The Industry, Youth, and Cultural Capital
Music made to sell products, not music, did not begin with the advertising boom of the 1960s. In the earliest days of radio, the radio primarily broadcast programs whose purpose was simply to sell more radios. Most radio stations played classical music or minstrel shows, irreparably tied to the advertising that led in and out of the musical selections. Music on the radio was an instrument of its own commercialization. For example, in 1929, The Clicquot Club Eskimos (named after the national company Clicquot Club Beverages) played “sparkling music” to sell their sparkling ginger ale. (Taylor, 37). The Aunt Jemima Show (yes, the pancake company) was strategized to “croon folk songs of the South” by a “troop [sic] of darkies.” (Taylor, 36-37)
As radio stations became more amenable to playing jazz and R&B, one would be introduced to more music than ever before, if one had not moved further than the school in his hometown his whole life. As teenagers began to have more influence over the music market, the recording industry began to pay more attention to youthful trends: the music they like, the fashions they wore, their growing sense of separation from their parents’ generation. If one could generalize the 50s as the beginnings of teenage rebellion, “the rebellion vs. repression paradigm also would blind sociologists to future events, when the counterculture would eventually be absorbed by dominant society, not because it represented an adversary that needed to be contained but rather because its music, fashion, and devil-may-care lifestyle would prove so valuable for stimulating the culture of consumption.” (Moore, 231) Hippie counterculture would become irrelevant, the Beatles would become lame, the civic revolutions of the 60s would give way to a much more conservative decade. And an even more conservative one after that.
Hip-hop and turntablism in black urban communities and punk in underground urban white communities began to emerge in the 70s amidst its relative political conservatism. The same year that DJ Kool is credited with creating hip hop, CBGB opened on the Lower East Side. (Moore, 4) Diametrically opposed to these musical developments, on January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the President of the United States. But the underground was ready. “Punk emerged in a pivotal moment of transition in the global political economy, as the social democracy of Fordism gave way to a more unforgiving brand of unfettered capitalism” and, more “punk should be seen as the final stage in the collapse of sixties utopianism and the broader conditions of economic affluence and cultural idealism that nurtured it.” (Moore, 37) Protest music emerging from rock and folk in the 60s gave way to the parallel genres of hip-hop and punk, one very white, one very black, that were as anti-establishment as possible. But, as the 1960s taught the music and fashion industries, youthful anti-establishmentarianism was going to make them a lot of money.
“By 1980 the punk subculture in the United States was undergoing a significant change as its initial wave of provocation fizzled and a new subculture was emerging that would be known as ‘hardcore’,” a movement that largely resulted from the commercialization of '70s punk, of the CBGB variety—well-known clubs that launched the major label careers of bands such as the Ramones, Television, Patti Smith Group, etc. Hardcore rejected the mainstream, traveling even further underground, largely attributable to the Washington D.C. scene. Over time, the audiences for these shows, almost entirely white and male, became more and more violent, in much the same way hip hop became associated with gang violence—except one of these subcultures had a systemic privilege the other would never know, not even in the present day. What was being shared within these separate groups was a political ideology, a rage against an America that wouldn’t change, and the feeling of being invisible.
In the 90s, punk began to transform, to soften—into something unfortunately inevitable: a mainstream commodity. Music was being traded through mix-tapes, played with cassette recorders you could carry with you, heard with headphones you could wear to make your very public experience of listening to music deeply personal. Our music could now be attached to us—easier to show others, but also easier to keep to ourselves. Cassette trading was incredibly popular and imprtant to the punk scene, and as more and more young people owned portable music players like Sony Walkmans, and discovered community boards on the World Wide Web, music sharing was beginning to shape into what we think of to be music sharing today—with the aid of the Internet.
90s alternative rock’s “local music scenes subsisted on the margins of American culture for more than a decade, until some commercially successful ‘grunge’ bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam got the attention of the music industry in the 1990s,” and just like that, punk was declared dead. (Moore, 236) One of the final offshoots of punk had been commodified, and no post-irony or meta-irony or ironic-irony could save it. At the same time, young people were becoming ever more involved in sharing music with each other, no longer in public spaces at all, but from the privacy of their own homes, first in the computer room, then in the bedroom, then wherever you could plug in a laptop and find WiFi.
The dichotomous experience of the Internet is that it is both very public and intensely personal—capable of interacting with anyone in the world, but potentially absolutely alone. You no longer need to have your friends over, listening to your 45s on a portable record player. You just send them music via file sharing and via Myspace and then—something changed. Music became so ubiquitous, so available, you didn’t need to go through a whole process of discovery through the furthest reaches of the web or sneak out to aconcert your parents told you not to go to. Obviously, we still attend concerts and still excitedly tell our friends about bands, but the next platform, the next shift in music sharing, seems incomprehensible. It seems like we have done everything we can. Then again, it always does.