Music and Capitalism: A History of the Present, by Timothy D. Taylor

Hillegonda Rietveld on the consequences of a cultural shift from musical creativity to profit

May 5, 2016
Angélique Kidjo singing on stage
Source: 250 Premio da Musica Brasileira, Roberto Filho

The commodification of music has long been a topic of conversation for both producers and fans, and in particular those who consciously opt for releases from independent labels. In the academic world, the discussion often starts with reference to the 1940s work of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, which addresses a capitalist value system that shapes distracted modes of listening and reduces composition to formulaic forms of production. These ideas were further explored in the philosophical approach of Jacques Attali, Keith Negus’ ethnography of processes of the music industry and, more recently, in David Hesmondhalgh’s overview of the cultural industries.

Timothy Taylor, an ethnomusicologist, here adds an anthropological angle to the debate by returning to the work of Clifford Geertz on cultural systems, adapting Geertz’s work on religion to an understanding of capitalism as a system of symbols that “is beyond the control or influence of any single individual”. Focusing on the US and Europe, Taylor’s interest here is in the “regimes of value” that operate within Western neoliberal capitalism for the makers of music, and he deploys close case studies of the Beninese artist Angélique Kidjo (pictured above) and the cassette-loving indie label Burger Records to understand how themes such as commodification, globalisation and digitisation are negotiated in practice.

Neoliberal culture production is addressed first in terms of branding, commodification, identity-making, the selling of “cool” as a marketable trope and the excessive reproduction of an impression of plenitude. Taylor then moves on to globalisation, in which authenticity is at once important and undermined in an environment in which the appropriation of cultural artefacts is commonplace. This is exemplified in a critical discussion of the borrowing and superficiality of sampling exotic otherness, particularly in what has come to be known and marketed as “world music”. Intellectual property rights are at stake in the process of cultural appropriation, which has led Unesco to safeguard music as a common good through the designation of “masterpieces of the intangible heritage of humanity”, in an adaptation of copyright as an exploitable property.

The issue of cultural ownership is also crucial in the context of the digitisation of music production and distribution, in which the boundaries between production and consumption seem to dissolve as music recordings can be continuously adapted and customised. Remixing is not a strictly digital music practice, of course, as its analogue predecessor developed in the context of DJ culture during the 1970s in New York, when, as David Harvey has shown, that city was in the grip of neoliberal restructuring of its governance. However, the development of digital recording devices has enhanced the speed at which music samples can be manipulated. Such acceleration can increase demands for last-minute changes to productions, which result, as Taylor puts it, in music makers working “longer and harder”. This cultural work increasingly takes place in isolation, not only because of the software convergence of studio technologies but also because of the disappearance of the sociality of record shops.

In his case studies of music-makers at the margins of the mainstream music industry, Taylor aligns himself with Michel de Certeau, engaging with the tactics through which musicians negotiate their cultural values against the context of a neoliberal capitalist value system, providing a human dimension to what seems increasingly like a posthuman world.

Hillegonda C. Rietveld is professor of sonic culture, London South Bank University.

Music and Capitalism: A History of the Present
By Timothy D. Taylor
University of Chicago Press, 240pp, £21.00
ISBN 9780226311975 and 12026 (e-book)
Published 22 February 2016


Print headline: Being played for all it is worth

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