making a cassette tape of a CD produced a recognizably lower-quality product, and making a copy of the copy sounded even worse, and so on). Digital reproduction means that we can get perfect copies almost for free, and so the argument has to hang on declarations of what’s authentic and what’s not. And that requires a theory as to what sort of labor is worth preservation; our current dominant one, heavily indebted to literary romanticism, fetishizes the myth of solitary geniuses, producing their works of genius without depending on others.
As Niva Elkin-Koren said of copyright some time ago, it’s all about control. At the same time, and as James notes, the reference to marriage tells us how music is to be commodified and the origin story that commodity fetishism enables: the language of the one buries the actual relations of production undergirding it, and presents the music as something the origin of which can be traced to a single author (or set of authors: in other words, copyright and Swift both need the author function). Remix is impure and bad both because no money changes hands and because it’s really hard to sort out authorship; paid derivative works or paid streaming are good because, even if they don’t advertise their paternity, they authenticate it by giving it money. The whole structure supports a depoliticizing commodity fetishism where we’re taught to think that it’s the music that needs protecting, and not the songwriter’s income stream or the income stream of the various legitimate intermediaries that bring it to market. That might be ok, but it operates in one way only: we hear that tech companies and fans are taking from the music industry (true enough) but we don’t get to have a discussion about whether the monopoly rents the music industry charges are justified or whether both industries don’t fundamentally depend on extracting surplus value from fans and their users.