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Does culture become a commodity, or do commodities become culture?

Cover image for Does culture become a commodity, or do commodities become culture?

Photo: Nelson Ndongala

Photo of Hanna Kahlert
by Hanna Kahlert

More than three fourths of audiences believe that the music they listen to reflects who they are. This rises to more than four fifths of people aged 25-44. Music listening is also incredibly personal – roughly a third of people listen to playlists they curate themselves when exercising, hanging out with friends, working or studying, or just when they are out and about. 

Yet so much of the way music discovery is being pushed is an attempt to remove the ability to self-curate; radio stations and discover playlists that pass and disappear with no fandom or affinity generated as a result. Spotify’s ‘daylist’ is just an extension of this removal of choice from the hands of audiences. The inevitability of AI-generated music to fill these playlists and stations will make it worse. Such a reality would be good, in a way, for streaming services, who can lower their music licensing costs by generating their own music. But needless to say, this does not bode well for musical cultural moments. 

Music is integral to culture – from early humans with drums, to elaborate romance-era Sonatas, to the counterculture electronic beats of house music in the ’80s. The most powerful artists are not just observers, but live and breathe the moments of time that they can then turn into melodies that last decades, if not centuries. Ask Mozart. 

The same goes for visual storytelling. From Shakespeare’s rowdy plays, to ’60’s sitcoms, to the rise of Star Wars, these stories had something to say about the cultures that gave rise to them, which nevertheless, were rooted in timeless human truths. 

What cultural highlights represent the ‘soul’ of our world today? In film, concentrated effort to regenerate these sorts of moments has resulted in historical biopics (Oppenheimer) and a questioning of our social roles under capitalism (Barbie). In music, a few names may spring to mind – but most predate the 2020s and harken back to the ’10s. 

This is not because culture isn’t happening. It is because it is being commodified so early in its lifecycle it does not have time to really take hold. 

Commodification is becoming culture, in a double-edged subversive sort of way. TikTok is inextricable from the identity of Gen Z; with the rise of social, e-commerce, and an over-saturated digital space, wherein everyone is competing for likes, comments, shares, and sponsorships, people have begun to commodify themselves through their social media presences. 

A hobby is now a side-hustle. A little dance has to become a viral trend. What is original today will be mainstream tomorrow, and old the day after that (see the rise and fall of ‘girl dinner’, ‘starter packs’, and a host of others). Anything goes, everything is a sales pitch, and nothing really sticks (except, perhaps, a growing dissent with the system in which it all occurs – hence, the growing value of authenticity). 

That is culture now, and it is largely – although, not exclusively – a second-order impact of streaming. Streaming stripped the intrinsic ‘value’ from entertainment, and made it simply about ‘more’ – be it TV shows or songs. This pressure for more stuff, more often, leaves none of it enough time to permeate and generate any kind of cultural momentum. This commodification of culture has resulted in a culture of commodity, wherein the ‘big things’ are no longer happening on TV screens or stages, but rather, in viral moments that pass across social platforms, created and distributed by consumers themselves and leaving established entertainment to play catch-up.*

*(The notable exceptions are things like Shrek, Morbius, and The Lonely Island, which do not set out to follow pre-established successes, but rather, do their own thing and become cultural icons purely for ‘the bit’, precisely because they do not take themselves too seriously). 

For culture, this is simply an evolution – albeit, perhaps, a mildly tragic one reflecting circumstance. For entertainment, this should be considered as a threat. The music industry in particular is largely one entity that has grown up around people who would be doing music anyway, and just needed a way to make a living out of it. But this noble underpinning is fading, as so much of the industry focuses on just being another content machine to drive up metrics on digital platforms. Rather than being at the cutting edge of culture, the industry is increasingly chasing it to catch up. 

In the end, culture can be commodified, but only after it is already established. The creative industries used to allow this leeway in the form of artist development and waiting for impact before signing, and giving boosts in the right place at the right time. But now, with the speed of production and the hype cycle at such a breakneck pace, it is no longer a part of consideration in commercial viability. 

More than any specific strategy, this priority first needs to change. Art should come first, followed by culture, and then commodification can follow in its wake as an economic backing. To lead with the need to make money is killing the actual value of the thing being monetised. Is that the future the music industry really wants for itself – and is it even a sustainable one? To ensure the cultural foundation that makes the industry viable long term, taking a step away from the content hype storm of ‘more’ and back into the realm of ‘why’ is something that the entire music industry value chain needs to do. While it may seem a risky break from the status quo, it is a long-term investment in not only the future of music and entertainment, but of culture itself.

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