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Why The Music Business Shouldn't Turn Into The Art Business
Robert Barry , April 7th, 2014 06:25

As Wu-Tang Clan unveil their one copy luxury new LP, Robert Barry argues that even in these straitened times, the last thing we need is for the music industry to start resembling the shady, exploitative art world

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"Is exclusivity versus mass replication really the 50 million dollar difference between a microphone and a paintbrush?" ask Cilvaringz and the RZA in their online 'Conceptus' for The Wu – Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, a double album of Wu-Tang Clan material that will exist in only one elaborately-packaged copy. "By taking this step," they continue, "we hope to re-enforce the weight that music once carried alongside a painting or a sculpture."

The Wu-Tang Clan certainly wouldn't be the first musicians to hanker after the spoils – creative, financial, or otherwise – of the art world. In 2007, composer Glenn Branca asked twenty-five questions of New York Times readers, amongst which were "Why does the contemporary musical establishment remain so conservative when all other fields of the arts embrace new ideas?" and "When a visual artist can sell a one-of-a-kind work for hundreds of thousands of dollars and anyone on the internet can have a composer's work for nothing, how is a composer going to survive? And does it matter?"

When I met Branca last spring, I asked him outright if he'd like to see the music industry become more like the art industry. "Absolutely," he replied, without a moment's hesitation. But he balked at the idea of creating one-off musical sculptures of the sort made by his contemporary Christian Marclay, because, as he put it, "I'm actually obsessed with actual musical composition."

Recently, however, several hip-hop artists have sought ways of making art-world business moves without changing their compositional practice. In October, LA rapper Nipsey Hussle netted $100,000 by selling just 1,000 mixtapes for $100 each. Jay-Z apparently bought a hundred of them and many compared Hussle's gambit to Samsung's $5 million patronage of Mr. Carter's Magna Carta Holy Grail album. Meanwhile, Eminem announced a $300 'deluxe edition' of his Marshall Mathers LP 2, complete with a black and white lithographic print of the artist himself.

None of this stuff is exclusive to hip-hop, of course, and in many ways even the Wu record is just a way more extreme version of the trend for limited edition 180gram vinyl re-issues that's been standard practice for many independent labels since the vinyl resurgence of the early twenty-first century. With an increasingly baroque set of exclusive luxuries for an increasingly select crowd at one end of the market, and free (or almost free) access – but perhaps only to an inferior reproduction – for the rest, it may seem as if Branca's wish is beginning to come true, and the music biz, slowly but surely, is becoming something a bit more like the art biz. But is this really what we want?

For a more nuanced approach to this question, it may be informative to look back to a time when the reproduction of music (along with other forms of art) was still fairly new. The RZA, in particular, has been quite vocal in harking back to this presumed golden age when the uniqueness of a work of art somehow made it mean more. "This is like somebody having the sceptre of an Egyptian king," he said to Forbes magazine of Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. "If something is rare," he continued to Billboard a few days later, "it's rare. You cannot get another."

What he seems to be referring to here is something the German theorist Walter Benjamin once called the 'aura' of a work of art, that "strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be." Benjamin considered the aura to be the one thing inevitably lost in any reproduction, no matter how perfect, because it is the "here and now" of the object, which underlies its "authenticity". Crucially, Benjamin believed that by bringing out aspects of the work unavailable to the naked eye (or ear), and by placing the work in contexts previously forbidden to it, the loss of this patina of authenticity holds true not just for the copy but for the original as well. Cilvaringz himself seemed to recognise this when he told Forbes, "One leak of this thing nullifies the entire concept."

Benjamin's The Work Of Art In The Age Of Its Technological Reproducibility is one of those classics of twentieth century critical theory that is often referenced but rarely read. I remember hearing as an undergraduate that Benjamin had decried this loss of aura, but in fact the reverse is true. Writing in Paris in the mid-30s, he regarded such traditional concepts as "creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery" as susceptible to being "manipulated in the interests of fascism." Only by sloughing off its unique existence could the work of art acquire a new "mass existence", and exchange its "ritual function" for a new "political function".

A great lover of popular culture, Benjamin's comparison of the public's "extremely backward attitude to Picasso" with its "highly progressive reaction to a Chaplin film" makes a curious contrast with Glenn Branca's insistence on the openness of the art world and the closed-mindedness of the musical establishment. But when Benjamin talks about the response he sees people having to Chaplin in terms of "pleasure" mixed with "an attitude of expert appraisal", I think we can all recognise this attitude in ourselves whenever we go to the cinema or listen to music. Who amongst us doesn't feel qualified to pass some kind of critical judgement on a new pop hit or the latest blockbuster? And who doesn't occasionally feel baffled – if somehow respectfully so – before modern paintings? I'm a professional art critic and I know I do.

Dying in the Spanish border town of Portbou in the autumn of 1940 while trying to escape from the Nazis, Benjamin would never live to see the traditional categories he disdained being applied to popular music and cinema in the 1950s and 60s. Mid-century American rock critics held up albums as objects of "genius" and "eternal value", and contemporary French cinema critics did much the same for the Chaplin films Benjamin had loved so much. Nor did he live to see how the art world would cope with the sudden reproducibility of its product as photography and video moved into the mainstream of contemporary art. The whole business of creating artificial scarcities (the 'edition') and establishing provenance for "authentic" prints by Cindy Sherman or Richard Prince can only seem like a frightened – and frankly absurd – defence mechanism from the perspective of media theory, as Benjamin already recognised in 1936.

But the music industry is corrupt, right? Surely any other model must be better. We all know how awful the bad old music business is because musicians never tire of telling us so. Countless popular songs – from Lynrd Skynrd's 'Workin' for MCA' to Abba's 'Super Trouper', from 'Complete Control' by The Clash to 'One Down' by Ben Folds – deal with the ins and outs of life on the road and the vagaries of showbiz. Their subject, in effect, is music as work. But according, at least, to the contemporary German artist Hito Steyerl, the question of art as labour and the politics of art itself remain peculiarly taboo for even the most engaged political artists.

One reason for this may be because art work is largely a form of 'strike work' (after the Soviet Russian term Udarnik) which "feeds on exhaustion and tempo, on deadlines and curatorial bullshit, on small talk and fine print. It also thrives on accelerated exploitation," Steyerl continues. "It sustains itself on the time and energy of unpaid interns and self-exploiting actors on pretty much every level and in almost every function."

Steyerl's vision of the art world is divided between these 'nouveaux poor' on the one side – the "JPEG virtuosos and conceptual impostors … gallerinas and overdrive content providers" – and on the other, the nouveaux riches, the post-democratic oligarchs and autocrats for whom the "unpredictable … mercurial" image of the "male-genius-artist" offers a favourable self-image. But contemporary art "not only reflects, but actively intervenes in the transition toward a new post-Cold War world order. It is a major player in unevenly advancing semiocapitalism wherever T-Mobile plants its flag. It is involved in mining for raw materials for dual-core processors. It pollutes, gentrifies, and ravishes."

Many of these charges might just as well be levelled at the music industry, the film industry, or almost any kind of 'content' production, but certainly few creative industries are as closely tied to financial speculation as contemporary art. The art world is a world where the value of everything is determined by its price, and the price is determined by criminals. Because only the guilty can afford such prices.

Don't get me wrong: there is some really interesting work being done by contemporary artists, and many amazing people work in the art world. But art as an industry remains caught between its utopian content and still largely feudal means of subsistence. The music industry, by contrast, was able to accommodate itself more successfully to the Fordist compromise of the twentieth century. For a while, it even managed to sustain – if not quite a middle class – then at least a kind of working class of performing and recording artists. The means of subsistence for this class of musical labourers was, to a large extent, copyright, a kind of income derived directly for the work's reproducibility.

Today, this capacity to derive income from a work's reproducibility is being undermined by the seemingly uncontrollable nature of digital reproduction. But it seems incredible to suggest that the answer to these challenges should rest in a denial of all kinds of reproducibility by harking back to feudal times with "kings' sceptres" and so forth. That way lies a very few Caravaggios and a vast army of lumpen global freelancers eking out a living on the crumbs of live performance and goodwill donations.

Wu-Tang affiliate Cilvaringz refers to Once Upon A Time In Shaolin as "this particular privatized album". A progressive future for music would see the album going public, borrowing from the art world not the privatised world of speculative collectors and commercial galleries, but the public sphere of funded institutions. Give us libraries and open museums, dedicated not to the past but the future.

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Post-Punk Monk
Apr 7, 2014 1:00pm

This trend that I've been concerned with for several years, doesn't seem to be going away any time soon, and it reaches a dead end with editions of one. Jean Michel Jarre's "Music For Supermarkets" was the unwitting harbinger of this trend 31 years ago, but at least that was intended as a metacriticism of commerciality itself. Within the context of the market as it existed then, music production was, as you adroitly point out, following an egalitarian, mass-production model. The shift to a gilded age/fine arts economic model for music creation should serve as a rallying cry for positive change, if it is at all possible in our current era.

I've written on this topic earlier as a troubling shift away from the popular, egalitarian roots of rock music to become the obsequious tool of the new elite.

For further rumination on the Fresh New Sound of Yesterday®

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Apr 7, 2014 3:18pm

What a great piece. Thanks.

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Apr 7, 2014 3:36pm

What do you mean we, white man?

Half of Wu Tang can barely eat, let alone the extended family... The band, their 'brand,' etc are life support and one of their groupies, Cilvaringz & RZA came up with a great idea to get them some attention... And likely much more $$$ than they'd otherwise see for another damn fractured, fractious rap album.

You wanna bitch about the music biz, take it up with the nostalgia sodden dogshit the Quietus flogs every week: Pixies! Slint box!!! Fucking Bowie!!!

Linton Kwesi Johnson died in vain.

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Apr 7, 2014 5:30pm

Great Piece.

I think Audience is an incredibly interesting field of study. There really are no audience-less works, even an audience of the artist themselves. Seems like there are a few heads popping up from the tidal wave of 'art' that is now covering the web world. it will be very cool to see how people find a way towards things that are tactile and precious among the growing ephemeral debris.

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Apr 7, 2014 9:15pm

All life is a business - if you make music then you make art - art has been offered to be owned for a long long time, fleeting in a live performance in a theatre, for longer on sheet music, for even longer on a wax cylinder... the media changed so thousands, then millions could own a copy. Subverting that is one way to decide who gets to own that copy. Why shouldn't that happen?

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m ribot
Apr 8, 2014 3:33am

This is one on the most insightful articles of the many i've read on the current disaster facing musicians and other so-called creators of cultural 'content' as a result of digital hyper exploitation.

there are several minor points that need to be addressed.
1. the "capacity to derive income from a work's reproducibility is being undermined by the seemingly uncontrollable nature of digital reproduction."
There is nothing whatsoever in the 'nature' of digital reproduction that is undermining our capacity to derive income from our work. The set of laws, public policies, and private behaviors that are destroying our livelihoods, industries, and art forms are an entirely social construct.
the technology to distinguish copyrighted files, and block their transfer- WITHOUT THE ISP EXAMINING THE CONTENT OF THE FILE- has existed for some time- Dropbox uses it to block illegal file transfers- and this in no way interferes with ANYONE’s right to transfer non-copyrighted material, nor does it block free speech or violate the privacy of those using the site.

One could argue that this ‘technological fix’ is only temporary, and that the most sophisticated and highly motivated (ie: organized criminals seeking to profit from IP theft) will soon hack whatever barriers are constructed.
No doubt maintaining barriers will be an ongoing and expensive process. Yet somehow this fact of doing business in the digital era doesn’t stop the banking industry from taking the necessary protective measures. Funny how no one questions this. Bank codes are ‘information’ too: but you won’t hear the EFF claiming that THAT ‘information wants to be free’. No one tells bankers to go find an ‘alternate business model’; no one refers to the robbery of THEIR property by the quaint romantic name of ‘piracy’, the people who employ ‘disruptive technologies’ to violate bank depositors rights are buried deep in federal penitentiaries- yes, even if they're grandmothers or boy scouts. The question of why those who have engineered the mass corporate violation of content creators IP rights are not their cell mates is political, not natural. And political trends can change.

2. "But the music industry is corrupt, right? Surely any other model must be better. We all know how awful the bad old music business is because musicians never tire of telling us so."
Excellent point. This canard gained currency during the 80's and early 90's, when indie label partisans somehow succeeded in portraying the most prototypical move in capitalism- the exchange of risk for money- as a bold blow against the corporate empire. (indie label deals typically gave less money up front for larger %'s on the back end, if and when the records sold). Ho hum. I've recorded for both indie and major labels, hundreds of times. The major labels do indeed suck: but guess what? So do the indies. I've seen indies engage in tighter forms of artistic control, worse forms of exploitation, and equal forms of outright theft. That the US majors are 100% unionized, while the indies are virtually all not should give some idea of the true agenda. But in the end, the joke was on the indies: The tech industry simply took over the indie partisans' anti-major label rhetoric and directed it at the industry as a whole. The idea that the record industry, unique among capitalist institutions, is so corrupt that it alone deserves to have its property expropriated by the heroic mega-corporations of the tech industry is so ludicrous that...millions believe it. They had a lot of prep.

3. "Many of these charges [of being a 'major player in unevenly advancing semiocapitalism'] might just as well be levelled at the music industry, the film industry, or almost any kind of 'content' production,certainly few creative industries are as closely tied to financial speculation as contemporary art."

I'd like to underline this point: the income of recording artists- who are invariably and inaccurately portrayed as 'whiny rich rock stars" whenever we have the bad taste to point out that the 'new business models' on offer don't allow the overwhelming majority of us to re-coup the costs of producing the work consumed, let alone make a 'living wage'- has very little to do with speculation: we earn our bread- normally 2 dollars per cd or less, or 9 cents per radio play, or thousandths of a penny per Spotify stream - by the sweat of our brow: one purchase at a time. Our success stories aren't like Wall Street speculators': they are, without exception, stories of people who have created something millions of other people have actually found useful.
In fact, a hit record is as close to a democratic plebiscite as capitalism comes: so close that Jacques Attali, former French socialist minister of finance under Mitterrand, and author of 'Noise', a critical work on Free Jazz, cited the record industry as foreshadowing a socialist economy within capitalism, noting that the solo folksinger and the orchestral work sell for the same, affordable price, and profits derive from: popularity!
But that was then. This same system is now symbol of all capitalisms evils for a Google funded so called "copy left". Somebody's making a huge mistake.

4. " according... to the contemporary German artist Hito Steyerl, the question of art as labour and the politics of art itself remain peculiarly taboo for even the most engaged political artists."

Not any more.

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Apr 8, 2014 7:59am

Yawn. All I can say is: Little Richard. 'nuff said.

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Paul Rayson
Apr 8, 2014 11:22pm

Why can't the world have more articles like this? Life would be much better. Thank you.

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Carlos Ferrao
Apr 9, 2014 9:12am

In reply to m ribot:

Thanks Marc! Your reply was far better than the article. Hope to see you live again in London soon.

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