What if Music is a Gift (Not a Commodity)?

by Rebecca Prentice

Ever since music consumption became ‘digital’ – free from the need for physical objects like vinyl records, CDs, and cassettes – its immateriality has been both a blessing and a curse. Listeners revel in the cheap and permanent accessibility of all their favourite songs, while music execs wonder how to make money when digital files can be shared so easily. Musicians complain that listeners expect something for nothing (or for the very tiny sums that a streaming service like Spotify pays its artists).

Enter Amanda Palmer, and ‘the art of asking.’ In a 2013 TED talk – which has now been expanded into a bestselling book – the Dresden Dolls vocalist calls for more of us to learn how to ask for things. As a musician touring on the road, asking has meant for Palmer a place to stay, a meal, some money to get by. She famously (and controversially) raised more than $1 million in a Kickstarter campaign to fund her solo album. All you have to do, Palmer suggests, is ask. Maybe musicians should just give their music away…and then ask for money in return.

For an anthropologist, the interesting question here is the distinction between gift and commodity. The immateriality of digital music is troublesome to a music industry that grew up around shifting music as a commodity, in its many physical forms. What Palmer proposes is a reconceptualisation of music as a gift. As Marcel Mauss reminds us, gifts, in their purest form, are voluntary, spontaneous, personal, and inalienable. They must be given innocently, without calculation or expectation of return. What Palmer seems to be counting on is that gifts given in such a spirit will be met by the unwritten rule: that gifts, once given, must somehow be repaid.

Rebecca Prentice is a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Sussex, where she co-convenes the MA in the Social Anthropology of the Global Economy.

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