Culture in America is dead! It is now a commodity—to be manufactured (in the Third World preferably), packaged and sold. America is capitalist and capitalism is its only culture. As the United States pushes forth the grand macro-master plan of a totally consolidated and globalized world, concepts like creativity, innovation, and experimentation must fall by the way-side to make way for more economically viable realities–replaced by commodities that are targeted, controlled, and synthetic. Like Warhol's ironic vision come to fruition–perverted and striped of its irony. Market research has replaced introspection; focus groups have replaced self realization. The result is a watered down, soulless, product from a country that is beginning to reflect the diluted, shallow, uninformed culture it exudes.
The endless push toward consolidation, while arguably a positive evolution — as it relates to the consumer — concerning some industries, has been incredibly detrimental to world culture as an entity. Focusing specifically on the United States, it is prudent to recognize that as the sources of media flow become narrower, the output of those sources will become increasingly censored, bias, and manicured, featuring manufactured stances that serve corporate interests as apposed to the pure and unfiltered educational purposes of the general public. This is not a knock on corporate America. It is simply a condemnation of its toxic entanglement with media and culture, where profitability will always out weight creativity; unless of course — by some miraculous paradigm shift in the public's taste, ultimate creativity translates to maximized profitability, which seems — except for in some rare cases, highly unlikely.
The music industry is a perfect microcosm for examining the extra-economic repercussions of a global economic strategy. Looking at the greater picture of the industry, including its modern progression into consolidation, one can see the problem, the solution and the inevitabilities that prevent a true outcome in the ever-waged war between aesthetic-artistic integrity and packaged, polished, and marketed imitations.
On August 5, 2004, the merger of Sony Music Entertainment and BMG Entertainment gave the newly anointed "Big 4" control over 81.87% of the global music market share. Universal Music Group, Sony BMG, Warner, and EMI sat atop the world's musical throne, totally dominating every facet of an industry in a way that seemingly left no real wiggle room for any kind of competition or alternative outlets. The purchasing, production, and promotional power that this new collusive "cartel" obtained gave it a power over the output of music around the world that seemed–by all normal macroeconomic indicators–unflappable.
This issue strikes at the very root of the mechanisms that keep the U.S. economy functioning. When the economy of a nation is so exclusively reliant on consumer spending, consumer spending must be the ultimate goal of the industries of that country. This basic functional concept has interjected the consumerist ideas into every facet of U.S. business, including those that relate to culture.
The tangible concept of the corrosive relationship between culture and consumerism is easily illustrated by simply examining the main differences contained in the core ideas behind the two opposing subjects.
At the root of capitalism is the need to produce. To produce–under the capitalist cannon–there MUST be demand. To generate the largest amount of demand possible, one must create a product that will possess the highest level of widespread appeal–maximizing demand and therefore maximizing production–keeping the capitalist wheels in motion.
When mass consolidation concepts of business are intertwined into the supply and demand-driven basis of the industry, the originality and variety of products produced only grows more benign. Because many of these large corporations look at the music division of their larger umbrella corporation purely as something that should be a profit producer, the other main governing factor, in addition to maintaining high demand to create high supply, is cost control.
The most effective form of a cost control–in the record business–is to not waste expensive promotional money on a band with no shot of enticing the public and hence unlikely to generate an economic return. In the 90's, after Nirvana blew open the collective minds of the industry to new and innovative music, spending by the large conglomerates quickly got out of control. In an attempt to commoditize "grunge," A&R reps everywhere threw money at anything walking around in a flannel and long blond hair. The result was a lot of wasted money on expensive videos and promotion that showed little to no return (see the Dandy Warhols and their video for “Not if You Were the Last Junkie on Earth,” with dancing heroine syringes, directed by David Lachapelle).
Coming to the jarring realization that, no matter the genre or concept, the majority of bands will not become popular because talent is–in a relative sense–truly a rare commodity, regardless of how much money is thrown at them, forced the Big 4 to develop a new business model: create a much more economically safe and unceasingly formulaic approach to signing and releasing art. Find bands with broad appeal, tailor their music to whatever is in fad, and market the band just enough, careful not to let your costs exceed your break evens for a project–this became the basic creed for doing business in the record industry and from a for profit perspective it works repulsively well.
Culture–when it is of true and pure creativity–roots itself in a totally different set of parameters than do economics. Music, specifically, cannot be constructed with the thought of appealing to a wide range of people because that goal, while obviously increasing record sales, makes true expression by the artist impossible and makes the work totally devoid any integrity or intrinsic value.
This is the quandary that the U.S. faces when examining how to transform itself from the consumerist cultural wasteland it has now become. For there to be a record industry, record companies must sell records and make money. To do this, the priorities of companies that sell the music cannot be focused on the integrity of what they are selling if integrity is not what sells. When a product is too specialized it has limited appeal and therefore limited sales. From a capitalist standpoint, it does not make much sense to throw money behind something with limited appeal because it simply will not move as many units and, in many cases, has difficulties even recouping the cost of production.
The Solution – Revolution
From a macroeconomic standpoint, globalization is the natural evolution of a free market. On some level, national and international policy-makers can affect the mechanisms that slow or accelerate the globalization process. But there is no way any kind of nostalgic, grass roots, anti-global movement will stop the march of economic progress – or is there?
Why examine music – a seemingly inconsequential entity – when considering globalization as a realistic, applicable situation as opposed to a macroeconomic concept? Surely it would be more prudent to examine the horrendous economic impact that globalization, the World Bank, and the IMF have had on, say, the banana industry in a place like Jamaica, than to complain about the bad, formulaic music that is the result of the consolidation of the music industry.
Yes, music is incredibly inconsequential when compared to the economic devastation left in the wake of world globalization practices. When considering the following concept, the consequence of the actual act of globalization, in this case, is not the highlighted factor; instead consider that the music industry is the one area where, starting mostly with the dawn of the 21st century, grass roots entities actually have made progress toward a reversal of the trends that have pushed forth unceasingly since the Industrial Revolution.
The groundwork for this reversal lies in the basic concept that, although formally one needed a corporate entity to produce, package, market, and sell music, the actual base product is a commodity that is individually created. This is essential because, with the disintegration of manufacturing in the United States, any product that needs to be manufactured will inevitably fall into the web of globalization through outsourcing. Therefore, to enter that web, it must be tailored to the specified molds laid out by the Big 4 and entered into the global music production process.
The only solution to a problem of this magnitude is a paradigm shift in thought, a revolution that blows apart the very groundwork concepts that define the music industry. "They" were right when they said the revolution would not be televised – television is so passé. This revolution, the cultural movement of the 21st century, will be DIGITIZED.
It swept in like a riot: Napster blowing open the minds and consciousnesses of the public to the initial possibilities of digital music. Sure, people downloaded licensed music like they were robbing the local Harmony House. But for those who dug deeper there was more to find.
The first inkling of change afoot in the way music would be produced and distributed sprung up in those unregulated early days of purely bandit downloading. Samples from mystery D.J.s – combining different tracks and samples, making their own digital hybrid creations, all from their privacy of their own P.C. – gave stimulating bits of foreshadowing concerning the future possibilities of the medium. Their music, streamed out on the net, gained great popularity for the alias that created them – see D.J. Danger Mouse and his Grey Album. No studios, no bulky equipment, no executives looking over their shoulders, telling the producers what would sell – just the artist and his tools of creation. It is culture in its purest and most creationalist sense – a kind of independent expression that has been repressed for too long in the U.S..
A rapidly progressing development of computer software and digital download sites gave artists the tools they need to create and post music, though there was still the ever present issue of marketing and promotion. Traditionally, there is no way that an individual could sell themselves without corporate backing – like a golden ticket into the collusive world of those who produce the media and those who sell and air it.
But the revolution could not be contained. Pushing forth, fueled by another unceasing force working hand in hand with consumer capitalism, technological advancement allowed the next evolutionary step in the process to occur. YouTube, MySpace – these sites brought self-publishing to the artist like never before. Stand aside, Viacom, with your outdated MTV! Move over Clear Channel and your 1200 radio stations across the country! Digital music and streaming video are on the scene and music will never be the same again. Now, instead of endless hours spent in front of televisions sets, the TV tuned to MTV, the kid waiting in hopes that his favorite rock video will make an appearance that day on Headbangers Ball; that same kid can see his favorite band playing over and over with one click of a mouse on YouTube.
With bands like the Artic Monkey, the Libertines, and O.K. Go leading the way, releasing free digital music and creating their own videos, the first real shots across the bow of the Big 4 were fired.
Currently, artists are predominately using the Web to promote themselves into record contracts with the Big 4, but this is a trend that will change as the medium expands and the technology evolves. As artists become more self reliant and digital music becomes more of a standard format, the need for record companies can conceivably shrink to the point where they are literally a nearly-useless entity. But will the Big 4 stand by and allow this to happen?
As in every industry that does business inside the U.S., the global corporate influence is always looming on the horizon. Perhaps the first sign that the Big 4 will eventually take control once again occurred when Google swooped down from atop their pious – "we're not Microsoft" – mountain top and bought up YouTube. While right now Google still maintains some semblance of its former "cool corporate" facade, the reality is that, while corporate American might not have much in the way of foresight when it comes to cultural trends, they are able to smell profit when the early returns are in. Soon enough, the mediums that initiated the revolution will be bought, violated like a Roman prostitute, and spewed back onto the public – a shallow shell of its former self.
It is the constant tug of war between culture and consumerism. The capitalist, consumer culture entrancing the masses; the looming corporate conglomerates thirsting for the demand of the consumer, hawking its supply, tailor made for the hordes — and the defenders of culture demanding that free expression survive amid conditions that stifle it; the two sides locked in a state of eternal contention. To make money or maintain dignity? To sell to the masses or create amazing art? These are the questions that are asked – rather esoterically – when, in reality, there is no alternative to capitalism, no way to truly change the system and, therefore, in the case of big business, there is only one true answer to those questions.
That is what makes this current window in time so special: Starting with the stream of digital music that flowed out into the consciousness of millions of Americans with Napster, on to the internet-posted concerts and gorilla shows that vaulted the Libertines to cultdom if not stardom, the internet revolutionizes popular music daily. In this digital "Wild West"-like time, the grass roots have found a way to, in pure rock 'n roll fashion, give corporate America the finger, and have been given a chance to take back their culture – if it ever truly existed to begin with.
The time for a revolution is upon us. No matter how fast they work to buy up every .com and web domain that allows information flow that they do not control, the people, the kids, can always stay ahead of them, developing new technology, spreading their messages and music. Which way the battle will go is questionable, but to understand that there is even a battle being waged; that we have not just lain down at the feet of the corporate giant, sold our souls, and taken our beating, is truly worth noting.
Yes, the revolution is digitized; but it must be maintained, grown, and legitimized by the people. The control has been given back to the masses and it is they who now have the power to take a shot at the large global structure. It is they who can explore technology, not just as a tool for entertainment or convenience, but as a forum to express ideas, creations and interpretations. It is the job of the people to put down that American Idol record and to search the new frontier for some band who is working hard out there in cyberspace to give America something real, something unpolluted, something organic.
Consolidation of media is something that the American people must be aware of and guard against. The consolidation, as it relates to media flow – whether concerning news, music, movies, etc. – is a direct threat to the Constitutional ideals the United State was founded upon. Through consolidation and globalization, industry moguls have found a way to circumvent the guards against censorship outlined in the U.S. Constitution by simply buying the various outlets of media until they all speak with one voice.
While there are obviously anti-trust laws in place to stop a total monopoly over the media, to ignore the collusiveness behind the parties involved in the Big 4 (illustrated pretty clearly be their penchant for merging) would be ignoring the realities of a situation that could result in, what can only be described as, pure fascism.
It may seem like an overstatement to look at the internet – something utilized mainly to this point for porn and gambling – as an anti-fascist weapon, but it is time that people everywhere woke up to the immensely powerful tool that is literally at their fingertips on a daily basis. Artists' utilization has laid the ground work for this greater understanding of the freedoms and opportunities provided by technology. Corporate American will constantly fight to control every aspect of a citizen's life in which a profit is possible; this includes the music they listen to. He who controls the flow will inevitably have bias. All of these things will work together to destroy culture – an entity that must be derived from the people, not corporate enslavers – and create a fictitious facsimile that can be purchased at your local "Supermart," 24-7, in its place.