Anna Morcom: Music and capitalism – an introduction

Capitalism originated first in the city-states of Renaissance Italy and grew to become a world system with trade, industrialization, and colonialism (Braudel 1982; Arrighi [1994] 2010). Thus, capitalism encompasses core centuries of the development of Western classical music and the transformation of classical and folk musics across the world under colonialism and modernity. However, research on music and its relationship to capitalism remains limited and focuses more on popular music and cultural industries. This is due to deeply rooted notions about “high” and “low” arts and “art” versus “commercial” music. The 1938 searing indictment of mass culture as an instrument of capitalist oppression by the musicologist, composer, and leading Frankfurt theorist Theodor Adorno also carries a strong responsibility (indeed, it was Adorno who coined the term “cultural industries,” giving it a strongly pejorative meaning [1978]).

Adorno included classical or “serious” music in his analysis of the recorded music commodity, describing how works are broken up and “hits” extracted, dismantling the autonomy and challenging nature of the artwork, leading to passive listening. Marketed, priced, and sold in similar ways, the works’ different degrees of greatness also become erased. However, his strongest proclamation was about popular music, whose very existence he saw as serving capitalism and profit rather than art. Mass-produced, standardized, and un-individuated, it trapped listeners in a kind of false consciousness through an insidious form of social control constituted by “pseudo-individualism” (ibid.).

Many contemporary scholars of popular music acknowledge Adorno’s points concerning social control, standardization, and omnipresent musical banality as they reference a world of background music and Muzak (Middleton 1990; Bradshaw and Holbrook 2008) and also the importance of music in advertising (Taylor 2012). But at the same time, popular music has been rehabilitated from its status as a commodity with only negative aesthetic or social worth, with scholars looking at the strongly discriminating nature of pop music audiences, and the creativity and change that popular music encompasses (Middleton 1990; Frith 1996). Adorno’s intense cultural prejudices have also been firmly noted. Popular music has, it must be added, also undergone its own process of not entirely un-Adornian canonization and differentiation into “higher” and more “serious” forms (typically rock) compared to “lower” and more “commercial” forms, which is somewhat ironic, though hardly unpredictable, given the nature of class and the operation of social and cultural capital in capitalist societies.

Thus, crude Adorno-style profiling has faded away, and new research encompasses more rigorous and empirical attention to the recorded music commodity (Taylor 2007) and to music, profit motive, and market exchange (Laing 2003; Stokes 2002). Unhelpful divisions of popular and classical or other musics have lessened, with work examining music across the board as a business (Talbot 2002). The historical and geographical scope of research into music and capitalism was also expanded with Qureshi’s edited volume Music and Marx (2002). Other important new research includes work on copyright regimes (e.g., Frith and Marshall 2004), not least their impact on pre-modern musical cultures from the late twentieth century (Feld 2000).

This rising interest in research on music and capitalism is linked to the broader focus on neoliberalism across disciplines. However, recorded music itself has also undergone profound changes and crises in its role as a medium of capital accumulation during the neoliberal era with the advent of digital technology and the Internet. This has led to the emergence of new logics of exchange, where even popular music—the paradigmatic “commercial” music—may be more of a gift than a commodity (Baym 2011; Anderson 2014), or something produced for subsistence rather than surplus (Morcom forthcoming). These changes provide an opportunity to mobilize the immense range and richness of music research toward a greater consideration of “money, power and the origin of our times” (to quote the subtitle of Arrighi’s 1994 book, The long twentieth century). This can bring us to a much firmer grasp of capitalism as a historical force that has shaped music in all its social and aesthetic dimensions. With the immaterial, affective, and somatic nature of music making and its embeddedness in sociality and social exchange, such research has much to offer the study of capitalism and economics more generally.

This feature on music and capitalism arises and includes papers from a one-day conference held in London in October 2014 entitled “Music and capitalism in historical and cross-cultural perspective” that aimed to tackle such an (admittedly ambitious) agenda.

Wagner’s article “Music, media, evangelical Protestantism: A very short history” explores a comfortable and synergetic relationship of music, media, and both the affective and socio-economic power of religion, enhancing existing work on music and branding. While the affective power of music has long been recognized as foundational in much religious worship, its economic dimension has not been explored.

In a different social context, Diallo’s article “‘Every day I’m hustlin’’: Rap music as street capitalism,” explores the celebration of money and a capitalist ethos in rap and hip-hop. While much music, including popular music, has had a conflicted relationship with money, with notions of “selling out,” in rap, there is an unabashed glorification of getting rich. Crucially, this wealth status is linked to informal economies (the “hustle”) as much as to formal economies.

Beaster-Jones’s essay on “Music, labor, and value in Indian music stores” examines the retailing of music in up-market stores in India that appeared in the wake of economic liberalization. Highlighting an important aspect of the exceptionalism of music as a commodity, Beaster-Jones shows how salespeople need to perform the habitus of India’s new middle class while themselves not belonging to it, underlining the sweeping changes to class and commerce in India from the 1990s.

Moving to a very different time and place, Berry’s article “Richard Wagner’s revolution: ‘Music drama’ versus bourgeois ‘opera,’” studies a far more contested relationship of music and capitalism. While Wagner is typically associated with Fascism due to his appropriation by Nazi Germany, his ideas were socialist and also greatly inspired by a (misperceived) conception of the balance of collective and individual in the ancient Athenian polis. His strongly expressed disgust with the contemporary capitalist world and the opera emanating from it foreshadows Adorno’s polemical work on popular music.

O’Brien Bernini’s essay “Capitalism and resistance in professional Irish music” focuses in detail on the workings of a commercial music industry and the agency different figures have for resistance, ranging from discursive intervention to litigation. Her article illustrates the power of the capitalist industry and limits to resistance, in addition to the far less explored notion of resilience—the ability for people to survive in the power structures of corporate capital.

Green’s piece “Negotiating musical and capitalist divides in San Cristóbal” brings us to another context of resistance to capitalism: a town in southern Mexico that was the center of the Zapatista rebels and is now a center of ethnic and conflict tourism. Musicians, however sympathetic to the Zapatista cause and however keen to rebel against capitalism, must adapt to the demands of different venues in the town to make a living while catering to a certain degree to the neoliberal tourist economy.

Moving to a more specifically theoretical focus is Absaroka’s essay “Alienation and ethnomusicology – revisited.” Commodity fetishism and consequent alienation from musicality forms the heart of Adorno’s Marxist indictment of the music commodity, and the issue of alienation has largely received attention from scholars in response to Adorno, often defending popular music. Absaroka re-energizes this important question with a broader frame, looking at labor, creativity, remuneration, technology, and scholarship itself.

In another theoretical piece, Bradshaw’s “Marxist music studies” deals with the topic of music and capitalism in a manner that revisits closely the terms of the art versus commerce debate, but shifts and reinvigorates them with a critique of the “Romantic fixation on the destruction of the artist.” Referring to musicians from the twentieth century as well as before who opposed commerce through embracing poverty, a sense of much more than just futility emerges from these attempts to resist capitalism.

Returning to more empirically focused work, the final essays highlight, among other things, capitalism as an agent of change and the responses of musicians and larger cultural formations. Trapido’s “Music, ritual, and capitalism in west central African history” looks at the Congo Basin in the precolonial era, outlining how music, social life, and trade were linked through music’s centrality in the ritual nexus and the ritual nexus’s domination of social life. Thus, we are able to see the agency of music in an era where long-distance trade was developing and new levels of wealth were entering certain sections of society, interacting with older forms of power.

Nadadur-Kannan’s essay “Copyright, capitalism, and a postcolonial critique of Karnatic music” is another longitudinal study of a musical system. Exploring the paradoxes and contradictions of the creation of Karnatic music as a “religious” tradition from one embedded in an economy where sacred and secular power were indistinguishable, she then traces ambiguities and conflicts further downstream capitalist history as musicians seek to copyright individual creativity while adhering to the view of Karnatic music as linked to a shared divine power.

Lastly, Anderson’s essay “Theorizing the social musician” focuses on the music industries as they are emerging from the recent upheavals of digital and Internet technology. He looks at how musicians have to focus efforts on gaining value through social activity as much as through skills in performance, with social bonds with fans on social media platforms crucial to monetizing paraphernalia around music, as well as concerts. Thus, as music is increasingly given away and shared, the commodity transaction of music has shifted.

Anna Morcom completed a PhD on Hindi film songs at SOAS in 2002 and is now Senior Lecturer in the Music Department at Royal Holloway, University of London. She has published three books on music and performing arts of India and Tibet: Unity and discord: Music and politics in contemporary Tibet (2004, Tibet Information Network), Hindi film songs and the cinema (2007, Ashgate), and Illicit worlds of Indian dance: Cultures of exclusion (2013, C. Hurst and Co.; OUP New York). Her latest research focuses on “economic ethnomusicology.”

Adorno, Theodor W. [1938] 1978. On the fetish-character in music and the regression of listening. In Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt, eds., The essential Frankfurt School reader, pp. 270–299. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Anderson, Tim J. 2014. Popular music in a digital music economy: Problems and practices for an emerging service industry. New York and London: Routledge.

Arrighi, Giovanni. [1994] 2010. The long twentieth century: Money, power and the origins of our times. London and New York: Verso.

Baym, Nancy. 2011. The Swedish model: Balancing markets and gifts in the music industry. Popular Communication 9(1): 22–38.

Bradshaw, Alan, and Morris B. Holbrook. 2008. Must we have Muzak wherever we go? A critical consideration of the consumer culture. Consumption, markets and culture (11)1: 25–43.

Braudel, Fernand. 1982. The wheels of commerce. Civilization and capitalism, 15th–18th Century, Vol. 2. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Feld, Steven. 2000. A sweet lullaby for world music. Public Culture 12(1): 145–171.

Frith, Simon. 1996. Performing rites: On the value of popular music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Frith, Simon, and Lee Marshall, eds. 2004. Music and copyright. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press.

Laing, David. 2003. Music and the market: The economics of music in the modern world. In Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert, and Richard Middleton, eds., The cultural study of music: A critical introduction. London and New York: Routledge.

Middleton, Richard. 1990. Studying popular music. Milton Keynes and Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Morcom, Anna. Forthcoming. Locating music in capitalism: A view from exile Tibet. Popular Music.

Qureshi, Regula. 2002. Music and Marx: Ideas, practice, politics. New York and London: Routledge.

Stokes, Martin. 2002. Marx, money, and musicians. In Regula Qureshi, ed., Music and Marx: Ideas, practice, politics, pp. 139–166. New York and London: Routledge.

Talbot, Michael, ed. 2002. The business of music. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Taylor, Timothy. 2007. The commodification of music at the dawn of the era of “mechanical music.” Ethnomusicology 51(2): 281–305.

Taylor, Timothy. 2012. The sounds of capitalism: Advertising, music and the conquest of culture. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Cite as: Morcom, Anna. 2015. “Music and capitalism – an introduction,” FocaalBlog, April 1,