If you don’t have one, then you most certainly know someone who does. In a matter of about five years, they’ve become the most popular way to listen to music on the go. Of course I am talking about iPods. They are convenient, easy to use, and very, very hip.
But try telling that to the sweatshop workers who make them. A recent article in Britain’s Mail on Sunday newspaper reports that the iconic mp3 players are made in near slave-like conditions in factories near Shanghai, China. Employees, the vast majority of whom are women, work 15-hour shifts and make as little as $50 per month. At another factory near Shanghai, where the iPod shuffle is manufactured, workers are paid $100 a month, but are forced to spend half of it on housing and food within the factory complex. This housing is typically over-crowded, and outsiders, including family members, are barred from entering.
As expected, Apple’s PR team kicked into high gear after the story broke. “Apple is committed,” read a statement from spokesman Steve Dowling, “to ensuring that working conditions in our supply chain are safe, workers are treated with respect and dignity, and manufacturing processes are environmentally responsible.”
But we’ve heard this before. We’ve heard it from Disney, from Kathy Lee, and now from Apple. In the end it’s the same song, different arrangement.
Some may be shocked by the news. To most in the media, Apple CEO Steve Jobs is treated like the demi-god of technology; the loveable geek with the golden mouse-finger who was genius and farsighted enough to give us downloadable music at an affordable price. He is the quintessential poster-boy for the 21st century business world, and example number one of globalization with a human face.
But every CEO has a public image that is, to say the least, misleading. Jobs and his billion-dollar innovation were, in the end, the saving grace to the music execs who only six years ago were running scared from the specter of the mp3. Record companies were in a fever pitch over sound files “bankrupting artists.” But this claim was shaky at best. Of the massive profits reaped by the record industry, only a fraction goes to the artists. To a whole swath of outspoken recording artists large and small, from Chuck D to Prince, mp3s were a way to get the exposure that the traditional industry wouldn’t put up for. As Chuck D said on his website in 1998, “The bigger picture is the entire industry and the legal aspect of the game skewing toward executives and against the creative… but now we're in a situation where the industry can't pimp this technology like they've pimped every other form of technology.”
But the industry soon found their perfect pimp. In return for his own cut, Jobs used the iPod and its website iTunes to make downloadable songs a new cash-cow for the huge conglomerates. It would make mp3s profitable and help them keep a lid on their artists. That Apple is guilty of maintaining sweatshops really isn’t that surprising, as Jobs has already helped re-solidify the exploitation of musicians and music fans alike.
The latest news is that Apple is shocked at the allegations and currently “investigating” conditions in its factories, but it’s little more than a publicity stunt. Apple won’t get much more than a slap on the wrist for these revelations. If there were any justice in the way the music industry is run, then musicians and factory workers alike would be receiving a hundred times what they currently get, the CEOs would actually be forced to work for a living, and our ability to listen to our favorite tunes wouldn’t be dependent on our willingness to max out our credit card.
If there is one thing that this scandal makes clear, it is that everything is a commodity to the music industry, no exceptions. But along with severe exploitation, globalization has also brought an unprecedented potential for resistance, which goes well beyond a simple music file. I am not suggesting that every music fanatic go out and scrap his or her iPod. What I am suggesting is that from Shanghai to NYC, musicians, factory workers and music fans have much more in common with each other than they do with the likes of Steve Jobs. If we don’t want to rely on them for our music, then we need to do away with the system that keeps us and our art in chains.
Alexander Billet is a writer and music journalist currently living in Washington, DC. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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