The Music Industrial Complex

Updated: January 6, 2016 12:47:47 PM

By John Schoneboom

I recently read The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook, which is the entertaining and often hilarious tale of how most of the music we hear on the radio is written by the same small cadre of middle-aged Scandinavian men named Dagge. It occurred to me about halfway through that what we were talking about was a Music-Industrial Complex. It was a short step from there to noticing certain similarities between that MIC and its better-known cousin, the Military-Industrial Complex.

We already knew music was a business, but it is initially jarring to realize that the art of pop has now been largely reduced to a science. The formula has been perfected by ruthless professional clinicians working in Swedish laboratories, and the stakes are too high to entrust anything to the performers. The "artists" we associate with the songs are in these cases just pitching the product, although they are not always as entirely malleable as their professional handlers would like. For a specialist in surrealpolitik, this is loosely yet distinctly reminiscent of intelligence agency sponsorship of rogue paramilitary groups and other aspects of military-industrial gamesmanship.

Consider, if you will, my little list of parallel notions:

  1. In both MICs, the visible, public faces you know are just puppets manipulated behind the scenes by power players in the shadows. The product being sold to the public is hyperreality -- an image -- and it's all played to media that have little interest in looking behind the curtain.
  2. Sometimes the artists start to believe their own hype, get carried away with themselves, and insist on creative control -- often with disastrous results. This can lead to terrible albums and unauthorized bombings.
  3. The master manipulators work both sides of the game, e.g., the same star-makers that created Backstreet Boys created N'Sync; not entirely unlike how the US supplied and funded both sides in the Iran-Iraq war, or created its own enemies by working the hype machine.
  4. The post-9/11 music industry returned to the "comfort music" of pure pop after its forays into alt rock and grunge, but 21st century comfort pop was served up with heaps of Simon Cowell mean-spiritedness. Comfort paired with intimidation is also essentially the recipe for Homeland Security, with its arsenal of implicit threats making us think twice about expressing dissent.
  5. Hit-making, like covert operations, is highly compartmentalized, with different specialists responsible for discrete aspects of a project -- whether it's melody/beat/hooks or arms/transport/banks -- with nobody truly accountable for the whole.
  6. In both MICs it's easy to get carried away, to give in to paranoid excess and exaggerate the omnipotence and control of the behind-the-scenes drivers of events. In reality, actual songwriter-performers can still (occasionally) succeed, and victories can be won against power elites.

I don't want to over-work this jolly little analogy or, worse, take it too seriously. Still: if it's only to be expected that, with hundreds of millions of music dollars at stake, the world of artistic expression would eventually be transformed by mercenaries into a simulacrum, it's worth a tiny ponder what we can expect of human impulses when we're talking about an industry where the stakes are in the trillions.

Mind you, it may ultimately be a good thing. After all, a song is still a song is still a song. Our clear-eyed post-disillusionment spirits can still soar to those money-perfect hooks; why not? We can have the catharsis without the celebrity worship, which is arguably a substantial improvement. Furthermore we can still think Rihanna is fabulous. As for the empty, simulated institutions of democracy, perhaps we might be able to harness those in a similar way, insisting on their nominal functions and refusing to rely on the corrupted figureheads. That would of course require an active, participatory form of democracy, which would be another improvement, and one which would similarly do nothing to compromise our appreciation of the style and energy of Rihanna.

As Baudrillard has observed: "Contrary to what is said about it (the real is what resists, what all hypotheses run up against), reality is not very solid and seems predisposed, rather, to retreat in disorder." But perhaps in a post about music we should give the last word to a musician. How about Leonard Cohen: "There is a war / Between the ones who say there is a war / And the ones who say that there isn't."