What Is Lost in Post-Scarcity?

Last month, David Dayen set off a discussion about music in the age of streaming. Most of Dayen’s piece was about the economics of it all, but he also found space to lament the cultural effect of the shift towards these buffet-style music services.

Perhaps most distressing of all, Spotify has changed how we listen to music, and maybe even what gets made. Albums used to be taken home and savored, played with headphones on, free from distractions. The ubiquitous stream is more background noise, one device among many screaming for attention.

The pressures of being noticed above the din overtake the instincts of the musician, diminishing it to the level of fast food or fast fashion. Hooks must be simpler and more immediate within the song, to prevent skipping ahead. Hastily produced pop or dance music that grabs the listener gets foregrounded.

Ryan Cooper followed up Dayen’s piece with a recommendation about how to solve these problems. In the proposal, he also ends up making the same point Dayen does above, but Cooper seems to blame the problem on algorithmic recommendations rather than ubiquitous streaming per se.

Fourth, there will be no recommendation algorithm. Listeners will have to search out their own music, and create their own playlists (which they will be able to share). This will push back against the commodification of music, which is degrading the art form. Spotify’s algorithmic recommendations tend to turn music into an aural wallpaper that one barely listens to — I’m sure I’m not the only one with long Spotify playlists full of artists I barely recognize. And once more there will be an important role for music journalists and critics to find and raise up new artists.

Zach Carter, a former musician himself, chimed in similarly.

This monopoly exploitation hasn’t just been bad for artists trying to make a living, it has severely diminished the cultural significance of music itself. In the 1980s and 1990s, music was a far more powerful component of American identity than it is today.

All of these commentators object to the devaluation of music not in a strictly monetary sense but also in a cultural sense. And they do so while connecting their objection to some other aspect of Spotify that they don’t like: monopoly exploitation, algorithmic recommendations, etc.

But I think the actual cause of this specific problem is not monopoly or algorithms. Rather, it’s the elimination of scarcity.

In exchange for a relatively small monthly fee, services like Spotify provide consumers unlimited access to nearly every song that has ever been recorded. This access travels with the consumer so long as they take their phone with them and can be played on headphones, car speakers, and home speakers. Switching between genres, artists, and songs is also nearly frictionless.

From the perspective of the consumer, music streaming services are essentially what a post-scarcity utopia looks like. If you brought these services into public ownership, eliminated the small monthly fee, and ensured that middling artists got more money from the whole thing, then you’d arguably have fully automated luxury music communism.

Prior to these services, music was scarce. You had to buy specific albums that took up physical space. Listening to those albums was also more difficult and switching from one artist to another, even among the albums you did own, was far from seamless.

Because of this scarcity, people had to pick and choose a relatively small number of artists to listen to and would perhaps listen to them differently and more intently. This dynamic gave rise to intense musical subcultures and identities, which meant a lot to the people who were swept up into them.

When the scarcity was eliminated, so too was much of the cultural edifice that was built upon that scarcity. Music became less precious and so did the people who listened to it. People listened across more genres and artists, without making strong connections to them, and listened to music while doing other tasks, meaning a lot less intently. When you can have any music at any time in unlimited amounts, you simply relate to it much differently than when you can’t.

Personally, I much prefer the post-scarcity music utopia over what came before it, from a consumer’s perspective. I imagine most people do and that almost everyone below a certain age does. Aside from it checking off certain political commitments I have, it’s just genuinely a good experience.

But the fact that Dayen, Cooper, and Carter don’t share this enthusiasm illuminates something I’ve noticed over the years as a campaigner for a substantial overhaul of our society and economy: people generate culture and community in any material condition you put them in and therefore experience some kind of loss when that material condition changes, even for the better. Put more provocatively: all material progress, even just progress related to the distribution of income, destroys culture.

This fact creates some irresolvable tensions on the left. Suffering, deprivation, and oppression generate unique identities, culture, and communities that will be dramatically changed, if not eradicated, by leftist campaigns to alleviate suffering, deprivation, and oppression. The radical material reordering of society is also indirectly a cultural genocide.

For me, this is not a big deal. People will generate new identities and cultures if we create a very different society and will get the same kind of satisfaction from those identities and cultures as they get from their current ones. But for those on the left who feel a stronger impulse towards preservation and tradition, there will always be this conflict. You can’t change material conditions and preserve culture at the same time.