The Economy of Music or The Music Economy: Deculturalization and Musical Imperialism
Johnn Cage - Concert for Piano and Orchestra,1957-58

The Economy of Music or The Music Economy: Deculturalization and Musical Imperialism

I detest audi­ences. Not in their indi­vid­u­al com­po­nents but en masse I detest audi­ences, I think they are a force of evil.

Glenn Gould

Music for enter­tain­ment … seems to com­ple­ment the reduc­tion of peo­ple to silence, the dying out of speech as expres­sion, the inabil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate at all. It inhab­its the pock­ets of silence that devel­op between peo­ple mold­ed by anx­i­ety, work and unde­mand­ing docil­i­ty.


Song ele­vates our being and leads us to the good and the true. If, how­ev­er, music serves only as a diver­sion or as a kind of vain osten­ta­tion it is sin­ful and harm­ful.


There was a time when cul­ture was trans­mit­ted through music and not negat­ed by it. The affect of late cap­i­tal­ism on pop­u­lar music has been that of flat­ten­ing cul­ture through an evo­lu­tion of pas­tiche artistry for the sake of enter­tain­ment. The force of evil that Glenn Gould had detect­ed, result­ing in his reluc­tance and final refusal to play for live audi­ences, is this exact homog­e­niza­tion of musi­cal cul­ture as it has been lift­ed from the pri­vate domain and sub­sumed by the cap­i­tal­ist glob­al mar­ket. In this music has lost its artis­tic rit­u­al­ism. We can­not deny, how­ev­er, the won­der­ful nature of the beast of glob­al cap­i­tal­ism and the Inter­net for open­ing our world up to the won­der­ful sounds of our sis­ter cul­tures. Yet at the same time, we must ask our­selves when does con­tem­po­rary music become mere­ly pas­tiche and mean­ing­less enter­tain­ment?

It was so that, as the Bug­gles sing, “video killed the radio star.” But some­thing far more sin­is­ter than this was the death of music when it became an indus­try in the first place. That is, when it became a com­mod­i­ty. We can­not deny that music has, for cen­turies and cen­turies, served the pur­pose of enter­tain­ment. Indeed, there isn’t much wrong with our use of sound for enter­tain­ment and dance. Even though this is true, we risk los­ing some­thing in music when it is pure­ly an object or com­mod­i­ty for for enter­tain­ment. Before music came to serve cap­i­tal it served the cul­tur­al econ­o­my. With­in this cul­tur­al econ­o­my music was passed on in a folk­loric oral or pre­for­ma­tive tra­di­tion. Music focused on fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty, tra­di­tion and the rit­u­al, and edu­ca­tion and sto­ry­telling. Our bereave­ment and spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, our human­i­ty, were all sur­round­ed by, cel­e­brat­ed and expressed through music. It is not as if music has always been a bea­con of democ­ra­cy, an anthro­po­log­i­cal approach to music his­to­ry will dis­cov­er a musi­cal class strug­gle relat­ing to class tastes, but if cul­ture is based on the gift-econ­o­my, that is it is gen­er­a­tional shared and expressed, then we know music to be an impor­tant fac­tor in cul­tur­al under­stand­ing, prac­tice and trans­mis­sion.

We have come to a point in the phi­los­o­phy and psy­chol­o­gy of aes­thet­ics which has shown a great amount of free­dom in an indi­vid­u­al to devel­op their own tastes; how­ev­er, we also know that cul­tur­al and class pres­sure goes a far way in shap­ing the way that an indi­vid­u­al sees or under­stands a cer­tain thing as beau­ti­ful or ugly. Sim­ply stat­ed, we have a choice in what we find aes­thet­i­cal­ly pleas­ing or not, but this choice can be negat­ed, annexed or sup­pressed by and through peer pres­sure. This part­ly explains the class divi­sion between tastes. We often enjoy what we are given or have access to. Even though this is some­thing we should see chang­ing, as we have unlim­it­ed access to the sounds of the world, unfor­tu­nate­ly clas­si­cal con­di­tion­ing still plays some sort of a role in shap­ing our beliefs and opin­ions.

While our class might play some role in the type(s) of music we like, it has also his­tor­i­cal­ly dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed the meth­ods of its dis­sem­i­na­tion. One way to exem­pli­fy this is through clas­si­cal and folk music. Clas­si­cal music, it is often believed, must be learned and shared through a thor­ough and rig­or­ous aca­d­e­mic method where­as folk music is often thought to be shared pure­ly oral­ly or through obser­va­tion and rep­e­ti­tion in com­mu­nal set­tings. Of course this doesn’t always hold true, but the stig­mas of musi­cal knowl­edge acqui­si­tion remain.

The tech­nol­o­gy of musi­cal trans­mis­sion has changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly dur­ing the twen­ti­eth and twen­ty-first cen­turies. The­se in turn have changed the way we cre­ate and share music. Music was once shared and pri­mar­i­ly learned through per­for­mance, we now have a pletho­ra of record­ing and lis­ten­ing tech­nolo­gies to spread the sounds of our world. This becomes prob­lem­at­ic when enmeshed with we know as a music indus­try. Like good lit­tle Marx­ist ana­lysts, we can all come to the con­clu­sion that those who own the means of pro­duc­tion are those who can then shape our tastes and dom­i­nate the means of dis­tri­b­u­tion. Even in a increas­ing­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic and Inter­net savvy world our tastes have become fun­neled into the realms of medi­oc­rity (read as an increas­ing­ly homo­ge­neous world, not as an aes­thet­ic val­ue judge­ment). We have lost our com­mu­nal and indi­vid­u­al sense of cathar­sis in music for many rea­sons and no more so deceiv­ing­ly than through the rela­tion­ship between an audi­ence and their wag­ging tails on behalf of a music star.

What is called music today is all too often only a dis­guise for the mono­logue of pow­er. How­ev­er, and this is the supre­me irony of it all, nev­er before have musi­cians tried so hard to com­mu­ni­cate with their audi­ence, and nev­er before has that com­mu­ni­ca­tion been so deceiv­ing. Music now seems hard­ly more than a some­what clum­sy excuse for the self-glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of musi­cians and the growth of a new indus­tri­al sec­tor.

Jacques Attali 

There is a prob­lem in both fan­dom and musi­cal idol­a­try in that they rely on a decep­tive rela­tion­ship between fan and star. This rela­tion­ship is embed­ded with­in the social imag­i­nary which con­structs a dystopic fan­tasia in which an indi­vid­u­al (who believes them­selves to be flat or with­out an iden­ti­ty) grasps onto a star, or the words the star has to say, and digests them in such a way the believe they express who they tru­ly are. How­ev­er, in their self-glo­ri­fi­ca­tion the musi­cian is unable to express the nuances behind their own iden­ti­ty as being false and staged. The decep­tion is that the musi­cian can­not pos­si­bly live out what they preach in a sys­tem sub­sumed by the late cap­i­tal­ist log­ic. The cul­ture that they share is the cul­ture of star­dom, which is a false cul­ture sus­pend­ed in the heav­ens due to idol­a­tress fans. Fur­ther­more, the­se verg­ing on idol­a­tress rela­tion­ships between fan and star become ever more patho­log­i­cal in the fan’s over drama­ti­za­tion of the star’s life in ques­tion. This is evi­dent in the cul­ture of tin­hat­ting where fans believe they have spe­cial knowl­edge about a star and their sex lives. This, to me, is plain over-invest­ment in some­thing we need not val­ue. You see, where music is pow­er­ful, it seems, the star comes to over­shad­ow it in many cas­es.

Music as a tra­di­tion has been innate­ly entwined with the reli­gious expe­ri­ence. In our mod­ern more sec­u­lar times we might call this a spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence. Reli­gion has used music as both a tool for indoc­tri­na­tion and a tool for our per­son­al search for and rela­tion­ship with divin­i­ty. The fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty too, music was and is a call­ing to con­nect spir­i­tu­al­ly and phys­i­cal­ly. Tra­di­tion­al­ly music was not to be expe­ri­enced pas­sive­ly but active­ly through par­tic­i­pa­tion, most often in rit­u­al. Class divides have always com­pli­cat­ed this and in some instances cre­at­ed the idea that there are musi­cians and their audi­ence. This sep­a­ra­tion, almost like some sort of caste sys­tem, has helped to shape music today under the aus­pice of late cap­i­tal­ism.

Cap­i­tal­ism is a pure­ly cul­tic reli­gion, per­haps the most extreme that ever exist­ed.

Wal­ter Ben­jam­in

The cult of cap­i­tal­ism has given birth to the musi­cian as star. The tra­di­tions of yore have been replaced with the sacred sym­bol of the pop-star. A sort vacan­cy in music has tak­en place. The low­er class are no longer inter­est­ed in cre­at­ing music for them­selves, to share and com­mu­ni­cate with­in their cul­tur­al lega­cies. Their cul­tures are being negat­ed through their wor­ship of our new gods tak­ing to the stage and par­rot­ing pas­tiche ver­sions of our his­to­ries back at the mass­es. Pop­u­lar music has become a Bono-fied mess, and the Bono-fica­tion of it all has been based large­ly on the ser­vice of cap­i­tal and self-inter­est. A new genius of lib­er­al com­mu­nism has sur­faced in the wakes of our new super­stars whose frac­tured and deceiv­ing ide­olo­gies are reflect­ed back at them through a fan base unaware of their ego-bloat­ing, pathol­o­gy stok­ing nature. Below this cult of the sup­pos­ed­ly fan­tas­tic remains a music for the com­mon peo­ple based on folk tra­di­tions encom­passed by a type of shar­ing econ­o­my that can’t be found in the shape of an app.

This song is Copy­right­ed in U.S., under Seal of Copy­right #154085, for a peri­od of 28 years, and any­body caught singin it with­out our per­mis­sion, will be mighty good friends of ours, cause we don’t give a darn. Pub­lish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we want­ed to do.

Lin­er note from Woody Guthrie

Our folk tra­di­tions provide space for music to reflect our com­mu­ni­ties and spaces to gath­er and share our sto­ries. We are slow­ly los­ing the­se spaces. Our sounds are being appro­pri­at­ed and regur­gi­tat­ed back to us through pas­tiche mod­es of expres­sion. The music stars cor­rupt nature and dri­ve for pow­er is no longer dis­guised as the cul­ture of late cap­i­tal­ism has thrust the­se peo­ple into god-like posi­tions through lust dri­ven idol­a­try. We have plen­ty to lose in this appro­pri­a­tion and bas­tardiza­tion of our musi­cal tra­di­tions. We lose our iden­ti­ty and fall into a cycle in which we inscribe the false-front­ed iden­ti­ty of anoth­er upon our­selves. We lose our sense of com­mu­ni­ty in our wag­ing of tastes again­st oth­ers. We lose the enjoy­ment of shar­ing music with each oth­er. We lose our inter­est in learn­ing music as art through rit­u­al and instead wish to learn music as a path to employ­ment or fame.

I will admit that speak­ing or writ­ing about music is a dif­fi­cult task. We always risk to offend; how­ev­er, the offense is more often a respon­se in which peo­ple wish to defend their tastes. Aes­thet­ic taste, when we are speak­ing of those with­out an iden­ti­ty, who live inau­then­ti­cal­ly, in a Kierkegaar­dian or even Hei­deg­ge­ri­an sense, is always a risky top­ic. But we must take the risk in our analy­sis of pop­u­lar music for­mu­lat­ed as enter­tain­ment in late cap­i­tal­ism.

The pur­pose of my analy­sis is to high­light the effi­ca­cy of music as enter­tain­ment to homog­e­nize and dra­ma­tize the late cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions between fan and star. It seeks to open the dia­logue and explore the often patho­log­i­cal nature of this rela­tion­ship. To inves­ti­gate this con­cept of authen­tic­i­ty to see if there is any ground left to recov­er, or if it is worth try­ing to recov­er at all.

Music has the innate qual­i­ty of being enter­tain­ment, so why is there such a need to dress it up? There is a def­i­nite divide between enjoy­ing an artists work and patho­log­i­cal fan­dom, but the line between the­se two can often be murky and indef­i­nite. Regard­less, the fan/star rela­tion­ship has been a result of late cap­i­tal­ism and com­mod­i­ty cul­ture. And with com­mod­i­ty, we find patho­log­i­cal fetishism:

with com­modi­ties. … it is a def­i­nite social rela­tion between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fan­tas­tic form of a rela­tion between things. In order, there­fore, to find an anal­o­gy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the reli­gious world. In that world the pro­duc­tions of the human brain appear as inde­pen­dent beings endowed with life, and enter­ing into rela­tion both with one anoth­er and the human race. So it is in the world of com­modi­ties with the prod­ucts of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attach­es itself to the prod­ucts of labour, so soon as they are pro­duced as com­modi­ties, and which is there­fore insep­a­ra­ble from the pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties. This Fetishism of com­modi­ties has its orig­in, as the fore­go­ing analy­sis has already shown, in the pecu­liar social char­ac­ter of the labour that pro­duces them.

Marx, Cap­i­tal

This con­sumer fetishism caus­es alien­ation with­in the pro­duc­tion of music:

Let us review the var­i­ous fac­tors as seen in our sup­po­si­tion: My work would be a free man­i­fes­ta­tion of life, hence an enjoy­ment of life. Pre­sup­pos­ing pri­vate prop­er­ty, my work is an alien­ation of life, for I work in order to live, in order to obtain for myself the means of life. My work is not my life.

Marx, Com­ments on James Mill

This cycli­cal rela­tion­ship between fan and star erodes at the pos­si­bil­i­ty for authen­tic moments with­in pop­u­lar music. Music that is com­mod­i­ty can­not express itself with authen­tic­i­ty and becomes pure enter­tain­ment. Again, there is noth­ing wrong with music for enter­tain­ment; enter­tain­ment is an innate qual­i­ty of music, or it is an ever-present side effect. How­ev­er, when music is made for the pur­pose of pure enter­tain­ment we have to ques­tion the motive of cap­i­tal gen­er­a­tion and the comod­i­fi­ca­tion of the arts. When music is made to sell it negates its cul­tur­al val­ue. Pop­u­lar music might reach the mass­es; how­ev­er, the mass­es aren’t buy­ing the mes­sage … they are buy­ing the idea of the mes­sage as if it were some­thing to wear. The cul­tur­al trans­mis­sion becomes pas­tiche and banal. Or, it becomes cul­ture­less trans­mis­sion. Cap­i­tal­ism does not diver­si­fy and com­mod­i­ty works to homog­e­nize. Late cap­i­tal­ism has engulfed music cre­at­ing an indus­try around it and com­mod­i­fy­ing it, alien­at­ing musi­cians and cre­at­ing a patho­log­i­cal com­mod­i­ty cul­ture around the con­cept of the fan.

Music needs to be tak­en back. Music needs to be played and shared. The rise of the rock star fol­lows the rise of cap­i­tal­ist and com­mod­i­ty cul­ture. Authen­tic­i­ty has been aban­doned for cap­i­tal and fame and the cre­ation of the audi­ence / artist divide has ensured that wealthy medioc­re artists can main­tain an indus­try hell-bent on destroy­ing music.

As we move for­ward we need to dis­miss the rock star and begin cre­at­ing music again as com­mu­ni­ties. We need to cre­ate music not for cap­i­tal under the guise of enter­tain­ment, but for the pure enjoy­ment of it and to share our sto­ries. The nar­ra­tive of the star mustn’t be tak­en seri­ous­ly or idol­ized. The prop­ping mech­a­nism of com­mod­i­ty must be decon­struct­ed in the real­iza­tion that music is the expres­sion of cul­ture and cathar­sis which are things that should not be cap­i­tal­ized off of.

Lis­ten to what you like and what you want. But keep in mind, no star speaks for you or defines you. Music does not define you. You can express your­self through music, yes, become a part of it and not a pas­sive agent or fan. Resist the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of music and the flat­ten­ing of your per­son­al­i­ty and cul­ture.

Find the poet­ry in the musi­cian on the street cor­ner, the song of your uncle at fam­i­ly din­ner, the drunk singing at the bar. This is the poet­ry and music of life: when music is shared between friends, fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty per­formed by friends, fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty. If you wish to find some­thing rev­o­lu­tion­ary in music, the­se are the times to remem­ber, not that time you were dri­ving and singing to any num­ber of your favorite pop-stars, who sup­pos­ed­ly have some pow­er­ful mes­sage which is being lost between the dol­lar bills they have earned sell­ing you their pro­pa­gan­da, get­ting from one place to the next fight­ing your own bore­dom.