January 17

Music and Social Justice / or Why Many Musicians Should Not Release Records for General Public Consumption

This may come as a surprise to you, especially coming from an exemplar of the DIY music industry.  But I believe that many musicians should not release records for general public consumption.  The reasons are of a social justice and economic nature.

When I say this, I don’t mean that musicians should not record an album that they make available to their friends and family and perhaps make available to the public on a site like Bandcamp.  When I talk about general public consumption, I refer to the process of taking a record and investing resources (primarily PR or a manager) into making the general public aware of the record.  When I say this, I also don’t mean that there should be free speech restrictions of an external nature placed on musicians who try to release their work – especially by the government.  This isn’t a First Amendment issue, this is more of a kind of moral guidance – similar to someone suggesting to a friend, “You shouldn’t use the word ‘slut’ in casual conversation.”  It’s not a First Amendment violation for someone to tell their friend this – they are just offering a bit of moral guidance about how they “ought” to act – not enforcing a restriction on what they can say.

The reasons are pretty simple.  First, there is a general sense in which both (a) a musician who creates a better product better deserves to have their music more accessible to the public, and (b) it is better for society to have better music more available to the public.  Secondly, as an economic matter, when more people enter the market to make their music available to the general public, this drives the price of marketing services up – which in turn makes marketing to the general public financially inaccessible to a greater and greater percentage of the population.  Third, there is no relationship between a person’s having financial resources to pay for marketing and a person’s ability to turn out a quality product that is deserving of greater publicity.  Effectively, when too many mediocre, wealthy musicians enter the market, this crowds out many better more deserving musicians preventing them from well-deserved exposure to the public.

This is a social justice issue in the basic sense that people who are not rich are less able to take advantage of a resource which they are more deserving of.  Additionally, this is a social justice issue because a primary and moving resource for speaking to the general public (i.e., music) is commandeered by people from an increasingly more narrow section of the public (i.e., people who come from privilege).  This should strike people as problematic.

A few additional observations:

What is the standard by which someone should determine if the should try and release their record for general public consumption?  Answering this question isn’t really necessary for defending the above position, but a general proposal is the standard for writing a college paper.  You should be saying something new and you should be saying something substantive.  There are, of course, questions as to what counts as new and substantive, but this isn’t a substantive problem, so much as an operational problem.  How does one determine what is new and substantive?  These are difficult questions, but ones that haven’t placed academia in an infinite spiral of speculative despair.  And they help to guide and frame the evaluation of student work on whether a paper topic is a good one, and even whether it is publishable – i.e., for general public consumption.

The problem is similar to the problem of gentrification.  We feel that someone who lives in a particular location has a right, of some sort, to be able to stay in that location as long as they maintain fairly stable finances.  Because a wealthier population comes in, the prices of real estate are driven up enormously, and through various means (oftentimes questionable), the person is driven out because of price.  One might call the problem here the gentrification of music.

Does the PR industry provide a good filter that compensates for the advantage that social and financial privilege provide to more wealthy and privileged musicians?  Perhaps if the PR industry does a good job at picking only good or great musicians – regardless of ability to pay – we don’t have to worry about the economic discriminatory effects that I’ve been bemoaning.

The answer is that no, the PR industry does not do this.