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, 

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