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How the Music Industry’s War on Sharing Destroys Markets and Erodes Civil Liberties

Music as “Entertainment”

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The portrait I’ve just painted is somewhat at odds with the popular narrative of the music industry’s formation. Most histories, biographies and documentaries tend to focus on stylistic disruptions (e.g. how rock ‘n’ roll fomented youth rebellion in the 1950s and ‘60s), or the larger-than-life personalities of celebrated music industry executives (e.g. how Walter Yetnikoff of CBS Records waged war on Steve Ross of Warner Communications, while injecting untold millions of dollars into superstar contracts and mob-related promotion companies[1]). To the extent that corporate strategy and copyright law are invoked at all, they tend to be treated as peripheral to the story – executive gambits and the rules of the game, respectively. And though few dimensions of the music industry typically escape the scrutiny of critics and historians, one thing that’s often taken for granted is the industry’s raison d’etre; namely, the premise that music is an untapped resource just waiting to be mined by entrepreneurial spirits capitalizing on the demand for entertainment.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 As should be clear from my discussion in the previous section, the characterization of music as a natural resource was a necessary conceit for the process of commodification; only by metaphorically invoking industrial models of production could this universal public good be successfully privatized. Yet, in order to make this economic sleight-of-hand both believable and palatable, a second conceit was necessary as well. If music-as-resource satisfies the supply side of the industrial metaphor, then music-as-entertainment satisfies the demand side of the equation.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Obviously, music has always been entertaining. Whether we are participating in the process of making it, or just bearing witness to a ritual or performance, we generally find music pleasurable, emotionally gratifying, and at times even transporting. And, at least since the earliest days of minstrelsy, music has been an attraction specifically sought out by those looking to experience such things. But the concept of music as a discrete product of a larger “entertainment industry,” categorically similar to movies, books or games, is a relatively new idea.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Many cultural historians agree that the premise of entertainment as we now think of it – as a commercial diversion from the demands and cares of our daily lives – emerged with the dawn of “consumer culture” in the late 19th Century. However, theorists differ on the reason for this shift. Within a Marxian analytical framework, especially among the Frankfurt School, the entertainment industry serves the purpose of rationalizing and ameliorating the “alienation of labor” during industrialization; workers, deprived of the opportunity to take pleasure in their work, must purchase that pleasure in the form of commodities, thereby perpetuating the capitalist logic at the heart of their alienation.[2] Others have argued that consumer culture was deliberately manufactured by the ruling elites as an instrument of control over the growing ranks of recent immigrants and the working class.[3] Still others view it as a less coercive, and more negotiated process: either the result of dialectical tensions between “top-down” and “bottom-up” social forces,[4] or the inevitable result of the increasing complexity of post-industrial, capitalist society and the expanding role of the marketplace in daily life.[5]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Regardless of the power dynamics that heralded its arrival, the era of consumer culture has been marked by the relegation of music to the category of entertainment, and the gradual obfuscation of its other, older functions. The premise that music is a commercial product, developed as a natural resource and packaged to serve consumer demand, seems obvious to the point of transparency. Many analyses of contemporary musical culture and industry treat this point as axiomatic, never taking care to ask whether or why music should be exploited in this way, but only who should be doing the exploiting, and under what conditions. This dynamic occurs both within and outside the academy, and among both those who sympathize with the commercial music industry and those who challenge it. It is unsurprising, if rather telling, that the recording industry’s own publications refer to the selling of music as “creative product exploitation,”[6] but a bit more problematic when a non-profit organization offering “education, research and advocacy for musicians” produces events and publications titled “The Band as Business.”[7] There seem to be few advocates for music or musicianship outside of a commercial context, and little recognition of music’s role outside of entertainment. The fact that skilled and venerated musicians such as Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, both of whom died relatively young as a result of sustained self-abuse, have been publicly quoted claiming that “our job is to entertain,”[8] suggests some of the human costs of this paradigm, and Kurt Cobain’s Generation X rallying cry, “Here we are now, entertain us,” perfectly encapsulates the ambivalence felt by both musicians and audiences confronted by such market reductionism.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 I am not simply making an “art-for-art’s-sake” argument here, or suggesting that creative expression is some pure and delicate substance corrupted by the nefarious influence of capitalism. Nor am I suggesting that musicians shouldn’t take advantage of the opportunities the marketplace offers, and equip themselves with the same degree of leverage and expertise as any other labor force negotiating with an industry that exploits their work. My aim is simply to point out that the economic privatization of music has required us to adopt a framework of analysis whose totalizing effect is to reduce our expectations of music’s social application to the limitations of “entertainment” as a field, thereby undermining alternative measures of value and systems of reward and incentive. And despite the measurable success of music as a commercial product, and the thousands of willing laborers within its industrial economy, this compromise still sits uneasily with us as a society, and weighs on none more heavily than the musicians who “succeed” the most in market terms.


7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 [1] Dannen, Hit men; Yetnikoff & Ritz, Howling at the moon.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 [2] Adorno, Theodor W. “On Popular Music” In Essays on Music. Ed. Richard Leppert. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002, pp. 437-69.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 [3] Fox, R. W. & Lears, T. J. J. (1983). The culture of consumption: Critical essays in American history, 1880-1980. Pantheon Books.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 [4] Carlson, W. B. (1992). Artifacts and frames of meaning: Thomas A. Edison, his managers, and the cultural construction of motion pictures. In Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in sociotechnical change (W. E. Bijker & J. Law, eds.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; pp. 175-200.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 [5] Ewen, S. (1988). All Consuming Images. New York: Basic Books; Cook, D. T. (2005).

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 [7] http://futureofmusic.org/article/article/band-business

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 [8] Elvis – Word for Word: What He Said, Exactly As He Said It By Jerry Osborne; Michael Jackson: A Visual Documentary the Official Tribute Edition By Adrian Grant

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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/piracycrusade/chap1/music-as-entertainment/