Music and societal change

I listened to a radio programme today which really made me stop and think. It wasn’t the best presented programme, or the best structured, but did what it said on the tin – it is part of Radio 4’s “Seriously interesting” series. I found the presenter, Sam York, a little too serious and pleased with himself, and his prophet Jacques Attali a little smug and arrogant, and yet the idea was too novel to me to be overshadowed by these annoying things. I must emphasise that I am not well read in economics or even political theory, but I think Attali’s idea is more powerful than theories built on other theories.

Attali’s idea apparently comes from a Marxist view of history, which I am not going to pretend to know about let alone understand, and it is summarised as being that society goes through stages of development which are reflected in different aspects of society, one of which is culture. The interesting aspect of his theory is that he looks at music, and sees it as the most fluid form of culture, the quickest to take up new societal ways of being, and therefore possibly at the vanguard of social changes.

Now, whether or not you take a Marxist view of history, there are aspects of the idea that music is such a flexible and adaptable form of culture that it can provide glimpses of the future. The aspect of music which makes it stand out, to me, is the universality of its reach as a culture. Even highly restrictive religions use music, such as the call to prayer in Islam and psalms in protestant Christianity. Obviously, there are probably examples of far more restrictive societies where music may have been banned altogether, but the power of music is probably reflected in how punitive a punishment this is viewed as.

Again, I stress that I am no musical scholar either, but I think that this theory of Attali’s is more interesting beyond the confines of music. Sam York, the presenter of the radio programme and a budding solo musician, was reminded of Attali’s book on this idea because he believed that Attali’s prediction that the abundance of recorded music devaluing recorded music has come to pass. He may be slightly giving the benefit of any doubt to Attali that this was what he prophesised, as the influence on technological advances on the devaluing of recorded music is a hard case to argue against. Nevertheless, it is easy to follow the argument that creating many times more music recorded than people can consume in their lifetimes would devalue recorded music. And when Attali wrote the book, in 1977, technology was already advanced enough to allow people to record and duplicate recordings individually, even only of relatively poor quality tapes or vinyls, and so the way in which music proliferated online could also have been expected to have happened even just with tapes, although perhaps slightly less spectacularly given the physical cost of creating tapes and vinyls and CDs.

In fact, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the book revealed that Attali believed that recorded music would have become devalued before the turn of the century, but perhaps it was in some areas of society, and the rest of society, the mainstream, only finally caught up when free music became too easy to access.

Attali’s theory is really based on the value of individual’s time, and whilst that is an interesting concept and way to think about things, I am personally a bit less interested in it than the general idea that aspects of the music industry can foreshadow societal changes. This is particularly interesting now with a clear shift in people’s interaction with politics in Europe, the UK and now the USA (although perhaps Obama’s election in 2008 marked a first stage towards the more significant shifts that are becoming apparent now).

In the UK, general election turnout figures are really interesting – and they should also be viewed along with political party membership figures. The membership figures of all parties over a 50 year period from say 1950, to 2000, dropped steadily. Recording methods and accuracy vary, but the trend is clear, despite the population increase in the UK over that same period. Now, voter turnout at general elections was at a peak in 1950 over 80%, but at 77% in 1955, it can be seen that turnout barely dropped really until around 2000. In 1992, turnout was higher than 1955, but by 1997 the turnout dropped to 71% before plummeting into the 21st century.

Taken from UK Political Party Membership
Taken from a UK Parliamentary Briefing Report

Popular music building up to the 1990s, and in the 1990s in particular, showed clear signs of increasing commercialisation and corporate involvement in the making and distribution of music. This didn’t mean the music was “bad”, but mass distribution was tightly controlled by a small group of powerful record companies. National success in the music industry required a record contract with a big name record company to enable distribution of the music and exposure to national and international audiences. This situation was satirised in the amusing, if a little over-the-top, Josie and the Pussycats.

If anyone can illuminate me I would be very grateful, but I cannot find a definitive history of UK record sales over the same period. There are plenty of easy-to-find graphics for digital sales, but not longer-term… I suspect, though, that a last of the best-selling singles in the UK is informative guide, and the vast majority of the biggest-selling records and albums were in the 1970s and 1980s. Sales are big again now, but given that the inflation-adjusted cost of music dropped dramatically at the beginning of the 20th century, the revenue must be much diminished.

So, I suspect music sales partly reflect voter engagement in politics, although I cannot prove it, perhaps dropping at almost exactly the same time at around the turn of the century. The question is what is replacing this hyper-controlled industry, and our hyper-controlled politics of the past 20 years? Now, this is something I would like to explore further, but I suspect it will be really hard to predict, and will depend on much more than just a continuation of business-as-usual. I also think it will be a lot more complicated than Attali’s ingenious, but simplistic model of time-based value. The world is changing faster and faster, and whilst there is never really a point of return, any opportunity to keep “the genie in the bottle” is well and truly passed. The effects of the financial crash of 2008 have finally caught up with society, and we are going to be carried along with the tsunami it unleashed.