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Black Sky Thinking

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

"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.