It was not too long ago that music and privatization were anathema. Headphones did not become commercially available until the late 1950s. Before that, listening to recorded music required, to a certain degree at least, the open air. Even listening to a phonograph alone in one’s home, there was always the possibility of someone else listening, either walking in or pounding on a shared wall, demanding they turn it down.
Recorded sound was a monumental change in direction for music. Prior to its advent, we needed access to musical instruments to hear a song. Or we needed to pay a visit to the local concert hall. In other words, music as music necessitated to a certain extent the open air, as well as, in turn, the ability to share the experience of song, rhythm, arrangement of notes.
Whenever there has been a technological advance in music as an experience in modern times, it has normally come with a literal cost. Which is to say someone else has been looking to make money from. And no, it hasn’t been the artist or composer. Sheet music publishers bilked artists of untold amounts, and also made it possible for music to move from the concert hall to the parlor. Same for the wax cylinder.
When we speak of “the privatization of music,” then, we mean it in more than one sense. Music became a business, a profit-making venture. No longer a public good, it was increasingly owned by those who had sufficient startup capital to make even more on it. Thus it was wrenched from collective hands, its democratic potentials diminished over time. Hand-in-hand, music also became, literally and increasingly, a private matter. Its experience no longer needed to be communal.
There is no point in bemoaning this. The technology is what it is, and the genie cannot be stuffed back into the lamp. The point is that every technological advance is inscribed with the rules of the mode of production. Capitalism cannot tolerate the crowd, but it also cannot do without it. And so, we exist today in what Guy Debord called “the lonely crowd.” Connected, but only according to rules that sow extreme individualism and competition.
No longer can we be assured that someone is listening to the same song as us somewhere in the world, as we could during the heydays of radio or even in the beginnings of the music video. Rather, in exchange for having the virtual entirety of recorded sound at our fingertips through the mobile device and streaming service, we have the horizons of our tastes and possibilities shaped and narrowed for us. Like everything else in the age of algorithmized late capitalism, it is done through convenience and suggestion rather than direct coercion.
“Like this artist? Try this playlist.” “Listeners also liked.” “Based on your recent listening, we thought you might like…” And on and on and on. The curiosities and discoveries that were a necessary part of any music scene have been replaced by a formula designed not so much to anticipate our behavior as mold it. Even artists have found themselves tailoring their songs, shaping them into more predictable versions of themselves in order to land themselves on one of Spotify’s coveted playlists.
All of this amounts to music becoming a background presence in our lives. Like virtually every other cultural experience, it has been progressively separated from our participation in it. It is not so much to be experienced, at least not fully, but rather to help us avoid, to aid us in the non-experience of something else.
We no longer experience space. Everything about it has been designed to make it unknowable. In some ways, the privatization of music is a more contemporary step in a process that started four hundred years ago on a more exclusively spatial basis: the enclosure of the commons. Common land, common labor, common cultures and expressions have all been dispossessed. More often than not, particularly in the realms of architecture and urban design, their shapes and uses morph to remind us of this historical fact. To walk through a city now is to be reminded that we don’t belong.
August, 2014. Riot Fest is held in Chicago. An annual music festival that started out as a small, punkish affair held in a series of local music venues, Riot Fest has grown into a gigantic, three-day affair incorporating punk, hip-hop, and many acts that fall into that utterly useless category of “alternative rock.” In 2012, it became big enough to occupy one of Chicago’s many beautiful and historic parks. In 2014, it is Humboldt Park, situated in the heart of the city’s working-class Puerto Rican neighborhood of the same name.
During the first night of this year’s festival, it rains hard. Over the course of that night and the subsequent two days, as tens of thousands watch performances from Gogol Bordello, Wu-Tang Clan, the Flaming Lips, and over a hundred others, the park is obliterated, the rain and feet combining to transform the grasses into a giant mud pit. The basketball and tennis courts, the boathouses, are all similarly ruined.
In the weeks following the festival, the community vocally protests. Residents correctly call out the festival’s organizers for destroying a commonly enjoyed public space, then packing up and bolting without a thought for its restoration. Some others draw links between this kind of dispossession and the deliberate neglect that accompanies gentrification, which has been eating away at the neighborhood over the past decade.
At first, Riot Fest shrugs its shoulders, refusing to foot the bill for cleanup. “You can’t control the weather,” they say. As if the weather crammed 150,000 people into the park. As if the actions of the most powerful people on the planet haven’t, in fact, changed the weather. Only after sustained uproar from the community and an embarrassing string of articles from independent journalists do the festival organizers relent, paying for the park’s restoration and setting up a foundation for preserving the park.
Indeed, several moving parts had to fall into place for this series of events to play out the way it did. The first is the fealty of most cities to private interests over the public good. The second, flowing from the first, is the push toward gentrification, and third the attendant atrophy of public services, including those intended for enjoyment and enrichment.
Finally, it required the recuperation of a subculture that once, briefly, put itself in opposition to the prevailing order of things. It is worth remembering that Riot Fest started as a festival made up of almost exclusively punk rock acts. Even during the festival’s initial years, though, the die of “turning rebellion into money” had been cast for some time. Where once those who adopted the sonic and visual aesthetics of punk could cut through a dispossessed landscape and remind the world that nothing is okay, in this instance they were used to normalize the same process of dispossession.
Everything that post-Einsteinian physics has told us confirms that time and space are unavoidably intertwined. Without time, no space. Without space, no time. Therefore our (in-)experience of space is bound up with our (in-)experience of time.
None of us need to be reminded that our time does not belong to us. It is at the core of our resentment towards employers and the lingering anxieties about bills. Our survival depends on renting out our time and effort to someone else. As time goes by – at least as it’s gone by over the past forty years – more and more of our time is needed just to maintain a roof.
It is not only work that steals our time, though. Increasingly, everything around us is erasing our experience of it. With pay stagnant and the cost of staying alive continuing to climb, we are made complicit in the ongoing dissolution of the divisions between work and leisure. Every moment of our lives is viewed in relation to what it can be exchanged for. Every gesture and movement we make is timed and studied to be fit into a rubric of profitability. Genuinely lived life is replaced with its carbon copied simulation.
The past three years have seen this process attenuated sharply. Covid-19 has shown all of us how little of our time is really in our control. How are we to experience the beauty of a moment when day after day is spent shuttered in our apartments? How can we believe in a future for ourselves when we are forced to spend those days at a job that may expose us to a potentially deadly virus? How can we enjoy the moment when our future looks to be one of unrestrained pandemics and rising seas?
Theodor Adorno, writing when what we now recognize as popular culture was consolidating itself into an industry, heard in the repetitive beats of pop music the regimentation of the assembly line, another link in the chain of the full-spectrum commodification of life. If music is an aestheticization of time, then any music with a repetitive beat simply put us at ease with the reality of time that belongs to someone else.
Given the shape of life and time today, we would be thick to deny that there’s something to this. Hence the sights we are all familiar with. The subway cars filled with headphone-wearing denizens. The motorway jammed with cars whose occupants have their windows rolled up and their playlist on repeat. Our own dull-eyed repetition of the same songs in our apartments, drink in hand, in a desperate attempt to take our minds off the grinding boredom that surely awaits us in the morning.
Hence the way in which the authoritarian city employs music spatially, its efforts to quicken time and usher us out of spaces in which we aren’t wanted. Train stations that blast classical music with the intent to drive out the youth. Restrictions on busking and other public performances of music that might encourage us to picture our lives at a different pace. Songs in shops that make us comfortable enough to buy something, but not comfortable enough to dawdle. Some of the world’s biggest corporations are integrating music into the workplace in an effort to instill “wellbeing” in employees.
Experience and Imagination
In his 1940 book The Imaginary, Jean-Paul Sartre asserts that even when we are looking at something as mundane as a chair, we are nonetheless calling upon our imagination – including past knowledge and assumptions of the chair’s shape – in understanding the parts of it we cannot see. In other words, we cannot understand – and therefore cannot fully experience – an item without the assistance of imagination. It is not an exaggeration therefore to say that imagination is essential to experience.
But with so much of contemporary life designed to hem in the imagination, can we truly say that our lives are actually experienced? With both urban space and daily time beyond our control, and with them all manner of artistic and musical expression, what can the human subject do other than wither away?
To be sure, convenience needn’t necessarily require democracy to be so starkly undermined. But under our current regime of highly technologized, highly atomized, increasingly authoritarian late capitalism, every convenience comes with these ethics stamped on it. Burying ourselves in algorithmically curated playlists allows us to fictionalize our time, perhaps even forget that the world around us is both dying and being hoarded by a select few. Adorno tried to warn us, but then, he also only focused on one part of the picture. If popular music is shaped to mimic the production of commodity, then it poses the question of what happens when the productive process is taken back by those who work it.
In 1972, the 7,500 assembly workers at the General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio were ungovernable. If management at the plant was in love with speedups and petty tyranny, then the employees pushed back in whatever way they fancied at the time. Wildcat strikes were common. So was sabotage. Finished cars had their paintjobs badly scratched, or their leather seats slashed with switchblades.
At issue wasn’t so much the typical demands of better pay or shorter hours, but how those hours were spent, and who – management or the workers – would have control over their activity. Many of those on the line had come up through the 60s counterculture. They wore their hair long or in Afros, dropped their fair share of acid, and heard different worlds shaped for them in the sounds of Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, or Funkadelic. And while it would be untrue to put music at the absolute center of this shift in consciousness, there is no arguing that the establishment had come to fear what would happen if the anti-work ethos of the hippies crossed over with workplace militancy. That newspapers dubbed the Lordstown rebellion “an industrial Woodstock” just about says it all.
Yes, music’s privatization curtails the imagination, buttressing the privatization of daily life and streamlining the sleight of hand between real experience and its simulacrum. But history is full of times when subjugation is turned against itself, when the machinations of our world come within our collective reach, when freer, more vital modes of living and expression come into view. Though music cannot by itself shake the walls of the city, we ignore these utopian echoes to our own detriment.
text by Alexander Billet
Shake the City: Experiments in Space and Time, Music and Crisis, will be published by 1968 Press in November. You can order copies of it here.