I hate being called a “consumer”. To me, it’s not a label, it’s more like a derogatory term, an insult. That’s not easy when it’s a term we hear all the time from businesses, economists, analysts, politicians and journalists. And it’s a word we have come to accept as a shorthand description for all of us because we’re all “consumers”.
It’s not hard to see why we have accepted it when the Collins Dictionary defines a consumer as “a person who acquires goods and services for his or her own personal needs”, which is pretty much what we all understand it to mean.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a problem with it. Why can’t they just call us “buyers of goods” and “users of services”? What’s the difference, you might ask? It’s just semantics, isn’t it? Possibly, but to me it’s about the clear passivity attached to the word “consumer” compared to the active engagement of buying or using something.
It’s where the second definition of consumer collides with the implied meaning of the first, where the people engaged in the pursuits of buying and using which are ill-served by the word “consumer” collide with the passivity of the consumer as “a person or thing that consumes”. And what is the definition of “consume”? “To eat or drink.” It can also mean “to engross or obsess” or “to use up; expend”.
None of those definitions appear to be particularly positive to me. When companies and analysts talk about people consuming entertainment, for instance, referring to music or video or games, a part of me visualises someone slumped in a sofa having that entertainment pumped into them via tubes. The passivity disturbs me. Remember when people used to be actively engaged because they listened to music and watched films? They read books. Those verbs suggested engagement, activity. They didn’t swallow those things or use them up.
The implication behind the notion of consuming, of eating and drinking or using up, is that these things are transitory, disposable, that we’re always in the process of finishing something and starting something else. In other words, it imposes an inbuilt short-termism to everything, a skittish pursuit of gratification that can only temporarily be assuaged before moving on to the next thing. Consuming something leaves little time for us to pause to contemplate and appreciate the intricacies and subtleties of a piece of music or film beyond the immediate impression.
When Spotify CEO Daniel Ek stated recently that “some artists that used to do well in the past may not do well in this future landscape, where you can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough”, he was unwittingly highlighting how much the change to “consuming” music as a commodity had devalued it.
If you approach music as a resource that you use up, it’s obvious you need to produce more all the time to take its place. But the more music you create as an immediate resource, the less likely it is to have a resonance beyond today. The more likely, in fact, that it will be swamped in a relentless torrent of other music. And if more and more music is created in ever decreasing timescales to match the unceasing demand for more content, it’s feasible that most of that music won’t linger longer than a first listen.
Content. There’s a word that starkly encapsulates what consumption truly is. You might as well just say “stuff”. It’s not music, film, games, information or documents, it’s just stuff that someone puts on a site or a service so it can be pumped to people over the web.
Go back to music and you can see that, like a fire consuming a house, streaming is already doing a good job of consuming the album format, turning music into a short-term industry that manufactures tunes, many formulated to get to the singing as quickly as possible to suit the assumed short attention spans of “consumers”. Why? Because they supposedly don’t have the time to listen to 10 or 12 songs by the same artist or band unless it’s a Greatest Hits playlist.
There’s nothing wrong with artists producing albums every year or so. Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, all released consistently excellent and best-selling records in intense bursts. But the fact is that in the old pre-streaming days, they made a good living from record sales. In today’s world, a rapid release schedule for those records would barely keep their heads above water.
It’s also a fact that all of those musical luminaries had a period of burn-out where they didn’t release any music for a few years and either broke up or recharged their batteries. If they hadn’t, they would have ended up churning out progressively weaker music. But in Ek’s world, that’s not an option. Which means that, in his world, the musicians keep manufacturing music of varying quality at very regular intervals or burn out and give up.
It’s a perfect illustration of “consumerism”, the end state of a world full of consumers, a place built on “advocacy of a high rate of consumption and spending as a basis for a sound economy”. How sound is that economy? How many musicians, actors and film makers are grateful for the pittance they make from the streaming services?
In our world of unabated consumption, it’s a necessity that we take the option to understand the true value of the music we listen to, the films or programmes we watch or the books that we read. That we tune out from the relentless blizzard of “stuff” and recharge our batteries as listeners and viewers.
As we finally start to comprehend the present and future threat to the environment, our climate and the planet, it is becoming increasingly clear that consumption is part of the problem. If we don’t do something about it, this world of consumerism could consume us.
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