In 2006, the popular indie rock band of Montreal allowed the restaurant chain Outback Steakhouse to use a version of their song “Wraith Pinned to the Mist (and Other Games)” in a thirty-second television commercial. While such a business decision was hardly unprecedented, the brazenness of the usage — the original chorus lyrics “Let’s pretend we don’t exist / Let’s pretend we’re in Antarctica” were replaced with a more on-message variant: “Let’s go Outback tonight / Life will still be there tomorrow” — led to a number of denunciations, particularly on the internet. (The exact details of the band’s deal with Outback are unclear, but of Montreal front man Kevin Barnes has claimed that he was unaware the lyrics would be changed.) It probably didn’t help that the advertised product involved meat and had absolutely zero existing cultural cachet, or that the remake “Australianized” of Montreal’s arrangement by making prominent use of didgeridoo.
In February 2007, attendees of an of Montreal show at Emo’s in Austin, Texas held up a homemade Outback banner and chanted “SELL OUT” at the band. (According to one online report, Barnes had security throw the troublemakers out of the club; others claim he merely lectured them from the stage.) In November of the same year, of Montreal participated in another commercial, this time for T-Mobile, providing the occasion for a manifesto written by Barnes for the website Stereogum, with the Baudrillardian title “Selling Out Isn’t Possible.” “The pseudo-nihilistic punk rockers of the ’70s created an impossible code . . . which no one can actually live by,” Barnes wrote. “The idea that anyone who attempts to do anything commercial is a sell out is completely out of touch with reality. . . . I think it is important to face reality.” Facing reality, for Barnes, meant accepting that, “[a]s sad as it may seem, one of the few ways most indie bands can make any money whatsoever is by selling a song to a commercial. Very very few bands make enough money from album sales or tour revenue to enable themselves to quit their day job.”
Next time you see a commercial with one of your favorite bands’ songs in it, just tell yourself, “cool, a band I really like made some money and now I can probably look forward to a few more records from them.” It’s as simple as that.
In 2007, this line of reasoning still came off as slightly cagey and defensive, but it has rapidly become the party line for musicians, fans, and advertising executives alike, all of them looking for somewhere to stand in the rapidly shifting post-Internet economic landscape of the 21st-century music industry. Barnes’s screed can be read as a founding document of a new pop era, in which it’s the musicians who get righteously angry at the fans on the subject of commercialism. The old complaint, in which artists are scorned for abandoning the communities that nurtured them and ascending into the corporate empyrean, has been replaced by a new one, in which artists rage at those same communities for not lifting them up high enough to keep body and soul together.
It’s in this confused, poisonous atmosphere that the stigma against the advertising industry has begun to break down. The taboo itself isn’t ancient (though it’s certainly older than “the pseudo-nihilistic punk rockers of the ’70s” that Barnes scapegoats); as the musicologist Timothy D. Taylor shows in The Sounds of Capitalism, the links between American popular music and advertising are longstanding. While he briefly covers the “prehistory” of the phenomenon in the cries of 13th-century street hawkers recorded in the Montpellier Codex, Taylor’s real starting place is radio, which, he argues, is where the marriage between music and advertising was first truly consummated. Radio stations needed content to fill time and keep people listening (this is where the musicians came in) and capital to keep themselves afloat (enter the advertisers). For a while radio producers were reluctant to merge art and commerce too brazenly: a “good-will strategy” prevailed, in which companies like Lucky Strike, the Dixie Cup Company, and Fleischmann’s Yeast would “present” popular musicians. (The link between musical content and product was often pretty strained; the Clicquot Club Eskimos, a banjo orchestra subsidized by a soft-drink manufacturer, were described as “play[ing] ‘sparkling’ music because their ginger ale sparkles.”) This soon evolved, in part due to pressure to keep consumption up during the Depression, into a “hard-sell strategy,” in which musicians and composers shilled much more directly for various products. Taylor places “the heyday of the jingle” in the late 1940s, the period that gave us classics like the Chiquita Banana jingle, which debuted in late 1944 and by 1945 was being played an estimated 376 times a day.
In many ways, the increased involvement of rock musicians in the commercial industry follows an old pattern: a similar thing happened in the 1950s, when formerly contemptuous Broadway composers moved into advertising en masse when rock and roll began to cut into their profits. (Frank Loesser, of Guys and Dolls fame, even started his own jingle publishing company in 1957, producing songs for Sunkist, Sanka, Newport, and others.) Taylor also points out that the shift to digital music production in the 1980s incentivized ad agencies to hire cheap, nonunionized young rock musicians and producers in lieu of high-priced industry professionals.
Still, the concept of “selling out” had plenty of cultural currency well into the early 2000s, and not only in the nascent “indie” world. (As Taylor reports, high-profile licensing deals like Nike’s infamous use of the Beatles’ “Revolution” in 1987 stirred up plenty of righteous anger among baby boomers.) If anything, this critical discourse was overdeveloped in the post-Sixties counterculture, whose members had a tendency to act as if the real problem with capitalism was that it worked too well (insidiously controlling hapless consumers, and corrupting the purity of producers) rather than not working well enough (failing to provide an equal distribution of wealth and other goods). The preoccupation with “selling out,” in other words, played into the larger dynamic of what Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello have described as the “artistic critique” of capitalism, which focuses on the evils of commodification and inauthenticity at the expense of those of inequality and atomization.
Today, though, Taylor argues, the concept of “sell-out” may be losing its validity — and, oddly, it is the ascension to power of the same generations that refined the “artistic critique,” the boomers and Generation X, that is leading to its demise. “[B]y the 1950s, advertising music had begun to become closely intertwined with the production of popular music generally,” he writes:
The rise of the baby boomers and postboomers to power in the advertising industry and the increased flexibility of workers in the realm of commercial music has meant that there is no popular music that is not, to varying degrees, commercial music, whether or not listeners hear it as such. The long-standing distinction between art and commerce much debated by advertising industry workers and those who study them has become moot: the sounds of capitalism are everywhere.
The Sounds of Capitalism includes some especially vexing recent examples of the integration of the music and advertising industries: McDonald’s 2005 deal with marketing company Maven Strategies to seed references to Big Macs into rap lyrics, for instance, or the machinations behind the singer Chris Brown’s song “Forever,” whose hook “Double your pleasure, double your fun” was bought and paid for by Wrigley, though the corporation strategically waited to unveil their campaign until the song had been released and become a hit in its own right. On the whole, though, Taylor’s claim that “in the new millennium . . . there is no counterculture anymore; there is only culture, and it is made by commercial interests” seems overstated. Cultural resistance to the influence of advertising on popular music may be at a forty-year low, but there is still plenty of music that remains practically if not ideologically detached from “commercial interests.” Mashing up the arguments of The Conquest of Cool and Distinction, with the occasional uncleared Adorno sample thrown in, Taylor strains to impart a sense of implacable historical logic to what is, in fact, a very chaotic state of affairs.
Still, Taylor is certainly right to observe that the relationship between the advertising and music industries matters today in a new way. Let’s leave aside the actual influence corporate advertising has on today’s musicians or music culture; its status in the arguments we have about music has certainly changed. In recent years the pendulum of shame has begun to swing back the other way: where once fans routinely accused greedy musicians of selling out (or each other of enjoying “sell-out” music), now musicians counter-accuse consumers of abandoning the market economy, forcing them into the arms of corporate benefactors. In such a scenario, Taylor points out, cultural intermediaries like “advertising agency creative workers appear to be heroes of a sort.” They have the melancholy Protestant commitment to “creativity” that Max Weber thought 19th-century Americans had toward production per se: “Theirs is a way of attempting to survive the unprecedented voracity of capitalism and the iron cage of rationalization that accompanies it, even as they serve capitalism.” The hip young sophisticates who work at advertising today have not given up the basic countercultural faith that commerce and art are incompatible, but they have tempered it with the realist proviso that artists, like everybody else, need to get paid somehow. In Taylor’s words, they “still have no tolerance for what they view as commercial music . . . . At the same time, however, they have no compunction about using this music for commercial purposes.” Advertising, then, is not an illicit way for musicians to enrich themselves but one of the few viable ways for them to secure support: not a ladder on the rung to transcendence but the only port in a storm.
That storm, of course, is the internet, which most accounts hold responsible for the music industry’s decline. Though Taylor’s book makes surprisingly little reference to file sharing or other technological developments of the past few decades, other writers have not been shy about opening fire on the elephant in the room. Chris Ruen’s recital of the litany, at the opening of his new book FreeLoading: How Our Insatiable Hunger for Free Content Starves Creativity, is familiarly bleak:
After only ten years, US music industry revenues shriveled from over $14 billion a year to less than $7 billion. From 2000 to 2009, total US album sales (physical and digital) plummeted by fifty-two percent, from 785 million to 374 million units . . . Per capita, Americans in 2009 spent just one third of the amount of money they devoted to recorded music in 2000, from an all-time high of $71 per consumer to a modern-era low of $26 . . . The total number of people employed as professional musicians in the United States fell by seventeen percent from 1999 to 2009 as piracy migrated from the margins and into the mainstream.
As Ruen’s reference to “piracy” suggests, blame for the collapse of the music industry is often placed on peer-to-peer networking and file sharing. This is a considerable oversimplification; Taylor points out, for instance, that many of artists’ current financial woes can be traced back to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated the radio industry, paving the way for the rise of the Clear Channel empire and a consolidation of playlists that disproportionately affected mid-level artists on independent labels (another force behind the easement of the advertising taboo).
Nonetheless, the culture of peer-to-peer file sharing and piracy makes an irresistible polemical target, not only because of its obvious effect on profits but also because of the superstructure of philosophical discourse that has grown up around it over the past decade. Ruen identifies three primary ideologies to rail against, a rogues’ gallery of high-toned intellectual apologists for “FreeLoading.” First, there is the anti-copyright Free Culture movement, led and exemplified by Lawrence Lessig, who advocates for a “read-write” as opposed to a “read-only” culture and the promotion of increased collective creativity through loosened intellectual property laws. Then there are the “digital determinists,” represented by BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow, who hold that “you can’t fight technology”: “Armed with techno-utopian assumptions, a file sharer had a new way to understand their choice to not pay for their digital content: they were only doing what the computers ‘wanted.’” Finally, there are new media boosters like Wired’s Chris Anderson and Mike Masnick of the blog Techdirt, who propose that musicians need to adapt to the realities of the new market by providing incentives for their fans to pay for otherwise free content (the best known example of this being the much-discussed crowd-funding site Kickstarter).
To Ruen, all three of these positions look like little more than justifications for the hedonistic selfishness of “a generation of spoiled, entitled children.” Unfortunately, Ruen offers little to counter these positions other than eye-rolling; the book is a bit of a hodgepodge held together by its moralistic, sanctimonious tone, which occasionally scales the heights of theoretical pretension (“At issue today is whether we see ourselves existing within the construct of philosopher Immanuel Kant”—oh, really?). Still, Ruen does make some sound and valuable points, particularly about the inadequacies of claims by people like Lessig and Anderson that our current climate is healthy for the production of culture. “The wisdom of copyright,” Ruen writes, “is to focus the incentives, like a laser, upon the creative work itself. If our shared interest is the creation of more or better art, then why take away the fundamental right that incentivizes it, while setting artists off on a wild goose chase to find the best marketing scheme rather than to write the best song?” He also asks some provocative questions about the cozy relationship between the music website Pitchfork, the FADER Magazine, and Cornerstone Promotion (a New York-based lifestyle marketing agency), and about the January 2012 protests of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) by high-traffic websites like Wikipedia, Reddit, Google, and Mozilla.
Though Ruen seems to align himself with the libertarian left, FreeLoading is a helplessly conservative book, standing athwart our collective browser history yelling Stop. Countering what he sees as an excessive prejudice against record labels stirred up by the Recording Industry Association of America’s mass lawsuits against P2P users beginning in September 2003, Ruen idealizes the stringently ethical business practices of indie rock labels like Dischord (who made a point of never charging more than $10 for a CD and splitting profits equally with artists; and were, even in the indie community, much more the exception than the rule). Ironically, the adversarial counter-public sphere of indie rock—which emerged, of course, out of the same punk moment that Barnes accused of setting impossible expectations for artists to live up to—appears, to Ruen, as the only portal back to a healthy market economy. Not only is punk not dead: it’s the only thing that can save capitalism.
Where Taylor sees no daylight between contemporary music culture and the market, Ruen worries that what he calls “the Decade of Dysfunction” has permanently obliterated the relationship between the two. A useful corrective to both concerns is Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format. For one thing, Sterne’s book underscores a point to which Taylor and Ruen only allude, which is that our current culture of “piracy” should not be understood as a real alternative or viable threat to capitalism—a notion that both its promoters and its detractors have cherished.
To begin with, Sterne shows that the MP3—that technological Trojan horse which has laid waste to the music industry—was the product of decades of corporate-funded research intended to increase profits. “Telephonic transmission drove research into hearing for much of the century,” Sterne writes; companies like AT&T were concerned to maximize their existing infrastructure, using the available bandwidth to carry as many calls as possible without going beyond the threshold of intelligibility. This led them to finance research in the fledgling field of “psychoacoustics” (part of a general trend toward corporate research and development in the early part of the 20th century, as Sterne notes). “The more AT&T knew about human hearing, the more income it could extract from its infrastructure,” Sterne writes. By 1924 it had quadrupled its system’s capacity, “with minimal modifications of infrastructure and no price increase.” The company’s basic research into human hearing led to innovations in the technology of “compression”: i.e., the simplification and reduction of an audio signal to its most essential elements. On the very first page of MP3: The Meaning of a Format, Sterne offers an admirably lucid description of the way MP3s work:
To make an MP3, a program called an encoder takes a .wav file (or some other audio format) and compares it to a mathematical model of the gaps in human hearing. Based on a number of factors—some chosen by the user, some set in the code—it discards the parts of the audio signal that are unlikely to be audible. It then reorganizes repetitive and redundant data in the recording, and produces a much smaller file—often as small as 12 percent of the original file size.
These smaller, simpler files are much easier to distribute via “end-to-end networks” like the internet, in which “the vast middle of the network does relatively little to its traffic . . . while devices at the ends of the network do the important work.” MPEG (the acronym stands for “Motion Picture Experts Group,” the name of the organization that originally set the standard for the format in the late 1980s and early ’90s) files were meant to be unobtrusive, unheralded players on the global field of multinational corporate synergy: “Like a person who slips into a crowd, the MPEG audio was designed to disappear into the global network of communication technologies.”
But they were not designed initially to be traded by consumers. Sterne points out that “at the time that MPEG came together, there was no world wide web, no internet as we know it today.” In a diagram of “Digital Audio Distribution Modes (Current and Proposed)” created by the National Association of Broadcasters in 1990, “there is no slot . . . for lateral exchange of recordings, nor even an inkling that it might be an issue, no discussion of mass customization, and little discussion of portable media beyond car radios.” The NAB had their eyes on digital broadcast and cable, not file sharing; the extreme ease with which MP3 files can be copied and played on a range of devices was the end result of a concern for “interoperability” across different industrial platforms.
Thus, Sterne argues, “the MP3’s rise to global preeminence was a product of contingency, accident, and opportunity”: it was not an inevitable logical step in the forward march of technological progress or late capitalism, but a fluke, an accidental collision of mutually conflicting corporate interests. It is important to remember, too, that while major record companies were wrong-footed by file sharing, corporations (and often the same ones that owned the record companies) did profit enormously from the rise of the MP3. Internet service providers and cable companies offering broadband internet access, for instance, did exceptionally well during Ruen’s “Decade of Dysfunction,” as did manufacturers of CD burners and blank recordable media. (A company like Sony, for instance, has interests in all four.) For Sterne, the lesson here is that “alternative, non-market economies within capitalism may not themselves be anticapitalist. It may appear that file-sharing and sampling challenge particular market economies, but that does not necessarily mean that they challenge the broader capitalist condition of music.” After all, he sensibly reminds us, “to threaten an industry’s incumbents is not to threaten the economy itself, despite incumbents’ protestations to the contrary and their critics’ glee at the prospect.”
This longer historical view certainly undercuts the insurrectionary rhetoric of anarchists like the operators of Sweden’s Pirate Bay, and even, to some extent, the “read-write” pieties of a digital communist like Lessig. But it also suggests that we who are living through this moment of confusion across industries should use it to our advantage, and the advantage of future generations—that we have “an opportunity to rethink the social organization of music,” as Sterne puts it. While it may seem to critics like Ruen that the social ties between musician and fan are being frayed, one could just as well argue that the current difficulty of seeing music in transactional terms is broadening our awareness of the social aspect of music. What remains to be done is a broadening of awareness of the technological platforms that make this socialization possible. It appears likely that the next phase of mass music listening—in some ways, and in some quarters, it’s already begun—will involve what Sterne calls the “utility model” (others have given it the groovier appellation of “celestial jukebox”). In this model, “music companies would become more like phone, electrical, cable, or satellite companies. The service, not the recording, becomes the commodity form.” Given the MP3’s roots in telephony and digital broadcasting, this scenario seems highly plausible.
But giving up the old commodity model means giving up, to some extent at least, the principle of mutual exchange, which, for better or worse, has provided our primary model for ethical relations per se, as David Graeber has recently emphasized. Clearly many artists do feel, today, that a social contract has been broken, and they have a tendency to blame the fans for this. A recent public example of this came in June 2012, when David Lowery, the singer for the bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker who now teaches at the University of Georgia, responded to a blog post by a 20-year-old NPR intern named Emily White. In her post White admitted that, while she had over 11,000 tracks on her iTunes, she had purchased only 15 CDs in her life. “My intention here is not to shame you or embarrass you,” Lowery writes in the preamble to his open letter to White, before going on to do essentially that for some 4,000 words, even implying that illegal file sharing was indirectly responsible for the suicides of the musicians Vic Chesnutt and Mark Linkous. “The existential questions that your generation gets to answer are these,” Lowery wrote, in a frequently quoted passage:
Why do we value the network and hardware that delivers music but not the music itself?
Why are we willing to pay for computers, iPods, smartphones, data plans, and high speed internet access but not the music itself?
Why do we gladly give our money to some of the largest richest corporations in the world but not the companies and individuals who create and sell music?
From one perspective, encounters like these are a welcome reminder of the fact that music, as anthropologists like the late Christopher Small have been insisting for decades, is always a communal undertaking, as dependent on the affective and economic investment of listeners as it ever has been on the exceptional abilities of the genius composer or virtuoso. And it’s never a bad thing for professionals, of any kind, to insist publicly that the work they do is valuable and that they deserve to be adequately compensated for it.
From another point of view, however, musicians attacking the listening public for its selfishness is neither a good look nor a viable strategy for changing people’s behavior. It’s as understandable that musicians would want to cling to the old forms of commodity capitalism as it is that eager, open-minded listeners would want to destroy it. But for people who care about how music is going to be made, heard, and paid for (or not) in the 21st century, the current debate over the ethics of exchange may have to give way, and soon, to the Realpolitik of standard-setting. The epochal MP3, after all, was neither an epiphenomenon of late capitalism nor a pure product of anarchist hacker culture: it was a compromise hammered out by representatives of industrial interests. Like most technological standards, this one had virtually no input from states: “because standards usually apply to international industries, governments have not been heavily involved in their regulation. . . . When companies or industries set standards, there is not even a possibility of public debate.” Sterne persuasively argues that “the MPEG story points to the need for better governance of audiovisual standards and formats, one guided by a notion of collective good.” If music is reconceived as a utility, after all, don’t we all have a legitimate right to it? Shouldn’t the state take an interest in its regulation?
The music industry as we knew it, with its shaky ad hoc compromises between art and commerce, is never coming back, but that’s no reason to resign ourselves to resentment or bad faith: we may yet look back on this time as the era of the emergence of a new politics of music. “The story of MPEG,” Sterne writes, “poses standards as an as-yet-unresolved issue of political representation in the development of new communications technologies.” The standards for the technologies that will shape music listening for the next fifty years are being set today; if we want them to represent us, we will have to find ways to make our presence and interests known to the people who write code and broker distribution deals as well as those who produce and consume music. (Who knows what form this might take? Occupy Spotify has a ring to it.) Lowery is certainly right to point out that Emily White’s generation—and not hers alone—has “value[d] the network and hardware that delivers music but not the music itself.” But perhaps the two are no longer extricable, if they ever were. And we have no reason not to hear ourselves in all of them.