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This House Believes the Music Industry Is All Industry and No Music

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Joseph Bates, former editor of the Cambridge Tab and founder of Filthy Lucre, and Siana Bangura of CamFM debate this week's Cambridge Union Society motion.

Joe writes:

Companies exist to earn their shareholders money. Everything else is just fluff.

Because of our romantic attachment to the intangible idea of 'authenticity', we resent that this applies as much to music as it does to sprockets and spark plugs. But music executives are not philanthropists and do not go to work each morning to perpetuate the 19th-century notions of musical idealists.

And thank god for that. There was a period where gentlemen of taste and distinction tailored the entertainment of the masses so as to promote only the best music. And stuff got messy, quickly.

Lawrence Levine describes how, at the beginning of the 19th century, American culture was pretty much a free-for-all. With an urge to culturally differentiate themselves from Europe, Americans played fast and loose with concepts of high and low art: Shakespeare was mixed with minstrels, operas with Yankee Doodle Dandy. The democratic roots of American society and the free market in culture combined to create a gloriously free expression of collective insanity.

But, as the century wore on, the predictable and ever present cultural elite began to grow in concern at the effects of the free market on the cultural decorum of the public at large. The previously pluralist market began to split, with cultural elites increasingly dictating the style and programming of major venues. Concepts of 'highbrow' and 'lowbrow' (the words themselves derived from racist phrenology) began to emerge.

In May of 1849, a particularly snobby Englishman, William Macready, was invited by the Anglophile upper crust to play Macbeth at the exclusive Astor Opera House. His performance clashed with a popular American actor, Edwin Forrest, who also playing Macbeth at a nearby populist playhouse. A huge crowd, incensed by Macready's snobbery and the unfair influence of his supporters, began an enormous riot in Astor Place, threatening to tear the place apart. The city elites, worried they were losing control of the city, order troops into the square. They opened fire at point blank range. Dozens died and many more were injured, all in a battle against cultural hegemony.

We've tried cultural elitism, and it turns out it requires martial law. If the people who control the distribution of music listen to "taste" rather than to their customers, all you end up with is a manipulative snobocracy telling the rest of us that our poor taste is due to a lack of education or moral character.

Now none of this hyperbolisation is to say that increasingly efficient musical commercialisation doesn't produce music I hate. I loathe Justin Bieber and despise Taylor Swift; I don't conflate popularity and merit.

But my tastes don't trump the millions who love Bieber and I think it's a terrible idea to try to control them, or to presume to 'educate' them with 'better' music. Partly because the Beliebers would make the Astor Square Riot look like kindergarten play fight.

When whinging hipsters and scoffing dub heads pour scorn on the dominance of trash culture (while starving their own favourites of revenue through illegal downloading) they've got to remember what the alternative is. Democratic markets mean that pop culture will always make big bucks. Much as Baby sucks, its a damn sight better than censorship.

Siana writes:

Attempting to deconstruct the politics of the music industry may well be an impossible challenge. The answer very much depends on what you understand by the terms 'music' and 'industry'. Don't be surprised if your solution isn't the same as other people's either.

The most common stance that I have come across is the more cynical side of the argument: 'of course it's about industry; it has always been about money; musicians are only interested in fame and fortune' and the rest. Yes, the music industry is a hierarchy, as is any successful and powerful system. In this hierarchy you have the big names in the indursty at the top and the
struggling majority at the bottom, naturally, and at the top, there is a sub-hierarchy.

My argument, although grossly cliché, is rooted in the fact that I have been a new music journalist and DJ for a good chunk of my 21 years. I believe, somewhat hopefully, that the music industry for the majority is still about the music. As I said before, the industry is, as is the case with any system of power, a hierarchical order and the vast majority of people within that order are at the bottom. There are millions of hopeful talents out there who dream of 'making it'. Many struggle and grind for years before they get even a small following or a
glimmer of recognition beyond the circles of their friends and family.

In short, unless you enter a 'talent' competition, get scouted by some stroke of luck, or find yourself in the right place at the right time, the music business if not a fast track ticket to fame and fortune. Even those that take a 'short cut' or get scouted have to bust a gut to show that they were worth the gamble and then they have to keep working for credibility and longevity. Radio is still one of the most important methods of getting music to the masses and if you want to be a radio DJ, chances are you probably want to do it because you're cool and/ or passionate about music, not because you are driven by the nature of the music industry and the money machine.

Why? Because radio doesn't pay well at entry or low level, and yet radio DJs are vital in the career of a musician. The industry is an intricate chain of people and events; everybody is important, though they won't be equally valued in monetary terms. As music is subjective, the most important part of this system is the consumer. If you don't light their fire or inspire them, the consumer will not willingly partake in your chain. Even more important these days is to create an alliance with the consumer that is so strong they will legally buy your music. Changes in how we buy and listen to music have led to claims of the music industry being
on its last legs.

Well, let's face it, although I'd argue that the quality of mainstream music has fallen to hell over the last decade and auto-tune has deadened the fine-tuning of young ears, music is a part of everybody's daily life (unless you live under a rock on mars, in which case fair enough, you are exempt from this generalisation).

I could whip out statistics but I think the other side of the argument would be better suited to that. My argument is based more on common sense and experience.

Anybody and everybody can get involved in music and these days, you can promote yourself using Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and other social media. The middle man, who gets a helluva lot of money at the top, is not needed at the bottom.

I deal with small label, unsigned or unknown musicians on a regular basis. I am always stunned by the passion, persistence, patience, and talent that the people I am fortunate enough to meet present to me. I always say that the best music is the music that isn't out there. When a song like 'Somebody that I used to know' becomes a number one hit for several weeks or a band like Mumford and Sons smash all imaginable records with their most recent album, totally cleaning up all competition in their way, my faith in the future of music is restored. Gotye had been working his ass off in Australia for epochs before he finally got his big break.

The point is, we all know that hard work doesn't always pay off quickly and real results that are worth the wait take time. That means that most people, at least when they start out in the industry, do it for the music. Music can make people, break people, save people. There are more knock-backs than successes.

There is a song out there for everybody (yes, I am still being grossly cliché but so be it) and the story behind bringing that song to you is a complex, sometimes emotional one, and always personal one. I don't deny that once the millions start rolling in, it's hard to let passion trump the fame and fortune, but the hopeful music lover in me will never join the opposite camp. The answer to this age-old question is different for everyone. I do not doubt that the debate will rumble on for decades to come as the industry continues to evolve - for better or for
worse.