The Third International after Lenin

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Political economy of jazz illuminated

Jazz: A story of Black music and white business
Printed below is an excerpt from Black Music, White Business by Frank Kofsky, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for January. The book probes the principal contradiction in the jazz world: that between black artistry on the one hand and white ownership of the means of jazz distribution—the recording companies, booking agencies, festivals, nightclubs, and magazines—on the other. Kofsky brings to light the exploitation to which jazz creators historically have been subjected and the racist contempt with which many industry executives view jazz. The piece below is from the chapter titled “If you’re black, get back: double standards in the recording industry.” Copyright © 1998 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

In the spheres of production and distribution, as in so many others, the position of the artist in capitalist society is unique, ambiguous and, above all, perilous in the extreme.

In contrast to the manual laborer, the artist, as I remarked in chapter 1, does own the tools of his or her trade. Unlike the skilled craftsman or artisan, however, the artist does not have complete control over the production and distribution processes; consequently, he or she is dependent on others. Hence where an automobile mechanic may be able to establish her own repair shop, a glazier his own stained glass works, or a baker his own bakery, very few painters or sculptors will possess their own galleries.

Analogously, very few jazz musicians control their own recording companies,* and fewer yet have any share in running the nightclubs, festivals, and booking agencies on which most musicians rely for their survival. As a result, the way in which the white executives who do command these economic institutions regard black music in general and jazz in particular is of crucial significance for the well-being of the jazz artist. If these executives are favorably disposed toward jazz, then of necessity employment opportunities for jazz musicians will be relatively plentiful. If, conversely, these same executives are indifferent or antagonistic toward jazz, then the working jazz performer will find it that much more difficult to eke out a livelihood.

This concentration of power over the means of production and distribution gives the executive class almost unlimited control over the professional life of a jazz artist. Should such an artist happen to displease these executives, he or she will for all practical purposes cease to exist, at least so far as the public is concerned. At the dawn of the 1960s, for instance, singer Abbey Lincoln collaborated with Max Roach and others in recording a pair of powerful and explosive albums, We Insist! The Freedom Now Suite and Straight Ahead, that excited a great deal of active hostility from the white Establishment in jazz; as a result, Abbey Lincoln’s once-thriving career as a recording artist came to an abrupt halt. “I haven’t been invited to record in this country” since the Candid discs were initially released, she told me sixteen years after that event.

As easy as it is to stifle an individual voice, those who dominate the political economy of jazz find it hardly more difficult to silence an entire group of artists. As Abbey Lincoln pointedly observed in the same interview, “It’s the recording industry—that’s how much power those people have.” Indeed it is, and indeed they do. The vast and growing wealth and power of the recording industry vis-à-vis other entertainment media has been one of the most striking developments of the last few decades. From being the tail of the dog, the business of making and selling records has become the dog itself. Thus, where sales of soundtrack recordings were once ancillary to the production of motion pictures, those pictures often are concocted as a means of publicizing the records with which they are associated. Similarly, it is a commonplace that the leading popular music performers now embark on tours not because they want to perform in public, but rather to promote a recording whose release has been timed to coincide with the tour.

If this suggests that the recording industry has come to exert a predominant influence in determining the relative economic success or failure of a musical artist, the suggestion is well taken. From a theoretical standpoint, it is always possible that an artist may become popular even without extensive sales of his or her recordings. In practice, this happens about as often as objects spontaneously falling upward. There may be other paths to musical fame and fortune, but the tried-and-true approach consists of the following sequence: (1) recordings; (2) promotion by the recording company (or companies); (3) sizable and growing sales of the recordings; (4) another round of recordings and promotion. And so on, ad infinitum.

In this scheme of things, the recording firms hardly play the role of reluctant candidates patiently waiting to have greatness thrust upon them. On the contrary, as befits their lofty position in a sector of the economy that each year accounts for tens of billions of dollars in sales revenues, recording company executives do their utmost to insure that none of their investments will be disastrous and all of them, if possible, will be monumentally profitable.

* To be sure, a number of jazz artists have established their own recording operations; but it is doubtful if all such artist-owned firms together account for one percent of the total number of jazz recordings released each year. For the recording industry as a whole, the importance of the artist-owned jazz recording firm is, naturally, more marginal still.

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