Leah O’Brien Bernini: Capitalism and resistance in professional Irish music

Professional musical artists continually respond to and interact with the neoliberal social formation through the hegemony of the commercial music industry.1 This post presents findings from my doctoral study investigating the complex, entwined relationship between commercialized traditional music and neoliberalism in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The four-year ethnographic study engages over eighty prominent professional Irish traditional and Celtic musical artists and related industry personnel. This post suggests domination in the music industry is primarily achieved and reinforced through exclusion. This is accomplished by restricting access to three forms of capital identified by Bourdieu (1986): cultural, economic, and social, which correspond with the three modes of domination: ideological, material, and status. This work explores how, when, and why professional artists may utilize acts of resistance2 against different forms of domination when attempting to improve their relative social position.

Within the complex interplay between hegemony and resistance, there arises a persistent theme or phenomenon that does not appear satisfactorily explicable within the available theoretical frameworks: how people and systems in unpredictable, quickly changing environments successfully (or unsuccessfully) “bounce back” from adversity. As Philip Lake differentiates, “the capacity to weather a disturbance without loss is defined as resistance, whereas resilience is the capacity to recover from a disturbance after incurring losses, which may be considerable” (2013: 20, emphasis added). Resistance appears most useful for understanding how musical artists, as cultural entrepreneurs, can attempt to improve their position (ideally) without losing ground. But artists continually encounter challenges and setbacks. Therefore, this article calls for considering and theorizing resilience as a supplementary analytical concept for the study of professional musicians and the cultural industries.

Professional Irish traditional music
Most broadly, Irish traditional music is the historic and contemporary oral tradition of music, song, and dance of Ireland. It is both a social phenomenon—comprising complex interrelated communities organized around its production, consumption, and exchange—and a musical micro-genre with diverse aesthetic and ideological interpretations and a relatively large amateur base. It is further defined by repertoire, structure,  instrumentation, ornamentation, and arrangement.3 On the other hand, Celtic music is an ambiguous marketing term used to categorize and sell music that is characteristic of musical traditions from one or more Celtic nations. Artists often bill themselves as “Celtic” to indicate external influences (e.g., Celtic rock) or to attract a broader audience. Irish traditional and Celtic artists in Europe and the United States must tour extensively to earn a living, and many teach for supplemental income. These artists operate within a specialized, exclusive, and competitive multinational network of cultural producers and industry support personnel specializing in the genre (e.g., Irish festival directors and curators, record labels, publicists, managers, engineers, booking agents, journalists/reviewers, media outlets).

This network is a field in the Bourdieusian sense. The relatively autonomous social formation is structured by a set of objective, organizing social relations (or available positions and their occupants). It has its own functional and relational logics governed by specific forms of capital, and it privileges a certain habitus. Individuals focus on bringing a specific product (live and recorded Irish and Celtic music) to particular audiences (e.g., the Irish diaspora or “affluent and educated”), aided by dedicated social institutions (e.g., heritage organizations, cultural festivals). Distinctive logics of the field, such as those governing the conference of authority and legitimacy, or symbolic capital, echo the historical and social context of the musical tradition. For instance, an enduring ideal suggests the superior method of learning Irish music is from elders via oral transmission, preferably in rural communities in the west and southwest of Ireland. Substantial value and social significance is therefore placed on an individual’s relationships with consecrated persons and places. Consequently, artists’ biographies feature phrases like, “he studied at the feet of Willie Clancy,” or “she hails from a musical family in West Clare.” While many other micro-genre networks appear structurally dynamic and entwined with politics and the economy, the relational structure of this field has been relatively stable since the early 2000s. Few newcomers have secured stable midlevel positions or usurped established individuals. A number of managers, festival directors, and journalists expressed concern, fearing the stasis signals an imminent decline in the micro-genre’s quality and viability. The field comes into contact with other industry networks mainly within the economic realms of touring, sales/distribution, and fundraising, which, incidentally, are the industry spaces most affected by recent changes.

The global music industry has been in a state of structural upheaval since the mid-1990s. This has created an environment ripe for resistance, power shifts, and structural transformation. Recent changes are often disproportionately attributed to online piracy, which is only a symptom of larger economic, technological, and social changes at play, namely: (1) the rise of neoliberal economic policy and ideology, consolidating corporate power, and a dominant discourse attributing success or failure to the individual rather than the system; (2) the advent of affordable digital production and distribution technologies, which has decentralized and saturated the market; and (3) the evolution of consumer behaviors and attitudes regarding media’s exchange value.

Resistance and the music industry
The music industry, and the arts more generally, has a long, romanticized, and even mythologized relationship with resistance. As long as musical artists use their cultural capital (musical expertise) to operate the means of production, (e.g., recording studios, manufacturing, entertainment venues), to make a product that is sold for profit (e.g., albums, downloads, concert experiences), they are dominated by the owners of the means of production and those who control the necessary economic capital. Dominated individuals can attempt to improve their position with resistance strategies that devalue their dominator’s capital or by seeking alternative access to capital and the power it confers.

Civil resistance sociologists suggest that resistance strategies in disputes over self-determination (i.e., independence) are influenced by cost-benefit analysis and factors such as economic discrimination, population size, geographic density, internal or infrapolitics (Scott 1990), and a regime’s stability (Cunningham 2013). In professional Irish and Celtic music production, the field’s internal logics influence the availability and practicality of certain resistance strategies. An individual’s habitus, social situation, and relative social and economic positioning within their peer group further influence which form(s) of resistance they may employ and against which mode(s) of domination. For instance, it appears more socioeconomically advantaged artists understandably favor less disruptive strategies targeting dominant ideology, such as discursive resistance or humoristic undermining. Conversely, socioeconomically disadvantaged artists, with less to lose, appear to favor immediately disruptive tactics targeting their dominator’s public status and/or material assets. So what does ideological, status, and material domination look like in the music industry, and how can artists respond to such domination?

Ideological, status, and material domination in the music industry
Ideological domination within the music industry can involve generating a scarcity of cultural capital, achieved by restricting access to educational opportunities, institutional recognition, and cultural goods (e.g., instruments, recording equipment) and maintaining dominant discourses that strengthen and reproduce neoliberal values, normalize and entrench class relations, and dictate the value of creative expression. Artists can challenge dominant ideologies with counter-discourse exposing the subjectivity of, and thus invalidating, their dominator’s claims to power.

The music industry is a network economy that values social capital and its convertibility. Status domination often entails restricting access to social capital, limiting access to quality professional relationships and opportunities (e.g., cronyism) and manufacturing a scarcity of status symbols (e.g., awards). Artists may resist status domination by networking with other independent and amateur cultural producers and asserting dominance over, or rejecting, status symbols. Artists can also go on the offensive, using slander to devalue their dominator’s social capital.

Material domination in the cultural industries often entails restricting access to economic capital (financial and material) by limiting available resources for investment, production, distribution, and marketing, as well as access to consumers. Artists can resist material domination by targeting the economic assets of their dominators, whether through legal action, a refusal to comply (e.g., withholding rightful income), or even outright sabotage. On a day-to-day basis, artists often counter material domination by continually adapting to their changing environment: seeking alternative access to the resources they require, utilizing available new technologies (e.g., crowdfunding), and experimenting with new avenues of production and distribution.

This ability to navigate and negotiate adversity is indicative of an individual or system’s adaptive capacity, which can be bolstered with specific resilience strategies. In ecology, psychology, and sociology, resilience refers to the capacity of a person or system (e.g., ecosystem, business, community) to “absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedback” (Walker et al. 2004: 5). Therefore, a resilient artist might: (1) use industry and sales statistics in tour planning (attentive to feedback); (2) engage multiple media platforms and income streams (diverse essential resources); (3) be prepared to work from anywhere (mobile); (4) employ interchangeable support personnel (modular); (5) and use adaptable sales and distribution formats (flexible organization); (6) while maintaining their core philosophy, whether that be to bring joy to others, support oneself, or become famous (simple core identity/values/goals). Such resilience strategies help artists embrace new resources and technologies and access alternative capital to fund production, marketing, publicity, and distribution, thus improving probability of economic success. Further, when artists improve their capacity to adapt to environmental changes with speed, agility, and grace, they may subvert the dominant systems as they resourcefully remake their field.

The following examples demonstrate resistance in action by professional artists in Irish music production. The first illustrates a socially and economically advantaged artist effectively using discursive resistance across multiple platforms, promoting counter-ideology compliant with his field’s internal logic. The second shows how subordinate individuals can purposefully organize institutional action, defying the logic of their field, and affect real change. The third exemplifies humoristic undermining, a form of resistance that recalibrates the balance of power by poking fun at, and therefore destabilizing, a dominator’s claims to power.

First, Bill Whelan, creator and composer of the best-selling Irish music and dance extravaganza Riverdance, uses his privileged social profile and cultural capital to publicly contribute to the discussion of the contemporary music industry and its future. In the following statements, Whelan eloquently mobilizes the logics and values traditionally associated with the fine arts field in his dissent (i.e., the ideal of artistic autonomy and mistrust of capitalists). He addresses consumers, artists, and those with institutional power (e.g., national broadcasters and journalists, curators, philanthropists, politicians). By engaging people at different levels of power, Whelan increases his chances of affecting discursive, then ideological, and eventual structural change. For instance, after giving a paper entitled “Ireland and the Global Culture Market: A Creator’s View” at the 2010 Future of Music in the Digital World conference, Whelan remarked:

We may talk in futurist terms but actually sometimes I ask myself if we’re just perpetuating a sort of capitalist model for the way we’re working and whether we should think a little bit more towards the role that music has in the community at a philosophical level and not just monetizing it. (2010)

Whelan elaborates in an interview:

I think everywhere we look there is the influence of corporate control … We should never not be aware of how all-pervasive that is, and how much it affects everything … I’ve just been worried all the time about the arts continually having to reach out to people who are basically vendors in order to exist. (interview by author, Galway, 2012)

Whelan frequently uses social media to critique the relationship between music and capitalism today.

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Second, one of professional Irish traditional music’s greatest resistance stories has, until now, gone relatively untold. The groundbreaking class action lawsuit publicly leveled against Green Linnet Records by five of its top artists in 2002, and privately by several more, addressed financial mismanagement. Artists claimed the label essentially ran a Ponzi scheme and owed them years of unpaid royalties. The artists were under serious economic pressure, which may have predisposed them to attack their dominator’s material assets. When settlement talks failed and the lawsuit went to court, they broadened their resistance strategies to attack the label’s public status, staging a dramatic strike outside label offices, complete with a picket line, music and dance session, and a giant blow-up New York protest rat. The lawsuit generated significant press and featured in Billboard magazine, irrevocably damaging Green Linnet’s reputation. The resultant conversation reverberated throughout the industry network, challenging the dominant ideological discourse. The artists’ victory was more symbolic, or status-oriented, than material, given the label’s limited assets. But it sent a clear message to the entire music industry: when artists stand united, they can bring unjust labels to their knees.

Joanie Madden, leader of the all-female traditional band Cherish the Ladies, describes her experience:

We all said enough is enough … We said we’re going to stand together and united, and it was the first time that musicians and artists ever did that. It was David and Goliath. We were definitely David, and we took down Goliath. And the first, I remember we set a precedent. And I applaud all of us—that we stood together. As a unit. What we did was really unprecedented. I was very proud of us al. (interview by author, Limerick, 2014)

The final example features Dónal Lunny, who is widely regarded as one of the most influential musicians in presentational Irish traditional music and credited with popularizing the adapted bouzouki in Irish music. During our interview, Lunny recounts how he used humor to gently challenge his label during contract negotiations.

The contract that I was presented by EMI said the territory shall mean the earth, the moon, the solar system, and any areas in the universe that have yet to be discovered, etcetera, etcetera. And then I said, “I want the moon. Or I’m not signing.” And they gave me the moon! … It was like, do you feel silly? (interview by author, Limerick, 2011)

Investigating and theorizing acts of resistance helps advance our understanding of the complex power dynamics constituting the diverse, interconnected cultural industries worldwide, and by extension, the relationship between capitalism and art. This article demonstrates that socioeconomic and other contextual factors may influence both the type of resistance a subordinate individual may utilize and the mode of domination targeted by such resistance. I argue for the consideration of two additional variables: the social and cultural internal logics of the field in question and the relative social and economic positioning of individuals within their subordinated peer group.

In volatile and ruthlessly competitive environments like the music and entertainment industries, we must ask, what makes the difference between people who successfully “bounce back” from adversity—psychologically, socially, and economically—and those who do not? As researchers, we need a clearer, more comprehensive framework for identifying the many variables influencing cultural entrepreneurs’ and organizations’ chances of “success” (however problematic a concept). This day-to-day economic survival is a topic close to artists’ hearts and often on their lips. As such, it demands serious consideration. If adapted and applied appropriately, a resilience framework has the potential to enhance current theoretical models, help address fundamental issues, and generate practical solutions. Further study may reveal additional correlations between adaptive capacity and probability of success over time. Resilience could hold the key to why some survive—even thrive—in the face of great change, and others fall apart.

While these arguments require additional investigation and analysis, they offer the promise for groundbreaking future research yielding tangible results with real-world applications. Investigating these subtleties of musical labor advances our understanding of the conflicts within the “art-commerce-social triad” (Banks 2007: 184). By examining how Irish traditional musicians and relevant industry personnel experience and interact with the neoliberal social formation and their involvement in the music industry, this work helps reveal how these professionals experience the intersection of commerce and art.

Leah O’Brien Bernini is an ethnomusicology PhD candidate at the University of Limerick in Ireland. Her work explores the complex dynamics between capitalism and creativity in the music industry.

1. Any activities involved in for-profit music making, including recording and live music industries.

2. Comprising dynamic and contingent oppositional tools utilized by subordinate actors to subvert, challenge, contest, or reject power or declarations of power, regardless of intent or outcome. Power is plural, decentered, and intersectional, therefore so is resistance.

3. Repertoire comprises thousands of single melodic lines, dance forms, AABB-structured “tunes” of known or unknown origin. They are typically played on traditional melodic instruments (fiddle, wooden flute, whistle, uilleann pipes, concertina, etc.), solo, in unison, and/or with harmonic and/or rhythmic accompaniment.

Banks, Mark. 2007. The politics of cultural work. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1986. The forms of capital. In J. Richardson, ed., Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education, pp. 241–258. New York: Greenwood.

Cunningham, Kathleen Gallager. 2013. Understanding strategic choice: The determinants of civil war and non-violent campaign in self-determination disputes. Journal of Peace Research 50(3): 291–304, doi: 10.1111/ajps.12003.

Hesmondhalgh, David, and Sarah Baker. 2011. Creative labour: Media work in three cultural industries. London and New York: Routledge.

Lake, Philip. 2013. Resistance, resilience and restoration. Ecological management and restoration 14(1): 20‐24, doi: 10.1111/emr.12016.

Scott, James. 1990. Domination and the arts of resistance: Hidden transcripts. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Walker Brian, C.S. Holloing, Stephen Carpenter, and Ann Kinzing. 2004. Resilience, adaptability and transformability in social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society 9(2): 5.

Whelan, Bill. “Future of music in the digital world conference interviews,” YouTube video, 13:14, posted by “CMCIreland,” 13 July 2010.

Cite as: O’Brien Bernini, Leah. 2015. “Capitalism and resistance in professional Irish music,” FocaalBlog, April 9, www.focaalblog.com/2015/04/09/leah-obrien-bernini-capitalism-and-resistance-in-professional-irish-music.