- Music, Corporate Power, and Unending War
The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feelcompelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.—Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno
Introduction: In Quest of a Newer Musicology
Sixty years after its original publication, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno's Dialektic der Aufklärung resonates uncannily with our times. The central motifs of their bleak and horrifying diagnosis of the culture industry ring as true today as ever. While contemporary critics mostly regard Horkheimer and Adorno's analysis of audience demand and reception dynamics as antiquated, this essay argues for the continued relevance of their indictment of culture under the (oppressive) authority of monopoly capital. In particular, the essay traces an emergent Schulterschluss between commercial and political power, with a special interest in the involvement of the music industry and the media conglomerates. This is not to say that contemporary America operates under identical rules and constraints as the America of the 1940s. It does not. Nor is it to argue that capitalist America essentially approximates fascism, as Horkheimer and Adorno sometimes imply. The opening arguments of "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception," for example, are predicated on this fundamental similarity: "Even the aesthetic activities of political opposites are one in their enthusiastic obedience to the rhythm of the iron system. The decorative industrial management of buildings and exhibition centers in authoritarian countries are much the same as anywhere else" (1997, 120). Though useful as a polemical gesture, this linkage is overdrawn. Unlike fascist Germany, for instance, the [End Page 23] current system operates within a framework of a democracy in the West, and, to a good measure, on the basis of a free market. Still, for all the immediately evident differences, Horkheimer and Adorno's analysis has relevance to the post–Cold War period: a time when the world's music has increasingly come under the control of a qualitatively and quantitatively new kind of corporate machinery.
Due to the extreme concentration of ownership of the mass media in recent years, the culture industry has become a major site of centralized power in the twenty-first century. Recorded music, for example, is the most concentrated global media market today: six leading firms—PolyGram, EMI, Warner Music Group (a unit of AOL Time Warner), Sony Music Entertainment, BMG (a unit of Bertelsmann), and Universal Music Group (a unit of Vivendi)—are estimated to control between 80 to 90 percent of the global market (McChesney 1997, 43). Further consolidation between these firms (such as Sony and Bertelsmann) is currently under negotiation. Most of these companies belong to larger conglomerates, which permits company-wide cross-promotions to bolster sales. AOL Time Warner, for instance, owns magazines, book publishing houses, film studios, television networks, cable channels, retail stores, libraries, sports teams, and so on. Since the passing of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, radio too has become vertically concentrated and horizontally integrated to an unprecedented degree: Clear Channel Communications and Viacom alone control over 40 percent of the U.S. radio market. Today, Clear Channel is the world's largest broadcaster, concert promoter, and billboard advertising firm (Marshall 2003). These companies are also connected to one another in a manner that implies a cartel-like arrangement. For instance, Disney has equity joint ventures, equity interests, or long-term exclusive strategic alliances with Bertelsmann, NBC, TCI, Kirch, Hearst, DreamWorks, Canal Plus, America Online, and so on. So, just as Disney has interests in Bertelsmann, Bertelsmann has interests in Disney and much more.
This essay argues that media cross-ownership and joint ventures tend to reduce competition, lower risk, and increase profits. This, in turn, has forced musical production to succumb to the advertising, marketing, styling, and engineering techniques of increasingly uniform and narrow profit-driven criteria. Far from reflecting the public's choices, Horkheimer and Adorno would link such musical production [End Page 24] with the "technical and personnel apparatus which, down to its last cog, itself forms part of the economic mechanism of selection" (1997, 122). Today this pertains to an unprecedented degree. Under the rubric of various "organizational structures," "production systems," and "portfolio...