The Labor Theory of Music


Nothing like the arts demolishes the case for the labor theory of value.

I am a writer and a musician. I highly value my songs, far more than most people, and infinitely more than people who haven't even heard them. What determines the value of any given song I write? It's not labor, oh no.

There have been times I've spent hours writing a relatively mediocre song. On other occasions, I have stumbled upon ' by my own estimation, and that of the few fans I have ' a work of brilliance in only a matter of minutes.

Does this mean the song that took me a long time to write is worth more? Obviously, no. Even if I put them on the same album, the good one is worth more than the less-good one, no matter how much more work was spent on the latter. The Labor Theory of Value would have us believe that if a single consumer good ' the album ' is worth x, then x must be split up, in terms of labor, to all those who put work into it. This makes no sense.

Furthermore, bringing a song to the public requires all sorts of economic transactions and human activities that rarely go as financially rewarded, per hour of labor invested, as does the songwriter's contribution. If people value a song someone has written, and are willing to pay more to the artist who wrote and performed it than to the guy shelving the CD at the store, are these customers wrong? This is not an argument for intellectual property per se; writing a song is an intellectual service that is compensated for accordingly.

There are millions of songs in the world. Are they each worth the work put into them? Under a system ' whether anarchistic or governmental ' that truly respected the labor theory of value, would a lavishly produced track on a Britney Spears album be worth more than a tune that Bob Dylan was able to pull off with less labor expended? I hope not. I would not want a relative shortage of Bob Dylan and a surplus of Britney Spears in my ideal society. I would not want resources distributed according to the work Britney Spears and Bob Dylan have done. Although, in the case of Spears, I might think it odd that she became so rich, that she has been so well rewarded materially by her listeners in all their subjective evaluation of her, I can't imagine a better economic theory that would give Bob Dylan his due.

Music is a subjective value, is it not? People listen to different kinds, prefer different compositions, and pay, out of choice, for different songs ' do they not? If this is true for music and therefore poses a serious complication for the Labor Theory of Value, I fail to see how the theory can be unifying, which is what it claims to be.

As I wrote in a different publication, the Labor Theory of Value would imply that war, one of the most destructive institutions known on earth, is somehow more valuable than a peace treaty, by virtue of the difference in labor required. Can we expect Marxists to actually say that bombing Iraq is worth more than writing 'Yesterday,' which Paul McCartney was able to do in his sleep? And if he did it in his sleep, should the song be considered worth the amount of time it took for him to compose the song while dreaming? How do we calculate that? Do we count only REM sleep? And, speaking of which, should REM be counted as the greatest band ever because they've put out about 300 albums that all sound the same? (Sorry, I just had to take that swing. If you don't like it, thank goodness we don't live by a Labor Theory of Comedy!)

I've seen Paul McCartney live, and he charged a pretty penny. Was he exploiting his session musicians by paying them less than he pocketed himself? Was he exploiting the audience by charging so much? Or, given that the songs he played probably took a combined total of far more than 20 hours to compose, and the most low-priced tickets cost less than even 20 hours working at minimum wage could get you, was it the audience that was exploiting him? Hmmm?

I've also seen Bob Dylan live, on five occasions. Were all of these concerts worth the same amount, assuming they took as long to perform and organize? Or were they worth different things to different people?

Music cannot be measured in its value on the basis of labor alone. And, in fact, nothing can.

Let's think for a moment about food. Not all food is worth the labor put into it. I once spent more than an hour producing the worst breakfast I ever encountered. In other instances, I managed to concoct delicious dinners with much less labor. Sometimes, having a messy kitchen can make food preparation take considerably longer. Shall we count cleanup time in our labor theory of food? Or does it count in a different category?

Let's also think about computers, something far less romanticized than music or even the culinary arts. My current computer cost about a third the price that my last one did. But you know what? My new one is much better. I bet the amount of labor that went into them was about the same. And yet, both of these great devices took far less labor to produce than a 17th Century printing press, I would bet you. Which would you rather have?

Most jobs in America today are far less difficult and physically destructive to the body than the ones a hundred years ago. The labor expended, per capita, was probably considerably higher back then. Why, then, was America so much less wealthy in absolute terms?

Oh yes, I remember now. It's because, in spite of all the socialism and fascism in the American economy, people are still relatively free to buy and sell according to their subjective values. Such freedom allows the magnificent market mechanisms of supply, demand, and pricing to coordinate spontaneously human efforts in their most efficient and desired ways. It incites people to keep working harder, and, more importantly, smarter, the entire time with the goal of personal profit in mind. And now we have computers, grocery stores filled with mind-boggling selection, and more choices of music than has ever been seen or even contemplated in all of human history.

Sure, the market does not reward every deserving musician, and it seems to reward many less-than-deserving ones. Certainly, a state cannot be trusted to do better, and the Labor Theory wouldn't do any better if put to practice in this field. For one thing, people will simply never value music purely based on labor. They value it on a subjective basis, as they value everything else. Given this, the market, based on subjective values, is the best way for getting to people what they need and want.

I'm glad people don't value things purely based on labor. It would be a drab world, and I would have no chance of making it better as a musician than as someone whose job was hauling freight on my back, killing Iraqis, or doing anything else that required more labor than songwriting.

Now that I've cleared it up, I'm going to go back to listening to my songs on my new computer. I have 300 recordings filed on my hard drive. It took me only an hour or so to copy them all onto my computer, but the value to me of hearing them this way is so high I wouldn't trade it for even the entire Britney Spears collection. It's just my subjective tastes, mind you, but I wouldn't labor too hard to abolish subjective tastes, if I were you.

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Anthony Gregory is a Research Analyst at The Independent Institute, a Policy Advisor at the Future of Freedom Foundation, and a columnist at His website is