An Appeal to Musicians to Rise Up Against the Neo-Liberal Order

Five companies have taken over vertical and horizontal control of almost every aspect of the music industry, controlling virtually every known label, most of the major distribution companies and much of copyrighted music. The dominant forms of music are repetitive and prosaic. Radio stations, seeking secure, safe and continuous profits, filter out anything that might upset. It doesn’t have to be this way, says sociologist Kieran Allen.

There is a paradox at the heart of modern music. It has never been more listened to, cherished and sought after: approximately 650 million CDs are sold each year. Thousands queue for hours to see bands like U2 and then watch plaintively as concert tickets are sold out within minutes. Yet for all this gigantic level of support, there is a deep malaise. Music is either an increasingly private experience – as individualised collections are assembled on MP3 players – or else it is a mass phenomenon with thousands coming for the concert ‘experience’ on a sporadic basis. Living music, which thrives in more localised settings with subtle connections between musicians and audience, is declining. The dominant forms of music are repetitive, prosaic and in need of infusions from ‘world music’. Musicians claim that their creativity is thwarted by record companies or by mass audiences who want to hear old favourites.

In a recent article in the Journal of Music in Ireland, composer Benjamin Dwyer argued that this malaise arose because modern society has destroyed the balance between the physical and the metaphysical. This balance was fractured when the Enlightenment age nurtured a one-sided, rationalistic/scientific form of investigation which left no place for the ‘non-verifiable’.[1] This analysis, however, misses out on how science itself has been shunted away from its early ideal of developing human freedom through knowledge. By seeking for lost forms of mysticism, Dwyer’s article misses out on the problems posed to both music and science by neo-liberal capitalism.

Music in an individualised world
At one level there is, of course, no fundamental opposition between music and capitalism. Historically, the turning of music into a business represented a step forward from church or aristocrat control, in which music was written according to commissions. Yet as a form of imagination there can also be something slyly subversive about many musical forms. Ernest Fischer put it well,

The imagination which refuses to recognise as reality the world which rulers of all kinds tell us is reasonable to accept as such, the imagination which anticipates a ‘realm of freedom’ outside and beyond socially necessary production and the consumer goods, is said to be antiquated, anarchic, suspect and destructive. The rulers suspicion of the imagination is by no means unfounded, for it rarely co-incides with their wishes.[2]

Music, like other art forms, liberates us from habits; it breaks the practical utilitarian modes; it tears away masks which have become frozen appendages. In an individualised world where we are supposed to exist as atomised ‘rational choice’ actors – rational only about our self-interests – it re-connects the human bond.

Music is one of the most social forms of art in that it establishes a relationship between the composer, interpreter and listener. Musical notation does not determine the sound and the sound is not received in the same way by all listeners. Musical performance, unlike athletic performance, means enacting other people’s thoughts – the performance remains as just practice until it is heard.

Music is part of a collective human endeavour to enforce the human will on nature. As Daniel Barenboim put it, ‘The sheer act of making music is an act of courage since you are trying to defy many of the physical laws of nature. The first one is the question of silence.’[3] Whether appreciated individually or collectively, music is addressed to other people in this joint endeavour.

Neo-liberal capitalism, with its vast network of money and power, can spread the many varieties of music across the globe. It can open huge potentials for engagement and enjoyment in ways not envisaged in any previous society. Think only of the fusions of different cultures from flamenco to jazz, from rembetika to blues. Yet in other ways the fundamental drive of the system cuts against some of the most basic promises of music. Let me outline a few ways it does this.

Cultural capital
The growing social inequalities of Western capitalism rupture the musical audience into segmented, class-stratified layers. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has argued that the bourgeoisie seek to transmute their money into ‘cultural capital’ which is developed through markers of social distinction. Nothing affirms one’s class position more than taste in music. Precisely because music is a pure art with ‘nothing to say’, it can be interpreted as a spiritual phenomenon. Appreciation of ‘high forms’ of music is taken by the bourgeoisie as a testimony to their own sensitivity and finery. As Bourdieu put it,

For a bourgeois world which conceives its relation to the populace in terms of the relationship of soul to body, ‘insensitivity to music’ represents a particularly unavowable form of materialist coarseness.[4]

Music in this context means the ‘high’ music of the classics. It is the reason why every bourgeois child has been taught the piano; why as grown-ups they sit through the most tedious performances only to demonstrate publicly their ‘sensitivity’. The greatest musical victim of this class snobbery is opera. Consider only the supreme irony of how Verdi is treated. When he was called for ennoblement by Victor Emanuel, he refused stating that ‘I am a peasant’. Yet today his operas are ‘appreciated’ mainly by a social group who sees their attendance as a marker for their distinction. This is not just a moral point. The segmentation of music along the lines of social class also creates artificial artistic barriers which hinder creativity. (The fact that supposed Marxist critics like Adorno also justified this distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ music like jazz – which he claimed could only be listened to when the audience was ‘distracted’ – tells you more about the power of these social markers and Adorno’s dismissal of the Western working class.)

Music has become an industry dominated by a handful of corporations who hamper our access to new forms of creativity. Five companies – Warner Music, EMI Group, Universal Music Group, Bertelsmann Music Group and Sony – have taken over vertical and horizontal control of almost every aspect of the industry. They control virtually every known label, 80 per cent of all titles produced in the US and comparable percentages elsewhere, most of the major distribution companies and much of copyrighted music. Real existing capitalism – as distinct from the propagandistic fantasies about a ‘free’ market – leads to the creation of great oligopolies. These seek to standardise musical forms for mass audiences so that new, experimental forms are sacrificed for the security of guaranteed sales. Just as the pharmaceutical industry concentrates its research on ‘me too drugs’ – drugs which are similar to past blockbusters – the music industries also concentrates on safe sellers.

There are of course independent labels, often run genuinely for the love of music rather than money, yet increasingly these labels function as cheap research and development departments for the big corporations. The corporations will allow some innovations, by drawing from the culture of subordinated groups, whether these are the black ghettoes of America or the makers of ‘world music’, but the openings are limited. The majority of ‘new’ artists must rely on the only state subsidy that is available – usually the dole.

The drive for secure markets has also led to musical formats which constrict the subversive imagination of music. The culture of overwork and long hours of travel means that many people first hear new pieces of music from the radio. In the real – rather than ‘free’ – world of the market, radio stations are forced to look for secure, safe and continuous profits. Officially, it is claimed that the radio plays music people want to hear. In reality, there is an elaborate pre-selection process which involves a filtering out of anything that might upset. One researcher put it like this,

One of the unquestioned maxims of Top 40 programming is what you don’t play can’t hurt you. Avoid at all costs the possibility of playing a record that the listener doesn’t like. If he [sic] can tolerate it fine, but anything that polarizes listener attitudes is probably better off skipped.[5]

Ideologues may talk of ‘freedom of choice’, but capitalism produces the most conformist, bland products that limit diversity. One of the mechanisms by which this market standardisation is enforced is through programming ‘formats’. Music programmes are divided into such formats as ‘Middle-of-the-Road’, ‘Country’, ‘Contemporary Hits’, ‘Classical’ and so on. The real purpose of the formats is to enable radio stations to deliver to advertisers a measured and defined group of consumers who become labelled as ‘market segment’. This fragmentation of the musical experience leads to a closing off of the imagination. It produces in the listener a deadening effect which lessens spontaneity and produces – and here Adorno had a point – ‘conditional reflexes’.

Music as forest dead-wood
The tendency of modern capitalism to turn all life forms into commodities ruptures the relationship between the musician and the wider society. Neo-liberalism seeks to push forward the frontiers for profit opportunities and it demands that knowledge and art be ‘commercialised’ and treated as for-profit commodities. One of its principal devices is the comparatively new legal concept of ‘intellectual property rights’ which has been forced on most countries though the TRIPS agreements of the World Trade Organisation. In the past, capitalism was content with turning the physical elements of our world into private property. One of Marx’s earliest writings, for example, explored how the dead-wood of forests which had traditionally been freely collected by European peasantry, was designated as private property. Now the process has reached even further: for forest dead-wood, you can substitute music. ‘Happy Birthday to You’ is probably the most sung song in the English language – yet it has now been copyrighted by Warner-Chappell who strictly enforce their rights to royalties.

This militates against music in some crucial ways. Many forms of folk and traditional musics are based on the adaptation of pre-existing lyrics and melodies. They are built up as a creative mosaic through repeated adaptations. They are not owned by an individual but are the ‘property’ of communities. However, just as the early colonialists discarded tribal ownership of land and imposed private proprietorship so they could extract taxes from the new landlords, so too does the music industry assign individual ownership to songs – all the better to collect their cut. The record companies increasingly look for payment for use of melodies and force musicians to produce a mountain of paper work. More importantly, intellectual property rights are a market-based solution for rewarding the social function of musicians. In a non-capitalist society, music making would be rewarded as ‘real work’ – rather than, say, wasteful jobs which are specific to this society, e.g. weapons making, brand creation, supervision. However, under capitalism musicians are supposed to wait until performing rights organisations collect royalties and then dispense them a share – minus absurdly high administrative costs. Not only is the human experience of listening immersed in an appalling cash nexus, but the musician is placed at the mercy of uncontrollable bureaucracies.

Neo-liberal capitalism has produced a deeply alienated world where many look to music for meaning – but this in turn sets limits to the types of music that are produced. Originally, the concept of alienation appeared in Christian theology as signifying expulsion from the grace of God. However, in the hands of Feurbach and Marx it came to mean that the products of human beings appear to take on a life of their own and come to dominate their creators. Consider, for example, how economists discuss business cycles, balance of payments deficits or inflation rates as if they were natural phenomenon like the weather that were not subject to human control. For Marx, this arose because of the way that human labour was fragmented and robbed of meaning through the separation of mental and manual work.

If work is shorn of meaning, and becomes a form of forced labour, then we naturally look for meaning elsewhere, and these areas of our lives will then carry a huge emotional overload. Not surprisingly, the ‘private’ world of personal relationships is seen as the only arena where one can be truly human. This focus on personal relationships, to the exclusion of all other aspects of the human experience, in turn provides the material for most forms of song making. Turn on any radio programme and the song that is played is about personal love, break-ups, jealousies and so on. And while love is indeed a marvellous source for song making – there is almost nothing else. Songs about work, sport, brilliant bright days or friendships are rarely heard. The lyrical subject matter has been limited and honed down to one, albeit important, aspect of our lives. Mawkishness, hyper-ventilation and simulated forms of pain and grievance flow in abundance.

It does not have to be like this. The free development of music – as with many other aspects of the human experience – will surely come after a successful challenge to the neo-liberal order.

1. B. Dwyer, ‘The Search for Samhita’, Journal of Music in Ireland, Vol. 4 No. 1, Nov-Dec 2003.
2. E. Fischer, Art against Ideology, London, Allen Lane/Penguin, 1969, p. 167.
3. D. Barenboim and E. Said, Parallels and Paradoxes, London, Bloomsbury, 2003, p. 31.
4. P. Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, London, Routledge, Kegan Paul, 1984, p. 19.
5. K. Barnes, ‘Top 40 Radio: A Fragment of the Imagination’ in S Firth (ed.), Facing the Music, New York, Pantheon, p. 20.

Dr Kieran Allen is a lecturer in sociology in UCD and author of The Celtic Tiger: The Myth of Social Partnership (Manchester University Press, 2000)

Published on 1 March 2005

Dr Kieran Allen is a lecturer in sociology in UCD and the author of The Celtic Tiger: The Myth of Social Partnership (Manchester University Press, 2000).

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