Radiohead’s Thom Yorke has a striking interview in the Guardian in which he sums up the band’s realizations about what David Lowery calls the “New Boss” reality:
“[Big Tech] have to keep commodifying things to keep the share price up, but in doing so they have made all content, including music and newspapers, worthless, in order to make their billions. And this is what we want? I still think it will be undermined in some way. It doesn’t make sense to me. Anyway, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. The commodification of human relationships through social networks. Amazing!”
He is, of course, exactly correct. What does this “commodification” or the Americanized, “commoditization” mean exactly?
In a prescient 2008 book review of Nicholas Carr’s The Google Enigma (entitled “Google the Destroyer“), antitrust scholar Jim DeLong gives an elegant explanation:
Carr’s Google Enigma made a familiar business strategy point: companies that provide one component of a system love to commoditize the other components, the complements to their own products, because that leaves more of the value of the total stack available for the commoditizer….Carr noted that Google is unusual because of the large number of products and services that can be complements to the search function, including basic production of content and its distribution, along with anything else that can be used to gather eyeballs for advertising. Google’s incentives to reduce the costs of complements so as to harvest more eyeballs to view advertising are immense….This point is indeed true, and so is an additional point. In most circumstances, the commoditizer’s goal is restrained by knowledge that enough money must be left in the system to support the creation of the complements….
Google is in a different position. Its major complements already exist, and it need not worry in the short term about continuing the flow. For content, we have decades of music and movies that can be digitized and then distributed, with advertising attached. A wealth of other works await digitizing – books, maps, visual arts, and so on. If these run out, Google and other Internet companies have hit on the concept of user-generated content and social networks, in which the users are sold to each other, with yet more advertising attached.
So, on the whole, Google can continue to do well even if leaves providers of is complements gasping like fish on a beach.
Thom Yorke clearly feels exactly what DeLong anticipated:
Radiohead have often riffed on the edge of that thoroughly modern disjunction. From their landmark album OK Computer on, the band seemed like evangelists for the revolutionary possibilities of a digital world, self-releasing 2007’s In Rainbows on a pay-what-you-want download. Yorke is a bit more sceptical about all that now.
In the days before we meet, he has been watching a box set of Adam Curtis’s BBC series, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, about the implications of our digitised future, so the arguments are fresh in his head. “We were so into the net around the time of Kid A,” he says. “Really thought it might be an amazing way of connecting and communicating. And then very quickly we started having meetings where people started talking about what we did as ‘content’. They would show us letters from big media companies offering us millions in some mobile phone deal or whatever it was, and they would say all they need is some content. I was like, what is this ‘content’ which you describe? Just a filling of time and space with stuff, emotion, so you can sell it?”
Having thought they were subverting the corporate music industry with In Rainbows, he now fears they were inadvertently playing into the hands of Apple and Google and the rest.
Or as Lowery famously said, “Congratulations, your generation is the first generation in history to rebel by unsticking it to the man and instead sticking it to the weirdo freak musicians!”
Now there will be those who trot out the old canard of “if you really loved music you wouldn’t care about the money.” Right. The point isn’t only whether Radiohead is making money from non-commoditizable activities (like live shows), the point is that companies like Google are (a) indifferent to whether Google (or its labyrinthine ad network partners) serve ads on Radiohead or Pinky Lee, and (b) want to get everyone’s music for free or near free. As DeLong said–gasping for air.