The idea of a possible conflict between art and commerce isn’t new. Lewis Hyde, in 1983′s The Gift, later subtitled Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, concluded that, like ancient tribes dealing with outsiders, artists must find ways to “reconcile” their gifts to a market-based society. The relationship between music, in particular, and capitalist forces was a rich subject for the earliest pop critics, as Devon Powers found in 2013′s Writing the Record: The Village Voice and the Birth of Rock Criticism. It has been more than 20 years since Thomas Frank, in an essay for The Baffler titled “Alternative to What?,” pointed out how rebel imagery happens to be yet another product in the endless cycles of commerce. Can you remember the last time you used the alternative-era insult “sellout” without irony?
Today’s contribution to the literature, by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, comes at an especially charged moment in the relationship between music and capitalism. No artist’s album has sold a million copies yet in this calendar year, an arbitrary measure that reflects a deeper shift in how creators of music reconcile with the marketplace. The money pouring into music-biz coffers is decreasing; streaming may make up for it, but there are concerns about royalty rates that go beyond the issues currently being debated in courtrooms and on Capitol Hill. Urban Outfitters may never substantiate its assertion, supported by Nielsen SoundScan, that it’s the world’s biggest seller of vinyl. But it’s easy to see why so many performers have been willing to license their credibility to corporate brands in recent years, in exchange for a reliable payout.
Bruni, in a column titled “Capitalism’s Suffocating Music” that follows Dan Brooks’s bizarre New York Times Magazine piece on streaming music several days earlier, writes about attending the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Much to his surprise, he saw advertisements. Sam Smith sang “Stay With Me” beneath a Miller Lite ad. Lana Del Rey did “Summertime Sadness” on the Samsung Galaxy Stage. Interpol came sponsored not by the global police agency, but by Honda.
“I hadn’t expected all of these corporate come-ons, so pervasive in other precincts, to be assaulting me here of all places,” Bruni writes, eventually connecting “this advertising onslaught” to public outcry over CEO pay and U2-style tax maneuvers (yes, you can read about Bono in the current issue of The Economist). “It’s a vendor’s world,” Bruni concludes. “We’re just pawns in it, even when all we want do is hum a simple tune.” He doesn’t offer any suggestions about what, if anything, someone with a Times-size audience thinks we can do about our “crass contemporary life.” (Does this mean “Weird Al” Yankovic and Questlove took pictures of themselves holding up “Register to Vote Here” signs for nothing?)
Sure, the constant commercial bombardment at big music festivals can be annoying, at best. As contributor Grayson Currin laid out earlier this year for Wondering Sound in his piece “Why the Summer Music Festival Bubble is About to Burst”, the growing competition for sponsors is one factor threatening the future of U.S. music festivals. And the commercialization is only going to get more, well, commercial: According to a scoop from Ben Sisario earlier this month in the Times, concert and ticketing behemoth Live Nation Entertainment is close to a deal that would make it the owner of both the Austin festival attended by Bruni and Chicago’s Lollapalooza. Meanwhile, copyright law has gone so far that Rod Stewart is being sued over a picture of the back of his own head, according to Louis Menand in The New Yorker.
Music festivals are hardly alone in relying on corporate sponsorship. Next to Bruni’s column I see an advertisement for a cruise line. Next to the Live Nation article, a leopard impresses me with the Cartier brand. Did you know the Times itself holds an event called the International Luxury Conference, which brings together “over 500 business and creative leaders from the luxury sector to explore the dialogue between luxury and art and luxury and technology [as well as] key drivers for brands to position themselves within the cultural space”? It’s a vendor’s world, even when all we want to do is keep up on current events in the nation’s leading newspaper.
My paychecks come from companies, too. Corporations aren’t people, but people do have to make a living. If “corporate rock still sucks,” as the old SST Records T-shirt puts it, then by all means, tell us how to make the music world better. If we’re just going to yell at the cloud (or the beer logos we inevitably find there), we’d be better off following The Gift author Hyde’s advice and working to reconcile art with commerce.
When a community values a category of life — not only art but family life, religion, or pure science — that isn’t valued by the market, the community finds non-market ways to support it, Hyde observed. In the afterword to the 2007 edition of the book, he highlighted as one example the Creative Capital Foundation, a nonprofit granting agency that has supported Nick Cave and Meredith Monk. But Hyde’s point was less about a specific case than the need for a general response to the problems Bruni might’ve been describing when he typed the phrase “Capitalism’s Suffocating Music.”
Hyde concluded: “Those who can be clear about supporting the arts not as means to some other end but as ends in themselves, those who can shape that support in response to the gift-economy that lies at the heart of the practice, those who have the wit and power and vision to build beyond their own day: For artists, those will be the good ancestors of the generations of practitioners that will follow when we are gone.” If there has been better wisdom on this subject, I’d love to hear it.
For the rest of us, we can choose to pay attention to the music we like, and when the advertisements get to be too much, pay attention to something else. Let’s see, is there anything worrisome in the Times…