Unfree Masters: Popular Music and the Politics of Work


In Unfree Masters, Matt Stahl examines recording artists' labor in the music industry as a form of creative work. He argues that the widespread perception of singers and musicians as free individuals doing enjoyable and fulfilling work obscures the realities of their occupation. Stahl begins by considering the television show American Idol and the rockumentary Dig! (2004), tracing how narratives of popular music making in contemporary America highlight musicians' negotiations of the limits of autonomy and ...

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Unfree Masters: Popular Music and the Politics of Work

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In Unfree Masters, Matt Stahl examines recording artists' labor in the music industry as a form of creative work. He argues that the widespread perception of singers and musicians as free individuals doing enjoyable and fulfilling work obscures the realities of their occupation. Stahl begins by considering the television show American Idol and the rockumentary Dig! (2004), tracing how narratives of popular music making in contemporary America highlight musicians' negotiations of the limits of autonomy and mobility in creative cultural-industrial work.

Turning to struggles between recording artists and record companies over the laws that govern their contractual relationships, Stahl reveals other tensions and contradictions in this form of work. He contends that contract and copyright disputes between musicians and music industry executives, as well as media narratives of music making, contribute to American socioeconomic discourse and expose basic tensions between the democratic principles of individual autonomy and responsibility and the power of employers to control labor and appropriate its products. Stahl maintains that attention to the labor and property issues that he discloses in relation to musicians and the music industry can stimulate insights about the political, economic, and imaginative challenges currently facing all working people.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Here is a book that does several things at once. It explains the current status of recording artists, both as subordinated employees and as free entrepreneurs who license rights to intellectual property, namely their music compositions and recordings. It also shows how, from the standpoint of labour politics, these cultural workers are not so different from other workers in a neoliberal political economy: competing individually while dreaming of autonomy, and contractually tied to a record company that snaps up their creative output for exploitation and keeps them indebted while offering little security.” - Hillegonda Rietveld, Times Higher Education Supplement

"Unfree Masters is an informative, intellectually engaging book. What really impressed me is how much I learned about copyright law, recording contracts, and music industry labor practices—subjects I thought I already knew a great deal about."—Kembrew McLeod, coauthor of Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling

"What makes Unfree Masters so significant is the fact that public struggles between musicians and the recording industry play out in less visible ways across all fields of employment. This is not simply a work of popular music studies. It is a major critique of the dominant relations between labor and capital in a postindustrial economy."—Barry Shank, coeditor of The Popular Music Studies Reader

Times Higher Education - Hillegonda Rietveld

“Here is a book that does several things at once. It explains the current status of recording artists, both as subordinated employees and as free entrepreneurs who license rights to intellectual property, namely their music compositions and recordings. It also shows how, from the standpoint of labour politics, these cultural workers are not so different from other workers in a neoliberal political economy: competing individually while dreaming of autonomy, and contractually tied to a record company that snaps up their creative output for exploitation and keeps them indebted while offering little security.”
Labor - John Dougan

“An important addition to the field of popular music studies and labor studies, Unfree Masters lucidly and bracingly documents the imbricated, contested working relationship between artists and labels…[the book] offers the most detailed and exhaustively researched writing to date on the contractual relationships between artists and record labels and on the political stratagems designed to codify these relationships and change the nature of labor relationships between ‘workers’ and ‘bosses’.”
Reviews in Cultural Theory

“What Stahl’s fascinating study shows then, in sum, is that the creative labour of recording artists is like regular work in being conditioned by the inequality of the employment relation and by the spurious freedom of contract.”
Popular Music - Kenny Barr

“Matt Stahl provides an absorbing account of a pivotal period in the history of the recording industry in the United States….  [T]his text is sure to spark further debate and discourse and as such Unfree Masters is a valuable and timely contribution to the field of popular music studies.” 
International Journal of Communication - Rob Drew

Unfree Masters takes in an impressive range of materials and methods in shedding light on sites of ideological tension within recording industry work. It will be of interest not only to students of the music industry but also to those who seek a more general understanding of how neoliberal ideology plays out in everyday culture and politics."
Choice - R. J. Phillips

"After reading this book one will understand well why major record companies are in trouble today—and will probably not be very sympathetic with their plight. Summing Up: Highly recommended."
Popular Music History - Jason Toynbee

"Unfree Masters is an important book which ought to be widely read. It contributes not only to an enlightening turn towards cultural and musical labour in contemporary scholarship; it is also part of a renewal of radical critique in popular music studies."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822353430
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 10/31/2012
  • Series: Refiguring American Music
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Matt Stahl is Assistant Professor of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario.

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Read an Excerpt


Recording Artists and the Politics of Work

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5343-0

Chapter One

O passion to gain distinction, of what are you not capable?

–Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Sciences and Arts (First Discourse) and Polemics

American Idol and Narratives of Meritocracy

Early in September 2002, a former waitress from Texas is crowned the first "American Idol" in the season-ending episode of the Fox network's new reality TV/talent show. In the final moments of the program, giving way to tears and apologizing midsong for her lack of self-control, the twenty-year-old Kelly Clarkson sings: "I can't believe it's happening to me ... some people wait a lifetime for a moment like this." Clouds of confetti flutter from the rafters as the other finalists gather around her on stage, singing along in emotionally imperfect harmony, their occasional sobs audible through Clarkson's microphone. Finalists, their families, the two hosts, and others crowd together on stage, hugging and weeping in a display of moist, vaguely patriotic sentiment. Finally, Ryan Seacrest, one of the program's hosts, breaks away and intones earnestly: "Thank you all so very much for watching. Thank you for all your support. If you think you could be on this stage, keep on watching. It could be you in a matter of months. An audition will be coming to a city near you soon, so watch out, this could be you, one year from now." The camera remains focused on the swaying young contestants and others gathered on the stage, still embracing or holding hands, savoring this culminating moment. Through a rigorous, months-long process of competition and winnowing, American Idol has revealed and refined Kelly Clarkson's capacities and introduced this everywoman into the vertiginous echelons of the pop music elect.

Producing moments like this since 2002, American Idol has attracted unparalleled numbers of viewers, launched pop careers, and generated enormous profits as well as international franchisees and imitators. American Idol's ratings climbed steadily across each of its first six seasons, from an average of thirteen million viewers per show in the first season to around thirty million for its late 2000s seasons. In 2003, one Fox executive went so far as to call the show "ratings crack." Because of its rapidly escalating audiences, advertising rates on American Idol—in retrospect a steal at around $200,000 per thirty-second spot in 2002—typically crested around $1,000,000 toward the finales of the first few seasons. Those figures too increased: by 2006, the average spot had doubled in price, and an ad during that year's finale cost up to $2,000,000. Opportunities to sell increasingly valuable advertising time also expanded. The first season totaled about twenty-two hours of programming, but the second and third each totaled almost forty. This figure remains high, as the program often airs two or three separate episodes per week. The first season produced windfalls of exposure for advertisers and millions of fans for Kelly Clarkson and several of her runners-up. Subsequent seasons have advanced this trend; winners and finalists have won numerous Grammy, American Music, and other awards; have sold dozens of millions of albums; and have helped to sustain the American recording industry through a period of turmoil and uncertainty.

Combining the democratic principle of an audience vote and the narrative principle of a months-long competition, American Idol has been a music-marketing phenomenon of unprecedented efficacy. However, its social and cultural power do not derive just from grooming performers and selling recordings and associated commodities in staggering numbers, but also from the program's development and distribution of compelling stories about what it means to be a pop singer. American Idol has reframed and revalued the institution of the popular music performer's career and contributed to discourses of success and social mobility in the early twenty-first century. The program has established itself as both an actual route to professional positions in and around the US music industry and as a set of stories that implicitly and explicitly present the trials, failures, and triumphs of its aspiring young pop stars as instructive for Americans of all ages and skill sets. Kelly Clarkson's crowning moment at the end of American Idol's first season encapsulates one of the program's main narrative threads: the idea that a correct approach toward the position you desire reflects a sincere respect for the institutions and gatekeepers involved, combined with a high degree of self-confidence and gumption, an absence of guile, and the willingness and ability to take risks and direction. These orientations in turn reflect shared perceptions of what constitutes an authentic self-presentation in the context of the program, a key part of American Idol's recipe for success. "Authenticity," in Richard Dyer's view, "is established or constructed in media texts by the use of markers that indicate lack of control, lack of premeditation and privacy." Clarkson's tearful performance in the season finale, her impromptu, intimate welcome of runners-up onto the stage, and their shared embraces around her microphone may have prevented a more "professional" performance of "A Moment Like This" that night, but it ratified her consecration in a way that no flawless performance could have. The title of her debut album—Thankful—captures this attitude economically.

American Idol exemplifies ways in which the institutions, narratives, and social relations of popular music making self-consciously offer prefigurative insights into work and society. In this chapter, with a close focus on the program's first season (June 11–September 4, 2002), I explore how American Idol weaves its highly constructed rites of passage (and of denials of passage) into narratives of opportunity, comportment, and social mobility. I suggest that the program departs from reality TV conventions in its coupling with a global industry and in the actual transitioning of some of its winners and runners-up into professional positions. This linkage lends the program an unmistakable gravity and constitutes an especially inviting space of imagination and identification, evidenced in part by the enormous crowds who flock to the program's mass auditions. I zero in on two of the primary forms of American Idol's storytelling: stories of authentication (biographical and autobiographical vignettes that construct contestants as moral beings) and of humiliation (scenes of dramatic shaming for misplaced aspirations and poor auditions). The program's resonance has much to do with the ways it presents participants and their travails as revealing secrets and offering tools for success in the entertainment industry and for social mobility in the emerging neoliberal economy. Furthermore, this chapter suggests that American Idol's pedagogical narratives of authentication and humiliation shore up liberal-democratic promises of voice and self-actualization in a society in which such promises are fulfilled on increasingly unequal terms. American Idol's narratives of earned pop consecration and righteous humiliation dramatize and legitimize the reconfiguring of the life course into a series of high-stakes auditions. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the linear, progressive biography from adolescent experimentation to stable adult commitment is a thing of the past; second chances appear increasingly remote; the sorting of the deserving from the undeserving is swift and consequential.

The Show

Like the liberal market society that gives it its general form, American Idol derives from a British institution. In 2001's Pop Idol had been a commercial success in the United Kingdom, and Fox imported it virtually lock, stock, and barrel for US audiences. Each season begins with mass auditions, attracting tens of thousands of hopefuls. Typically, the first round of auditions results in a pool of over 100 singers; this group is then brought to Hollywood (actually Pasadena until 2009) and winnowed to a smaller number. The remaining contestants then compete live on television, before a panel of expert judges, seeking to win the phoned-in votes of the viewing audience.

The judges come from the upper reaches of the music industry. The original lineup of three participated in the first eight seasons; as of the tenth season only one of them remains. Simon Cowell is a British record industry executive with a string of pre-Idol hits to his credit; he remained on the program for its first nine seasons. Paula Abdul is a singer and dancer who had a high-profile career as a choreographer and recording artist before joining the show; she lasted eight seasons. At ten seasons and counting, Randy Jackson is a successful musician, music director, and artists and repertoire (A&R) executive who has worked with such big-name acts as Journey and Mariah Carey. American Idol has also featured numerous guest judges drawn from pop's pantheon, as well as from other realms of popular culture.

Once the initial rounds of eliminations are complete, a routine takes shape, with the singer receiving the lowest number of audience votes each week being dropped from the contest. This piecemeal elimination process continues until the winning contestant is revealed; the initial contract signed by each of the tens of thousands of aspirants commits the winner to a full-bore recording and management deal. (After weeks of exposure, however, several other finalists will have emerged as bankable talents and will walk away from the program with music contracts or receive other opportunities in the entertainment industry.) The winners' contracts are with the show's creator and executive producer Simon Fuller, architect of the Spice Girls and the Pop Idol program; and Simon Cowell, record label executive and lead judge for the program's first nine seasons. Cowell and Fuller also retain contract options on each of the ten finalists.

Through their votes over the course of the season the audience registers interest and even emotional investment, which provide some indication of the American Idol finalists' market promise. The release of the first season's first recordings fulfilled this promise beyond expectations. American Idol's producers commissioned songs for the first season's finalists (to be released, of course, on the producers' own label). Kelly Clarkson's recording of the song written especially for the climactic final episode of the first season—"A Moment Like This"—entered the Billboard pop charts at number 52, and within a week it had soared to number 1. It was reported then that, up to that time, the closest rival for this sort of chart movement had been the Beatles' 1964 "Can't Buy Me Love," which had advanced from number 27 to number 1 in a single week. That this level of audience investment could be sustained for months following the final show and the release of the CD single was demonstrated by the mid-April 2003 debut at the top of the Billboard pop charts of Clarkson's first album, the appropriately titled Thankful. Within a few years, American Idol became an internationally franchised institution, with dozens of versions taking place all over the world. Regional networks and local stations have also imitated its format (Protagonistas de la Musica, for example, followed on the American Spanish-language network Telemundo). A 2003 feature film starring Clarkson and first runner-up Justin Guarini (the screenplay was by Kim Fuller, brother of Idol's executive producer Simon Fuller and writer of the Spice Girls movie Spice World) flopped, but the film's commercial failure did nothing to slow Clarkson's meteoric rise or the Idol juggernaut.

American Idol and Reality Television

American Idol hitched its wagon to the constellation of reality TV, a major recent development in media and society. According to many scholarly accounts, reality TV is an active participant in an ongoing, epochal transformation of society. Numerous analyses suggest that the genre is playing cultural handmaiden to a systematic reconfiguration of social, economic, and political institutions under the banner of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism (also known as "advanced liberalism") is a utopian political and economic philosophy that has as its lodestone a utopian conception of a self-regulating market and as its practical goal the proliferation of free-market mechanisms into vast areas of life. The advance of neoliberalization requires the virtual elimination, for example, of governments' abilities to limit the impacts of market players and forces on citizens' access to social goods such as education, health care, pensions, and to elements of commonwealth such as clean air and water, non-toxic food, nature, and so on. One of this philosophy's most consistent themes is that individuals are entitled, essentially, to nothing that they have not inherited or purchased. In particular, they are not entitled to the rights, protections, and provisions (such as the welfare states' social entitlements established after World War II and attacked by right-wing radicals in the early twenty-first century) that relieve people from certain degrees of dependence on markets. One of the principal aims of the neoliberal project is to render people more dependent on markets and employers, thereby increasing the need for people to accept work on the terms on which it is offered: with stagnating or lowered wages, few or no benefits, and little if any dignity or security. Reality TV, many analysts agree, plays a role in producing a cultural or ideological environment conducive to these transformations. Reality TV'S "obsessive" focus on labor is substantiated in terms of its arguments for the importance of grooming oneself and competing for, obtaining, and keeping desirable forms of remunerative work—and moving up to still-more-desirable forms.

According to Laurie Ouellette and James Hay, reality TV is a "cultural technology" that "becomes a resource for inventing, managing, caring for, and protecting ourselves as citizens," as entitlements and protections disintegrate under the neoliberal assault. The authors suggest that television functions as a sort of "integral relay," whittling away at individuals' expectations of social and economic security, and enticing and assisting them into positions of increasing vulnerability. But reality TV is more than just a midwife of the neoliberal order. It is also itself a set of workplaces and markets for low-wage, insecure labor, a site of material as well as ideological production. "In the simplest sense," in the view of Alison Hearn, "'reality television' names a set of cost-cutting measures in broadcast television production enacted by management." At its very point of origin, at the heart of its foundational logic, reality TV bears the imprimatur of neoliberal capitalism's mode of operation: it is both an example of and it is about the transformation of relations between capital and labor at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Reality TV programming "can provide insight into ... more general claims about the changing nature of work on a global scale because reality television is, itself, a significant site of production," structured according to the dominant logic of contemporary employment: increase corporate profits and flexibility by reducing payments and obligations to labor. Reality TV can be understood, in other words, as both "a representational expression of, and ideological legitimation for television's economic rationalizations and post-Fordist capital's desire to externalize its labour costs."

There is good reason to understand American Idol as an emanation of the reality TV logic. It is a largely unscripted contest, stretched out over an entire season, in which individual participants compete to valorize—to add value to—themselves and keep and enhance their social places, and it does make extensive use of low-cost amateur talent and vulnerable, underpaid, nonunion production labor. American Idol similarly sells viewers on a new range of sociocultural, political, and economic norms; its authority is founded in the reality TV principle that "mediated reality is somehow 'higher' than, or more significant than, nonmediated reality." Like other reality TV shows, the program itself tells us that it is practically useful to the navigation by all subjects of the neoliberalizing world. Ouellette and Hay suggest that American Idol be considered as "a form of makeover TV to the extent that experts, teachers, and judges seek to transform raw human potential into coveted opportunities for self-fulfillment through the realization and expression of talent."

But American Idol's relationship to the genre of reality TV is complicated by a number of specificities: it participates in a long-standing tradition of amateur music on television that has brought a discourse of opportunity to mass audiences since the 1940s; it invokes widely distributed cultural knowledges and skills, articulating themes central to the American character; and it is about producing professionals for and in an established entertainment industry.


Excerpted from UNFREE MASTERS by MATT STAHL Copyright © 2013 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Popular Music and (Creative) Labor 1

Part I Representation 31

1 American Idol and Narratives of Meritocracy 36

2 Rockumentary and the New Model Worker 64

Part II Regulation 101

3 Carving Out Recording Artists from California's Seven-Year Rule 105

4 Freedom, Unfreedom, and the Rhetoric of the Recording Contract 143

5 Recording Artists, Work for Hire, Employment, and Appropriation 183

Conclusion: "I'm Free!" 226

Notes 235

Bibliography 269

Index 283

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