Monday, October 10, 2011

Music and Industry: The Consumption of Corporate Culture

"Modern music is people who can't think, signing artists who can't write songs, to make records for people who can't hear." Frank Zappa
 Music developed historically within cultures as traditions which served prominent roles in societies.  In ancient Greece music was present for marriages, funerals, and rituals, as well as accompanying theater, and ballads of epic poetry.  There were also forms of folk music or music of the common people.  In Ancient India, Africa, China, and etc. we see a similar use of music.  Often times the purpose of this music was to express not just who we were as individuals, but the culture as well.  Irish traditional music is a great example of this.  Take a song like The Shores of Amerikay or Dear Old Skibbereen which express not just the individual mourning and loss experienced, but what it was like to be a common person in Ireland during the 19th century in the eyes of the common person.  Music itself has undergone many changes in compositional techniques, styles, and instrumentation, but I'd like to focus on the function of music in modern times and the processes by which we make and consume music. 

The growth of a real industry of music was originally centered on sheet music publishing for consumption in the home by playing the music yourself.  Composers wrote songs to be sold as the emerging middle class were able to purchase instruments, and get musical instruction for playing western classical music that wasn't available to most people before the industrial age.  Entertaining in parlours was in fashion, and music was specifically composed and disseminated for this purpose.  Eventually in the US, the growth of the industry led to the growth of copyright laws, which led to further growth of the industry.  Originally music copyright laws weren't as strict in the US as in Europe and publishers often printed different versions of about any popular song.  However late in the 19th century many copyright laws were enhanced and many of the major New York publishers moved over to West 28th street between 5th and 6th Ave. in Manhattan, a place known as Tin Pan Alley.

Here song writers like Irving Berlin and others sold songs to publishers or were hired to write songs by publishers.  The firms hired "pluggers" (which included George Gershwin) to demonstrate songs to people, often in music stores.  They also gave away songs to popular performers knowing that it would increase the popularity of the songs.  The industry eventually even began to incorporate blues, cakewalk, and jazz although since the main purpose of the music was to be sold to amateur musicians they were often just commercial representations of these types of music.  The reason for this is that these types of music all involve certain processes of creation (i.e. improvisation) rather than just stylistic differences.  It's important to note that originally the publishers did not originally promote music or develop writers.  It wasn't until this Tin Pan Era developed after 1880 when "plugging" was developed that promotion really started to expand business.  As more pianos were being made by factories, the price came down, and piano ownership rose.  In the first quarter of the 19th century 10,000 pieces of popular music was printed.  In the first decade of the 20th century 25,000 songs were sold annually.  After the Ball by Charles K. Harris sold 2 million copies in 1882 and went on to sell over 5 million.  This industry boom was to be short lived in part to a technological innovation known as the Gramophone.

John Philip Sousa had this to say about the new recording technology,
"Sweeping across the country with the speed of a transient fashion in slang or Panama hats, political war cries or popular novels, comes now the mechanical device to sing for us a song or play for us a piano, in substitute for human skill, intelligence, and soul...  Under such conditions the tide of amateurism cannot but recede, until there will be left only the mechanical device and the professional executant. Singing will no longer be a fine accomplishment; vocal exercises, so important a factor in the curriculum of physical culture, will be out of vogue!  Then what of the national throat? Will it not weaken? What of the national chest? Will it not shrink?  When a mother can turn on the phonograph with the same ease that she applies to the electric light, will she croon her baby to slumber with sweet lullabys, or will the infant be put to sleep by machinery?"
You can read the rest of his 1906 article "The Menace of Mechanical Music," here.  Seemingly harsh words for a device that would over time make him a lot of money (although he refused to conduct his band for many of the recordings).  With the ability to record performances by the best musicians more people began to consume music not through either playing the music or listening to live musicians but to recordings.  Of course this allowed for certain pieces of music to be archived, played anytime, and introduce people to music not heard in their geographic area.  Originally many of the recordings of the early 20th century were classical music recordings.  In 1910 it is estimated around 75% of recordings sold were classical music.  However piano sales in the 1920's dropped while record production rose from 190,000 in 1923 to 5 million in 1929.

Radio also played a part in changing how we consume music.  In 1913 there were 322 amateur licensed radio operators in the US.  After being closed down for a time because of WWI it wasn't until 1920 that commercial radio began.  Eventually more and more people in the US began to tune in to programs of musical variety shows and comedy.  It wasn't really till the mid-twenties that radio started to really get big.  By the late 1920's there were over 500 stations broadcasting in the United States.  Sales of radios went from $60 million in 1922 to $843 million in 1929.  In turn money began to be poured into advertising.
Changes in government regulation played a big role in the amount of money that went into the radio business.  Although originally radio was to be developed for public good, because of many competing amateur stations, radio interference became chaotic.  Also many people who were developing the technology and those financing it were eager for it to begin to pay off.  In 1921 Herbert Hoover, then guiding the Department of Commerce, held a conference and in the opening speech he said,
"It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service, for news, for entertainment, for education, and for vital commercial purposes, to be drowned in advertising chatter."
By the third conference in 1924 Hoover was still speaking out against direct advertising, but he had accepted it as an inevitable.   The airwaves had been won for private development to not stifle technological innovation, although there were regulations on the number of stations one could own.  This stood till 1996 when the limit to radio station ownership was lifted to allow for virtually limitless ownership of radio stations by a single company.  Radio consolidation has become a reality.  The Contemporary Hit Radio/Top 40 formats, only four radio station groups - Chancellor, Clear Channel, Infinity and Capstar - control access to 63 percent of the format's 41 million listeners nationwide. For the country format, the same four groups control access to 56 percent of the format's 28 millions listeners.  

Consolidation by the recording industry has also occurred.  The big 4; Sony, EMI, Warner, and Universal now control 80% of the US market as of 2005.  However the music recording industry has been in a steady decline over the last decade and has continued to decline past the period this graph covers.

Reasons for the decline in the consumption of music abound.  However people can listen to more types of music more easily in the US than ever before.  While this sounds like a great technological innovation there is reason to believe we're actually in effect numbing ourselves.  In a recent study it was shown that listening to a favorite piece of instrumental music could raise your dopamine levels by 9%.  Another study on the effect of consuming a milkshake on the striatum (the area of the brain that’s rich in dopamine neurons and involved in the processing of rewards) showed obese people had reduced activity in the striatum.  Or as science journalist Johah Lehrer put it, "They kept on consuming the milkshake in a manic search for satisfaction.”  In a day and age where more music than can be listened to in a year can be transported with you everywhere, and listened to constantly there seems to be a case for music having a similar effect.  We consume it more and more, but enjoy it less.  What's really important is the process by which we consume this music.  Instead of consuming records with friends or family, or enjoying the playing of music by ourselves, or friends and family we consume it individually with headphones more and more.  When we share music with friends today more and more it's by copying a playlist, or some other digitally stored information rather than sitting down and listening to a record together.  Many people purchase records where recording techniques such as auto-tune have fixed vocal intonation may fear to sing themselves.  If 40% of people fear public speaking, then how many fear singing in public?  What is playing out is a battle by a few companies to sell the most music which has translated into a battle against human music production, and for consumption of corporate commodity music.  In short,
"The contrast between music-as-expression and music-as-commodity defines twentieth-century pop experience. /.../ Read any pop history and you will find in outline the same sorry tale. However the story starts, and whatever the author's politics, the industrialization of music means a shift from active musical production to passive pop consumption, the decline of folk or community or subcultural traditions, and a general loss of musical skill." From Andy Bennet, Barry Shank, Jason Toynbee (red.): The Popular Music Studies Reader
It must be noted that music itself was not commercialized but it was the process by which we create and consume music that was commercialized.  Music after all is the finalized product, but what has changed is the process in which music is made.  So much of the music consumed today is designed to sell the most units possible, thereby providing the best return on investment for the 4 corporations that control 80% of the music sales.  Besides any economic implication this might have, it has changed music from cultural expression to corporate cultural expression.  The processes by which people have expressed themselves culturally or socially have been manipulated to the point that consciousness has changed into self expression being a matter of what one consumes rather than what one produces.  Simply put the creative process has been removed from your hands and instead your sense of self expression (often told to the others through social media apps like, your interests section on social media sites, voting for American Idol, or a favorite video back when MTV used to play videos) relies on what type of music you choose to consume.

So although this entry seems to show the negative side of the rise of the music industry, I'd like to end it with a positive message.  With the industry in peril, musical knowledge and skill seemingly in decline (per capita), and the expressions of whole generations manufactured for industry profits, the changes needed in the system are ripe.  With the advent internet and changes to recording technology which is much more affordable now, you have the option of releasing your own music on whatever terms you want.  However I encourage smaller non-signed musicians to look at new ways of distributing music, and new ways of making a living from it.  Simply trying to copy the production and sales methods of the already established industry with the re-creation of genre or style will only further us down a path of consumption as expression.  You're much better off in this day and age seeking support directly from those who want to support what you do (if you're an up and coming musician or have no major label to support you).  Projects like Artist Share or Kickstarter actually allow people to take part in the creative process and support artists rather than major recording companies.  You could even make real relationships (not digital) with people in your community that will support your art.  What is happening (slowly) is that people interested in real expression are taking back music production and handing it back over to the common people.  All of us should work to create a culture wherein amateur music production is en vogue once again, as it only leads to more support of the professional musician as basic musical skill sets are obtained by more people.  After all is the point of music how good it is, how many people heard it, and how many units were sold, or the human connection we experience when another human moves us with musical expression? 

"A real musical culture should not be a museum culture based on music of past ages. . . . It should be the active embodiment in sound of the life of a community—of the everyday demands of people's work and play and of their deepest spiritual needs." WILFRID MELLERS
Most information in this post besides where it is otherwise cited comes from Radio and television regulation: broadcast technology in the United States By Hugh Richard Slotten
Something I'd like to suggest if the subject interests you- Culture Inc. The Corporate Takeover of Public Expression By Herbert I. Schiller, 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Energy and Society

There is something to be said for understanding energy in both ecological systems and human social systems, as well as its relation to complex economic and political systems.  This understanding doesn't seem to be common knowledge and yet the basics of energy seem to be within the grasp of most people.  This entry is aimed at providing a basic overview of energy and how energy systems affect our society.  

All life depends on energy.  Most of that energy comes from the sun (with very little exception).  Even though the Earth is 93 million miles from the sun we always have 1,372 watts of energy from the sun per meter hitting the earth.  This energy is used for weather systems such as heating the atmosphere and oceans, as well as fueling life by providing autotrophs with energy.  As we all learned in biology,  photosynthesis is the process whereby plants trap solar energy and chlorophyll molecules turn this into chemical energy.  It is because of these autotrophs that us hetrotrophs or consumers can survive.  We are locked into a system often called the web of life or food chain which energy is the currency and it is transferred i.e. from green plants to herbivores to carnivores to decomposers.  As it is transferred the some of the energy is lost and merely 5-20% of the usable energy can be transferred between members of the food chain.  This is why autotrophs account for a much higher percentage of the biomass since they are the energy producers for the rest of the system.  If left undisturbed these ecosystems often tend to get to a state of dynamic equilibrium known as climax phase.  This means that organisms have adapted themselves to live with relatively constant population levels, to avoid direct competition, and recycling energy as efficiently as possible.  In other words they have formed a community.  That's all well and good but what does this have to do with human society?

We humans like nearly every other organism are trying to capture solar energy.  Although there is much data that shows humans can live as members of the long term climax ecosystems in modern times we have taken more and more of this solar energy acting as a colonizer or invader.  Even 60,000 years ago in Australia when humans arrived they used fire to flush out game for hunting, which in turn wiped out the food sources of giant kangaroos, and other large mammals and birds.  In fact within a few millennia of human arrival on the island 85% of animals weighing over 100 pounds disappeared.  The same kind of trends followed when humans arrived in many new habitats around the earth.  However what's really important about this is what happened next.  That is that in Australia the Aborigines developed systems of myths, and rituals wherein over hunting was forbidden and fire was only to be used seasonally.  They also limited their own population through extended lactation, contraceptive herbs, and even infanticide.  In other words they adapted to their surroundings.  However this was only after a strategy of takeover had been applied.  This strategy of takeover was through tool use in the form of fire.  From early in our history most all of our tools were used to gain more access to and get greater amounts of solar energy - or in other words most of our tools have been used for the takeover of ecological systems.

Most of our strategies for takeover come from a culture of agriculture.  This is because agriculture is by it's nature a strategy of takeover.  Forests are cleared for fields which contain plants only to be used by humans which is a literal takeover of the ecological system which used to provide energy to many different types of organisms.  The act of clearing land for use by a monoculture fed on only by humans and their livestock however was not the most startling strategy by which humans seek energy in my opinion.  The most startling thing is when humans began to use other humans as tools systematically.  This happens through slavery as well as specialization or change to a hierarchical society.  Or as David R. Montgomery says in Dirt, 
"Class distinctions began to develop once everyone no longer had to work the fields in order to eat.  The emergence of religious and political classes that oversaw the distribution of food and resources led to development of administrative systems to collect food from farmers and redistribute it to other segments of society."
 Or Richard Heinberg in The Party's Over,
"Some humans could capture the energy of others who had been seized in war, putting them to work at tasks too dangerous, dreary, or physically taxing for any free person to undertake voluntarily - tasks such as mining metal ores from beneath the Earth's surface.  Those ores were, in turn, the raw materials from which were fashioned the chains and weapons that kept the slaves themselves in bondage.  Eventually, metals also came to be used as money, a tool that would become the basis for a more subtle form of energy capture: wage labor.  Through the payment of money, humans could be persuaded to give their energies to tasks organized by - and primarily benefiting- others."
This use of humans by other humans was a cultural of empire as well.  This meant that if you had a larger area with which to trade or often steal resources from you had a better chance of surviving local catastrophes such as earthquakes, floods, or most likely famines.  This system is now known as globalization.  We now survive mostly off of goods coming from far away.  Even an average carrot comes 1,838 miles to get to you.  A t shirt may travel 17,000 miles.  Neither of them are the most important good to be shipped around the globe though.  The most important goods to modern human society are fossil fuels.  Fossil fuels are what make this globalization really possible.  The reason is simple, they are packed with energy.  A fit human adult can sustain about one-tenth of a horsepower, so a human would have to labor more than 10 years to equal the energy of a barrel of oil.  Except for maybe John Henry no human can compete with most any modern machine.  Why would you hire workers for tasks like agricultural labor, making cars, t-shirts, band aids, and most all consumer goods when you only have to pay for the energy for the labor of a machine which needs no retirement or other benefits?

The new fossil fuel based economy had dreadful effects on society.  With fossil fuels being used in farm equipment it allowed one farmer to farm much more land.  Cattle could now be shipped via railway to major cities.  Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century in the US, cattle often fed on lands that once fed Buffalo that in turn fed Nations of Native peoples.  As less people were needed on farms the small farm that was idealized in early US history was almost impossible to keep.  There were other reasons though.  Soil erosion from farming with the new fossil fueled machinery was a major often caused lower yields as well as the infamous dust bowl of the 1930's.

This came at a time following wheat farming became very profitable because of WWI and price inflation and then very unprofitable as the price collapsed.  Farmers had no choice but to plow large acreages in order to get money which led to farming practices that were ruinous.  Banks began to seize land and assets from those who could not pay back loans made as the economic depression was setting in.  This caused people to migrate to the cities much like English Land Enclosures of the 19th century displacing peasants.

Total population: 17,069,453; farm population; 9,012,000 (est.); farmers 69% of labor force
Total population: 75,994,266; farm population: 29,414,000 (est.); farmers 38% of labor force; Number of farms: 5,740,000; average acres: 147
Total population: 122,775,046; farm population: 30,455,350; farmers 21% of labor force; Number of farms: 6,295,000; average acres: 157; irrigated acres: 14,633,252
Total population: 204,335,000; farm population: 9,712,000; farmers 4.6% of labor force; Number of farms: 2.780, 000; average acres: 390
 Now oil is responsible for harvesting crops which also have to be transported by oil to get to you as in the example of the carrot.  Fossil fuels have completely reshaped our economy and now our economies are very reliant on fossil fuels.  The only problem is that they're a limited resource.  According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) world oil production peaked in 2006.  Coal is set to peak by 2025.  The decreasing supply of fossil fuels with an increase in demand for energy is going to make oil, and coal much more expensive.  Some may think what about solar, wind, hydrogen, nuclear, and bio-fuels? 

Alternatives to fossil fuel based energy systems exist but, they cannot replace the amount of energy we currently use because of fossil fuels.  The main reason can be attributed to a figure known as Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROEI).  First of all keep in mind oil had an EROEI of 100 in 1940, meaning that 100 units of energy were returned for every one invested.  By the 1970's the oil EROEI had dropped to 23.  Solar photovoltaic can be anywhere from 1.7-10, wind up to 2.  Hydrogen is hard to get a real number on but so far it's a net energy loss since it requires fossil fuels to fuel the process to make it.  Nuclear plants are about 4-4.5 and bio-fuels about 1.8 at the highest.  In other words we're facing a world that in the very near future is going to have more energy demands than can be met.  The repercussions this will have on our economy will change our world and force us to change from economies based on continual growth since that will no longer be possible.  Our economy will be hampered by the loss of cheap, and easy to get energy to do our work.

So where does this leave us?  Undoubtedly although applications of renewable energies could avert a total crisis, although according to the Hirsch report which stated, "Initiating a crash program 10 years before peaking leaves a liquid fuels shortfall of a decade."  Prospects of an easy transition don't look good but all is not lost.  There are many efforts which can be undertaken to help mitigate the shortfalls in global energy.  If we look to Cuba, who after the fall of the USSR, began to grow more and more of its food locally rather than import Soviet grown foods.  More than 200 gardens in Havana supply its citizens with more than 90% of their fruit and vegetables. Yields have more than quintupled from 4 to 24 kilograms per meter squared between 1994 and 1999, and currently around a million tons of food per year is producedThis story is well told in the film The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.  This type of food production could help to stem off problems of hunger once oil becomes to expensive to be used to transport consumer goods around the world.  In other words globalization will peak and recede since it will become more and more expensive to transport goods.

Possibly the best strategy to be pursued by humans in the near future will be to re-examine the fundamental strategies of controlling energy and using it in our culture especially on the ecological level.  Many people such as Bill Mollison have done considerable work showing that much energy is required in order to stop ecological succession with agriculture.  Creating forest gardens could both reduce the work load and provide an abundance of food.  Not only that but the systems are more drought resistant and contain more biodiversity which is becoming more important with the changes occurring in Earth's climate.  We also have to confront that working simply for existence and the gain of others is an immoral practice by which one man purchases your energy to sell it's effect at a greater price.  In other words we'll probably have to stop the hyper-individualistic lifestyle led in the US in order to make better decisions based on how it affects the community at large.   The future maybe bleak if all we try to do is continue with our same system in place, but the collapse of the fossil fuel economy may help the people to win back the power of production away from corporations, machines, and the super rich that own and finance them.

I hope this helps you wrap your head around the energy and it's effects on society.  Although it is a short summary if you're interested I will leave a few links as well as books you may be interested in checking out.
The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies- Richard Heinberg
Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations- David R. Montgomery 
Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy- Matthew R. Simmons