The Politics of Music, Then and Nowby Rohit on Jul, 19 2012
I want to go on a small, meandering ramble about the evolution of the politics of music.
I was reading a little blurb by some 40-something year old fellow, and he was wondering how it was that people in our generation were listening to music from his era. In his experience, he and his peers never heard a song after it played on the radio, unless they had bought the record. He mused whether digitization and the Internet contributed to our trend of preserving and listening to a wide variety of music, from all eras.
I would say that the short answer is: yes, of course.
The long answer is: geez, this brings up a lot of interesting thoughts.
It’s obviously not entirely true that we today have unique access to older songs. Music is something that transcends time — today, we still sit around and listen to classical music from the 1700s, and jazz from the Roaring Twenties. The difference though, is that today we definitely have the ridiculous ability to essentially store everything, as well as the ability to reduce the marginal price of music to literally nothing.
Contrast this modern price of music with that of Mozart’s era: a time when music only existed outside of its performance on paper notes, illegible scribbles to the majority. This fact subscribes to the performer an incredible amount of power over musical culture, a complete monopoly over its reproduction. Is it any surprise that classical music has such a bourgeoisie taste to it? I don’t know the specifics of the political economy of classical music back then, but I suspect it was a luxury preserved for those wealthy or well-connected enough to afford concert tickets. The poor would have to make do with their own music: their mining chants or drinking songs, or the local act at the pub.
As the medium of music changed, so too did its demographics. Classical music became increasingly accessible to the masses through the development of analog recording, and the composer/producer lost his or her (usually his) monopoly over its reproduction. Companies had to be employed to help in the production of the medium. Capitalism had begun to democratize music. No longer was classical music the sole purview of the wealthy elites.
Jazz, as far as I know, also took a step toward radicalizing what music was, and how it was reproduced. Performed primarily in lower-class spaces at first, and purely improv (and thus not written), it was in a sense even more monopolistic than classical—lacking writing, it could not even be passed on after its performance. But this quality was also counterbalanced by the same “democratizing” technology that was affecting classical. Performances could be recorded, and then reproduced indefinitely outside the control of the performer (barring economic and legal agreements).
But something odd began to happen sometime in the mid-century. As music proliferated and diversified, with genres like rock-and-roll emerging, the companies that provided services to musicians began to create a collective life of their own. Marketing began to dominate the space; the masses needed to be told which music to buy, and investment into propaganda became necessary to obtain a decent market share. Capital was poured increasingly into marketing and property rights protection, which was increasingly possible since technology was increasingly dropping the marginal cost of producing music.
Music began to take on peculiar qualities, prompting criticisms of its increasing “commodification,” which many saw as detracting from its true purpose. This shift in the nature of music as a socially constructed object prompted in-depth philosophizing, such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s work The Culture Industry, an essay which contains all kinds of fascinating insights into the dynamics of consumer music, and the influences that the State and Capital have on its production.
But just as capitalism was both democratizing and commmodifying music, so too was technological advancement sowing the seeds for its forcible removal from the creation, production, and distribution of music.
The creation of the digitization of information, coupled with the hilarious over-production of fiber-optics cables during the dot-com bubble of the 90s, meant that the price of music production had fallen off a cliff, right down to zero. Music could now be copied endlessly, and distributed, as long as there was access to the Internet and file-sharing services. Just like that, the role of the distribution companies had disappeared. Music was no longer scarce, and thus the rules of economics no longer really applied.
Obviously, the music corporations began to freak out—and still are. Efforts to protect their “intellectual property” through the State have been increasing as of late, with the State all too happy to have an excuse to legislate Internet freedoms and the ability to anonymously browse into oblivion. Such efforts have been largely (and surprisingly) unsuccessful, but the cards have been clearly thrown on the table: music corporations (as well as many other industrial art companies) have realized that technology has made them obsolete, and can only survive through the creation of artificial scarcity.
My, how things have changed since Mozart.
What might the future of music hold? Certainly, the increasing erosion of the domination of the current music industry. Of course, their marketing power is still unparalled when compared to rivals—evident, of course, when one just sees how many people still idolize corporate celebrities. But one can hope that people will eventually begin to realize the complete farce that “art” becomes when it is infused with Capital, and nothing else. All I care about is money, says Drake, and too much money ain’t enough money, says Lil’ Wayne. What does this poetry reflect, if not the utter vapidity of industrial music? Its product is becoming so bloated with Capital, and so devoid of anything else, that it is losing the ability to refer to anything except itself.
Meanwhile, more meaningful forms of art, produced by those who care little about money and everything about the music itself, is increasingly able to compete against the industrial giants. Political commentary, long dead from the industrial sector, proliferates in the “underground” of music, and is easier to pass around than ever. And diversity is blossoming—as evidenced by the incredible diversity of sound coming from the electronic genres.
Anyways, I look forward to what the future of the political economy of music will be. Will the industrial giants somehow prevail, and flood our senses with their gray, corporate concoctions? Or will the communist pirates blow out the foundations of consumer music, and lead us to a golden age? Only time will tell.
By the way, since we’re on the topic, here are some songs that I’ve been really digging lately (in no particular order):
- “Swimming Pools” — Kendrick Lamar
- “Empathy” — Bassnectar
- “Immigraniada (Remix)” — Bassnectar (+100 points if you can tell when the drop is about to hit, and what it sounds like)
- “Scottie Pippen Ft. Freddie Gibbs” — Curren$y & Alchemist
- “Hip-Hop” — Dead Prez
- “Hip-Hop” — Mos Def