Music and Capitalism: A History of the Present

Music and Capitalism: A History of the Present

by Timothy D. Taylor

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iTunes. Spotify. Pandora. With these brief words one can map the landscape of music today, but these aren’t musicians, songs, or anything else actually musical—they are products and brands. In this book, Timothy D. Taylor explores just how pervasively capitalism has shaped music over the last few decades. Examining changes in the production, distribution, and consumption of music, he offers an incisive critique of the music industry’s shift in focus from creativity to profits, as well as stories of those who are laboring to find and make musical meaning in the shadows of the mainstream cultural industries.
Taylor explores everything from the branding of musicians to the globalization of music to the emergence of digital technologies in music production and consumption. Drawing on interviews with industry insiders, musicians, and indie label workers, he traces both the constricting forces of bottom-line economics and the revolutionary emergence of the affordable home studio, the global internet, and the mp3 that have shaped music in different ways. A sophisticated analysis of how music is made, repurposed, advertised, sold, pirated, and consumed, Music and Capitalism is a must read for anyone who cares about what they are listening to, how, and why.   

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226311975
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/28/2015
Series: Big Issues in Music Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 929,360
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Timothy D. Taylor is professor in the Department of Ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of several books, most recently The Sounds of Capitalism, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt

Music and Capitalism

A History of the Present

By Timothy D. Taylor

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-31202-6


A Brief History of Music and Capitalism before the Rise of Neoliberalism

In offering a brief history of music and capitalism before neoliberalism, I would like to emphasize, as I did in the introduction, that earlier forms of capitalism — indeed, earlier modes of production more generally — have not disappeared with the rise of neoliberalism in the last few decades. This sometimes makes it difficult to discern just what exactly is new about neoliberal capitalism. The cultural industries still produce commodities, though they might be advertised with bigger marketing budgets than in the past, or appear in different formats, or travel more widely. There is no clear demarcation, and there has not been a break with the past. Noncapitalist modes of production still exist, as do earlier capitalistic modes of production. Every historical form of capitalism thrives on previous forms, as well as on whatever non- or precapitalist modes of production remain (Tsing 2013). One thing is clear, however: today's capitalism seems to move faster and operate on a larger scale than earlier capitalisms.

There is therefore no clear entry point or road map for the following discussion. Capitalism so massively shapes the thoughts and practices of those who toil in it that there are a number of avenues of approach. But at the same time, capitalism is not some kind of wave that uniformly engulfs everything in its path. Its progression is neither linear nor total. While it is possible to offer a historical narrative, there are so many different threads one must examine that it makes more sense to tackle the subject thematically. I will thus begin, as does Marx in Capital, with a consideration of the commodity.

Production of Musical Commodities

The exchange, capitalist or not, of money for music has a long history, though such exchange in capitalism is relatively shorter. While Marx never explicitly theorized cultural commodities as commodities, he understood how cultural goods could become commodities. In his era, music could only be commodified in two ways, through sales of tickets to concerts (if, as Marx pointed out, a musician engaged with an impresario to generate large volumes of sales [1990, 1044]), or through publishing, which, again, required large-scale sales. "Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost," writes Marx,

was an unproductive worker. On the other hand, a writer who turns out work for his publisher in factory style is a productive worker. Milton produced Paradise Lost as a silkworm produces silk, as the activation of his own nature. He later sold his product for £5 and thus became a merchant. But the literary proletarian of Leipzig who produces books, such as compendia on political economy, at the behest of his publisher is pretty nearly a productive worker since his production is taken over by capital and only occurs in order to increase it. (1044; emphasis in original)

Marx never really goes beyond these sorts of assertions about the production of cultural commodities.

Just as Marx offers little help in understanding cultural commodities as commodities, he also doesn't help with understanding their production, having written in several places that the maker of a musical instrument is engaged in productive labor (labor generating surplus value for capitalists), while the player of a musical instrument is not (see 1973 and n.d.).

It may seem strange that the doctor who prescribes pills is not a productive labourer, but the apothecary who makes them up is. Similarly the instrument maker who makes the fiddle, but not the musician who plays it. But that would only show that "productive labourers" produce products which have no purpose except to serve as means of production for unproductive labourers. Which however is no more surprising than that all productive labourers, when all is said and done, produce firstly the means for the payment of unproductive labourers, and secondly, products which are consumed by those who do not perform any labour. (Marx n.d., 180; emphasis in original)

Since Marx's writings, technologies of sound recording have arisen, beginning in the late nineteenth century, marking a new way that music could be both objectified and commodified.

We can consider music to exist in different regimes of commodification, all of which are still with us, though some are residual, some dominant, and some emergent: music as a published score, music as live sound at a public concert, and music as recorded sound in the form of player piano rolls or audio recordings in many other formats, analog or digital. Let me take these developments in order.

The commodification of music as a published good began at the end of the fifteenth century with the invention of movable type for music by the Italian printer Ottaviano Petrucci, who petitioned the Venetian government to protect his invention in 1498. Petrucci published his first collection in 1501, a collection not of religious music but of mainly textless arrangements of chansons aimed at a middlebrow audience. This collection of "fluff," concludes the musicologist Richard Taruskin, was important to the future of making music from scores in the West (2010a, 542). It is less a question of the nature of the music, however, than of the fact that it was published and disseminated, which created new markets, new musical forms, genres, and techniques, and new composer-entrepreneurs — all subject to the vagaries of the new capitalist market.

While live music in the form of the performers' labor could be a commodity before recording, the possibility of massive profits from ticket sales wasn't fully realizable until the growth of cities, the rise of concert halls, the emergence of an apparatus of press and publicity, a transportation infrastructure that made travel easier and more efficient, and, later, the rise of a recording industry that could popularize recorded music in the absence of live performers. The rise and spread of publishing created a "public" for music in the seventeenth century, though the musicologist Lorenzo Bianconi (1987) cautions that this "public" was multivalent with respect to music in this era, and could refer simply to music in the home for a small group or in a larger venue for a paying audience. This latter manifestation, paying admission for concerts, arose at the end of the seventeenth century, first in England — one of the places where capitalism gained its first foothold — and then later in the rest of Europe. It wasn't until the late eighteenth century, however, that "public" could refer to something outside of aristocratic salons. With the rise to dominance of public subscription concerts in this era, the patronage system of aristocratic support for musicians was effectively over; now the demand for works was created by listeners, and those works were judged by a new class of critics (Taruskin 2010b, 639). It is necessary to remember, however, that a public concert isn't necessarily a capitalist enterprise unless it can be repeated and occurs on a fairly large scale.

Concerts could serve to increase sales of published sheet music, just as, later, they could influence sales of recordings. But the continuing rise of publishing wasn't greeted favorably by everyone. The German composer, writer, and critic Johann Friedrich Reichardt wrote in 1782 of what he viewed as the decline of art:

I think the most important thing is that that beautiful natural necessity [that is, the spontaneous creation of folksongs] has become art, and art nothing more than a trade. From the prince's Oberkapellmeister down to the beer-fiddler who brings operetta into the farmer's tavern, virtually everyone is now an imitative manual laborer for the market rate. Most unfortunately, there are so many of them that there can never be competition among the buyers, but always among the sellers. Therefore, then, even the highest goal of today's so-called artist is this: to satisfy the greatest quantity of his payer's follies at once. And this has so generally fatal an influence on the entire people that when anyone — whether ruler or tenant — once lets a happy human feeling well up, he no longer has enough direct, untroubled sense to express it from himself and according to his own nature; the ever-ready Spielmann sings forth from him instead. (Gramit 2004, 89; bracketed passage adapted from Gramit)

This is a rather stunning passage that articulates Adorno's fears in a later era — that mass culture would render its consumers mute, unable to articulate their own feelings, thereby compromising their individuality.

And finally, there is sound recording, which was greeted with similar consternation by some. Americans accustomed to making music for themselves at home or going out to hear it live were slow to purchase the player piano and the phonograph, new recording technologies introduced near the end of the nineteenth century. Thomas Edison's list of potential uses for the phonograph published in 1878 included recorded music, but after he had enumerated several other uses: dictation, books, and education. Considering music, Edison wrote:

The phonograph will undoubtedly be liberally devoted to music. A song sung on the phonograph is reproduced with marvelous accuracy and power. Thus a friend may in a morning call sing us a song which shall delight an evening company, etc. As a musical teacher it will be used to enable one to master a new air, the child to form its first songs, or to sing him to sleep. (Taylor, Katz, and Grajeda 2012, 35)

That Edison didn't conceive of his device as one that could play professionally recorded music wasn't surprising, for he lived in an era when music was still something one made for oneself or heard live. The idea that one would pay for previously recorded music was foreign to most people, and indeed Edison resisted entering the business of selling prerecorded music, though he ultimately acquiesced, as he and others slowly became accustomed to the idea that musical sound was something that could be purchased. Such shifts required a great deal of persuasion, mostly in the form of advertising, which I will discuss below.

While one could trace the development of important music technologies from the player piano and the phonograph in the late nineteenth century through radio in the 1920s to the Sony Walkman in the 1980s to the latest iPod or smartphone, I would not say that these represent different regimes in the commodification and consumption of music, important as they are from a technological standpoint. They are significant socially, in playing a role in shaping or reshaping people's relationships to music, but none marks what one might consider to be a new form of the commodification of music as sound in the broadest sense.

These various means of the commodification and consumption of music still exist, but they experience historical moments of being dominant, residual, or emergent (Williams 1977): some older recording formats such as the cassette and the vinyl LP have recently experienced something of a renaissance (to be discussed in chapters 4 and 5). The music publishing industry isn't what it was at the height of its influence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, having been affected by the recording and broadcasting industries beginning in the 1920s (though it remains quite lucrative in terms of licensing copyrighted material). Attendance at live events was up in 2011 (Pham 2011), but the function of concerts has arguably changed, for the long-established role of most concerts as a means of promoting the sale of recordings is becoming increasingly residual as recording sales today generate less income for the music industry as a whole, with concerts emerging as more of a source of income for many musicians.

The commodification of music as sound is a central and recurring theme in Theodor Adorno's work. If one reads Marx, it is clear that questions of commodity fetishism and reification (which is not a term Marx used himself but was introduced later, by György Lukács [1971]) are minor concerns; Anthony Giddens's classic Capitalism and Modern Social Theory (1971), which introduced him to new generations of scholars, doesn't mention commodity fetishism and reification at all. But in Adorno's and others' hands, commodity fetishism became a key concept. Adorno more or less assumed the commodity status of popular music, about which he was entirely dismissive. His main concern with respect to the question of commodification was that the classical works that he revered were also being commodified. Radio, the phonograph, and sound film made possible the easy repetition of works — not so easily reheard if one could only hear them live or perform them oneself — which, Adorno feared, could be a form of commodification of these great works. A mode of listening to music promulgated by the radio and phonograph in which listeners were encouraged to listen to musical themes as tunes rather than as building blocks in a philosophical argument or social critique was leading to a form of "commodity listening" (Adorno 2009a and 2009b), a relationship to great music that was not intellectual but was shaped by that music's commodification and treatment as a commodity in the capitalist marketplace. Music was beginning to be produced like any other commodity, which for Adorno meant that music itself was changing: "The commodity character of music tends radically to alter it." Music, he thought, "has ceased to be a human force and is consumed like other consumer goods," which "produces 'commodity listening,' a listening whose ideal is to dispense as far as possible with any effort on the part of the recipient — even if such an effort on the part of the recipient is the necessary condition of grasping the sense of the music" (Adorno 2009b, 137; emphasis in original).

It is in statements and assumptions like this where Adorno gets into trouble, at least for those of us who would like some sort of historical or ethnographic or other empirical basis for such claims. It is easy enough to point to how many (but not all) types of music emanating from the mainstream recording industry are increasingly industrial products. But without examining consumption practices, which can vary widely, we don't know how people actually are listening to or finding meaning in the products of the mainstream music industry. It is for these (and other) reasons that the Birmingham School offered a more "bottom-up" perspective, concentrating on the vantage point of cultural consumers rather than lofty critics like Adorno.

Some authors have offered distinctions between types of cultural commodities, especially between cultural commodities and other sorts (e.g., Miège 1989), but it seems to me that this is an unproductive exercise (and it is noteworthy that Raymond Williams doesn't address this question at all in his consideration of cultural production in Williams 1981). Viewing cultural commodities as somehow special or different from other sorts of commodities is a form of fetishism of them in the non-Marxian sense, a romanticization of them. If something is produced for the purpose of exchange, it is produced for the purpose of exchange. Such commodities can be invested with all sorts of meanings and interpretations, of course, including interpretations that attempt to isolate cultural commodities from the notion that they are, in fact, commodities. One could argue that cultural commodities could be considered to be special since they potentially convey, or evoke, sorts of meanings that might be deeper or more profound or more compelling than other commodities, and this position is somewhat convincing, but only up to a point. There are plenty of cultural commodities that aren't compelling to large swathes of audiences, after all, and as commodities aren't appreciably different from a coffee mug or toaster oven. And we all own plenty of noncultural commodities that we invest with special meanings, such as the clothes one wore when getting married or a family heirloom (on the latter, see McCracken 1988, chapter 3; and Pels 1998). Rather than theories that sanctify cultural commodities, we need ethnographic and historical studies that show how commodities and other sorts of goods exist in regimes of value that are meaningful for particular groups of social actors in particular places and times; I will examine one such case in chapter 5 (see Myers 2002 for another).


Excerpted from Music and Capitalism by Timothy D. Taylor. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures xi

List of Tables xiii

List of Audio and Video Examples xv

Acknowledgments xvii

Introduction: Capitalism, Music, and Social Theory 1

Music and Capitalism 6

Western Neoliberal Capitalism as a Cultural System 12

What Follows 15

1 A Brief History of Music and Capitalism before the Rise of Neoliberalism 20

Production of Musical Commodities 20

Capitalism and Musical Production 26

Artisans, Artists, Geniuses 31

Social Class, Markets, and Cultural Consumption 34

Youth 40

Conclusions 42

2 Neoliberal Capitalism and the Cultural Industries 44

Ideologies of Neoliberal Capitalism 45

The Cultural Industries as Industries 48

Brands and Branding 54

The Conquest of Cool-and the Culture 62

New Social Classes: The New Petite Bourgeoisie 63

Increasing Commodification 65

Consumption and/as Identity-Making 66

Plenitude 69

Music Supervisors 70

Search 71

Sociality 74

Art and Commerce 76

Advertising as Harbinger of the Present 78

3 Globalization 80

Globalization, Neoliberal Capitalism, and the International Music Industry 82

The Rise of "World Music" 88

Shifting Authenticities 90

Connoisseurs, Collaborators, Curators 97

Collaboration without Collaborators 101

Musicians in the Field of World Music in Neoliberal Capitalism 103

Case Study: Angelique Kidjo 103

Kidjo and "World Music" 104

Positions and Forms of Capital in the World Music Field 105

Gender 108

Oremi (1998) 109

Later Recordings 111

Ownership 114

4 Digitalization 118

New Sound Technologies: DIY Everything? 121

Remixing, Co-Creating 130

New Forms of Labor? 132

The Changing Nature of Work in the Commercial Music Industry 135

Longer, Harder 140

Digitized Music as a New Form of Music Objectified 145

Tactility 146

Ambivalences and Critiques 151

5 Singing in the Shadows of Neoliberal Capitalism 154

Motivated by Music 154

Burger Records: "Keeping the Teenage Spirit Alive" 161

6 Conclusions: Capitalism Is People, Too 177

Value in the Informal Logic of Actual Life 181

Notes 183

References 187

Unpublished Materials 187

Interviews 187

Other Unpublished Materials 188

Discography 188

Filmography 189

Books and Articles 189

Index 207

What People are Saying About This

Keith Hart

“Music and money have a strong affinity. Taylor explores their synthesis as cultural commodities in the era of neoliberal capitalism. This pathbreaking book is an original work of theory built on encyclopedic knowledge of commercial music today.”

Martin Stokes

“Taylor’s contribution is to see the questions surrounding music and capitalism through the lens of traditions of social theory that have been crowded out by Adorno. His case studies, rich in the voices of actors and participants as well as in theoretical debate, throw us into the diverse histories and cultures of the musical marketplace. This is a bold and ambitious book, by an author whose reading in these fields is unrivaled and who has a knack for getting quickly to the point. Required reading across all of the musicological disciplines.”

Jocelyne Guilbault

“Comprehensively researched and presented with numerous historical and ethnographic examples, Music and Capitalism is a major landmark in music studies and research on capitalism. Critical, insightful, and erudite, Taylor addresses the production and consumption of music in a work that deeply reveals the social organization of capitalism and its profound impact on music.”

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