Political Economy, Economics, and Culture

I should make my assumptions clear at the outset so that the reader is aware of the basis of the following argument. The view of music business I present here is one based in political economy, which I define broadly as the study of how power systems (the political) intersects with the production, distribution, and exchange of all kinds of values (the economic). Political economy is older and very different to what is currently called economics. Economics has, since at least 1916, consciously limited its focus to the study of prices, whereas political economy has maintained a much broader view of humanity in the analysis and explanation of values.1 In a view grounded in political economy, price is just one ‘species’ of value that is heavily dependent on the production of other values, such as prestige, aesthetics, morality, utility, and so on.

Approaches to advocacy about the importance of music to society have taken many and various value standards as their basis. For me, the most suspect of these is the ‘cultural value’ angle so well favoured by Australian politicians and Arts bodies. I say ‘suspect’ because it seems to me that the word ‘culture’ smudges over so many illuminating aspects of music and its many roles. Culture is a system of shared values that pertain to a given group of people, large or small 2 Given that music is a part of every human culture, to say music has cultural value is redundant and tells us not much at all.

If we were to take a dispassionate look at our own (Australian) culture, we would have to say that, hierarchically speaking, ours has become economistic in orientation. That is to say: Australian culture seems to have ensconced money at the very top of our scale of our values. Political decisions about the viability, usefulness, or beneficiality of any given aspect of Australian life are most overtly judged in terms of ‘value to the economy’. Those of us who have taken it upon ourselves to advocate for increasing support or protection or policy changes have therefore taken up the challenge around measuring the economic value of music, as evidenced by recent efforts by APRA and Arts Victoria 3. These economistic approaches respond to what is called ‘evidence-based policy’. To be clear: I take these recent initiatives to be of great advantage to Australian musicians whose wages are, according to these reports, barely over half of what it would take for them to reach the current (2012) poverty line of $23,911 for an individual.4

Economic, Health and Happiness Values

By any measure music is worth a lot of money to the economy. IFPI estimates the global value of music to be $140 billion US dollars.5 An MCA study by Hans Hoegh-Guldberg estimates Australian music revenues to be around 7 billion per annum.6 These figures are also evidence indicating that music figures highly in the hierarchy of values that constitute our culture. Similarly in the health and wellbeing stakes, studies continue to show that there are strong links between participation in music-making activities and positive health and happiness outcomes.7 The same goes for education and mental agility, both in the development of young minds and the maintenance of older ones.8 The evidence tells us that involvement in music makes communities more resilient,9 just as it does for dispossessed and marginalised youth.10 The evidence continues to pour in across multiple lines of value that music is good for us: it makes money; enriches lives; promotes health and mental facilities; sells tickets, beer, and meals; helps us learn – music helps us to survive, as individuals, communities, organisations, and cultures. The only people music seems not to help that much are musicians wishing to make a living from their craft, but that is to digress.

Why it Matters: Music Heralds Broader Changes

My main aim here is to offer an argument as to why the music business matters and the rationale I offer has nothing to do with any of the aspects of value I have mentioned thus far. Put simply, my argument is that the music business of today tells us much about the future of work, industry, industrial organisation, and culture in general. As Attali (1985/2006) puts it: ‘Music: herald of the future’. The music business matters because it moves ahead of and anticipates political economy more generally. It tells us what is coming for the greater bulk of society. It is political economy’s ‘canary in the coalmine’.11

The sense that music is heraldic of broader changes has been afoot for decades. Lewis Mumford (1934/1962) makes the following observations about the mid-nineteenth century orchestra:12

All the instruments were now scientifically calibrated: the production of sound became, within limits, standardized and predictable. And with the increase in the number of instruments, the division of labour within the orchestra corresponded to that of the factory: the division of the process itself became noticeable in new symphonies. The leader was the superintendent and production manager, in charge of the manufacture of the product, namely the piece of music, while the composer corresponded to the inventor, engineer, and designer, who had to calculate on paper … the nature of the ultimate product — working out its last detail before a single step was made in the factory. […] Here, then, in the constitution of the orchestra, was the ideal pattern of the new society. It was achieved in art before it was approached in technics.

And that is without even contemplating the functional grammar of the orchestral score. Julian Sefton-Green recently made the observation that only a culture that brought forth the orchestral score could have produced the digital revolution. The musical score is a special kind of code. At a very abstract level it simultaneously records, describes, and conserves musical content. More concretely it functions as a set of instructions to be executed by specific classes of musicians. The score is literally a type of command code — a program to be run, rhythmically synchronised by the conductor, executed by means of highly-trained human movement. Music was the basis of many revolutionary technologies. Arnold Pacey (2001) suggests that music may well be the source of all human technologies.13 He notes that prior to inventing the steam engine in 1776 ‘James Watt was in business as a “mathematical and musical instrument maker”. In this capacity, he built one or two organs and invented a device for controlling air pressure within them’14. Jacquard was inspired by mechanical instruments such as the carillon to invent his punch card loom15 which later became Babbage’s ‘calculating machine’, forerunner of modern computers.

Attali (1985/2006) takes a similar industrial precursor view of the orchestra to that of Mumford:

The constitution of the orchestra and its organisation are also figures of power in the industrial economy. The musicians — who are anonymous and hierarchically ranked, and in general salaried, productive workers — execute an external algorithm, a “score”, which does what its name implies: it allocates their parts. Some among them have a certain degree of freedom, a certain number of escapes from anonymity. They are the image of programmed labour in our society. Each of them produces only a part of the whole having no value in itself. (p. 66)

There are numerous examples from industrialisation onwards that are similarly telling. The rock group of the 1950s and the project group of the late 1970s are both ‘guerrilla’ organisations, doing ‘more with less’, quickly forming and dissolving around specific tasks, performing social and financial functions that were previously performed by much larger and more stable formations. Musicians have, since the inception of radio, worked within the parameters of what has come to be called a ‘knowledge economy’, generating new intellectual property as a matter of course and then working within a complex network of rights to extract financial benefit from the act of creation 16. While there has been decades of outrage about increased casualisation measures across the Australian workforce, especially in universities, the public service and the information technology sectors, the almost total casualisation of professional musicianship has gone unremarked for decades, except perhaps when it affects our publicly funded orchestras.17

Why Does Music Lead the Way?

One is faced with ‘chicken-and-egg’ type challenges when attempting to answer questions about why the music industry seems to travel forward into the future of political economy at a faster rate than the rest of society, or why its patterns tend to repeat throughout society later on. One thing is clear: neither academic attention nor mass mediated visibility explains proliferation of music’s organisational patterns. When we search the organisational studies literature we find relatively few studies into the relationships between music and other industries. Those that do exist are largely metaphorical. The best known of these is the ‘management jazz’ article by Karl Weick (1989) which compares the improvisational nature of jazz with organisational management practices.18 It would be tenuous to suggest that the kind of heraldic insights proposed by Attali could be, or could have been, gleaned from the improvisational aspects of 1940s-50s Bebop, or from earlier jazz genres. However, the relative flood of studies in management theory following Weick’s article (see for instance the 1998 special issue of Organizational Science) suggest that scholarly research into management and organisation are perhaps ready to take up a serious historical study of links between the patterns of organisation in music and those in the rest of society.

To understand why, prima facie or otherwise, the organisation of work in music leads the way more generally, I am inclined towards three main lines of thinking: 1) the character of the musical ‘product’; 2) relationships between the workers and the products they produce; 3) relationships established along the value chains through which music gains value at any given time in history. These stand aside from normative questions about what ought to be done about the political economic organisation of music and whether such action could indeed affect the future for anyone other than musicians and music industry workers.

The inherent character of the musical product renders it resistant to becoming a stable commodity form. Grammatically speaking, music is purely verbal in character (or rheomodal as David Bohm (1980) puts it).19 That is to say it is in constant movement, taking up an ‘incompressable’ amount of time to experience.20 It cannot be paused for consideration: when music stops moving in the air it ceases to exist as music. Representations of music, such as the score, the piano roll, or the digital waveform — all of which are attempts to communicate music in a nominal form (i.e., present music as some kind of collection of things) — do not count as exceptions to this seemingly immutable fact. Music is therefore resistant to standard commodification processes. It requires playing even for its own promotion, thereby making full experience of the ‘product’ a prerequisite for sales on a mass scale. It therefore turns standard notions of consumption on their head. Its means of storage and dissemination are inherently unstable for the same reasons.

The age of vinyl records and broadcast radio were, in hindsight, ideal means for the development of large-scale corporate entities concerned with the mass production, distribution, and exchange of musical product: for a brief period in history, music could be simultaneously ‘held still’ in a restricted and exclusive commodity form and performed to an audience en masse without rights in the saleable product coming into question. But that economy tended to blur the fact (at least for the ‘consuming’ public) that a) vinyl record purchasers were only ever engaged in a copyright licensing deal with record companies, and b) that their apparently ‘free’ access to new and old music on the radio was supported by a complex (though comparatively streamlined and universal) set of broadcast licensing arrangements. Recent difficulties in conceptually reconciling this stable form of the recorded music economy with the contemporary context is evident in the recent actions against the ‘ReDigi’ music service which makes money selling ‘second-hand’ or ‘used’ digital tracks.21 Similar conceptual difficulties accompany the ‘theft’ model underpinning many music piracy prosecutions over the last decade or so. The definition of theft includes an assumption that the victim no longer has the use of the goods stolen. In the age of infinite and lossless replication, music cannot easily be defined as having been stolen because it has ceased to be an ‘exclusive use’ product.

Increasing Complexity

The relationship between musicians and the ‘products’ they produce is also becoming more and more complex. Attali’s (1985/2006) ‘representation economy’, which he situates in the late classical period, is clearly alive and well today in more-than-remnant form. Regardless of whether musicians are playing at a pub or performing in a recording studio, they are invariably performing as the representatives of intersecting copyright arrangements. Of course there may also be less complex arrangements in place, such as fees for performing. However, those fees form the smallest and simplest parts of any such arrangement. Upon entering into the process of live public performance, all parties involved, including the audience, trigger a set of rights and responsibilities governed under the Australian Copyright Act (1968). Copyrights in existing works occupy an ‘ideal’ state (Attali, 1985/2006, pp. 118-119). Only in the act of instantiation — of being performed — does the work have any material existence as music. Any instance of the work entails a collaborative set of rights shared by both performer and composer. This is the case regardless of whether the performer and composer are the same person: the systems for collecting and distributing the licensing rights for performed works are ideally separated, with different sets of rights being triggered for performer and composer alike. Whether or not the performance is reported as having happened is irrelevant to the formal nature of the agreements underpinning the rights collection system and its legislative basis.

The situation gets even more complex in the recorded music context. In Australia, from January 1, 2005, all participants in the performance of a recorded work became joint owners in the copyright of any recording in which they participate 22 While this is a fairly straightforward development, pre-existing back end relationships with the recorded instance — such as publishing, recording, or distribution contractual arrangements — can make additional fragmenting of initial ownership into an extremely complex exercise in managing distribution, accounting, revenue sharing, and so on. Put very simply, and to gloss over the obvious and many subtleties that underpin the automatic assignment of associated rights in recorded instances of idealised Intellectual Property (IP) rights (i.e. songwriting), the fact that musicians have rights in any final product in which they participate makes the mere act of producing any kind of music an extremely complicated legal affair. No other class of worker is faced with such conditions. These points, made or at least implied en passant by Attali decades ago, have come into such stark prominence in the digital age now that music has shed the material containers that once presented the recorded musical work as if it were a commodity like any other. Imagine being faced with such complexity as a factory worker producing cars or soap! Those workers have no such complications: they have no rights in the final product, no commissions flow back to them from sales, no returns for improvements they make to the final product, yet their wages are governed under a system of Federal Awards — including legislated entitlements for sick pay, superannuation, and annual leave — which is designed to ensure that Australian workers do not suffer the indignities of poverty so long as they contribute to the overall product of the country.

Finally, value-creating relationships: the musician is confronted by a dazzling and complex array of intermediaries when it comes to turning their talents into a living of any sort. I covered some of these in last issue’s article which focused on emerging intermediary models in the digital environment. Beyond that chaotic realm, in the more mundane areas of performance, the ecosystem is no less complicated: agents, promoters, managers, hoteliers and venue owners, publishers, marketing and PR consultants, equipment hire and purchase outlets, and collection agencies all make their living in some degree from the primary products of live musical performance, both adding and extracting value along the way. The recorded music value chains are no less complex, with record labels, publishers, pluggers, synch agents, production houses, advertisers, games manufacturers, toymakers, broadcasters, and a seemingly infinite number of ‘end-users’ lining up to leverage some aspect of their living from music. It is difficult to imagine any other field of professional practice that has so many intermediaries to carry and is connected to so many parts of the economy. It may indeed be that these manifold connections alone make music the weathervane of the future: weightless, connected, rheomodal, and rights based, music moves like water through almost every sector of economy and society. Again: to say that music is important because it has cultural value simply misses the point.

Is Music Predicting a Dire General Future for Creative Workers?

The last thing I have to say on the subject of the future predicted by the music business is this: if, as Attali suggests, music really is proceeding as the canary into the coalmine of some future knowledge economy (or creative economy – for me the terms are interchangeable), what is the future for Australian workers who might dare to set their sights on a career as a creative worker in some other sector? If music is any indication, they are looking forward to careers in which the making and doing of creative work is worth many times less than the buying and selling of that work. At least in Australia, according to the 2011 APRA and Arts Victoria reports, music is fast becoming an amateur pursuit, with average returns to performing musicians being around half the poverty line and around forty percent of the minimum wage (at the time of writing in 2012 at $30,643.60 per year before tax). Of course such a comparison is not that informative because the performing musician must have public indemnity insurance, all the various accounting duties associated with small business ownership, and an array of equipment and skills which are expensive and time consuming to acquire. Then there are the extensive travel costs, sometimes interstate, often to far flung parts of the district or state. If they typically work through an intermediary such as an agent, they may have to wait months for payment. To enjoy such conditions, they will have to train for longer than the average medical practitioner. Often they will work for nothing in order to get ‘exposure’. Their mental health risks will be far higher than average, suffering higher-than-usual rates of work-related stress disorders, and they will be more likely than most to suffer from the effects of substance abuse. They will also most likely have to work, often for the bulk of their working life, in unskilled or unrelated employment to make ends meet.

If Attali is correct in his hypothesis that music is heraldic, and I believe the evidence suggests he is right, the current lesson of the music industry in Australia is dire. Its implications go well beyond advocating for ‘increased government support for the arts’ or ‘the maintenance of local content quotas on radio’ or for the ‘cultural value’ of music and the arts in general. The lesson says that we cannot afford to let the future of work become what it is for musicians at present. It calls into question the hierarchy of values that currently prevails in our culture. It challenges the legislative conditions that stand between musicians and their ability to make a decent, or even a minimum-wage, living. It calls into question the degree to which the work of buying and selling should be allowed to dominate the making of music and the doing of musical work. It says that a proliferation of rights for workers in the potential earnings of ephemeral commodities is, under current conditions, far less valuable than the legislated guarantee of a living wage.


Philip Graham. First published in Music Forum, April 2012, Vol. 18, No. 3, 54-57. Entered on knowledge base 20 May 2013.


  1. Perry, R. B. (1916). Economic value and moral value. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 30, (3): 443-485.↩︎
  2. cf. Doney, P. M., and J. P. Cannon, An examination of the nature of trust in buyer-seller relationships. Journal of Marketing, Vol. 61, No. 2, April 1997, 35-51; Hills, 1997 (reference missing).↩︎
  3. Australasian Performing Right Association. (APRA). (2011). Economic Contribution of the Venue-based Live Music Industry in Australia. Sydney, Australia: APRA. — Deloitte Access Economics. (2011). The Economic, Social and Cultural Contribution of Venue-based Live Music in Victoria. Melbourne: Arts Victoria. These works are briefly described in Casual Music Workforce. Ed.↩︎
  4. Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research. (2012). Poverty Lines: Australia: September Quarter 2011. Melbourne: University of Melbourne.↩︎
  5. IFPI. (2011). IFPI Digital Music Report 2011: Music at the touch of a button. Geneva, Switzerland: International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI).↩︎
  6. Letts, R. (2011). Briefing Paper: Legislation, Regulation and Infrastructure. Sydney: Music Council of Australia. Available online at: http://www.mca.org.au/music-in-australia/australian-musical-futures/107-2008-futures-towards-2020/269-australian-musical-futures-paper#1.%20The%20Whole%20of%20Govt. Accessed November 20, 2011. The estimate is critically discussed by its originator in The Value of the Music Sector and Estimating the Value of the Music Sector. Ed.↩︎
  7. Dillon, S.C. (2006) Assessing the positive influence of musical activities in community development programs. Music Education Research, 8, (2): 267-280.↩︎
  8. Sixsmith, A. & Gibson, G. (2007). Music and the wellbeing of people with dementia. Ageing and Society (27): 127-145.↩︎
  9. Dillon, 2006, referenced above.↩︎
  10. Brader, A. (2011). Songs of Resilience: Meaningful Music Making For Life, Vol 3. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.↩︎
  11. Attali, J. (1985/2009). Noise: the Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.↩︎
  12. Mumford, L. (1934/1962). Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., pp. 202-203.↩︎
  13. Pacey, A. (2001). Meaning in Technology. Cambridge Massachusetts: The MIT Press (Chapter 1).↩︎
  14. Pacey, 2001, p. 23↩︎
  15. Ben-Menaḥem, A. (2009). Historical Encyclopedia of Natural and Mathematical Sciences (Vol 1). New York: Springer.↩︎
  16. cf. Cunningham, S. (2007) The Creative Economy: Patterning the Future. Dialogue: Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, 26, (1): 15-23.↩︎
  17. Peoples, G. (2012, January 6). Used MP3 Store ReDigi Sued by EMI: Report. Billboard. Available online at: http://www.billboard.biz/bbbiz/industry/legal-and-management/used-mp3-store-redigi-sued-by-emi-report-1005816572.story . Accessed February 20, 2012.↩︎
  18. Weick, K. (1989). Organized improvisation: 20 years of organizing. Communication Studies, 40, (4): 241-248.↩︎
  19. Bohm, D. (1980). Wholeness and Implicate Order. London. Routledge & Kegan Paul.↩︎
  20. Attali, 1985/2006, pp. 144-145.↩︎
  21. Peoples, 2012↩︎
  22. Patchett, A. (2005). Play it again Sam: new rights for performers. http://www.artslaw.com.au/articles/entry/play-it-again-sam-new-rights-for-performers (Arts Law Centre of Australia).↩︎

Professor Graham is Head of Music and Sound at Queensland University of Technology

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