Is digital art a commodity?

On the recent Computer Arts Society talk on NFT’s, one of the speakers came out strongly against the digital art world ‘commodifying’, as they considered had happened in the music world. In their words, "that can never happen". NFT’s, instead, were to be the saviour of the digital art world.

Let’s explore.

Economically-speaking, a commodity is a fungible good or resource, so it can be interchanged with any other of its type.

A digital file can be copied, and each copy is fungible with each other. But different artworks (as in, different files) can’t be, as the content is different. There are many contexts where art can arguably be used interchangeably - generic hotel wall prints, for example - but that’s not specific to digital art. So different artworks are not fungible, but copies of digital files are.

Equally, works by different artists are not interchangeable, even if they (hypothetically) created identical pieces. The story behind each work, and our connection to the artists, adds differentiation and value to us as fans.

The same is true with music.

Music is sold in a range of ways - physical and digital. Copies of digital files are fungible, but different tracks aren’t. The music buying experience has been made (sort of) fungible, in that digital sales and streaming platforms offer a large overlap of content (which is why Netflix, Spotify etc are all pushing into owning original content). But that’s also true of various art platforms.

Commodification

Fungibility isn’t the only way to describe a commodity. It’s often used more generally, to just mean a material or product that can be bought or sold. So when the speaker said that music was commodified, he likely meant to express concern that:

  • Making music more accessible and widespread devalues it, which is true in the sense that having loads of books in a bookshop devalues books (having more music makes having an individual track less special, but it also means that you have more music).

  • Digital distribution (streaming, but also digital sales) has ‘ruined’ the music industry financially, which doesn’t seem to be the case, in the same way that tapes ruined the music industry.

  • Musicians aren’t paid fairly, or can’t earn a living. A very legitimate concern IMO, but again doesn’t seem the case.. It has certainly changed the model of the market, making recording and distribution costs vastly lower for artists and removing access barriers for fans, which (as a result) means an explosion of new music that gives artists a thinner slice of a larger pie.

There are legitimate concerns here, and more generally, not many art or music professionals want to see themselves as providers of entertainment in a market of other products (understandably, as most are in it for the love of their art form, as am I as a generative artist).

The non-commodified art world

Let’s compare to the art world, to see what not being commodified looks like.

The art market is well know for running a lucrative closed shop, with relatively illiquid supply giving very strong incentives to (openly) fix prices and use practices that are illegal when trading other commodities.

It’s a model based on non-fungibility and scarcity, with prices sustained by a market of investors and speculators. And indeed the biggest topic of conversation is always how much art sells for (because, of course).

But that’s the top end, so how is the digital art world faring, traditionally not seen as on par with physical works?

There are loads of ways that digital artists sell their work, with physical prints as most standard. But NFTs have come along and caused a revolution.

Are NFTs commodities? Unique tokens that can be bought and sold don’t meet our economic ‘fungible’ definition (the clue is literally in their name), but does meet our more general (and more widely used) ’bought and sold’ definition.

What does this mean for the digital art world?

Life changing amounts of money for some artists, certainly, which is great. NFTs allow digital artists to tap into the existing (and lucrative) scarcity model of the physical art world.

For fans (who I’m defining, perhaps controversially, as people who want the experience of the artwork, not necessarily the ownership), it’s not as good - scarce supply means high prices for more popular artists, in contrast with the music industry standard of 99p per track (or unlimited streaming).

The music industry does have some aspects of scarcity - concerts and collectible merchandise mainly, which cost more (generally) as bands become more well known. The difference is that the recorded music itself is available cheaply and widely - barriers to music fans are essentially extremely low.

Ironically, NFTs have triggered a big rise in scarcity based speculation in the music industry, but it’s still (at present) built on a wide access, abundance model (against the wishes of the closed-shop record labels, of course, but they’ve benefitted handsomely).

Digital art fans can in some senses access a huge range of digital art for free - it’s there (in compressed format) on Instagram, Reddit, Behance, etc. Artists give it away for free for ‘exposure’, but (now) sell tokens.

It seems to me that, far from the art world being the holdout in a commodifying world, it is in many senses the definition of commodification (at least, our more general version) - the entire industry is based on a scarcity model, which benefits the top of a narrow pyramid. It’s the music industry that (admittedly reluctantly) has benefited fans most by hugely expanding access, which in turn benefitted the industry and allowed a much wider range of musicians to reach an audience.

That’s not to disparage NFTs, any more than I would concert tickets - they are both parts of a whole. But expanding access to digital art for fans by following the example of music has the potential to benefit the entire industry in the same way - it’s an opportunity to be seized, not looked down on.