Stefan Goldmann on the political economy of digital music

April 22, 2011

DJ Stefan Goldmann tempers (to put it lightly!) the effusion of techno-optimism over digital music and the internet from the past decade. Really, we’re all coming down from that high, aren’t we? One of the most notable parts of this essay is its focus on the restructuring of the labor market for music and sound professionals. Actually, “restructuring” doesn’t quite capture it as much as a verb like “imploding.” These are artisans and craft professionals, not just “suits” who are losing their jobs.

Absurdly, the complete disappearance of economic barriers to distribution (offering a free download doesn’t cost more than the time to upload the file) hit the wallets of the “indies” first, stripping a substantial part of their income. This mostly affected the artists and the personnel around them: designers, engineers, studio musicians, promotion and label professionals, music journalists, et al. The mass of competition they encountered meant anyone with a limited marketing budget had a difficult time surviving in the market. With the same promotional tools available to almost anyone, they lost their efficiency. The professionals listed above basically lost their income. In 2000, an average vinyl single generated a return of a couple of thousand Euros, while in 2011 the same single generates a loss of a couple of hundred Euros, even without what were formerly known as “production costs.” Anything on top, like a bigger production, a decent mastering, or proper sleeve design became factors of deepening material loss. That area of the craft gets subsequently cut off and replaced by an undiscriminating routine of two-step-distribution: “save as” and “upload to.”

At the same time, a vast reserve army of DJs has been created. What does a DJ do besides share music, something that information technology does for us anyway? The advantage, ironically enough, goes to older artists whose reputations were created by the music industry bubble of the decade previous. Technological innovation in the absence of strong social movements benefits those who were already winning (telecoms and venture capitalists in this case).

What have we learned here? The so called “democratization” didn’t work. Everyone did believe they gained access. This access by itself is stripped of value, though, because no one cares that DJ XY from Z has that new record out. Through any available channel I get dozens of requests per day to listen to somebody’s track. That’s after a spam filter and a disclaimer that I don’t want to receive files. The result is that I don’t listen to files at all — I do buy vinyl regularly. DJ XY doesn’t get the gig. If he does by accident, that’s for the cab fare. In Berlin, with its conspicuous population of 50,000 DJs, promoters and club owners don’t have to try hard. There’s always someone who will play for free if asked. Hey, that’s free promotion for the new DJ XY record. Meanwhile in the provincial town of Z, the locals “practice” for free, so they develop the skills they’ll need to “make it” in Berlin one day. That’s where things come full circle. No proper gigs, no record sales, no income. Anyone who is not already “there” doesn’t seem to arrive anymore.

But actually the DJ does do something besides share music, and this is where I disagree with Stefan’s conclusions. He believes the solution to this contradiction is ever more unique and niche works that will “stand out.” In a sense, he folds all of his critiques back into the same old tired solution — create your way out of it through pure hard work and artistic genius! The pure work of art can now stand out! The solution to overproduction of commodities is specialized lovingly produced commodities! This simply won’t work — all sonic innovations are quickly assimilated by sampling technology and metastasize into genres, get sucked into commercial forms, and exhausted of their novelty. Just like all commodities. My very vague groping towards a solution is the creation not of commodities, but of social experiences, of face-to-face interaction and collaboration, solidarities, movements. An mp3 can never do this. A brand can never do this. Music alone can never do this. Only human beings working out their shared future — which is to say, politics — can do this.

Stefan Goldmann – Everything Popular is Wrong

the neverfuture

February 20, 2011

The contemporary crisis exhibits a number of unfamiliar characteristics stemming from the inability of advanced capitalist societies to bear the costs of a new socio-technical infrastructure, to supersede the existing fixed-capital grid. The latter currently entrenches a 60-year-old complex of productive forces at the core of the world economy. The structural impasse that this has created has not been fully grasped, leading to difficulties in historicizing the last quarter-century of capitalism. Fredric Jameson’s conception of postmodernism as the cultural logic of the period is arguably the great benchmark of contemporary epochalism. In the early 80s, Jameson originally conceived of this new order of things as a prefiguration of groundbreaking new technologies and energy sources of capitalism. In order to understand the subsequent trajectory of capitalist society, it is important to recognize that this great leap forward, what Ernest Mandel called the Third Technological Revolution, never really materialized. Even a more modestly conceived ‘post-Fordism’ failed to release a productivity revolution that would reduce costs and free up income for an all-round expansion.

Instead, the latest phase of capitalism got an ersatz form of growth primarily through credit-card consumerism and asset bubbles. Jameson’s explanation for contemporary society’s inability to experience and represent the totality of the world system initially attributed it to some immeasurable disproportion between human agency and newly unleashed nuclear and cybernetic productive forces. But in later accounts, the locus of the problem silently shifted to mapping an opaque, pseudo-dynamic world of financial markets. Initial anticipations of an exhilarating new cultural condition gave way to totalizations of a more closed and derivative situation. Capitalism’s culture became an organized semblance of world-historic dynamism concealing and counteracting a secular deceleration in ‘the real economy’.

But what about information technology and containerization—the two signature technological breakthroughs of the period? These have undoubtedly powered a huge increase in world trade, over and above the growth of the world economy itself. Computerization and ‘just in time’ modes of organizing supply chains made it easier than ever before to bring manufactured goods to the world market, and relocate production. These cost-reducing technological and organizational changes countered the potentially inflationary consequences of the growing supply of various forms of money. Alongside American deficits, these trade-promoting changes were responsible for accelerating East Asian and especially Chinese growth. But unlike a ‘nuclear-cybernetic industrial revolution’, or the shift to some alternative energy source, technological change in this form has, by and large, brought vast quantities of goods from countries with lower labour costs into world markets already weighed down by overproduction of their higher-cost equivalents, instead of fuelling growth through the creation of whole new lines of production.

In the 90s it seemed plausible that containerization, post-Fordist production and supply chains and information technology in the new office place were the driving forces of a transition to a New Economy, one more productive, and in different ways, than anything that had come before it. But this great transformation somehow failed to show up statistically and, in due course, the stock-market crash of 2001 brought an end to the decade of cyber-hype. Altogether less plausible was the subsequent expectation that technologically retrograde real-estate bubbles, providing markets for exporters of consumer durables and raw materials, could be a sustainable basis for economic growth. Rather than leading to any ‘New Economy’ in the productive base, the innovations of this period of capitalism have powered transformations in the Lebenswelt of diversion and sociability, an expansion of discount and luxury shopping, but above all a heroic age of what was until recently called ‘financial technology’. Internet and mobile phones, Walmart and Prada, Black–Scholes and subprime—such are the technological landmarks of the period.

–Gopal Balakrishnan, “Speculations on the Stationary State”

Cyberpunk dreamers and postmodern fantasists were wrong. The same old mode of production was merely dressed up in debt-financed wrapping paper. The future literally never happened.

the conditions of connectivity

October 1, 2010

What is sometimes misunderstood is that though new communication technologies, exemplified by satellite-linked internet cafés in small cities in Africa and South Asia create an equality of access to information at the level of the subject, the socio-structures and cultures of circulation also, and at the same time, engender an objective dependence that inhabits the very conditions of connectivity itself, so that individuals’ acts of subjective freedom are always self-annulling at another and higher level. The conditions of connectivity, which permit someone, living almost anywhere, to download medical information to help diagnosis for a relative in need of medical care, to read a report on human rights and political detainees that the state would better like unread, or to correspond regularly with a friend living overseas, are also the conditions of encompassment and domination by circulatory capital and the infrastructure of the metropole generally.

–Edward LiPuma and Benjamin Lee, Financial Derivatives and the Globalization of Risk (2004)

Mexican Music Metal Mashups

June 17, 2010

Pushingit was kind enough to identify Track 13 of Latino Mix D.F. as “El Sonidito” by the Mexican group Hechizeros Band. A nagging mystery finally solved!

He also forwarded me a “cover” by the German heavy metal group Rammstein:

I’ll admit I was fooled — and incredibly perplexed — for the first few seconds. It’s actually a well done mashup (of course), and there are a lot more in this vein: metal concerts and videos with the music replaced by Mexican styles.

Here’s Guns ‘n’ Roses playing cumbia:

Metallica playing norteno:

Korn playing banda:

There are dozens more stretching back to 2007 (a sort of YouTube heyday in retrospect). They’re cheekily labeled “covers” and, Doors and Susan Boyle versions notwithstanding, seem to really hone in on metal. So why? Perhaps contrast. Whereas metal presents itself as serious and dark, the Mexican genres are sonically (if not lyrically) lighter, made for dancing. A sprightly accordion part seems on the other end of the spectrum from a distortion-fueled guitar solo. And yet, it’s the similarities that make some of these work so well: full band set-ups, lots of instrumental breakdowns, percussion solos, machismo, and huge, wild drunken crowds. Generically far removed, but as social worlds, closer than we might think — a point these videos drive home.

And they do cut both ways:

Facebook and Privacy

January 12, 2010

Lots of hubbub since this article has run:

Talking at the Crunchie awards in San Francisco this weekend, the 25-year-old chief executive of the world’s most popular social network said that privacy was no longer a “social norm”.

So, Zuckerberg’s inaccurate and shockingly inarticulate speech (“A lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacies of what they’ve built” — oy vey!) aside, what exactly has changed? When Facebook altered its privacy settings last December, they encouraged users to make their data public to the entire internet (i.e. Google search results). Here’s a video that shows how to change most of these settings.

I would add that you should never use Facebook apps, since these are third-party developers that now have access to your information. Always read the labels, people! Fan pages probably do the same thing, but I don’t use them — I’ve grown out of my “flaunt my tastes” phase I think.

These issues have brought other issues to the surface as well, including lots of underinformed paranoia. I saw this interview with a Facebook employee linked with accusations of “Evil!” attached. To my mind, the idea that Facebook employees could read your information or that Facebook stores everything that occurs on its site should not come as a surprise. Practically everything offered for “free” on the internet comes with a (barely) hidden price: your data. Social networks were, from the beginning, potential troves for data-mining operations. Web-based email functions the same way: Gmail has been reading your email for years. And, if you didn’t know, the IT department at your workplace or university can read emails from those accounts as well. Cookies track your web usage. Yes, Virginia, private corporations are trying to make money off your internet activity!

In fact, the privacy statements of Twitter, Google, and Facebook are remarkably similar, though Facebook has made its privacy settings overly complex and tedious, probably so the lazy or less savvy won’t bother. They agree to track your web usage, save and access anything you do on their networks, obey requests by law enforcement, and use your information for data-mining operations. The main reason to mine your data is to target ads at you. So install Ad Blocker on Firefox, and never see an ad again. I’ve never voluntarily clicked on an ad in my life, but apparently other people do.

Instead of the hysteria over privacy settings, I’m more interested in how social media networks coerce human behavior into ever-more self-disclosure. For many people, especially young people, if you aren’t on Facebook, you can’t fully participate in social life. You won’t be as up-to-date on goings on, you will miss invitations, and you won’t be able to judge everyone’s music and film tastes as efficiently. I know someone whose romantic life was stymied because he refused to be on Facebook — some girls wouldn’t date him without being able to do a background check. He has since succumbed. As Mark Andrejevic has written brilliantly about, we are seduced and disciplined into welcoming ever more surveillance in our lives, through varied means such as traffic cameras, reality television, and yes, social networking. We are encouraged to divulge information as a means to find romance and employment — in the neoliberal world, where you must continually market yourself as the “entrepreneur” of your identity/personal brand (and thus, if you can’t find a job it’s YOUR fault), turning yourself into a walking advertisement is practically essential. Look at this guy: he makes more than a lot of people I know who have college degrees, and he probably isn’t even on LinkedIn.

In hyperreality, we’re all celebrities and we’re always on the clock. So, yes, insist on greater privacy on Facebook (though it’s been a month, so any mass movement is probably too late out the gates). But as Trotsky said about the German parliament giving dictatorial powers to Hitler as long as he didn’t abuse them, “To demand such promises is ridiculous, to hope for their fulfillment – utterly stupid.” Facebook is a corporation, with a CEO who strikes me as stupid as he is narcissistic (guess that’s what happens when you throw a billion dollars at a 20-something). The only way out is to limit what you put on Facebook (I put very little original content on there, and my profile consists of varying levels of tongue in cheek), or commit digital suicide.

Rather than these half measures, I think it’s more productive to look at what an internet run by private corporations has wrought. The Big Brother of 1984 was a Stalinist government, but it turns out that capitalists are just as into surveillance and tracking as The Man, and far better at marketing it. The consumerist narcissism that we’ve been raised on in the West dovetails perfectly with “voluntary” self-disclosure of all our valuable data. It’s fun to have our iPhones automatically update our longitude and latitude coordinates on Twitter; after all, there aren’t any Predator drones after us! We enjoy being on display, marketing and being marketed to, even being stalked — it flatters us.  We have to make ourselves into commodities, otherwise no one will want to date us, or buy our book, download our sweet remix, or give us a job. Social discourse has been commodified. We’re vying for attention in the gaudy supermarket of humanity and it turns us on.

I’d advocate turning social networks into public utilities to better hew it towards the Bill of Rights, but not in a country that passes the Patriot Act. We’ll have to wait until the revolution comes to nationalize Facebook. And by that point, lots of people won’t even be able to afford the internet.

Against the Brave New Streaming Future

December 4, 2009

So these guys aren’t the only technological determinists to say this, nor is the streaming future limited to music (see “cloud computing” hype). But they are emblematic of a line of thought that needs some strong tempering.

JS: It’s a streaming future.
EVB: Yes. I believe downloading music for free will eventually be seen as a waste of time and disk space.
JS: Music fans who can just grab it elsewhere are losing interest in P2P. The RIAA had very little to do with it.
EVB: And as fraught as the whole “bundling with service providers” thing is (will I have to subscribe to multiple ISPs if I want both ESPN and Spotify?), bundling is a promising option for getting people to pay.

These guys predict that the future of music is not in downloading files like mp3s, but in streaming services. Like cloud computing, the idea is that instead of containing files and programs on your hard drive, they are instead web apps hosted on a remote server that you access with a device connected to the internet. The real advantage to this scheme is that small devices with tiny hard drives, like phones, can have all the capabilities of a computer.

But there are some serious disadvantages to cloud computing that smart people are raising as well. They center around control — a company, such as Google, will hold your data and you have to access it remotely. You don’t have to be a huge privacy advocate to worry about hacking or internet outages keeping you from your stuff.

A “streaming future” shares some of these problems, as well as containing their own issues. What immediately leaped to my mind is how streaming-only would destroy a big part of what interests me in contemporary music production — the border-crossing remixing, mashing up, sampladelic world of global internet pop. Streamed music is fundamentally out of your control. You do not have access to the file, and therefore you cannot re-edit it, remix it, sample it, or incorporate it into a DJ mix — Goodbye Web 2.0, hello Web 1.0. You cannot play songs unless you are connected to the internet (so pony up that $4.95 when you’re at Starbucks or the airport for wireless access) and have a subscription to the streaming service. The streaming future effectively re-installs record labels (with their tech company allies) as gatekeepers between artists and listeners, with the added bonus of a frictionless data mining operation.

This is the pernicious aspect of the streaming future hype — it’s a ploy to get listeners to go back to the old model with corporations controlling distribution. Where legal action and threats failed in stopping P2P filesharing, technology promises to succeed through convenience (aided on the other side by significant victories against the major bit-torrent sites). The implications are huge — in a streaming future, music will need to obtain access to whatever services control access to devices (phones). You can imagine the cartelization that could ensue — just as telecoms allied with phone manufacturers, labels might align with particular streamers and ISPs to the exclusion of others, as the above quotation points out. If music samples or remixes unlawfully, it will be kicked off the streaming service (if it’s allowed on in the first place), just as YouTube repeatedly pulls videos for copyright infringement. And when it’s gone, it’s gone — you don’t have a file on your hard drive, so you can’t listen to it any more.

I’m not opposed to streaming out of hand — I “listen” to a lot of YouTube uploads as part of my steady diet of music. My concern is that it will replace P2P filesharing, in essence a far more radical threat to music as private property, as the primary way of distributing music online. If you care about at all about the incredible leveling effect the internet has had on music, and the unique creative forms it has inspired, you should oppose the streaming future. P2P filesharing will always have a significant following, but if it ceases to be the dominant form of obtaining songs, corporations will have re-asserted dominance over music.

Can We Talk About the Reggaeton Crash?

June 16, 2009

2005 seems so far away….

So I know it seems “trend-ish” to talk about musical cultures like they’re commodities, as if a genre with a geography and a history were equivalent to a fashion accessory (“kuduro is this year’s keffiyeh!”). But of course they are fashion accessories as well, right? Perhaps not to the well-meaning bloggeratti, who are exploring means of ethical consumption and creative interaction between the artists of the global south and enthusiasts of the imperial core. But in the brief period of time that we’ve seen international booty bass styles burst through our high-speed internet connections, a clear life-cycle has emerged that mirrors the economic structure that has laid the foundation for these styles and their consumption: boom and bust. In this post, I’d like to sketch this progression and interrogate the relationship of nu-whirled DJ-bloggers (of which I am a part) to it. And to provide myself a convenient escape hatch, I’ll classify this as an “intervention” to excuse any empirical oversights. I’d like this to provoke a conversation that has been largely ignored and tip-toed around by the most intelligent commentators of this branch of music, and will accept criticism and debate with an open mind.

The dominant narrative is well established: in the midst of urban poverty afflicting a community of color/nonWestern nationality, young people appropriate the techniques of hip hop/reggae/techno and make their own version of these established genres in their vernacular. A flurry of creativity creates an entire musical culture full of rapid stylistic changes and hybridity; meanwhile, the older generation and middle classes disdain the music as oversexual and immoral. Then the music hits the shores of the West, through immigrant diasporas, study-abroad programs, and canny journos looking for the next big thing. Gushing articles are written, cosmopolitan centers host parties centered around the sound, and the most recognizable sonic elements of these genres (dem bow, tamborazo) show up in remixes and DJ sets. A few artists are cherrypicked as leading the crop. A compilation album firms up the brand identity (what are genres but brands?). Tours and careers are launched. And then the genre fails to keep up with the rapid cultural turnover endemic to digital capitalism and interest fades. Luckily new genres from new locales spring up to fill the void.

Reggaeton in some ways was one of the first post-WWW examples of these genre cycles, and in many ways the most spectacular, but the model predates it (I would argue that Detroit ghettotech follows a similar trajectory but worked mostly through “old media” infrastructure). It is also unique in many ways (of course each genre has its own unique history) in that reggaeton became associated with the rising Hispanic population of the United States unlike the minimal mainstream penetration of funk carioca or grime, which had little in the way of newly acknowledged immigrant diasporas to piggyback upon. 

The tale is familiar: an explosion of interest from international media conglomerates, who flooded their distribution channels with the new style. Major labels signed the biggest artists like Daddy Yankee and Tego Calderon. The Source and Bad Boy Records launched Latino brands, rock stations changed to all-reggaeton formats overnight. Movie deals, NPR documentaries, club nights, and popular literature all followed. This had parallel support from writers and academics, who hailed the emergence as an opportunity for Latinos in the U.S. to forge identities, just as marketers saw it as an opportunity to sell these identities to a newly important demographic. Reggaeton encountered resistance from the older generation, but also notably from hip hop fans, Latino and otherwise, who (unjustly or not) pointed out the repetitive nature of the beats and the lack of lyrical sophistication from MCs.

And then the crash. By 2006, all-reggaeton formats were diversifying by including bachata, salsa, and other types of Spanish pop into their mix. Calle 13’s (promoted by academics as the “conscious” alternative to the machismo of most reggaetoneros) biggest hit, “El Nadie Como Tu” isn’t reggaeton at all. In 2009, La Kalle was dropped from the Chicago market altogether; in its place was “Recuerdos,” an oldies format. The Source magazine declared bankruptcy and Source Latino has evaporated. While I could hear the occasional Dem Bow blasting from car stereos in my neighborhood during the summer of 2007, I have yet to hear it at all this year. Even established reggaeton artists have dropped under the radar. Most recently (the spark for this post) I bought  a bootleg mix CD at a block party entitled “REGGAETON DEL 2009.” As new reggaeton had disappeared from my radar as it had largely disappeared from most of the blogs and magazines I turn to for such information, I wanted to see what was going on in the genre today. Fewer than half the tracks were reggaeton at all; instead were bachatas, some mambo tracks, pop-R&B from Don Omar and Ivy Queen, and, yes, a few songs with some of that ol’ Dem Bow, alongside newer trends like Autotune. Even reggaeton CDs lacked reggaeton. 

So what happened? Obviously in the case of reggaeton, media conglomerates overexpanded, creating a bubble of interest. Just as speculation on real estate caused an artificial inflation of prices and a subsequent crash, so too went reggaeton. Similar bubbles affected other emergent genres of the same time: funk carioca (branded as baile funk) no longer appears in DJ sets or on the albums of fashionably globo-chic artists like Diplo and MIA; grime’s biggest artist Dizzee Rascal is leaving the sound behind to focus on mainstream pop. These genres are by no means dead — they still retain cachet in their places of origins, and maintain devotees in the places of export. I still enjoy all of them. But it seems plainly obvious that interest has moved elsewhere, and equally obvious that the same thing will happen again to Baltimore club, juke, kuduro, cumbia, bassline, kwaito, and whatever else comes along.

So why the silence from the perceptive writers of global ghettotech? There are precious few articles such as “The Demise of Hyphy” that describe the rise and fall of a music genre and how it came to pass. I have some theories on contributing factors. First of all, it’s a lot more fun (and easier) to jump on the bandwagon early and promote a new exciting musical genre than sift through the detritus of an older one. I should know — I’ve been that bandwagon jumper, and those articles were easier and more fun to write than this one. If you’re of progressive leanings, it’s distasteful to dismiss another culture, especially if you’ve tied it to identity politics — slam reggaeton and you risk slamming the people who still like it, those people who you were standing up for a couple years back. Finally there’s a self-interested motivation: if you are an early-adopter booster, you jeopardize your credibility as a tastemaker by calling attention to your own critical oversights and boosterism. But if we are going to be responsible commentators on global ghettotech, I think we have to shine a light on our own contexts (and not in the navel-gazing PoMo way) — how this stuff works in the cosmopolitan West, when it doesn’t work, and how interest (and profits) are generated and lost. Gregzinho’s post on Cabide DJ’s lackluster U.S. tour is getting there, but it still seemed like he was pulling punches; to bring a DJ unknown in the States several years after interest in funk peaked was going to be a tough sell. I went to the Zizek Tour when they stopped in Chicago, and even when they were plugged on all the appropriate sites, the venue was more than half empty. More recently I saw an interesting spectacle: ghetto house pioneer DJ Slugo opening for Egyptrixx, who makes a kind of international bass fusion music heavily in debt to juke. At a nearly empty club (on a Saturday night no less), the new (white middle-class) kid on the block, headlines, while the artist who helped shape the sound gets second billing (the first DJ, who played your standard global ghettotech genre-hop, left immediately after his set finished). Slugo had the biggest crowd response of the night; most people left when the headliner started up. When I left I wanted to throw in the towel for nu-whirled music, at least as it appears in indie clubs.

I don’t want to harp on the failure of music I enjoy, but I do want to understand what is going on. Bad venues? Bad promoters? Audiences committed to only the latest trendy beats? It’s obvious that a certain segment of educated middle class young urbanites have a symbiotic relationship with genres that have a very different resonance in their native contexts, but ironically  I don’t see much analysis on it from the writers and DJs on their own context (again, SELF INCLUDED! SELF INCLUDED!). Like whiteness in general it’s become an invisible presence in these genres. Whether this relationship is mutualistic (both sides benefit), commensal (one side benefits, the other is unharmed), or parasitic (one side benefits at the expense of the other side) requires a lot more analysis, particularly of the economics that can get uncomfortable especially if you make income from this relationship. Focusing only on identity or semiotics, I feel, will not adequately address this. Without a political economy of global ghettotech we won’t understand the nature of this relationship, we won’t be able to make sure that interest in the privileged portions of the globe helps those places that make the music we love, and we won’t be able to make sure that these genres can be sustained. Wayne’s proposal looks promising, and I hope to see others follow the lead. As for myself, I feel only tangentially related to this stuff sometimes (I have but a likkle blog and no gigs, still haven’t learned how to laptop DJ), but I’ll be starting a PhD soon and looking for a diss topic… plus I love to throw darts…

Armenian Rap in the Blogosphere

November 22, 2008

Prancehall has a sarcastic post on Armenian rapper Kro, who, like many Armenians, is based at least partially out of L.A. That explains dude’s hackneyed Tupac style. As I’ve said before, most Armenian rap is pretty weak, especially lyrically, and Kro, who raps in broken English, is no exception.

Much better is Erevanski’s remix (in Armenian!) of “Lollipop,” named after the Chupa Chup brand of lollipops:

I think the Armenians could do big things with Autotune.

Musical Tourism, Ethical Consumption and other blog resonances pinging through my mind

June 21, 2008

Around the neoworldmusic/”global ghettotech” (Wayne, I confess to disliking this term) blogosphere and beyond, ethics of consumption remain a high priority. This is the commandment of self-reflexivity upon one’s subject position taught in liberal arts programs amongst other places: think about your subject position (class, race, gender) when engaging in critique and analysis, and results in a lot of intellectual labor devoted to the divide between the privileged position of the educated middle class listener/writer and that of the producer of the music: poor/ghetto/third-world. I’ve certainly done plenty of soul-searching about my own relationship to enjoying reggaeton or funk carioca or merengue de calle or whatever, though that usually comes after the thrill of initial engagement and discovery, and is usually far less enjoyable. It’s penance though, right? The price I pay for free music from people I will most likely never meet (though I feel less inclined to pay this price for downloading Justin Timberlake mp3s, and I’ll probably never meet him either). 

There’s really no shortage of “UR DOIN IT WRONG” examples of engaging with world music, and you’ll see the specter of the tourist (an increasingly perjorative term among the cultured) lurking in the shadows. “[A]t best a musical tourist” Eric Grady inveighs against Diplo, who has been the poster-child for UR-DOIN-IT-WRONGitude for so long he’s had to form an NGO to keep the booty-bass-intelligentsia at bay. The often-excellent Greg Scruggs calls him out along with serial offenders Sublime Frequencies for scrubbing out the names of artists on their mixes.

“If indeed they are “explorers” on the “urban frontier” of Rio de Janeiro seeking to “portray” a particular “moment,” then they are uninformed explorers who make no effort to explain the parameters of that moment – where, when, why.”

SF aren’t explorers, they are vaunted musical tourists, giving us a mere snapshot of the favelas, forcing us to provide our own contexts based on our own prejudices. Over at Dutty Arts, gex reminds us once again that we should translate the lyrics of what we hear if we are to listen (and DJ) in good conscience. We should be active listeners if we are going to travel into the third word internet, instead of being passive tourists who rely on paid bilingual intermediaries — tour guides — such as Diplo and SF. Ethnomusicology, a heavy influence on the global ghettotech discourse, has been hating on musical tourism for years now.

Which brings me to this interesting post on tourism as a particular mode of consumerist existence, broadly put as “a certain nostalgia for objects, coupled with a strange identification.” Cultural logic of late capitalism, y’all! This is of course what most of us word music consumers steeped in the liberal arts tradition want to avoid: we should be anti-tourists, cultivating a fair, ethical, meaningful relationship with music. But there are problems with this stance as well, things that niggled at me before Traxxus’s post crystallized some (and I do mean only some) things for me. It’s a desire to be the “heroic exception” to mindless consumers looking for the next cool thing (*cough* hipsters *cough*), but one that’s highly problematic in the academicky parlance of our times.

“Incurable observers who run up against their own limits respond, like marketers, with another absurd fantasy, that newness depends on the rearrangement or rejection of old categories (which were impositions to begin with), or that we need to ’stop being’ tourists, critics, adventurers, consumers, and replace them with something new and improved, though assembled from their remains, that the future is determined aesthetically by committee. Oblivious to the creativity it pretends to value, this brand of criticism kills the living and mystifies the dead.”

We try to shuck our inherited identity as tourists or consumers or Orientalists or neocolonialists, and build new identities in their places. Ethical, authentic identities that will assure us that our musical choices match up with our liberal politics — no Boom Bye Bye, no simple indie/thirdworld mashups, no missing tracklists, no mistranslations, no middle class appropriators. But this faith in the progressive power of self-fashioning is itself part of the problem, and anyway, we are all tourists now.

Calling Diplo a “neocolonialist” is missing the point. Diplo is not occupying any foreign countries, installing client regimes or coercively extracting resources. That he got big off a bunch of music made in the favelas is a symptom of neocolonialism, not a cause, and becoming ethical consumers isn’t going to change it (I’m actually more skeptical of the NGO angle). Sublime Frequencies certainly exoticizes its subjects (and I would love tracklistings on several of their releases including C.V), but they don’t actually have much effect, good or bad, on the music scenes they (inaccurately) document. Spank Rock doesn’t have much sway over the sounds of Baltimore’s clubs, and the favelas aren’t rocking Bonde do Role. The case could be made that they help provide a small part of an ideological screen to an influential class of Westerners which allows Western governments and corporations to continue to exploit the places where this music is made. But I wonder if castigating the middle class appropriators is rooted more in a desire to fashion ethical identities for ourselves than in correcting inequality. The increasing appropriation of the third world in music of all levels of popularity reflects our neoimperialist economic situation, in which Western (musical) economies are propped up by the exploited (creative) labor of the Global South, but I’m not sure to what extent it causes or creates it.

I’m not sure if I have some overriding point or position, more like nagging thoughts I tried to collide in a way that would help me make some sense of this. I agree with the sentiments of the bloggers mentioned above, and respect a lot of their writing. I don’t want to help reproduce exploitation or exoticization, I want to understand where the music I like comes from, what the lyrics are (even if most of them are about sexy girls), I want struggling artists to be compensated for their work. I want music to support the political causes I value. But I also want to be realistic about the limitations and pitfalls of the ethical consumerist approach to political problems. And hey, maybe get rid of some of this anxiety around one of the chief pleasures in my life.

Battleground States Conference Tellem

February 29, 2008

Last week I prodigally returned to the barren wasteland of northwest Ohio to participate in the latest, most excellent installment of Bowling Green’s Battleground States Conference. Yes, although I was merely a humble presenter (repping independent scholarship), I would have to say I thought this conference was better than the ones I had a hand in planning. Maybe hotel parties make all the difference.

I delivered a paper on Soulja Boy that was well received, and at the prompting of colleagues, I will make this paper available below. I had entertained thoughts of trying to get an expanded version published somewhere, but who knows when I’ll do that? Independent scholarship is a tough game. Paper below (I don’t particularly like the title; I was originally going to do something more general on YouTube dances)…  Read the rest of this entry »