¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 For those of us who came of age in late-20th or early-21st Century America, the answer may seem obvious. It’s a form of entertainment, a packaged product, and a powerful (if sometimes infuriating) industry dedicated to the manufacture and exploitation of that product. Music is what wins Grammys, it’s what the “M” in MTV used to stand for, it’s the stuff that Super Bowl halftime shows are made of. And musical artists – “real” artists, the kind with major label deals and professional quality videos – are a type of brand. Like our choices in clothing, movies and computers, the music we buy, watch and listen to says something about who we are, what groups we belong to, and what kind of values we have.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 Theoretically speaking, if I were to amend my Facebook profile tomorrow to delete musicians like Thievery Corporation, Fela Kuti and Ornette Coleman and replace them with popular acts like Toby Keith, Kelly Clarkson and Drake, my closest friends and family would think I had gone crazy, was pulling a lame prank, or had entered a desperate phase of midlife crisis (and they’d probably be right). It’s an entirely reasonable assumption that I might enjoy the music recorded by these artists, but as a 40-year-old, Northeastern American musician/professor/retired hipster, it would be completely uncharacteristic for me to define myself publicly by affiliating with them.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Music means many things to many people, and it continues to play an important role in churches, parties and politics. But our primary use for it as a society is arguably as a form of “cultural capital,” a public marker of identity acquired through the act of consumption. Music’s intrinsic power to bond groups and communicate affinities has been adapted to the logic of late capitalism, and harnessed to serve its dictates. And the control of this power has been restricted to a dwindling handful of very large corporations with an ever growing scope of legal authorization to decide what the rest of us do with music. The more normal and inevitable this relationship between music and the market seems, the less likely we are to question the underlying premises of our social and economic systems. Yet, as I discuss in my book Mashed Up, the longstanding association between modern musical codes and social institutions may be nearing its end, or at least approaching a radical reformulation; our market-based assumptions about music no longer make sense when we look at the increasingly diverse ways in which we use it in our daily lives.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Music and the marketplace haven’t always been so deeply intertwined; in the scope of human history, it’s a relatively new development. In recent years, scholars in a variety of social and biological sciences have begun to converge on the question of why human beings seem uniquely adapted to make and respond to music, and their answers, though still tentative, offer some fascinating clues about its enduring sway over our lives and societies. Neurobiologist Mark Changizi, for instance, makes a compelling argument that music is, neurologically speaking, a kind of sonic code for human motion that hacks into our nervous systems and redirects our interests and energies. Without music, Changizi argues, humans could never have evolved beyond our “wet biology” to become the socially organized, self-aware, culturally-immured creatures we are today. Similarly, scholars like Oliver Sacks and Daniel Levitin have argued that music is one of the most complex and comprehensive aspects of human consciousness, and that music was not only central to human evolution, but remains vital to our cognitive and social processes from infant development to the treatment of age-related dementia. In short, music isn’t just something we manufacture, like cars and shoes; it’s something that shaped us as a species, and continues to shape each of us as individuals throughout our lives.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Of course, we don’t need to invoke prehistory or biology to find musical traditions and applications that fall outside the confines of the marketplace. As a great many cultural historians and ethnomusicologists have demonstrated, music’s current role as a commodity is the exception, rather than the rule. In most societies, for most of the past five thousand years, music has served other functions, and other masters. For non-industrialized societies such as the Mbuti of Zaire, the Venda of South Africa and the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea, music’s central role (often in the company of dance) was to bind together communities and reaffirm the values and philosophies that united them. In feudal and dynastic societies, music served as a kind of public news medium, as well as a vector of oral history; jongleurs, griots, bards, minstrels, skalds, and udgatars, though specialized conveyors of musical information, were hardly its “owners” or monopolists. Even within postindustrial societies, a great many uses of music still fall beyond the market’s expanding footprint; from “traditional” music styles like blues and bluegrass to quotidian musical events like birthday parties and religious ceremonies, music is still sometimes produced without claims to ownership or the promise of remuneration.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Consequently, as many economists and legal scholars have observed, music outside of its commodity context can be understood as a kind of “public good” – a universally accessible, ubiquitous resource that all members of a society may draw upon to fulfill their individual and collective needs. Similarly, to use a term introduced by media theorist James Carey, music can be understood as a quintessential form of “ritual communication”– in his words, communication “directed not toward the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs.” In other words, music today may be a product, an industry, and a talisman of consumer culture, but it has always been, and continues to be, a constituent element of human consciousness and collective social action as well. And in an age marked by the increasing corporate ownership of culture as well as a rapidly evolving person-to-person networked communications infrastructure, these two functions of music have come into an ever greater degree of conflict.