I taught a class today. Even though I’m running the degree, it was actually the first time I’d flown solo on the MA Music Industries ‘Popular Music As Culture’ module. The discussion today was largely about the professional culture of music industries, and the idea of ‘work’ as it applies to music.
It’s a good context to do this kind of teaching, because it’s a small group (just the four of them – above) and because they all have an assortment of direct experience: playing in bands, running labels, putting on events, working in music companies and so on.
We started by going over last week’s readings: Tim Wall’s article about the culture and meanings of dancing to Northern Soul (which is neither “Northern” nor “Soul”), and another piece about the cultural paradoxes presented by Duke Ellington – a “duke” in a dinner jacket and top hat conducting an “orchestra”, who are playing “jungle music” to middle class white people ‘slumming it’ in Harlem – and then that music being played on the radio.
Along the way, we got talking about Prince, Rockabilly, Dubstep and the fact that Latino gangs in America really like Morrissey.
The culture of the record business
We talked about music work from the perspective of independent entrepreneurs (and questioned the accuracy of the term) and looked at not only the motivation of independent music workers to get into the field in the first place, but also the actual day to day activities they involve themselves in and what the cultural practices and experiences are that are wrapped up in that sort of life.
We also examined the culture of work within major record labels, and what that would be like – and we grappled with the (at times rather uncomfortable) idea that people who release music we might think is bland, lowest-common-denominator chart fodder might happen to exhibit what we might consider to be very good taste in music when they’re at home.
Which is not to say that they don’t like chart pop, or are in any way disingenuous with their selections – but that they are good at spotting ‘what works’ and liking that for what it is. Safety first. The difference between the phrase “it’s great pop music” and “it’s really interesting and challenging electro-Balkan gypsy jazz-folk” describes the kind of distinction we’re talking about here.
So the realities of working within a corporate structure, the expectations of not only bosses but colleagues and other stakeholders (radio pluggers, promotions people, press contacts, etc) – as well as self-image as a professional within a context – might influence the kind of A&R decisions that get made.
Which is to say that I know what I love, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s representative of the kind of music I’d seek out if it was my job to A&R for a major record label.
The pressure to conform to that culture, we decided, was probably internal as much as it was external. A vision of being good at one’s job not necessarily being in alignment with what one happened to think was the best music. In fact, those things could well be at odds.
I know some record industry people who have very strong preferences for specialist music types that I like a lot, but who also have an ear for “what the masses will buy”. And they are able to (or compelled to) compartmentalise those things in their personal and professional lives.
But even if we suppose that A&R people at major labels prefer the music that they sign and shape, they are also responding to the dominant culture within the organisation. And that culture can shift over time.
A really interesting set of discussions, and such a great class to teach.