Art, Labor, Money and Value

A recent article implied there’s a great injustice being done because the average salary of an employee of Spotify is $168,000 a year whereas a songwriter would have to have their song played 229 million times to equal that amount, as the average take of a songwriter is something like 0.00005 cents per play. It sounds terrible. It sounds like yet another example of how the top 1% get more than the bottom whatever-large-number percent get, and it’s simply not fair.

Put it another way, the average wage of an employee at Spotify is around $84 an hour, and it takes a songwriter maybe three hours to write a song, so the songwriter should get $252 for that song. And that’s it. Why should they get more? Why should the songwriter get some amount every time the song is played somewhere? Should the Spotify software engineer get 0.00005 cents every time some internet trawler clicks on the button they designed and implemented?

Following that logic, should the grandchildren of the software engineer be accruing royalties for seventy years on button clicks, or lines of code touched in the back end services, or for every database fetch?

Some jobs are more unfortunate than others. Coal miners don’t get royalties on coal being burnt, and damn, the coal can only be burned once, whereas a song can be played for ever and ever!

But wait, art is not just labor, its value far transcends the work of mere mortals, so when we complain that artists don’t get paid fairly in comparison, we are not only talking apples and oranges, we are talking apples from the Garden of Eden to frozen Florida orange juice.

How are we to judge the relative value? By comparing a songwriter’s haul to that of a computer programmer they’re asserting an equivalence, but then they turn around and deny such a comparison is valid. I’m tempted to argue that a songwriter should have to churn out two songs every day, five days a week, forty eight weeks a year (even artists need vacations) and get paid a salary – but that is just how it used to be, back in the days of the studio monopolies. All the songwriters in America worked in the same two buildings, one in New York City and one in Los Angeles, and chances are people listened to some of those songs for years and years and years, and the songwriters got no royalties, because they were under contract and the studios owned the rights of the work, and that wasn’t right or fair either.

The reality is that under capitalism all labor is paid what “the market” determines at any given time is the monetary value of that work. The music industry, like the publishing industry, and the art industry, and the theatre industry, and the modern dance industry, and business as a whole in general, is all about the dominant companies taking in as much money as they can and giving out as little as they can. Who is surprised by this?

The dominant companies of the internet are currently paying software engineers a lot more money than they’re paying songwriters. This is the fact. Is it wrong? Is it bad? When you consider your mobile phone and how it has changed over the past decade from being simply a phone to the entire world at your fingertips, how do you think that happened? The kind of labor done by employees of Spotify is how it happened. I’d guess that the contribution of someone sitting around humming a tune in the hopes of churning out yet another catchy hit was worth just about 0.00005 cents when it comes right down to it.





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