And when it fails to recoup?
You just haven’t earned it yet, baby.
The Smiths – “Paint a Vulgar Picture”
When it comes to discussing the current state of the music industry, our core concepts are so poorly articulated and limited that most discussions are led astray before any progress is made. We fail to properly interrogate our own notions regarding art, authors(hip), and the related questions of political economy, taking the commodification of music as a given fact, an entitlement. Though some may argue that digital file distribution offers a means to think outside of commodification due to its alleged immateriality, in fact the discourse of the commodity persists. New technologies have always destabilized preexisting orders, and the current moment results only in the destruction of the major record labels, then this would be a good thing. However it is important that we recognize, and optimize, the potential benefits, not from a business perspective but from the perspective of the public good. At an early moment of disruptive technological change, Walter Benjamin identified the great democratizing potential of mechanical reproduction. Likewise, after a period of unprecedented concentration of power to a handful of multinational media conglomerates, today’s new technologies have created the potential for unprecedented access to the means of production and distribution. (There are many examples of artists thriving outside of the label system. Just one example is the San Francisco duo Pomplamoose, who, through a series of YouTube videosongs, original recordings and cover songs of pop hits, and commercial advertisements, have built a large following and made a comfortable living, all without selling physical products or touring.) As in the past, this will no doubt affect an aesthetic shift as well, which means that we won’t necessarily have recourse to the same justifications that have held sway during the last 60 years or so of the recording industry. Just as troubadours, vaudevillians, and the songwriters of Tin Pan Alley saw their roles diminished, destroyed, and changed during the first half of the 20th century in response to, at least in part, technological changes, so will we come to accept that new roles for artists will emerge.
By many standards of measure, we are living in the (or at least a) Golden Age of Music. Average fans have access to what amounts to the greatest archive of recorded music ever assembled, classical orchestras are the most well trained they have ever been, rock and electronic artists are blurring perceived boundaries, and hip hop has emerged as the contemporary global folk music. The main problems is that the commodification of music has become accepted as the natural business model. It is worth mentioning that poets, novelists, journalists, visual artists, and many other creative roles have either been similarly disrupted by new technologies, or even never benefited from the same economy of celebrities and massive sales experienced by the recording industry in their peak years. Each of these arts fulfills a similarly important cultural function as worthy of defense as music. In a letter written by a young Peruvian woman visiting Europe during the 18th century, she expresses her shock that a great writer lives in destitution, subsisting on the little support he receives from various patrons. Often such artists are only recognized posthumously. The reliance on the market has proven no better at sorting the best art from the lowest common denominator, and if anything is much worse at it. In any case, we must accept that our own conceptions are not natural or necessary, and therefore embrace the potential offered in this current moment of technological change.
There always exists a relationship between music and cultural identity, and therefore it can be argued that it is in the interest of the state to support their creative class in some way. Iceland, like the other Nordic countries, has instituted a generous program of government subsidies for the arts. Canada has supported similar initiatives for the same reason, as a marginal nation situated on the periphery of the United States, which has been able to steer markets worldwide. I assert that such financial assistance to musicians and labels represents a possible new system of patronage for the arts. Due to their relative isolation and small population, Icelandic artists cannot rely solely on commercial means to support their work, making them an ideal example through which to bring into relief possible responses to the collapse of the music industry as one of commodification. The Icelandic government, like others who provide financial assistance to their artists, have realized the benefits of such grants. Despite the disastrous effects of the recession on Iceland, support for their cultural exports remains a priority, even if there is no longer quite as much money available. In a time in which our own governments in North America are debating cutting funding for public broadcasting, and in which funding for the arts and arts educations continues to dwindle, it is worth emphasizing the ways in which other nations continue to support the arts as a central part of their cultural identity.
The government tacitly acknowledges this ‘power of music,’ as well as the preeminence of the international musical stage, by financing many of its artists, sending them abroad to tour and providing grants to cover recording and production expenses. In supporting the arts, Iceland takes part in a form of “cultural diplomacy,” and likewise opens itself “diplomatically” to foreign musicians. Iceland’s enterprise is, at least ideally, one of free exchanges of cultural recognition through the medium of music as a “face” of Icelandic culture. This is “multi-cultural” and yet not entirely; nationalistic in origin, yet obscured by changes in national identity caused by increased globalization.
Subsidizing of the arts is a direct result of being at a politico-cultural disadvantage: government support for the arts in both Iceland and Canada needs to be understood as an effort at reconstitution through exchanges of recognition. Programs such as these only makes sense when framed in opposition to a dominant cultural edifice, such as America. Without government subsidies, it is unlikely that many artists would be able to achieve commercial success abroad. In the wake of the aforementioned economic crisis and Iceland’s mounting debt to foreign nations, the question of funding for the arts becomes more controversial. While faced with their own budgetary deficits, many other nations are under pressure from neo-liberal free market reformers to cut funding for the arts. It will be interesting to see if Iceland recognizes the centrality of their own funding to their marketability abroad in other sectors and to track how much of the funding burden will be shifted to non-governmental corporate entities. Such a system of patronage would no longer have the same accountability, transparency, and recourse to notions of the public good as programs funded by the government.
Government funding transforms musicians into cultural ambassadors. In Iceland, as in the Americas, questions of assimilation haunt the social discourse of national identity, and globally we are told a “war of cultures” is being fought. Music is a potently democratic medium of expression that broadens rather than closes inter-cultural understanding and respect. We can all benefit by using diverse “musical ambassadors” to open new “channels” of cultural dialogue among the international audience while supporting the crucial role music plays in culture.