Music and Capitalism
Editors: Anna Morcom & Patrick Neveling
Capitalism originated first in the city-states of Renaissance Italy and grew to become a world system with trade, industrialization, and colonialism (Braudel 1982). 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).
More recently, there has been an intense academic focus on neoliberalism, including in music research. The neoliberal era has seen crisis in the music industries, as digital technology and the Internet have made recorded music something overwhelmingly to share and give rather than buy, configuring music and capital into new relationships. This brings a new 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. Given the immensity of capitalism’s spheres of influence and transformation, the conference also sought a range of interdisciplinary speakers. Thus, the essays in this feature are by scholars from (in alphabetical order): Anthropology; Ethnomusicology; History and Literature; Marketing; Media and Communications; Musicology; and Religious Studies. As these essays show, capital has been and remains a form of overarching power in music making across the world. It may be something people seek to consciously or unconsciously mobilize, or to resist, or just to coexist or work with in more or less comfortable ways. As with all forms of power, questions are at the fore concerning who benefits from capitalism and how it affects human life in terms of belonging or alienation, prosperity or exploitation, and energy and creativity. In all cases, the essays show how capitalism has been and remains a dynamic force of change on musical styles and the forms of human sociability they stem from and create.
Adorno, Theodor W.  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.
Arrighi, Giovanni.  2010. The long twentieth century: Money, power and the origins of our times. London and New York: Verso.
Braudel, Fernand. 1982. The wheels of commerce. Civilization and capitalism, 15th–18th Century, Vol. 2. Berkeley: University of California Press.