On Sept 16, 2020, Kanye West opened up a conversation about the exploitive nature of record contracts. While Kanye is an imperfect messenger, he is the latest in a long line of recording artists who demonstrate the harmful effects of these contracts. My favorite example is the metaphor of recording artists as sharecroppers by Courtney Love because of the connection to medieval serfdom. In fact, my book Getting Signed: Record Contracts, Musicians, and Power in Society explores the way record contracts have similar effects to the British land enclosure acts that jump-started capitalism. In Capital Vol. I, Karl Marx described “primitive accumulation” as the process through which capitalism developed through the British land enclosure acts. The land enclosure acts created private property and kicked the serfs off the land, forcing them to work for capital. Similar to what Marx argued, record contracts create enclosure for musicians to foster the expropriation of their creative work to be sold on the market by record labels.

Capitalism only works because workers do not own the means of production, and therefore have to sell their labor-power to someone else in order to earn money to meet their needs. While the means of musical production include musical instruments (and their accessories), sounds systems, mixers, microphones, computers, studio facilities, etc., the primary means of musical production are musical instruments. Since most musicians own their musical instruments, they own their means of musical production. This leaves capital very little room to exploit musicians. If the cost of the musical means of production are so low, why do musicians become laborers? How does the system of musical production encourage musicians to sell their labor-power? To exploit musicians, record labels use record contracts to entice musicians to sign over their copyrights.

Two hundred years after the land enclosure acts created property, forced feudal peasants from the land, and helped change the economic mode of production to capitalism, the British government established an additional form of property enclosure: copyright. Passed by the British Parliament in 1709, the Statue of Anne granted two types of copyright. First, it gave authors a copyright for their books. Second, it reinforced existing copyright statutes that gave a printer exclusive rights to print copyrighted books.[1] By securing rights for the author, the Statute of Anne established the first legal justification that ideas could be considered a type of property.

Primitive accumulation can help to explain how enclosure in other sectors changed the relations of production to bring other sites of production into the capitalist economy. For instance, Mark Andrejevic describes the recent “digital enclosure” as a process whereby we generate capital through surveillance by providing massive amounts of data about our online usage to companies.[2] When the Internet developed, no apparent form existed for companies to generate revenue from the Internet apart from charging for access to the network. However, Andrejevic argues that the Internet was enclosed through surveillance technologies that track our every move on the World Wide Web.

Copyright enclosure is not entirely different from land enclosure. The first commonality is the thought that copyright is “intellectual property.” John Locke’s “‘labor theory’ of property, which conceived the fruits of one’s labor as one’s own property” established the idea that creators conduct labor and own the rights what they produce.[3] In other words, that which people create is their property. James Boyle discusses “an intellectual land grab” brought about by new technologies.[4] While Boyle explains that intellectual property is not a property right, the term remains useful for analyzing copyright. Furthermore, the analogy to property rights proves useful for thinking about copyright as enclosure. Rosemary Coombe alludes not only to the creation of private property, but also to the idea of “fertile fields.” These connections are not accidental, as property possesses this long tradition connected to labor in the fields.

Second, copyright expropriates the labor of a group of people, and forces them into a market economy. Musicians, who want to earn a living performing music, need to participate in the economy through recording, performing, and publishing music. These three areas of activity in which musicians participate require musicians to have some relationship to copyright because copyright encloses the production of music. For musicians to perform or record a song, they must secure the right to perform a song. If the musician composed the song, then they can perform it, unless they have a publishing deal—in which case they still need permission from the publisher. Without this permission, musicians violate copyright law. Whether or not musicians want to participate in the copyright system, the law already establishes the order, so they music participate in it if they want to earn a living through music.

Finally, there is not enough room for everyone who hopes to earn a living from producing music. If everyone could produce, record, distribute, promote and sell music, music would be overproduced driving the value of each recording down. Therefore, most people who produce copyrighted material will not be able to meet their needs through this system. Just like land enclosure, copyright enclosure creates a reserve army of labor because those who control the copyrights limit who they record, promote, and distribute. When landowners forced feudal serfs from the land, they flocked to towns and cities in England in search of work. However, there were not enough jobs for the emigrating masses to fill; this drove down the cost of labor. Musicians want to perform music to earn a living despite the lack of opportunities for them to work, and this creates a reserve army of labor. If one musician is not willing or able to take a gig, another musician can easily take their place. This has the general effect of driving down wages across the music industry.

In a record contract, musicians exchange their copyrights for an advance. They must repay (i.e. recoup) the advance on their portion of the sales (i.e. royalties). Few recording artists ever come close to recouping their advances, let alone earning money from their albums. Frequently, artists receive advances, record albums, and the label shelves their albums. However, these artists can’t leave the label to produce and sell their music elsewhere.

Kanye is upset he doesn’t own the master recordings of his album—his friend Taylor Swift is upset about this, too. Virtually all musicians lose the rights to their master recordings when they sign a contract. However, the situation of most recording artists is far more dire than the top selling artists. Copyright enclosure provides the mechanism on which labels exploit artists.

David Arditi is associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas, Arlington

Image: Francis Storr via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

[1] Vaidhyanathan, Copyrights and Copywrongs, 40.

[2] Andrejevic, ISpy.

[3] Klein, Moss, and Edwards, Understanding Copyright, 14.

[4] Boyle, The Public Domain, xv.