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Commodification and Commercialisation – Corporations and Cultural Monopolies

Written by Akshat Agarwal, 26th July 2020

For a while, the notion of corporate control on dissemination was wholly restricted to “utility” oriented goods and services. Over the last quarter century however, the practice has now firmly entrenched itself into the cultural industry. What this has consequently resulted in is setting the standard for a new norm of corporate ownership of “cultural content” –  one which takes the form of an industrial commodification of music, art, and other cultural expressions to be consumed. In a country that prides itself on a rich diversity of indigenous art forms, this presents a uniquely difficult problem for their visibility and access.

Cultural diversity refers to the manifold ways in which cultures of groups find expression, manifested through the diverse modes of artistic creation, production, dissemination, distribution and enjoyment. India has an assortment of expressive groups which each possess their own unique set of art forms. The sheer amount of folk cultures and different branches of artistic production, ranging from Madhubani art to Warli paintings, seek to exist in an equally inclusive space as a part of a larger cultural framework. Time and time again, we hear in the media talk about these “forgotten communities”. But, whether it be the inadequate representation of folk paintings in mainstream art discourse or the fading existence of Indian classical music in the minds of the general public, we rarely ever question the reason for the same.  To put it bluntly, the dominance of corporate control over content dissemination has prevented these cultures from being exposed to larger audiences, not the art form’s presumptive lack of appeal to a broad based audience.

Madhubani Art
Warli Painting

Take music for example. Since the inception of record labels and entertainment media conglomerates, a slow but certain monopolization over content distribution has taken over the industry. People see what they are shown, and what is shown is manufactured and controlled by wealthy corporations who have the capacity to do so. Viewed with rose tinted glasses, the concept of a record label has wholly good intentions of providing reach to artists. Inevitably though, like any other business, they become driven by profit. A diversity in musical content poses a risk to corporates who have already created a recipe that rakes in increasing profits. A record label sees no value in providing airtime to an indigenous music form or an independent creator when they already have a wildly successful formula. If something that veers away from the mainstream begins to gain success, they simply take the quick route to monetizing it by posting a commercialised/ industrial remake of the same.

With a monopoly already secured, corporations become tastemakers for their audience. When all your content is coming through one stream alone, your interests will be a reflection of their production. These monopolies unavoidably cause a blockade in the public mind towards awareness of these so called “forgotten” art forms. It has ensured the focus of the cultural market to be on heavily advertised blockbusters and superstars, rather than a concerted promotion of diversity in expression. The lack of equitable access towards obtaining an audience is wholly apparent when one just compares the views of industry heavyweights to even the largest independent artists. Fans of the independent music scene in India would crown Peter Cat Recording Co as one of, if not the, largest indie acts in the country. Their most successful single, “Floated By”, has around 240,000 views. As I’m writing this piece, the latest video T-Series uploaded to their channel, a mere teaser to a song called “Dil Tod Ke”, has already surpassed that in less than six hours since its upload. The playing field is evidently far from even. It necessitates a structural change in thought, in how music is distributed as well as the laws around its ownership and control. The systemic advantages that corporations wield has facilitated industry concentration, leading into a less diverse cultural discourse, primarily due to a lack of an equitable access to an audience.

The internet might have seemed to be a mode for liberalisation during the heyday of applications like Napster, however corporations have now firmly locked in on its capabilities. Its privatisation by platforms which are profit centric, has enabled corporations from around the world to rule the race to page one, controlling what the public consumes. It’s really no wonder that the BBC’s top 20 songs of the 2000’s include 17 representatives from the US and the UK cultural market! In other words, the internet has not just allowed for domestic corporations to control cultural standards, it has also facilitated cultural imperialism on a global level. 

When we start to refer to various folk genres as forgotten, or Indian classical and its various sub genres as fading in terms of recognition, we must think of the systemic issues that cultural commodification has led to. These art forms still exist, and are still practised voluminously in our society, especially so by the indigenous groups who have been doing so for generations. We, lacking effective access to them, have a compulsion to refer to them as “dying”.

How to circumvent this corporate imperialism? Well, to begin with, we would need a change in the laws around ownership of cultural content. A mechanism where the artists transfer their ownerships to corporates, empowers these organisations to exploit and earn out of such content. There needs to be a conscious legislative change, perhaps based on the system of the inalienability of copyrights that has been successfully adopted in countries like Germany and Austria, Here, ownership of content cannot be transferred away from artists thereby protecting the intellectual and commercial value of the product that they themselves have created.

It is also essential for platforms to embrace a sense of social responsibility towards presenting diverse content equitably. It gives a larger platter for the public to actually democratically choose from, and experience. A flexible ad based business model, not supported by mergers with big record companies in exchange of promotions, is imperative. An example of this is a platform like Bandcamp which does not allow monetizing to advertise content. The “Global cultures initiative” started by Spotify to allow for multiplicity of music and equity in dissemination, was also a promising step forward but ultimately died down due to label pressure and key proponents leaving the company.

Ultimately, the onus does also fall on us as consumers to be more actively conscious. Rather than surfing the web passively, without realising the systemic advantage that a few corporate backed artists possess, we should try to broaden our horizons by exploring creators who have not been blessed by corporate backing. Even if legislative reforms fail and platforms refuse to change their existing models, consumers still hold power when collectively organised. Until we start to show substantial support towards cultural content away from the corporate controlled mainstream, the system will continue to function uninterested in change.

Experience Further: Thom Yorke decries the system as a flawed illusion, where the numbers are just there to draw away from reality and diversity. “We’re not at the mercy/Of your shimmers of spells”.

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Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

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Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

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We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi-medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture by investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society.


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