Cultural hegemony has existed in music since its very inception. This hegemony is particularly prominent in contemporary capitalist society. Today, Music is seen as a product which benefits certain people or groups economically. This economic benefit can be controlled and made more efficient by controlling and changing the music just as if it were a tangible product. However, is this change and economic benefit for some benefiting the music industry as a whole? Traditionally, music was a form of art which expressed the sentiment and emotions of people or a person in a particular time or place. Gradually this increase in commodification of music has seen a dramatic increase in the marginalisation of so called serious musical artists. In a world where pop music and its commercial value still reigns supreme, we are seeing less and less emphasis placed on the genuine artists and the possible emergence of new talent until recently.
Music was always a part of human culture. Each indigenous culture had their own unique style and sound of music. As time progressed we began to see greater diversity in music and soon, definable distinctions began to arise. These distinctions led to what we now understand as genre, with different music genres having their own idiosyncratic attributes. With the emergence of capitalism and the industrial revolution we have seen the birth of the age of mechanical reproduction. Mechanical reproduction for the first time made had music into a tangible product and essentially eliminated the artist from future performances once a reproduction had been made. As we will see later the evolution of mechanical reproduction then leads to the mechanisation of the music composition and production process. As a result of these advancements in mechanical reproduction technology, the dominant classes decided what music was heard and what was not as they controlled the technology in the beginning. Music was also a relatively elitist pursuit at this time. With the onslaught of the industrial revolution we have seen massive leaps forward in the advancement of technology. Newer technologies made producing and distributing music easier and cheaper as time went on. Gradually music became less of an elitist pursuit. In recent times we have seen many musical movements that have gradually loosened the dominant classes grip on the control of music. Music was once in a state where only the educated, privileged and affluent could afford to make and listen to music. Nowadays anyone can make, distribute and listen to any music they wish for a marginal cost. This shift in the accessibility of music culture is largely due to advancements in technology. I hope to explore the different characteristics of society which have caused and effected these drastic changes. These causes and effects will then be cross referenced between relevant authors, theorists and examples.
2.1 Hegemony in music
In order to explore and understand the demise of cultural hegemony in music as a consequence of the advancement of technology in greater detail we must first look at the major cultural and political theories which have affected music. First of all we will look at Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. According to Gramsci, hegemony is the ability of the dominant classes to ensure a social and intellectual climate conductive to their interests throughout moral and intellectual leadership. As a result, the dominant class’s values, attitudes, beliefs and morality become “internalised” within the subordinated classes. Gramsci also placed certain emphasis on the intellectual in creating culture. The intellectual’s that Gramsci refers to were, for a great deal of time part of the hegemonic class.
“Hegemony works most smoothly when there is a substantial degree of social, economic, political, and cultural security in a society. When security is undermined, social division rampant, hegemony is at risk and Althusser’s repressive state apparatuses are brought into action Hegemony serves to provide the power elite with the consent of the ruled”
(Media Communication p.19)
With regard to music, the dominant class chooses what music is relevant and what will be “internalised” by the subordinate class. One just has to look at the history of early rock ‘n’ roll during the fifties to see a functional example of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony in operation. In the early 1950’s black artists like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and B.B. King began to develop the rock ‘n’ roll sound. However, white artists like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bill Haley were recognized as being the pioneers of the new sound and received all the airplay and rewards for essentially picking up on what was predominantly a black movement. Many of the other early rock ‘n’ roll hits were covers of black artist’s songs covered by white bands. Only in later years did the black artists and originators get the recognition they deserved. At a time when racial inequality was still widespread, the dominant affluent white class wanted to keep values, attitudes, beliefs and morality white by rejecting black culture. This ascendancy over culture by the dominant class does not come into action completely unchallenged by the subordinate class though. There is acceptance, negotiation and as Gramsci puts it there is “consent” over this act of cultural domination by the dominant class:
“The fact of hegemony presupposes that account be taken of the interests and the tendencies of the groups over which hegemony is to be exercised, and that a certain compromise equilibrium should be formed.”
(Selections from the Prison Notebooks p.161)
Much of Gramsci’s work incorporates within itself the ideology of Marxism. This is partially relevant to the fact that Gramsci himself was a Marxist and his theories were sometimes based on the works of Karl Marx. Gramsci divides society into class structure in the same way that Marx had done. Essentially the class structure was divided into two: the ruling or dominant class was known as the bourgeoisie and the subordinate class was known as the proletariat. Marx summarises this idea that class structure has existed since the beginning of society in his famous quote:
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
(The Communist Manifesto, Chap. 1)
According to Marx, the bourgeoisie had achieved its powerful status by exploiting the social relationships of production which resulted in the bourgeoisie gaining control of the means of production. This had resultant effects on other aspects of society like that of art and culture. The exploitation of the proletariat’s “labour power” provides the source of the profit for the bourgeoisie. In capitalism, social relationships of production are controlled throught the use of commodities exploited via the proletariat’s “labour power” . This loss of an individual’s own “labour power “is described by Marx as “commodity fetishism”. In terms of culture, with specific regard to music, using the beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll again as an example we can see how Marxism works in operation. In America in the 1950’s, the African Americans were seen as part of the proletariat. The affluent white upper class was seen as the bourgeoisie. It was the proletariat or African American’s work on the new rock ‘n’ roll sound that was the “labour power” that was exploited by the affluent white upper class or bourgeoisie. This exploitation by the bourgeoisie produced their profits or “capitalist surplus”.
“the nature of individuals ... depends on the material conditions determining their production"
(The German Ideology, p. 176)
Both Marx and Gramsci refer to the “consciousness” of the dominant and subordinate classes. Marx believed the subordinate classes would eventually rise up and develop revolutionary consciousness at the point where capitalism would perpetuate into self destruction. In contrast, Gramsci believed that the subordinate classes would have a predisposition for reform rather than outright revolution.
Theodor Adorno was another theorist who was also critical of capitalist society. Adorno’s theories attempted to look at the structure of society from a Marxist perspective much like that of his Frankfurt School counterparts. Adorno believed that the culture industry was essential in capitalist domination. In Marxism, it is the economic modes of production that determine society and culture (i.e. Base determines superstructure). In contrast, Adorno is stating that it is culture industry –a product of society that ascertains capitalism and its domination. Forms of culture, including music were becoming commodifed. Similar to Marx’s approach, culture is bought and sold to produce surplus for the bourgeoisie:
“The culture industry can pride itself on having energetically executed the previously clumsy transposition of art into the sphere of consumption, on making this a principle, on divesting amusement of its obtrusive naïvetes and improving the type of commodities.”
(Dialectic of Enlightenment, Chap. 1)
This commodification of culture according to Adorno had also lead to what he calls “standardization”. Standardisation has lead to an increase in uniform, formulaic popular music and also a decline in serious art orientated music with a message or purpose. This Idea of standardisation is very similar to George Ritzer’s idea of the rationalisation of society which he termed “the McDonaldisation of Society” -The McDonaldization of Society: an investigation into the chaging character of social life. Again this standardisation and commodifiacation is all a direct result of capitalism.
2.2 The culture of pop music, serious music and art
Music is part of human culture and it can be considered in a number of different ways in this context. Many different theorists have come up with explanations for the categorisation and anticipation of the changing nature of music. These explanations and theories alongside the groundwork of the political and cultural environments which change music should provide a detailed overview of the changing nature of music.
Theodor Adorno separated music into two “spheres” (On Popular Music, p.1) which included popular music and serious music. Adorno describes one of the characteristics of popular music which discerns it from serious music as standardisation. Popular music’s song structures, songs and even genres have become rigid and standardised. Adorno goes on to describe the production of popular music as "industrial". However he goes on to point out that this industrialisation of production is only inherent in its promotion and distribution rather than its composition and arrangement. He describes pop music and its composition and arrangement as being produced in a handicraft manner. Adorno describes the musical differences between serious music and pop music as follows: Serious music requires a listening skill to which the meaning of the music becomes apparent upon learning this skill. With pop music, the meaning has already been deconstructed for the listener and is "pre-digested" (On Popular Music p. 16). Adorno indicates that this industrialisation and standardisation is a direct result of contemporary capitalism leaving little place for originality:
“Large-scale economic concentration institutionalized the standardization, and made it imperative. As a result, innovations by rugged individualists have been outlawed.”
(On Popular Music, p.18)
Similar to that of Adorno and his separation of music into popular and serious music, the separation of culture into high art and low art by other theorists like Matthew Arnold, T.S. Elliot and F.R. Leavis is also relevant to music. Arnold and Elliot believed that culture was based on high art. Elliot in particular supported the idea of cultural elitism. In Notes Towards the Definition of Culture he argued that only “superior individuals” with “appropriate powers” (p.36) could contribute relevant works to culture. Elliot also argues against the availability of culture to all individuals within society and that investing in the interests of the privileged, elite few is of greater importance. Similarly, Leavis also shares a similar belief that culture should be dedicated to the privileged minority. Leavis also argues that it is only the privileged minority who could appreciate culture. Leavis and Elliot’s praise for the elite invokes some of the emphasis that Gramsci had bestowed upon the intellectuals of society in certain ways. Elliot states that culture is one of the few areas of society left for the refuge from the commerciality and materialism which results from capitalism and industrialisation. It is this commerciality and materialism in culture that has arisen from the widespread availability of culture and is the main threat to high culture. This view is similar in many ways to that of Adorno in that it is quite anti-industrialisation.
Contrary to Leavis and Elliot’s beliefs are those of culturalist Raymond Williams. Williams believed that culture was not exclusive to the privileged and elite, but that it was part of everyday life. William’s states:
“A culture has two aspects: the known meanings and directions, which its members are trained to; the new observations and meanings, which are offered and tested”
(Raymond Williams "Culture is Ordinary." In Studying Culture: an Introductory Reader p.5-14)
What Williams is saying here is that members of certain cultures are trained into understanding the significance of the characteristics of their culture, rather than a reliance on an elite minority for cultural understanding and leadership. Elliot and Leavis’s principally elitist views have quite an antagonistic relation to that of Williams’ work. Elliot and Leavis’ views subscribe to some of the institutions associated with Marxism. The idea that the mass availability of culture alongside industrialization will result in commodification is particularly of Marxist influence. Similarly Adorno’s anti-capitalist rhetoric on the effects of standardization on music and culture generally echo Marx’s desire to depose capitalism, or at least certain aspects of capitalism.
2.3 Technological advancements in music
Technology has lead to a number of advancements, most notably in manufacturing industry. However, Technological advancements have also lead to great developments which relate to music such as radio, television and mechanical reproduction. All of these advancements in technology act as a means of distribution for music and indeed culture. Technology has also changed how music is made as now there are electronic Instruments and sophisticated recording methods used in order to capture music. One theorist who completed extensive work which examined the role of technology in relation to art was that of Walter Benjamin. In his 1937 essay, the Work of Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproduction, Benjamin addressed the new means of reproducing art and its consequences. Although Benjamin’s work did not pertain to music specifically, it made reference to art. In the Work of Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproduction Benjamin describes the one factor which is lacking from even a perfect reproduction: “its presence in time and space” (opening sentence, chap. 2). Essentially Benjamin is describing the lack of authenticity that is available in a reproduction despite the faithfulness to the original. This lack of interest in the original live performance is what Benjamin describes as the end of the “Aura”.
“To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose "sense of the universal equality of things" has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction.”
(The Work of Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproduction, p. 4)
In contrast to Benjamin, Adorno concentrates more on the opportunities that mechanical reproduction affords us rather than what we are, or indeed are not getting from the reproduced piece itself. In The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno focuses on the scale of reproduction and the idea of supply and demand. He also looks at a point which is commonly overlooked:
“No mention is made of the fact that the basis on which technology acquires power over society is the power of those whose economic hold over society is greatest.”
(The Dialectic of Enlightenment, chap. 1)
Those with the great economic hold over society are what have been previously described by the relevant theorists as the dominant class, the bourgeoisie, the privileged and the elite. This group not only have the economic hold over society but a hegemonic hold also. Adorno is describing how technology can in fact acquire power over the hegemonic classes.
Our reliance on technology has lead us to the stage where the actual development of society is now affected by technology. This has given rise to what is known as technological determinism. F.R. Leavis was vehemently anti-technology and opposed any advancement, thus technological advancement in music may as he describes: “injure the standard of living” (Cultural Theory And Popular Culture –A Reader, p. 15). Similar to that of Leavis’ perspective on technology, Raymond Williams believes that technological determinism can lead to forms of cultural decline (Popular Music & Society, p. 83). Williams’ view is not quite as extreme as that of Leavis and his persistence regarding essentially what is an attitude of regression toward technology, yet the two theorists have valid points. Brian Longhurst points out an example of such cultural decline:
“In the area of music it has been suggested that the introduction of new technologies leads to a decline in forms of previously established and valued standards of musicianship.”
(Popular Music & Society, p. 83)
Longhurst goes on to point out the possible ways in which new technologies can be used. He identifies that there are pessimistic and optimistic views regarding the use of new technologies. Both views are rather straightforward and rather predictable. The pessimistic view of such technologies points out that it can be susceptible to standardisation and rationalisation as mentioned by Adorno in the context of pop music earlier. Regarding the optimistic view associated with the arrival of new technologies, Longhurst explains that the technology can be used to an individuals own advantage. For example it can lead to greater creativity and the execution of complex tasks can be performed much more easily with the assistance of these new technologies.
2.4 The electronic revolution
Although technology has furthered music greatly, it was the arrival of electronics specifically that had the most impact. The most notable part of the electronic revolution was the incorporation of the transistor which had lead to a major movement within music and beyond. Electronic devices and components introduced the world to easy to use media players, synthesisers, samplers, MIDI, the implementation of digital and a whole new perspective on how music is made and distributed.
In On Record, Andrew Goodwin in his piece “Sample and Hold: Pop Music in the Digital Age of Reproduction”, (On Record, p258) he explores many of the newer electronic technologies that have established themselves into modern music. Goodwin goes into the history of the sampler and how it was only available to the more affluent musicians in the early days because of its cost. As time went on the technology became cheaper and more widely available. Goodwin then raises the important point about this technology as it:
“Places authenticity and creativity in crisis, not just because of the issue of theft, but throught the increasingly automated nature of their mechanisms”
(On Record, p262)
These fears resonate with those of Adorno, Leavis and Benjamin regarding music as mentioned previously. In particular Adorno’s description of pop music becoming standardised and rationalised has in many ways damaged the integrity and authenticity of music through the automated nature of pop music today. The unavailability of this technology to the masses initially was like that at the end of the 19th century when electronic instruments were in their infancy. The teleharmonium was one such electronic instrument. At the end of the 19th century this instrument was used in classical orchestrations (a form of high art), performed and controlled by an elite group. Theorists like F. R. Leavis and T.S. Elliot with their beliefs that culture is based on high art would have agreed with the use of electronic based music in this context as it conformed to the standards of use in high art. However it is the automation and standardisation involved with recent technology that many theorists are most concerned with.
Goodwin argues that this manipulation of the automation end of music technology doesn’t affect the authenticity of a performance, but rather that it changes the context of the authenticity:
“today’s pop musicians are often technicians who have learned to program every bit as skilfully as earlier generations (up until punk) learned to play.”
(On Record, p264)
One of the major advancements within the electronic music revolution is the use of computers alongside MIDI (Musical instrument digital interface) technology. MIDI is a protocol which allows MIDI enabled devices to communicate with each other to send and receive note information. As Andy Bennett points out, MIDI allows the user to produce a composition “in a confined space via the technology and the mixing desk” (Popular Music and Youth Culture p. 77). Goodwin also goes on to say of how automated rhythms like those produced via MIDI were often indistinguishable from that of a human performance. It was this flexibility, realism and gradual availability of technology over time that had lead more individuals interested in it. Technology was getting cheaper, which meant it was more readily accessible to the masses, rather than just an elite group. For the first time a relative novice could make music without having years of training or rhythm and coordination skills. This lead to a desertion of more traditional musical ideologies by the non-elite. The fact that non-elite and musically uneducated groups were making music is testament to the fact that cultural hegemony and its grasp on society was loosening as a result of the new technology.
In 1978, German act, Kraftwerk released their seminal album “The Man Machine”. This album introduced the world to the concept of pure electronic music. The album spawned number one hits in many countries in 1981, with the track “The Model” fast becoming accepted widely into popular culture. Other electronic artists to follow suit were jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, New Order and Jean Michelle Jarre. This acceptance into popular culture generated and helped define many different musical sub cultures and genres in the next few years. These included rap, house, electro pop and so on.
Rap owes a lot of its roots to electronic music, in particular to Kraftwerk. Much of Krafwerk’s influence is seen in all modern music, but not quite as much as it is in rap and hip-hop. Early hip-hop/B-boy culture was saturated by Afrika Bambaataa’s hit “Planet Rock” which famously samples the song “Trans Europe Express” by Kraftwerk. This concept of sampling is a process used throughout music today, but it was used and pioneered by rap producers in particular. Sampling by its very nature implies that rap is a postmodern form of music due to its “pervasive intertextuality” (Andrew Goodwin p.412 Cultural Theory And Popular Culture –A Reader).
Rap grew as a result of its embrace of electronic music technology. As rap grew as a genre, it also grew artistically. As more people became aware of this relatively new genre, more artistically diverse artists began to emerge. Gangster rap emerged in the late 80’s and early 90’s with one of the more prominent groups, NWA releasing songs which told the narrative of life on the street from the perspective of young underprivileged African Americans that were unhappy with their political situation and domestic surroundings. Gangster rap was seen as controversial because it apparently encouraged gang activity and violence. However, the hegemonic class in America offered resistance to such radical and controversial materials by having them banned or restricting their airplay. As time went on though, the popularity of rap music had gained momentum and banning these works was no longer practicable. In Popular music and Society, Longhurst points out that theorists like Simon Frith praise rap music as it escapes certain dimensions of rationalisation (p. 19) despite the inherent industrialisation of the music itself. Similarly, Goodwin also praises rap music as creating its own tonality and structure despite utilising technologies that may “imply rationalisation” (Popular music and Society p.19).
2.5 The Internet as a new method of distribution
Music has been distributed ever since its inception. Over time the different methods of music distribution and how this was controlled have changed dramatically. Before music recordings and reproductions were viable, music was performed live and music notation was made available for performances. Since the first experimental wax drum sound recordings were made in the 19th century we have seen a number of different media formats for music playback. With the introduction of media formats we also saw the rise of the record companies, radio, TV and the internet. The best known of the analogue formats was that of vinyl and cassette. However in 1984 with the introduction of the CD we were introduced to the digital media format. Record companies, radio and TV provided a means for the promotion and distribution of music for many years. Now though, online music has changed music back into an intangible product, albeit a vastly more obtainable one. In Popular Music and Society, Longhurst points out the trends associated with the consumption of media formats of recorded music (p. 203). The trends show that newer more technologically advanced formats sell better than their equivalents. This is certainly true in recent times as one just has to look at the decline in sales of CD’s in favour of downloads. Goodwin speaks of the “new elements of consumer control” (On Record, p.260) which are available to the masses as a result of new music media formats which are available to them. Each new media format provides the consumer with greater amounts of control.
In Popular Music and Society, Brian Longhurst mentions that it is the United States, Europe and Japan that are the main markets for pop music in the world (p.49). Evidently this is true as music from the United States and Europe; specifically Britain dominates much of our airwaves. Conversely it can be seen as having a negative effect on music overall. Globalisation and its effects are already known to have affected other aspects of culture and music is no different. This dominance of American and European culture on the rest of the world is having a global hegemonic effect. Instead of a dominant class imposing its values, attitudes, beliefs and morality on a subordinate class, it is a dominant culture imposing these on a subordinate culture.
In On Record, Paul M. Hirsch describes what he calls the “input and output organization sets” (p. 129). He describes how the record company invest their money:
“The record company invests entrepreneurial capital in the creations and services of affiliated organizations and individuals at its input (product selection) and output (marketing) boundaries. Each affects volume sales by linking individual creators and producer organization with receptive consumers and mass media gatekeepers”
(On record, p. 129)
This idea of the record company as a gatekeeper is similar to that of the culturally conservative views of T.S. Elliot and F.R. Leavis. Elliot and Leavis argued that it was the publisher (the record company) that was responsible for the quality of culture which was produced. In many ways this view was true as much of what is heard is controlled by the record companies and the conglomerates that own them. Hirsch then goes on to say how that as technology becomes cheaper and more widely available, the record companies will require less of a capital investment to produce many records (On record, p. 130). He also mentions the fact that many record companies go to great efforts to market and promote their music. As Adorno said:
“Provided the material fulfils certain minimum requirements, any given song can be plugged and made a success, if there is adequate tie-up between publishing houses, name bands, radio and moving pictures.”
(On Popular Music, Presentation of the Materials p. 2)
Music videos work in much the same way as radio does. Both media are there to promote a particular song so that the consumer purchases it thus making money for the record company. The internet and online music availability pose both a problem and an opportunity for the record companies. Online music offers consumers the most powerful and versatile “new elements of consumer control” available when finding and obtaining music. The record companies no longer have the narrow paths of TV and radio to advertise their product. Nowadays people can find their own music that interests them or even upload their own. The internet affords the individual the freedom from the commerciality and commodification of the modern music industry. People no longer have to wait for what record companies give them. Essentially the internet has to a large extent removed the hegemonic grip of the music industry. The irony here is that all this technology with which people are being liberated from hegemony was developed as a result of capitalism and the industrial revolution. This is unusual upon consideration that capitalism in many ways researched and developed technology for profit, and so that the bourgeoisie could keep its hegemonic hold over the proletariat.
3. Anti-hegemonic undercurrents in music
Since the very origin of music itself, there always have been political overtones associated with certain musical movements, genres and songs themselves. These political connotations within music can be both deliberately outright and also inadvertent and associative as history has shown us. Music with particular regard to that of which was produced after World War II had become an increasingly powerful political tool more so than it ever had been before. The end of the war heralded great changes politically itself of course, but music began to change at an infinitely faster rate. For the first time entirely new genres that were emerging had political agendas rather than individual songs and their lyrics. Specific genres developed their own principles, messages and associative lifestyles. From the fifties to the present day we have seen the emergence and development of many different genres and sub genres which came about through the political, social and technological changes which proceeded after the war.
It seems that many of the changes in music, both politically and sonically have been regarded as somewhat revolutionary. In the early fifties we have also seen the emergence and acceptance of the chart system and for the first time, the commodification and production of music into a tangible product for commercial consumption as a result of the chart system. The chart system lead to the first realisation of what we now know to be popular music, or as it is often dubbed “pop”. As Simon Frith argues throughout his book “Performing Rites. On The Value of Popular Music” the form, content and meaning of such music is ignored in favour of profitability.
“This is a perspective that draws on political economy, critical theory and organization studies and which entails considering various corporate strategies, contractual arrangements and business practices through which music companies seek to achieve their goals. Writers following this line of reasoning tend to narrate a tale of ‘production of culture’ during which the practices, form and content of popular music are made to conform to a range of organizational constraints and commercial criteria”
(Media, Culture and Society p.360)
In many ways this is true, perhaps now more than ever. The introduction of the charts meant that there was a shift in Adorno’s idea of the two “spheres” of music toward more popular orientated music and a decline in the popularity of serious art music. This also resounds with the views of Adorno and his anti-capitalist sentiment expressed earlier. With the implementation of the “pop” charts we have also seen somewhat of disintegration of the idea that music is strictly an elitist pursuit as I will explore later. All these factors, including the increase in genres, political motivation, the abandonment of elitist attitudes and the rise of the pop chart have lead to diversification and greater freedom of expression for artists today. The direction in which music was heading certainly did not conform to the standards of Matthew Arnold, T.S. Elliot, Walter Benjamin and F.R. Leavis’s predominantly culturally elitist beliefs. The move toward standardised pop music and the following embracement of new technologies are two major factors which contribute to this.
The main movements which were to challenge the political and social environments around them which led to these changes were rock ‘n’ roll/blues in the fifties, rock in the late sixties and early seventies, the punk movement in the mid seventies, rap music in the early eighties and most recently, electronic/dance music in the late eighties and early nineties. With the insurgence of these new genres and the ideologies they represented, there was a backlash of moral outcry by the masses. Each of these genres were ridiculed and accused of having serious implications on the moral fabric of society when they first arrived. However, this seems to be true for many revolutionary discoveries and events that have been implemented into society which eventually become accepted and sometimes embraced over time. For this particular area of study I plan to focus on the punk, rap and electronic/dance movements as I feel these particular movements represent the greatest shifts and lasting effects within music both politically and technologically.
Punk or punk rock emerged in the mid 1970’s and its sound was developed in the USA before shortly before being absorbed and emulated by English artists. Notable punk bands included The Ramones, The Clash, New York Dolls and The Sex Pistols. Punk rock’s sound was essentially a less elaborate, stripped down, faster and heavier sound than the commercial music available at the time. It focused on simpler song structures and put less emphasis on musical prowess. Punk rock song structures concentrated on more straightforward compositions with band members disregarding technical musicianship in both instrumentation and vocal style compared to their pop counterparts. Punk rock’s lyrics were often starkly politically motivated, real and raw –this is an aspect of music which had not been heard, particularly not in the mainstream. Punk bands and their members consisted mainly of those from a working class background, often dissatisfied with their political and social surroundings. This dissatisfaction was often the primary inspiration for the lyrical content of their songs. It could be argued that whether many punk bands did in fact deliberately go out to achieve their simple sound which didn’t involve much technical musicianship as many were working class and untrained musically.
Gramsci placed great emphasis on intellectuals as essential in the creation of culture. In this way, punk rock was the antithesis of what music should be. This view is also true from the perspective of T.S. Elliot as he ascertains In Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. As pointed out previously, Elliot argues that only “superior individuals” with “appropriate powers” (p.36) could contribute relevant works to culture, in particular to that which concerns music. From this perspective Punk rock is achieving the same, but in the opposite manner. Essentially punk rock consisted largely of the proletariat –most of who were not intellectually inclined or even musically trained, yet they were contributing relevant works to culture. As mentioned in chapter 2.2 The culture of pop music, serious music and art where I have emphasised Raymond Williams’s point that members of certain cultures can learn to understand the significance of the characteristics of their culture rather than a reliance on an elite minority or bourgeoisie for cultural understanding and leadership, punk achieves this in many ways. Punk bands have recognised the characteristics of their culture in their lyrical content and to some extent in their instrumentation. This recognition of culture can take the form of political and social issues. The fact that this recognition takes place proves Williams’ point. Also the fact that the proletariat/punk movement is writing such revolutionary political and social commentaries shows the disregard for reliance on any elite minority or the bourgeoisie for cultural understanding and leadership. Punk rock achieves its own understanding and leadership and when we see how punk has worked as a political force, this will become even more apparent.
Punk became a major threat to the hegemonic classes when it arrived in the mid-late seventies. It’s political and social lyrics and the views of individuals involved in the movement posed the greatest threat. Punk espoused the ideology of anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian, revolutionary, pro-individualism, and pro-youth society. The lyrics of punk rock spoke of the proletariat and its concerns regarding these issues, whereas the music itself was aggressive and modern.
“For its part, punk rock sought to recapture the raw, id-like impulses and threat of underclass menace that characterized the early rock and roll period and had since been largely colonized and rendered tame by the music industry that absorbed it”
(Spectacular Recuperation: Alex Cox's Sid & Nancy p. 158)
Brian Michael Goss also points out in Spectacular Recuperation: Alex Cox's Sid & Nancy, that the social and political climate in Britain at the time was rather unfavourable toward the working class. Unemployment was at a record high since World War II, the country was in depression and Thatcher had come to power in 1979. In Britain, punk could certainly be seen as a reaction to the social and political climate of the time. Punk overcame the hegemonic grasp of the bourgeoisie as it changed the social and intellectual climate that was conductive to their interests and raised political and social awareness amongst the youth sector of the population. It also changed the internalisation of the values of the bourgeoisie on the proletariat to the values which it advocated for a generation. Punk as a result had caused a generation of people to question the society in which they live and in some cases, reject it. As Marx and Gramsci had believed, the subordinate classes would have a predisposition for reform rather than outright revolution, and in many respects punk achieved this. Punk certainly helped raise political awareness about important issues as well as it had changed music itself. However there is one aspect of modernity that punk music did not embrace –Technology. Perhaps the rejection of technology by punk bands was part of the strive for simplicity, or perhaps it was because of the exceptional cost of equipment at the time. There is no doubt though that punk has been a major contributor to the idea of the anti elite and the acceptance of the non-virtuoso musician.
Rap music emerged in the late seventies and early eighties. It owes much of its origins to new technologies and pioneering use of these technologies. Initially rap music started out when Jamaican dub DJ’s in New York established a turntable technique which involves playing 2 of the same records where, for example a drum loop is being played on the records. The DJ plays one drum loop on one record then switches to the other record which has the same drum loop cued up again. When executed correctly it gives the listener the appearance of a seamless, continual loop. This technique inspired many of the modern sampling practices in operation in rap and other music today (A Brief Guide to Sampling, p146-147). Sampling other songs became a foundation on which rap was based, whereby a short loop of a track was repeated with lyrics spoken over the loop. Along with sampling, rap artists took advantage of the lowering price and availability of music recording and production equipment like drum machines samplers and synthesisers. In many ways rap music can be seen as very similar to that of punk rock. Rather often, rap composers and producers were not trained musically. Many of the compositional aspects of rap were also similar to punk in that they were quite simple and minimalist. Also a great extent of rap’s subject matter is similar to that of punk in that it concentrates on political and social issues. One of the other major similarities between punk and rap is that the performers within each genre are predominantly working class. The only real difference between rap and punk apart from obvious divergence regarding genres is that punk bands play their own instruments. In many ways rap welcomes the opportunities that new technologies afford us. Without technology rap music would not exist as we know it, and so many individuals would not get their chance to be heard as artists.
“In the 20-plus years since it emerged in inner-city New York as an alternative to violence and a way to escape harsh urban realities, hip-hop has become a worldwide musical and cultural force. But the widespread popularity of rap music and hip-hop culture among youth has caught many outside the hip-hop community by surprise. Once considered ‘black noise’, hip-hop has claimed for itself the role of cultural and political voice of an entire generation of youth”
(From the margins to mainstream: the political power of hip-hop p. 219)
One of the first mainstream rap songs to be overtly political is that of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious five with their 1982 track “The Message”. The Message chronicles the life and problems of a young man born and raised in the ghetto. Throughout the song there are a number of bleak references to life in the ghetto before it is eventually revealed that the young man has committed suicide as a result of the effects of his surroundings. Another prominently political rap act from the late eighties and early nineties was that of Public Enemy. Throughout Public Enemy’s reign in the limelight they have written songs most notably about prioritising black issues and contemporary political agendas. As rap has become accepted into the mainstream, it has also been accepted by white youth and those from affluent backgrounds. This Mainstream crossover in many ways is good as it raises awareness about issues which concern disadvantaged African American culture.
Rap’s crossover into the mainstream has not been easy. Rap has often been at the point of controversy over its subject matter and the different trends which emerged. As outlined in chapter 2.4 The electronic revolution we have seen the political effect of gangster rap. Throughout rap’s struggle with politics since its early beginnings we have seen it banned, reductions in airplay, boycotting, etc. These efforts to suppress the genre of rap music have occurred as it apparently fails to exhibit the traditional American ideals, instead it challenges them. The hegemonic class deem this as a threat to the social and intellectual climate conductive to their interests and so, the action to stifle rap music has occurred. Similar to that of punk rock, rap resists cultural hegemony by raising political and social awareness amongst those in the youth sector of the population. One of the key aspects that assisted rap music overcoming cultural hegemony was its utilisation of technology. New technologies allowed those who had little musical experience to get their message heard. It also allowed those who were or had become familiar with the technology to develop a new sound and a new genre.
Dance and electronic music emerged in the mid-late seventies. Electronic instruments were not uncommon before this period and have existed since the end of the 19th century. Popular electronic acts often praised as groundbreaking that were around at this time included Kraftwerk, Jean Michelle Jarres and Brian Eno. However it wasn’t until the early 1980’s where a consortium of major instrument manufacturers developed the MIDI 1.0 specification that electronic music had taken to the mainstream. Throughout the eighties the electronic sound had been implemented by a number of “synth pop” acts. Pure instrumental electronic music was still a rarity at this time.
In the late 1980’s a new genre had began to develop known as acid house in the Detroit underground. Acid house’s sound consisted of rhythms from drum machines (most notably the Roland TR-808 and TR-909 models) accompanied by a synthesised bass line (most notably the Roland TB-303 model). In Britain, The acid house scene had developed into a movement as large scale gatherings of peoples went to “raves” in locations all over the country. One aspect of these “raves” that attained the scene a lot of negative coverage was that of the widespread use of the relatively new drug ecstacy at the time. This negative coverage helped garner extra pressure from politicians to stop these illegal raves. Eventually the UK Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 was passed as a measure to curb raves and the activities assocated with them. Under section 63, powers to remove persons attending or preparing for a rave outlined its own definition of what constituted a rave and even the music associated with such an event. The rather vague definition that the act gave for such music was: “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.” Although the act succeded in stopping illegal raves, venues and clubs accommodated the scene to become what it is today. Despite the act in Britain the music gained popularity and developed into a plethora of sub genres worldwide.
Dance, electronic music and its associated sub genres were different from other genres in that the music was purely electronic and was programmed rather than performed. Again, MIDI, computer and sequencing technology was key in the development of the genre. The falling prices and availability of the technology meant many new artists and enthusiasts could emerge. The appearance of dance and electronic music is one of the most recent genres to appear. Its emergence has shown how a musical movement can be affected by politics. Dance and electronic music represents the most extreme music movement to reject musical elitism.
4. Technological Determinism (from performance to production)
Technological determinism associated closely with American sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) who is said to have coined the phrase. Technological determinism states that it is technical developments that are the major force within society that brings about change (Does Technology Drive History?: The Dilemma of Technological Determinism). Within technological determinism there are two viewpoints from which most theorists in the area come from. These are that of hard (or strong) technological determinism and soft (or weak) technological determinism.
Hard technological determinism is the extreme view that technology is either a necessary prerequisite which determines change within society or it is at least a prerequisite that is present during societal changes and developments. From this hard determinist stance, technology is seen as autonomous in that human control is given less authority. Although it is humans that inevitably produce and develop new technologies, hard determinism states that technological progress is inevitable and it is this aspect that is out of human control. Soft technological determinism is a more widely accepted view by academics and theorists as it places more emphasis on human control. Theorists like Raymond Williams and Ruth Finnegan point out that society has the potential and indeed it does shape technological advancements. Soft determinists believe that opportunities arise from the availability of certain technologies or that the absence of a particular technology can be a constraint on the development of a society (Literacy and Orality: Studies in the Technology of Communication, p. 38). In relation to new music and audio technologies soft determinism has certainly provided opportunities in the areas of composition, automation and production. These new technologies broadened the possibilities of music and allowed a greater number of individuals to express themselves musically as we have seen particularly in rap and electronic music. From a hard deterministic point of view, new music and audio technologies have advanced dramatically from their initial commercial success in the late seventies.
Similar to that of the view of technological determinists is that of Marx. Marx believed that it is the base of the superstructure model he put forward that determines everything else within society. Here it is the economic modes of production that determine society and indeed its inequalities within its class structures. Technology is a factor in the economic modes of production so it can be deduced that soft technological determinism shares the view of orthodox Marxism. Regarding Marxism, advancements and the availability of technology has meant that the proletariat can in some cases circumvent the exploitation of their “labour power”. However, as the pop charts emerged and the commodification of music emerged on a global scale in the fifties, we have seen capitalism re-assert its “commodity fetishism” and authority over the proletariat. More recently though with breakthroughs in other forms of communication technologies such as the internet, we are beginning to see another shift in the control of “labour power” and music distribution. This returns us to Elliot and Leavis’ idea of the corporate record company as gatekeeper. As is quite clear, it can be seen that technological advancement regarding music and audio affects how music is made and who hears it.
Simailar to the views of that of the technological determinists is that of Paul Virilio. Virilio points out that technology has consequences for society that were not intended in the original design of an artefact of technology. He refers to these consequences as “accidents” throughout his works. Virilio uses the examples of the development of technologies such as cars and trains and the subsequent, yet unintentional invention of train derailment and car crashes as a direct result of these new technologies. He also cited an accurate prediction of the terrorist attacks that unfolded on the day of 9/11 as a result of the original bombing of the world trade centre in 1993 (The Paul Virilio Reader p. 192-195). Although these are rather more extreme examples of the consequences of technology, specifically in the area of study I am interested in, these examples illustrate the point well. Virilio also purports his concerns that technology can lead to a loss in human involvement, a displacement of man by machine. This shift of control is certainly true when considering MIDI and sequencing technology. With digital audio, sampling and computer technology, artists and producers can accurately loop, cut, copy, paste, apply effects and perform an unlimited amount of tasks on an unlimited amount of tracks. Artists and producers can mix real performances that have been manipulated along with MIDI compositions into a seamless piece. Artists today can essentially create the perfect track with the opportunities computer based music production offers them. It would seem that the only limitations today’s composers have are their imaginations. However contrary to Virilio’s beliefs that technology essentially detaches human control and involvement is untrue in this case. Although many of the tasks when producing music is performed, completed and stored using computers, it is human intervention that allows this work to be possible i.e. the computer is incapable of completing the work by itself unaided. Any amendments or ancillary creative decisions are finalised and executed by a human operator. In this manner, technology merely assists the process rather than taking complete control.
Another interesting theorist’s outlook on technology is that of Neil Postman. In Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Postman describes communications technologies as a means for symbolic representation of our own conceptualised reality, rather than being merely machines that supply us with information (p. 39). Postman’s views on technology share the notion of technological autonomy as in hard determinism, yet he also considers how we use technology rather than its affects and what affect its development. Postman’s views are of particular importance to communications technologies as he specifically references them. Postman’s ideas on communications technologies are similar to that of Stephen J Kline in that Kline states that it is the unique human ability to process abstract symbolic logic that enables us to design and use technology (Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society p215-217). However Kline’s work looks more specifically at what technology is and how it is defined from an anthropological perspective rather than its effects.
Theorist Marshall McLuhan outlined his own views on technology and how it affected society. McLuhan describes what he sees as the three major advancements within the realm of communication Oral, Print and Electronic and how there is a sensorial imbalance between these three modes of communication. Oral communication refers to the time when word of mouth was the only form of communication within society. Due to the ephemeral nature of this form of communication, complex thoughts had to be shared and repeated in order to avoid transience. McLuhan believed that the ear and exercising the use of the aural helped keep a sense of community. After oral communication print culture came about with the arrival of the Gutenberg press. Before actual print culture however there was of course scribal culture, but the Gutenberg printing press brought about immense changes within society. Finally and most recently there was the electronic revolution which we are all familiar with. McLuhan believed that print culture contributed to the imbalance of the senses and increased the idea of individualisation in society. Now that vast arrays of texts were available, the individual could now learn independently of others. The electronic revolution brought with it greater immediacy, the capacity to store and retrieve larger quantities information and enhanced communication opportunities. The electronic revolution also seen a return to the balance of the senses that McLuhan had valued. Essentially McLuhan saw medium of communication as the main cause of changes within society.
“The Medium is the Message… i.e. the media of communication cause deep seated changes in the consciousness of man which are invisible due to a defence mechanism numbing the rupturing effect it has”
(The Medium is the Message: An Inventory of Effects)
As McLuhan placed so much emphasis on the medium of communication it is clear to see that communication itself is susceptible to the changes in technology as pointed out in the three main advancements in communication. With the change from oral to print to electronic means of communication there have been significant improvements in technological advancements between each of these steps.
With the shift in communications from oral to print to electronic, the implications of the technologies which have brought these changes have also affected music. With oral culture in communications there was the performance in music. Orality and performance were rather similar in that they both exhibited temporary properties. Before print just like oral culture, musical performances and compositions had to be learned and shared to ensure the survival of the song. When scribal and later print culture arrived this meant that not only words but music could be recorded in a more permanent abstract form. However the emphasis on performance was still an incredibly important aspect of music as even though a composition could be recorded, it also had to be performed to be heard.
As scribal culture was the precursor to print culture in communications, mechanical recording was the precursor to the electronic era. Mechanical recordings for the first time meant a song did not have to be performed to be heard. The electronic era improved on the mechanical era significantly in that it allowed for higher fidelity recordings and playback, along with the many other modern benefits outlined earlier. As a result of this, music did not necessarily need or have to rely on performance as it had previously done so for audiences to appreciate it. This decline in the emphasis on performance coupled with the movements within music that rejected instrumentation and musical training/elitism has lead to the extensive selection of music and its genres we know today. In essence these culminate factors have lead to an increase in the automation of performance and production of music. The idea that anyone could make music if they were so inclined was a very positive characteristic of the arrival of new technologies. This means that people who may have the capacity but not the means could express themselves musically. In this way technology helps to transcend social and hegemonic boundaries.
Technology has not only provided us interesting and exiting opportunities musically, it has also changed how we hear music. As in the beginning there was performance and composition, the mechanical and electronic era brought with it production and playback. When music was produced it was recorded onto a relevant format such as historically the wax drum, or more recently to a hard disk in order that it could be played back. There are differing theoretical views on this subject and we have already visited Walter Benjamin’s idea of the destruction of the “aura” as a result of reproduction and Adorno’s concentration on the opportunities that mechanical reproduction presents to us.
“To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.”
(The Work of Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproduction, p. 6)
The advent of mechanical reproduction within music saw for the first time music become a tangible product as mentioned earlier. As with other products, companies decided to capitalise on this product as any other. As companies grew into corporations, so did their power and ability to regulate what became popular and what didn’t. Again this commodification of music changed pop music into a commercial marketable product for consumption with the main aim to yield profit. Perhaps it is the commodification and exploitation of an art form which causes so much controversy and arrogance around the idea of pop music. Ultimately though in a rather deterministic manner, it could be argued that it is technology that has leaded us to this commodification of music through mechanical reproduction. Through the last sixty years we have seen a number of music formats but the most noteable difference in these formats has been that of the crossover from analogue formats to digital. Analogue formats had their problems in that they had poor sound quality due to generation loss and they were pireateable. The first true commercially successful digital format was the CD which was developed and implemented by Philips in 1984. The digital format was far superior in the quality of the recorded sound as there was none of the problems of generation loss. Since the CD the next major digital format which was successful became the MP3. The MP3 was an algorithm for compressing digital audio files to smaller factor of approximately ten. The main problem associated with these digital formats is that they are easily pireated and copied, even more so than analogue formats. Not only are they easily pirated, but when a copy is made it is an exact replica of the original as it is a digital format. With the reduction in cost of computer technology and the development and utilisation of the internet in the last ten to fifteen years, the merging of music and digital computer based communication technology cast doubt over the future of the CD and the tangible music format in general. This realisation by the music industry as a whole became particularly apparent in 2000 when the controversy surrounding the Napster peer to peer file sharing network had made headlines. Since this controversy many other file sharing networks have emerged, now offering entire discographies of artists freely available to anyone online. As a direct result of this many record companies have attempted to implement anti-piracy measures in CD’s they distribute. Rather ironically though, in a case of technology catching up with itself a number of programs are available freely online that override these anti-piracy measures:
“As a culture we have benefited from the balance struck by copyright law, between the rights of the owners of cultural works and the ability of the public to not only enjoy but also fruitfully build from that work. Arguably, this balance is being tipped by the efforts of the major US movie and music distributors to take advantage of encryption technology which can lock up cultural work and move use towards passive consumption.”
(New Media Society, Designed to ‘effectively frustrate’: copyright, technology and the agency of users p.666)
File sharing and using the internet for music is an important aspect of this area of study, but this chapter is merely looking at the consequences of this area regarding technology. I will go into greater depth concerning the subject of file sharing in the next chapter. From what has been explored in this chapter we have seen that technology has shaped how music is made and in some ways it determines what music is made depending on the reliance of technology. We have also seen how music transcends political and social barriers as a direct result of technology and how technology affects distribution and how music is heard.
5. Music, community and the personal compilation
As outlined in previous chapters we have seen that capitalist society favours generic, standardised pop music and often exploits these artists. These artists are chosen by corporations and are marketed and distributed by that same corporation so that everyone hears that artist. The corporation hope that this blanket saturation will generate their “capitalist surplus” or profit. With the internet as a new means of distribution for music, this opens up many opportunities for individuals and artists alike. Before the arrival of the internet and computer mediated communication (CMC) the only real means an artist had to promote and sell their music was through a record label. As the commercialisation of the music industry grew ever stronger, the majority of record labels (particularly the larger ones) became timid about the music they decided to release. Many labels decided to support “safer” music that they considered would be a success. The only other alternatives available to artists was self funding and marketing which was limited and could never match the wealth and expertise of a large record label. The internet provided an alternative to these comparatively unascertainable goals. The internet provided everyone with a base to distribute and promote their music for a negligible amount of effort and almost no cost compared to other routes. In the past five years, many dedicated sites which done just this were established. Social networking sites like Myspace, Bebo and to some extent Youtube all allow users to upload their songs, categorise them by genre and some offered the user a chance to publish their biography. These sites have numerous links and were searchable, thus giving the user the chance to self promote and gain exposure. As the term suggests, social networking sites are about just that: social networking. Individual user profiles can create and maintain links to other individual users, therefore creating a networked community with the primary function being social interaction.
“life will be happier for the on-line individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity… communications will be more effective and productive, and therefore more enjoyable”
(The Computer as a Communication Device P. 31)
Contrary to the benefits and opportunities that online communities present, theorist Jurgen Habermas disagrees that these benefits and opportunities will necessarily be availed of in any meaningful way as he points out in Inclusion of the Other: Studies in Political Theory (p. 120). Habermas states here that CMC technology has lead to a fragmentation within communication itself and as he put it: “The publics produced by the Internet remain closed off from one another like global villages” (p. 120). The equivocal nature of Habermas’s argument regarding communications technology does not provide a straightforward or definite assertion as to whether online communities are a positive or negative thing. Habermas’s theory regarding the “Public Sphere” also seemed dismissive of new technology in relation to communications. Habermas’s idea of the public sphere was that it was an area within reality where discussions and freeflow of ideas could take place regarding subjects like politics and the arts. It seems unusual that Habermas did not wholly embrace the possibilities of the internet as a form of public sphere. After all on a day to day basis on sites like Myspace, people from all over the world converse and share information regarding the arts (music). Habermas’s ideas regarding the fragmentation of communication in relation to the internet somewhat mirror the views of McLuhan and his views on the increased emphasis on individualisation in relation to the advancements in communications technology outlined earlier. McLuhan, who coined the term “Global Village” was referring to the extension of the capabilities of the self in a manner of different aspects. The mass media and the internet represented an extension within our potential for communication. From McLuhan’s approach the utilisation of the internet to distribute and promote music is seen as having far reaching and lasting effects within an online community:
“We live mythically and integrally... In the electric age, when our central nervous system is technologically extended to involve in the whole of mankind and to incorporate the whole of mankind in us, we necessarily participate... in the consequences of our every action.”
(Understanding Media p.4)
As it is quite clear there are tremendous benefits to using the internet to promote and distribute music through its immediacy and global reach. However, the effect of community on social networking sites and the role it plays is often overlooked. As Lickidler and Taylor point out in The Computer as a Communication Device, these online social networks and communities bring those with common interests together. Individuals that are linked to other like minded individuals can share knowledge of the availability and location of new music. In this way the online community itself can perform the marketing and creation of exposure for a particular type of music or artist. One such example of this in practice is the success story behind the act “Arctic Monkeys” and their use of the Myspace website to build up a following in such a manner. Again as McLuhan had pointed out, this sharing of information could be considered an immediate, global extension of the word of mouth. For music to be heard of in such a manner disposes of hegemony as it evades the social and political boundaries that would otherwise prevent the individual from hearing it.
It is not just social networking sites and online communities that can offer the individual greater choice and a vast expanse of information regarding music though. The freedom that the internet provides from legal and political oppression allows anyone who has access to voice their opinions. This is possible as there is no specific set of laws regarding online content as content is retrievable from any geographic location in the world. Again this free flow of information has meant that it has become easier for the individual to choose what music they want to hear, rather than the pre-chosen, "pre-digested" (On Popular Music p. 16) music distributed and bombarded at us by the marketing machine of corporate record companies. In this way the individual has a better choice in that they can listen to pop music if it so interests them, or they can seek out alternative music if it doesn’t. In many ways this choice that the individual is afforded echoes McLuhan’s point on the increasing prominence placed on individualisation as scribal culture began.
One area which relates significantly to the correlation between that of the individual and online communities is that of the personal compilation. By the personal compilation I am referring to the capacity for the individual to accumulate and store quantities of digital music on their computer or other audio devices with storage capabilities. Prior to digital music it was not possible to amass large quantities of music onto one particular device. Today, computers and digital audio devices are becoming smaller while their storage capacities are growing. Also, digital media formats are interchangeable. CD’s can be ripped and converted into MP3’s easily. With the large capacities of such devices and the introduction of compressed digital audio formats such as the MP3 we are beginning to see people create their own personal compilations and digital music collections. This is clearly visible from the worldwide acceptance of the MP3 and computer/audio storage technology. Other features that can help one deduce such information is also the success and popularity of downloadable music, peer to peer file sharing programs and of course, piracy. With the immense amount of music that is available online, and the increase in available information regarding music, people’s tastes appear to be broadening. There seems to be a shift from the more traditional, cumbersome and ultimately perishable record collection to a compact collection of files:
“The point of mp3s is to make audio files smaller through data compression so that they are easier to exchange in a limited bandwidth environment such as the internet, and easier to store in a limited dataspace environment, such as a hard drive”
(New Media Society 8; 825, The mp3 as cultural artefact p. 828)
The one standout feature of the MP3 is that it is easily transferable. This transferability has lead to the increasing popularity of portable audio devices such as the iPod, although the success of portable audio devices is not solely down to the MP3. In 1979 Sony launched the cassette walkman, an analogue portable audio device. In The World According to Sound: Investigating the World of Walkman Users, Michael Bull outlines the reasons why people listen to personal audio devices. He cites the main reasons for the use of such devices as for altering mood and creating a private space (p 183-185). In his study, Bull looks more specifically at Walkman users and in doing so he references the terminology and technological limits of the original Walkman. Bull describes how users of the original walkman have collections of cassette tapes for different moods and occasions (p. 185). Nowadays, technology like the iPod and computers eliminate the need for an actual physical collection of music. People can have their entire music collections with them wherever they are ready for use. The Walkman and analogue cassette tapes were a kind of precursor to the idea of a customised, portable personal music collection, Digital technology simply made the execution of such an idea far more convenient.
As Jonathan Sterne points out in the mp3 as Cultural Artefact, one of the major problems associated with digital music and more specifically the MP3 is the question of value. Sterne articulates the point that the recorded music encoded in an MP3 was funded in order to come into existence. As MP3’s are often shared and not paid for, this leaves moral and ethical questions for the user that does not pay. After all the MP3 is the result of the labour of an artist and a record company –why should their efforts go unrewarded?
As outlined in the previous chapter, piracy is one of the major threats to all professional music artists, and not just to those that make their music available online. One of the major contributors to piracy online is that if peer to peer file sharing. Peer to peer file sharing allows users to make their MP3 files available to other peers through the use of a common software program. An internet connection provides the link between users to “share” files. Peer to peer file sharing has become incredibly popular as could be seen with the once popular Napster file sharing database. Napster was founded by Shawn Fanning in May 1999 and had in the region of 50–60 million users before it was shut down in 2001. Those who were in opposition of Napster included record companies of the artists whose music was being shared, the artists themselves, the Recording Industry Association of America and the World Intellectual Property Organization (The momentum of control and autonomy: a local scene of peer-to-peer music-sharing technology p. 803).
As audio piracy’s main contributor is that of the file sharing networks, the record companies and their affiliated electronics producers and manufacturers have began to employ digital anti-copy protection in devices and media. Nathan Cochrane describes the employment of such anti-piracy measures:
“It enables finely tuned licensing terms and conditions, such as limited 24-hour play, a set number of plays over a given time, or an outright purchase licence that lets the viewer watch the video or listen to music whenever they want. It will also be used to bind content to a specific PC, so that it cannot be redistributed around a house or played on a different device. . . . The idea is ‘to keep honest users honest’ . . . by greatly restricting the ability of consumers to dictate how the media they consume is used.”
(How You See It, How You Don’t, the Age, 27 August)
One company in particular which is excelling in this area is the Sony Corporation. Sony have incorporated almost all of the anti-piracy measures that Cochrane lists above into their electronics goods, removable media and they have even come up with their own file formats with greater copy protection features than that of their counterparts. Sony’s priorities are quite clear from their development of these technologies. Sony intends to lead the market in the hope that others will adopt their technologies to ultimately keep profits for their subsidiary, the “Sony Music” record label up. In many ways this can be seen as a commendable strategy as it protects the company but also their artists. However, as Cochrane argues this protection comes at a cost as it severely restricts the usability of the medium.
Another interesting aspect concerning music that is available online is the amount of time it has taken for record companies and corporations to take advantage of the technology that has been available. File sharing and illegal music downloads were around for 2-3 years before action was taken and legitimate download services were made available. MP3 compression technology had also been around for a number of years even before file sharing had begun and companies like Sony had already begun to manufacture and distribute MP3 players in 2000. Perhaps the larger companies and corporations saw file sharing as a free form of market research before action had been taken against it and that consumers were almost being given a free trial of the services they would offer later.
There have been numerous examples and theories that I have explored that have shown how the relationship between music and technology has overcome hegemony throughout history. Despite this, there are still a number of areas of concern relating to this subject. Technology has had a massive impact on society as a whole, but its effects on the arts have been possibly one of the most extensive and far reaching. Art is about conveying meaning and emotions through a chosen medium. Digital technologies challenge the perception of medium and authenticity as pointed out by theorists like Leavis, Adorno and Elliot. The fact that digital technology and the idea of having an exact copy of a work reduces the need for authenticity. Modern music is often produced digitally and so, subsequent copies will essentially be an exact replica of the original. The very notion of reproduction or having a permanent, tangible adaptation of a piece of music has lead to the commodification of music.
One of the major concerns I have seen in this study is that music, an art form of expression that is understood traditionally to provoke new ideas and ways of thinking can be commodified, standardised and popularised to the extent where its original purpose is missing is worrying. As Adorno states, music is separated into two spheres: serious music and pop music (On Popular Music, p.1). Unfortunately in recent times, standardised pop music has been eclipsing serious music. This is not to be confused that I am saying pop music has no place within society, but it seems nowadays the mass media bombards us with this pop music solely as a result of the advertising and expenditure of large corporations. I fear that this pop music media saturation on the masses is reducing the capabilities of the individual to discern other types of music. For many it is a case that the public only know what the media depict. In the last 5-7 years though, the internet has been a real glimmer of hope in remedying this situation. As I have mentioned earlier, the internet circumvents the mass media so that content (including music) is user defined. The internet itself consists mainly of individual opinions, rather than that of the mass media and corporate media. In recent times though, user defined content is becoming clouded with pop up advertisements and sponsored links. It also seems that with increased popularity, websites are being bought out by large corporations which results in more usage of advertising and clouding user defined content. Examples of this can be seen with the recent change in ownership of the founding members of the Youtube website to corporate giant Google. In this way even the internet is becoming commodified, just as music has.
It appears for any genre of music to take off it must have a significant following to become economically viable in order that artists can continue to work in that genre. In this way, many genres which are established have become so due to their crossover into the mainstream. Even genres that did not intend to do so initially like punk, rap and dance have been embraced to some extent by pop audiences. This crossover has lead to the exploitation of some aspects of these genres. The most obvious and perhaps superficial is the emulation of fashions associated with punk and rap music within pop music. It can be seen that this emulation and exploitation of new genres by pop is a sort of dilution of the original elements of a particular genre. This dilution also adds weight to the idea that even serious music can become commodified. The dominance of pop music has meant that anybody can be involved in music with the right marketing and support, rather than those with real talent.
Technology has also changed our notion of music and the methods by which music is made. One of the most interesting effects technology has had on the music creation process is the automation of performance. This decline in the emphasis on human performance coupled with the movements within music that rejected instrumentation and musical training/elitism has lead to the extensive selection of music and its genres we know today. Before recording technology, music only existed in performance. Music notation was available but the actual music itself could not be heard from notation alone. Recording technology meant that music could exist without performance. Music became in many ways like the other arts in a way it could not have achieved without technology. For example when Michelangelo sculpted David, the sculpting process could be considered as the programming process in electronic music. The finished sculpture of David represents the completed song in that just like the sculpture, it did not need to be performed again –it existed as a standalone form of art. The quality of the compositional arrangement and production of such music is directly analogous to the technical expertise and execution of artistic vision in creating a sculpture. This example in no way compares all automated music to art, as there are distinctions between what can and can’t be considered true art, but it merely represents that automated music can have artistic merit just as the works of great composers such as Bach or Vivaldi have. Today though, there is still a degree of pretentiousness regarding electronic music and its artistic merit simply because of the performance aspect. One could argue that composition is just as important if not more important than performance in music.
To recapitulate, music and its associated production and communication technologies have reached the stage where music can be made by almost anyone, it can be made considerably more available, it is easily stored in large quantities and can be heard in almost any social situation. The accumulation of these aspects and the different movements within music has contributed to new freedoms within music, free or faintly relieved from hegemonic control. However, capitalist society by its very nature necessitates control over the proletariat and so we have seen and will see constant struggle and change to advance and remain free from this hegemonic control.
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