The Political Economy of the Recorded Music Industry

Redefinitions and New Trajectories in the Digital Age

André Sirois and Janet Wasko

The fact of the matter is that popular music is one of the industries of the country. It’s all completely tied up with capitalism. It’s stupid to separate it.

Paul Simon


Media and communication scholars often overlook the study of recorded music, so it may not be surprising that those who study the political economy of communications may neglect it as well. Yet recorded music is a significant component of the culture industry, providing entertainment and leisure activities for audiences and contributing to other media and cultural production. We need to understand how this cultural form has developed as a commodity and an industry. This chapter suggests a political economic approach to studying the recorded music industry that emphasizes history and technology. A review of various approaches to studying recorded music is presented, followed by an overview of the history of the recorded music industry. The current industry is briefly outlined, with possible future business models considered.

Of course, music has not always been a commodity. Before musical labor was incorporated into a tangible thing – what Attali has called an “immaterial pleasure turned commodity” (1985, 2) – it was consumed as representation without a distinct form. Marx (1863) thought that musical performance was an instance where labor did not result in a tangible commodity ...

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