The moment before the guests arrive

By Marcus Skjold Pedersen, Junior Researcher 


What happens when recorded music is played by someone for someone else? The answer, of course, is what are you talking about? This depends entirely on what you mean by each word! This is too broad to be an actual research question!, as my friends often tell me. Anyway, I seem to have become obsessed with this question, using some version of the basic scenario outlined above as a prism for thinking about just about any other idea or topic. Why this is such a potent prompt for my curiosity is perhaps not entirely knowable, but in this blog post, I hope to share a specific angle of looking at this event that may be of interest to you too.

The central topics and insights of this article stem primarily from a great conversation I had with Danish electronic music champion Frederik Birkett-Schmidt who among many other roles is director of the festival and electronic music institution Strøm. I am very sorry if I misunderstood, misremember or misrepresent any of the fascinating facts Frederik shared with me.

To set the stage, let us consider a scenario. You are part of a group in Denmark having an event for a subculture within electronic music. As is often the case, the whole affair is mostly a labor of love, and there is a wide spectrum of paid and unpaid work being done by different people. Most organizers work insane hours for little pay, some work being done by enthusiastic community volunteers, some professionals primarily working with sound, lights, and equipment, people administrating the venue, and of course, the performers – the DJs.

The first DJ starts playing the very first track of their set for the night, and suddenly a whole host of virtual economic transactions starts entangling this moment in a dense web stretching across the globe and into both the past and future.

This all boils down to the particular way that this kind of music is understood in different, yet productively translatable ways (this approach is inspired by Tsing 2009). The most important (for this blog post) is that what the DJ just did was to play a track, or in slightly different dialects a song, a tune, a distinct musical work, or a legal ‘bundle of rights’. Now, while it is second nature for most of us today to think about music in this way, it is of course quite particular to the historical development of the music industry. Not only that but even within this contemporary music-industrial global order, there are actually many species of second-nature-thinking. This is the actual argument of this blog post, and I will explore it through the lens of economics in an anthropological sense.


Why is there money in my music?

For these purposes, economics is fundamentally about what we owe to each other, what we give to each other, and how we trade with each other. It is about the circulation of things and the creation and morphing of social relationships and community across space and time. In essence, therefore, economics is about everyday ethical questions. Following this, we can see that different kinds of economic logic may exist to govern different activities at different times. Just to make it clear how I am thinking about economics; A person paying their taxes, a person selling clothes at a flea market, and a person providing for their child are all engaged in economic activity, yet the economic logics are all quite different. The differences in logic express themselves most clearly in our intuitive moral objections to the idea of misapplying the logics (No, of course, my child doesn’t owe me anything after dinner!), and they all establish and reinforce different kinds of social relationships (this point is directly borrowed from Graeber 2014).

I find this perspective engaging because music culture today so often refers to economic controversies and paradoxes. The ever-increasing commodification of music is bemoaned, while the exploitative relationship between major labels and artists is a continual cause for outrage. Almost all musical genres are plagued by questions of cultural rights and appropriation, or viewed with suspicion as promoting cultural imperialism or elitism. Most relevant in our case, music is perhaps the art form most associated with “piracy” and “copying”.

Many economic logics operate side by side in different degrees of competition and collaboration. These encode different ideas of who is deserving of what and organize communities around diverse ethics. We can consciously ask questions about what kind of musical economy we want, and it can empower us to realize that there are so many alternative ways of structuring this economy, many of them already in practice. This can also help us ask critical questions of dominating or totalizing visions for musical economy; What are they ignoring or making trivial? Who do they forget?


Exclusivity and license to play

In our example, even before introducing the DJ, this event has a lot going on, economics-wise. There are all the direct commercial transactions – beer being bought, tickets sold, wages paid. Still, there is also possibly funding from interested organizations looking to promote themselves or a specific social development. Voluntary work is being done most often from a communal logic, with people wanting to “take part in” or “give back” to an abstract social commons. There are also more potlatch-like displays of generosity and splendor among the guests as they buy and share drinks and drugs and exclusive access to further parties and social networks.

But a new set of economic activities with different logics are introduced as the music is played by the DJ. Let us introduce two pairs of them, the acquisition and consumption of the music files, and the licensing and royalty payment of the musical event.

Now, the DJ is usually interested in gathering a collection of music that is noticeably unique from other DJs, establishing their taste by showing that they know about their genre and culture. For example, while the specific ways they accomplish this may vary by genre, in general DJs often seek some kind of unique or rare version of famous tracks through bartering or gift-giving. Dub-influenced music has one-of-a-kind “dub plates” (a vinyl-like disk made from a different material), other genres may have “VIP tracks” (a version of a track with minor variations), and universally, music is circulated that has not yet or will never be officially released.

In all these cases, the files or objects are traded or gifted in a complex economy that provides exclusivity to DJs and at times material support for producers/artists. Exclusivity and rarity can have great importance and are policed by strong social norms in many circles. Some labels may refuse to release a track if more than a small handful of people have a version of the file. Some artists make a great amount of their income recording “dub edits” of old tracks, rerecording a verse to mention the city or event the track is to be played at. These practices of music procurement turn tracks into particular kinds of commodities that can be collected, traded, consumed as a part of a DJ set, and renewed through remixes and edits.

The exclusive trade of tracks can be a way of supporting and respecting the artists producing the music. This points to the other main economic activities at play in our example, licensing and royalty payment. Perhaps the thing I have been most surprised to learn about is the degree to which licensing and royalty payment are separated, and the structural barriers that can marginalize certain communities in the global system of intellectual property.

Before the night, ideally, at least, you would have struck up an agreement with KODA, the organization that has the authority to negotiate music rights and collect royalties in Denmark. At this agreement, you pay for a license to use ✨music✨ in a general sense for your event. KODA has tools to quickly get a quote for different scenarios (just in case you want to know how much you should have paid to have your friend DJ at your last birthday party – I checked, and it’s around 900 kr.). However, in reality, it is quite possible to negotiate with them.

Then, after the DJs have played, you have a choice to make. Do you opt to track down the many (probably drunk and tired) DJs and make them write out the details for each track they used a snippet of, then send it to KODA, or do you just not bother? If you do choose to, you get a sense that KODA is quite annoyed at having to track down the rightful owners of remixes and edits of underground music. The performers also may seem a bit suspicious of this idea, some of them being used to guarding their track list or maybe even playing music that uses unlicensed samples or edits themselves. On the other, if you study it, it seems like KODA is comprised and designed for quite different genres and musical cultures, mainly songwriting and composing. You suspect that they will just distribute the license money to the artists making money from licensing. Electronic music is not an organized force within KODA, and so KODA is not very good at catering to your needs (for example KODA does not seem to know what to make of unreleased recorded music), and on the other, your community does not have intimate knowledge and trust of KODA, and so it seems like an organization that extracts value from your community.

This dynamic taps into a more general historical dynamic between the popular underground and the mainstream and authorized. The royalty/rights system pays out according to how much a song is played and registered as played by the system, and its license is given to music in general. This is another set of practices that turn tracks into commodities that must be registered to generate value, which is determined by their accessibility and popularity.


A sort of conclusion

From this initial analysis, I can suppose three broad roles that recorded music can play in a live setting as a commodity: As a physical product trading in rarity, as a bundle of rights trading in scale (fame), and as content trading in access (license).

This has also made me realize that in fact, recorded music as a commodity based on rights and license is far from a complete picture. In all cases, the economic activity must be organized and negotiated collectively through norms. And that these ways of organizing serve different interests, forgetting responsibilities in some cases while claiming moral authority in others.

Finally, through all of these registers, the argument is in some ways to pay proper respect to the people connected with the recordings played. And so all of them act in a moral register of cultural reproduction, working to create relationships and (imagined) communities in different ways through economic transactions.

Now, I would love to get interviews with people working at KODA, as my knowledge stems only from people outside the royalty collection system (as such this whole blog post should be viewed with quite a bit of scepticism). Most interestingly, I would like to interrogate the way that certain listeners and ways of listening become assumed in these different economic logics and the technologies that develop around them.



Graeber, David. 2014. “On the Moral Grounds of Economic Relations: A Maussian Approach.” Journal of Classical Sociology 14 (1): 65–77.

Tsing, Anna. 2009. “Supply Chains and the Human Condition.” Rethinking Marxism 21 (2): 148–76.